I did it! I finished my playthrough of Breath of Fire III over the weekend, and now I’m ready to share thoughts about one of my favorite childhood games.
First, some background. The Breath of Fire series of RPGs is a now defunct franchise that was made by Capcom in the ’90s as a way to capitalize on the popularity of Japanese style RPGs that other companies like Square and Enix were enjoying with their flagship franchises. Where Final Fantasy games have always been about experimenting with the boundaries of the RPG genre, Breath of Fire games are very much about using proven mechanical formulas and delivering a traditional JRPG experience. Battles are turn-based, characters specialize in different tactical roles, and the stories are usually pretty fluffy with a great heaping of melodrama that escalates as the player approaches the endgame.
Unfortunately, RPGs were never really Capcom’s wheelhouse (they’re far more famous for their fighters, platformers, and survival horror games), so they discontinued the series in the early 2000s after a lackluster reception for the fifth game (I hear there were plans for a sixth game as a mobile app, but if it happened it never came overseas to my knowledge). I always hold out a small hope that Capcom will someday revisit the series, but JRPGs are past their prime in terms of market share, and given the company’s focus on its other more popular properties, I’m doubtful that will ever happen.
With all this, it seems like Breath of Fire is a series that doesn’t really have a lot to distinguish it from other JRPGs, and that’s generally true. Nonetheless, it does have one major thing going for it: where other fantasy stories have you slaying dragons, in the Breath of Fire series you are the dragon. Granted, the way it’s implemented is that you always play as a protagonist who can transform into a dragon, but the point still stands. If you look at the major motifs of the series as a whole, there’s a repeated idea that because you have such immense power (dragons > everything in Breath of Fire logic) you aren’t entirely trustworthy. Many of the games explicitly develop the hero as an outcast who’s feared by almost everyone who knows what he is.
In Breath of Fire III in particular, you’re put in the role of Ryu (all the protagonists are named Ryu), a young orphan boy who just happens to have the mysterious ability to transform into a dragon. Everyone who discovers that Ryu can change into a dragon (besides his friends) either fears or wants to exploit his power. At the same time that Ryu’s power leads to his ostracization, he’s also a social outcast because he befriends a couple of other orphans, Rei and Teepo, who are the town pariahs because they only ever steal from the locals to get by instead of trying to find some honest work. From that initial set up, things spiral out of control as our heroes end up running afoul of their world’s version of the mafia, and Ryu becomes separated from his only friends, instigating the beginning of his hero’s journey.
Now, the important thing to understand about the aesthetic of Breath of Fire III is that it’s an extremely bright and visually vibrant game. One of Capcom’s hallmarks in the ’90s were the high quality sprites that they used in most of their games of the time to depict casts of very expressive characters (this tradition began, I assume, thanks to their extensive work on refining the look of the Street Fighter franchise). Just glancing at screens of Breath of Fire III conveys a sense that this is a lighthearted world you’re inhabiting, but the course of the story says different.
At its core, Breath of Fire III‘s story explores the relationship between power and responsibility, and to that effect it repeatedly presents the player with moments where the characters have to confront the consequences of their actions (the very first quest that the player sets out on involves killing a wild animal that’s been attacking locals because it’s trying to find food for its cubs; the characters feel immense guilt over killing the mother once they understand her motivations, but they’re also made keenly aware of the necessity of what they’ve done). This is a game where true villains are extremely rare (outside the members of the mafia who plague Ryu in the first third of the game, who make for fitting antagonists at this point when the hero’s perspective is still that of a child wanting a simplistic morality without shades of gray), and even the game’s ultimate antagonist, a super powerful being who has set herself up as goddess of the world, has a cogent and feasible ethic for why she’s acted in the way she has.
Beyond that, every character that joins Ryu has an interesting and somewhat selfish motivation for accompanying him on his journey. The game is a product of its time, and the writing isn’t superb, but the sketches of characters who vacillate between saying they just want to help their friend and privately doubting their reasons for sticking with such a powerful person are there, and they do a satisfactory job of heightening the tension that the plot relies on as it reaches its conclusion. When Ryu reaches the final boss and is faced with a final decision (one the player gets to make), the factors of what all of these characters want get to be weighed, and the two endings serve as mutually satisfying ends to the story (even if the game is clearly designed to favor the path where Ryu chooses resistance and engages in the climactic final battle).
Again, the mechanical aspects of Breath of Fire III are not especially innovative, even for when it was published, but this is a game that I return to periodically because the nature of the story explores much more complex problems than anything that you’ll find in most Final Fantasy entries. It’s not the easiest game to track down these days, since it’s unavailable through the Playstation Store (you can find Breath of Fire IV there though, and that’s also a very good entry in the series), but if you can get your hands on a physical copy (you can’t have mine), it’s a worthy way to spend about sixty hours.