Developed by: Capcom Development Studio 3
Published by: Capcom
Platforms: PSX, PC
Feeling Like: Breathe Out
How appropriate is it that my wife and I binged Season 1 of House of the Dragon this weekend? I can’t tell if these coincidences are the universe reminding me to keep chipping away at the 500, or if I’m reading way too much into it. The timing certainly made me smile.
Breath of Fire 4 is the last traditional entry in the series. It’s hard not to wax nostalgic without the accompanying ennui when referring to a beloved franchise whose last game was twenty years ago. No, Breath of Fire 6 does not, and will never count. What an embarrassment.
Breath of Fire fans deserve better.
At the height of Playstation’s popularity, developers were churning out experimental, weird, amazing JRPGs by the truckload. You couldn’t keep up. Final Fantasy 7 broke the door down and made the mainstream media take notice – RPGs were the best, millions would buy them and soon every game would have some kind of borrowed element from them, regardless of the genre. By the time I realized how many of these games were available on a console I didn’t have, it was too late. While the Nintendo 64 was a blast for multiplayer and a few all-time classics, there was a 15 year old Henry who never got to taste the dozens of fresh, original IPs that I know I would have been smitten with.
You really felt companies were taking risks. Three dimensions instead of two, the ability to play Full Motion Videos and the introduction of voice acting were complete game changers. Customers refused to go back. As much as I loved my SNES, I knew this was an evolutionary step that I couldn’t miss out on.
Breath of Fire 4 is such a strange mix of all these upgraded additions; the anime inspired cutscenes may appear rote now, but to teenage Henry who was used to sprites pantomiming emotion, this was mesmerizing. Voice acting was used sparingly, but it was there. You could swing the camera around, puzzles had more depth, towns felt bigger, spells were grander and the story itself lasted longer than any 2d Breath of Fire. Breath of Fire 3 felt more like a previous Breath of Fire game in structure and characters. Breath of Fire 4 feels like they really leaned into the new hardware and wanted to try a unique spin on the formula.
I don’t even know how to describe the artistic style. Is it…pastel? Whatever it is, I love it. It looks so unique, the enemy designs are terrific and the animations are fast and fluid. I don’t know why they went with a different design choice for bosses, they’re pretty pixelated and don’t look like they belong in the same game, but I appreciated the variety and effort.
The details of combat elude me, but the callbacks to previous characters and the master/tutor system meant I was always on the lookout for anybody who seemed wise and willing to help me for no reason. Beyond that, the characters were endearing and the soundtrack had a few really relaxing tunes. The intro is absolutely incredible; true to form, the rest of the game doesn’t look like that, but the song is unforgettable. Just beautiful.
But the main reason Breath of Fire 4 is revered is the focus on Fou-Lu.
Not many games let you play as the villain. You might get a cutscene or two showing their dastardly plot, but it’s usually not much more than a surface level look to heighten their evil-ness. Here, you control Fou-Lu several times in the game. You interact with NPCs, participate in combat and witness his full ascent to power. You understand his reasoning, why he is the way he is. It’s not a stretch to claim that Ryu, the main character in every Breath of Fire, isn’t the star of the show here. Hell, you could even argue Nina has as much of a claim.
The pacing always felt right. Just when I needed a breather from Ryu and Nina, the game put me in Fou-Lu’s shoes. The mystery behind the connection between Ryu and Fou-Lu was fascinating. Even though he was the enemy, I couldn’t help but try to put him on the right path and be kind to those around him.
But Breath of Fire 4’s universe doesn’t allow for that level of kindness. There are all sorts of factions, secret societies and greedy ne’er-do-wells to disrupt your adventure and seize power for themselves. The ending doesn’t give any easy resolutions either; some of the enemies don’t get their expected comeuppance and it definitely surprised me.
While the combat and RPG elements are traditional, there’s enough in here to make it stand out. It’s certainly a shame Capcom veered away from making additional Breath of Fires after this one. We’ll get to the next entry eventually, but the more I reminisce, the more positive I am that Breath of Fire 4 more than belongs this high on the list.