The most tragic thing about this review was that I shattered my previous image of this being a wonderfully great game forever.
Have you ever had a fond memory of a book, movie, or game from when you were young? Ever revisited it, to find that it wasn’t as great as you remembered? I think that’s what I did with Breath of Fire 3. I played it as it came out - I must have been only 12 or 13 years old, and remember loving it. I’d already played it three times when I replayed it for this review, and, while the game is not bad, perhaps some memories are best left untouched.
Combat in Breath of Fire 3 is turn-based, with a few neat twists. For one, there is no screen transition for random battles which is cool; also, random battles on the world map are completely optional, which is cool for exploring purposes. For two, you can ‘examine’ enemies during battle and learn their skills, which you can then swap between party members. To expand on that, there are ‘Masters’ all around the world - people who will make your characters as their apprentice, allowing them to learn skills from their masters as they level up. Different masters also alter how your stats will go up as you level (I.E, a mage Master might give you more intelligence, but less power). You need to go meet with your Masters after gaining levels to acquire the new skills.
The coolest thing about the new combat engine is Ryu’s ‘gene’ system: All around the world, Ryu finds different genes, which allow him to transform into dragons. You can choose three at a time, all with different properties. You can use them to make dragons with particular elemental properties, and even specialties in strength or magic. There are even a few ‘special’ dragons, for you to figure out if you take the time to mix and match your genes. The only thing that sucks about the ‘special’ dragons is that over half of them require a gene that you won’t be getting until you’re about 3/4 through the game, which sucks. Still, even without that, it’s the best Dragon transformation system in the series by far.
However, there are a lot of troubles with fighting in Breath of Fire 3, and it all comes down to game balance. Breath of Fire 3 has one of the most arbitrary difficulties out of any RPG I’ve ever played.
For starters, You never get enough experience or money (Even though random battles are just a bit too frequent), and worse yet, party members not in your current party STILL do not gain experience. This sucks, because you will be forced to use certain characters from time to time.
Also, Ryu´s dragon transformations are so powerful that you don’t have to level up your characters at all. This would be fine, if grinding wasn’t necesary; but, the game clearly expects you to be leveling up. You can get through the majority of the game just fine like this; but your mage characters will get their asses handed to them during random battles, and boss battles will be nigh impossible without dragon transformations. Unfortunately, it will catch up to you in the final parts of the game - just wait and see.
Lastly, without the use of Masters, some characters are completely useless, either because they don’t have good stats or lack good spells. The problem is, there are so many points in the game where you’re confined to a certain part of the map that you might be stuck with a master for much longer than you had anticipated. This is troublesome, because your character’s stats might level up undesirably as a result, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
The most baffling thing about all this is, the easy solution is to rebalance the characters so that the master system is optional. Here’s what I think is the best way:
You could totally remove one character, Peco, from the game, as he is completely useless without using Masters to buff his stats anyways (He gets High HP and absolutely nothing else; in fact, his defense is as low as a caster’s!). Besides that, his role in the story is small, inconsequential, and even kind of dumb.
You could make Rei, the thief, physically stronger, so that he doesn’t completely suck outside of boss fights.
You could make Momo the dedicated Healer (she already learns most of the healing spells anyways) instead of Ryu, who desperately needs all his magic points for dragon transformations.
Finally, you could give Nina, the black mage, better magic power, and give her all the offensive magic spells that Momo, Rei, and Garr (the powerhouse) learn; What the hell are Rei and Garr learning powerful magic spells for, anyways? Their magic power is so low that it’s never a good idea to use their magic.
The simplicity of this blows my fucking mind. Why would they make four out of six characters severely deficient without using the Master system? It’s theoretically possible that you might never meet a master throughout the course of the game, so why make the game so dependant upon it?
That being said, I have to admit: the game’s system works just fine as it is, and it’s still fun. It just sucks to see a bunch of good ideas, all of which could have been pulled off so much better.
