The age of the 16-bit RPG is well-remembered, and many iconic titles from the time are still cherished by fans to this day. From Final Fantasy III to Chrono Trigger, the genre showed genuine growth through some shining examples of emotive storytelling mixed with addictive gameplay. Not one to miss out on all the action, Capcom released Breath of Fire in 1994 - an adventure that doesn't burn quite as bright two decades later.
Though a massive success at the time of its release, revisiting this first entry in the series is more than a little underwhelming due to a hefty dose of unfortunate hindsight. Breath of Fire lives in the shadow of its own sequel; a superior title which itself did little to innovate on the traditional roleplaying formula. While that's not necessarily a bad thing, it makes the experience feel more dated than it would otherwise, and some clunky mechanics detract from a pretty decent quest to save the world.
After what is surely one of the most dramatic title screens in SNES history, the game begins by kindly informing you that disaster has struck. Your village is in flames, under attack from the dark dragon family, who have turned against the other clans to make their King Zog the head honcho. An overload of info is shoved at the player right as the game begins, but it's actually one of the more plot-heavy moments for the entire duration of the adventure. Generally speaking, our hero Ryu is set up with an unfaltering end goal that isn't affected much by any major story elements.
You'll get around (slowly...) by traversing a top-down overworld, with a zoomed out view helping you move the distance from one town to the next. Unsurprisingly, each village will need you to clear out a dungeon or assist them in a time of crisis before you can move on, sometimes adding a member to your party in the process. The characters you meet along the way are occasionally quite charming, but suffer from some poor translation that ties in with a frustratingly botched menu system.
In place of actual text, there's an overuse of icons to represent different selections - a small satchel representing items, a magic staff representing special moves, etc. In practice, this makes jumping from menu to menu feel like trial and error, as simple commands or vital item descriptions are hidden beneath too many different layers of options without explanation. Binding specific menus to a chosen button is a welcome inclusion, but doesn't really help to make things any more straightforward. To make matters worse the names of certain items and equipment are abbreviated awkwardly by some shoddy localization. We'll give you a little while to figure out what “C.Stn" is supposed to mean.
Battling enemies is a little more straightforward, though not always satisfying. While your party members are certainly diverse, and even stray away from normal fantasy tropes to a certain extent, some are just objectively more useful than others, meaning that you'll likely stick with a core team and ignore the rest. Get the knack of a basic strategy and you'll plough through most enemies, especially once the trademark dragon transformations come into play. It's telling that an auto battle command is enough to get you through most standard confrontations. That being said, enemy animations are quite impressive, as they'll move even when idle, and a Pokémon-esque HP meter helps attacking them feel more direct and engaging. Oh and "C.Stn" is short for “cold stone", by the way. Yup.
Outside of battle, your motley crew of party members can use specific abilities to access new areas and perform contextual actions like fishing. It's a neat touch, and the inclusion of wild animals on the overworld also provides a unique distraction. Chasing them can yield food as a reward, but also puts your party at risk of attack from random monsters. There are clever sparks like this here and there – it's just a shame they're underutilized.
The environments are all nicely detailed, and some dungeons even manage to evoke an effectively gloomy atmosphere, contrasting with the usually lighthearted visuals. Character sprites work well enough, though enemy models are re-used frequently with a fresh coat of paint. Overall the graphics match the standard of the time, but Breath of Fire fares much worse when it comes to audio. This writer struggles to recall a single tune other than the repetitious battle music.
As a direct port of the original SNES title, Breath of Fire on Wii U benefits from the ability to use save states and online guides to help you through some of the more baffling objectives, but doesn't include some of the improvements that the GBA version made. Streamlined menus and the option to toggle a "sprint" mode were a great way to modernize the core game, but aren't available here. It's a very old-school adventure, for better or for worse.
Breath of Fire is a history lesson on old school roleplaying games that comes complete with warts and all. At a time where stiff competition produced some of the finest RPGs ever made, Capcom just wasn't able to develop an experience that would fully stand the test of time. A decent story and some great atmosphere is let down by dull combat, outdated menus and a few good ideas that don't go far enough. While there are better alternatives out there, it might have just enough charm to help the curious see through Ryu's first adventure to the end. Check it out for the sake of nostalgia, or a pretty generic quest to save the Light Dragon clan.