The Super NES was home to what are still considered by many to be a some of the finest RPG experiences ever produced. It's a predictable lineup of big names, and Breath of Fire II doesn't often get a mention. If it was overshadowed in the past it perhaps has an early opportunity to earn new fans on the young Wii U Virtual Console, getting in ahead of many of its flashier rivals; apart from EarthBound, naturally.
This title provides an education of sorts, in that case, adopting many of the standard mechanics of the genre's 16-bit days. You have an epic quest and a large world that you navigate with a top-down view, there are quirky characters and baffling moments of mis-direction, turn-based battles and moments of genuine storytelling flair that are packed with good intentions. These are timeless ideas, but unfortunately this experience isn't.
A strength of this title is its storytelling, as we've highlighted in the past, as it offers up a fairly clever overall narrative and a number of small touches to prompt a smile. One thing that hasn't changed, nor would we expect it too, is the localisation that lets it down. Not exactly uncommon in its era, perhaps, but the text and translation is often poor, with dodgy formatting and basic language errors; not game breaking, but in a story-driven experience poor localisation is a problem, as it nags away and demeans what are, in the core story, strong narrative threads. It's rather like watching the greatest movie ever made on a bootleg copy where you can barely see what's happening, in terms of its ability to affect the work.
Beyond that, the title often veers from accessible to confusing in equal measures. By accessible we mean by Super NES RPG standards, where the game does a solid job of educating you and enabling you to understand your tasks and how to proceed. The party system, items, currency and special abilities work intuitively, which is surprising considering their depth. There's some excellent design that makes clear, without any actual instructions, how to shift the order of your party or strategise in tough battles.
It's a challenging experience, which is a strength, though occasionally it can seem unnecessarily cruel or oblique. We have no shame in admitting that we consulted a web guide fairly often, as the subtle signposting that works so well with the mechanics doesn't always work so well in the actual campaign. Characters will drop hints that you may not realise are even hints, so perhaps this was a 'magazine game' back in the day, where confusion would reign until you tracked down some help. Nowadays the Wii U web browser and Miiverse fill the gap very nicely, but nevertheless it seems a pity that this joins some other titles from the era in mistaking confusion with difficulty.
Occasionally wandering off the story's path — because you don't know where to go — can be deadly, too, as overpowered enemies await in dark corners. Levelling up is vital, as expected, but some grinding is certainly required to buff up to a substantial degree, and we're grateful for the save state functionality — in its original form the save points would have left many gamers frustrated after one unfortunate random encounter. They happen a lot, which is the norm and absolutely fine, but occasionally the enemy in question will be much stronger than those immediately before them — and not a boss — which can be exacerbated by the seemingly random moments that you can't run away from a battle. You will die in this game, and sometimes it'll not be difficulty that's the problem, but unfair spikes and sloppy balancing.
With your save state handy and occasional checks online, however, there is some merit to playing through this title while more renowned RPGs rest on the Wii service. It also serves up some thoroughly pleasing 16-bit spritework, while the battle music is a fun loop; unfortunately much of the other music is forgettable and, occasionally, jarring.
We wouldn't let the fact this is a sequel deter you from considering Breath of Fire II, as it's a fairly solid RPG experience from the Super NES era. Strengths such as its storyline and solid mechanics are undermined by shoddy localisation, poor balancing and opaque progression, however. Armed with an online guide and with liberal use of the save state functionality, it can be worth the slog on the Wii U, even if it's an experience defined by compromises rather than refinement.