The last gameplay aspect is ‘fairy colony’, an expansion of Breath of Fire 2’s ‘Township’. Basically, you find a colony of fairies, and instruct them on how to build and sustain a town. In doing so, you can build many shops - some containing the best equipment in the game - and even a shop that makes copies of items! The village ‘updates’ after a certain number of fights.
The only problem is, the village has ‘Culture’ rating - which makes the village update faster - that you can raise. The problem is, no one tells you the purpose of Culture in the tutorial. So, if you skip out on raising the Culture level, your Fairy Village will be pretty much useless. Besides that, the Fairy Village can be really cool.
The story itself is kind of ‘broken’ too. It’s hard to talk about it without spoiling a whole bunch, but I’ll try. First off, the game is separated into two parts: One where Ryu is a child, and one where he is an adult.
The game starts off with Ryu as an orphan, living with his friends, Rei and Teepo. Due to certain circumstances, they are separated, and Ryu embarks on a journey to find them. Upon doing so, he learns about his origin and the fate of his people, and seeks a certain important person to find out why his people suffered such a fate.
I can tell you that the game is very interesting and exciting up to the point where Ryu begins his search for the ‘important person’, as the action doesn’t stop, is always relevant to the task at hand, and the task itself is everchanging. This will take you through almost half of the game time (about 17 of 40 hours). After that, though, the story becomes mind-numbingly boring. For about the next five hours of game time, you’re doing random shit unrelated to the task at hand. Afterwards begins the hunt for the ‘important person’, which is an exercise in futility on purpose - it’s very clear that this ‘important person’ doesn’t want you to meet them. However, after prefacing this part with so many pointless tasks, it just makes this aspect all the more frustrating. It’s too bad, because without the ‘pointless tasks’ section of the game, trying to reach the person would be more fun. But, because the story at that point purposefully makes you feel like you’re going nowhere, it feels like you’re adding insult to injury. That, combined with a lot of filler dungeons, and very poor, contrived attempts at character introspection really bring the story to a halt until you get to the final stretch of the game, where it picks up a little more at the end.
The biggest problem, obviously, is that the game just has too long of a period where nothing interesting happens. This charade of ‘nothing happens’ goes from that 17-hour mark right up until you’re in the last few hours of the game. Sure, it gets better, but it’s too little, too late. There’s a lot of fat that needed to be cut out of the story, but wasn’t.
Other than that, the characters are all pretty static. There is an alarmingly good attempt at character interaction via ‘camping’, where you get to talk to each character and see how they feel about what’s currently going on. This, and the fact that your party actually talks to and acknowledges each other makes it feel more like a ‘party’ and not like a bunch of people that only talk to Ryu. Still, in spite of this, all the characters have their inner struggles, but you never see the characters actually consider or question their actions until the end, and so they never have a chance to become dynamic characters.
Just like the gameplay, though, the story works just fine as it is; it’s just dissapointing when it could have obviously been better.
What else…I love the fluid, colorful graphics style, and the 3D maps with 2D sprites is a really nice touch for the dungeons. Nothing too flashy, but it suits the game perfectly. The music is not bad - it takes a lot of themes and uses them well. There is a huge emphasis on jucuzzi jazz/jucuzzi funk - for the uninitiated, that’s the kind of music you might hear in the elevator in a department store. Most people dislike this soundtrack heavily, but I liked it a lot. I’ve always felt that this sort of ambient jazz was the cornerstone of the music in the first three games - also fitting, since the first three games are supposed to take place in the same world and timeline.
Anyways, that’s Breath of Fire 3 in a nutshell for you: Every single aspect of the game is fully functional, and, in the end, not bad (and, though it’s not saying much, it’s a HELL of a lot better than the first two installments). Still, there’s a very good game staring you in the face the whole time, but you have to play the version of it where your party makes pointless excursions and the character roles in combat are poorly defined. With some finetuning, this game could really be excellent; but, I guess that’s a pipedream now. Some things are better left as memories: that was Breath of Fire 3, a memory I ruined for the sake of writing a review. What a curse it can be, to be a critic.