This game is so, so, stupid. I got to the last battle and didn’t play the game for like four nights in a row. I actually had to sit down and be like “okay, I’m gonna beat this game.” augh.
I’m not quite sure how this managed to happen, but, in trying to take the Breath of Fire series in a ‘new direction’ (according to the Scenario Writer of the series), Breath of Fire 4 took an awful lot of steps backwards. It’s almost incredibly how much worse this game is in every respect compared to its previous installment. In fact, if it weren’t for the fast-paced combat, most of this game would probably fit right in with the first two ass-backwards Breath of Fire games.
You’ll probably notice right away that this game tries to take on a much darker tone in comparison to the previous installments - both darker in color, and darker in its mood. The funny thing is, both of these things served to be kind of pointless: Changing the graphics to a more stern, serious look takes a lot away from the feel of the series, and makes it look like your everyday generic JRPG. The duller colors, combined with the grainy graphics make it look in some ways like a Sega Genesis/Sega CD game. The darker tone of story is sort of moot, as almost every Breath of Fire game except for the first one were pretty dark (and even then, the first one at least TRIED). In fact, I would even say that Breath of Fire 4 is probably the least emotionally impacting game in the series - the first one notwithstanding - save for about one five-minute-long scene in the game.
Also, to try and darken the mood, the soundtrack was given a change from the usual ‘jucuzzi jazz’ elements found in the first three games. Breath of Fire 4, written by Yoshino Aoki (Mega Man X3, co-composer of Breath of Fire 3) has written a soundtrack full of mostly contemporary orchestral music, most of which is painfully mediocre. She also wrote a few tracks that combined Gagaku and Yayue music (traditional japanese and chinese music) with stock techno beats. I certainly liked these tracks a bit better; but, they’re still not very great.
So, what about this ‘dark’ story anyways? The game starts out with a terribly uninformative expoisition. You’re Nina. You’re looking for your sister, Elina, with a dude named Cray. She was last seen in a town called Synesta, a town at the edge of a great desert. Your vehicle crashes, and you go to look for more parts while Cray makes sure no one jacks parts from the vehicle. On your way to a town, you meet some dude, Ryu, who appears to have amnesia. Nina offers to take him along for a while, and the story starts from there.
So, this brings up a lot more questions than answers, if you ask me…but, not good questions like “Who abducted Elina and where was she taken?” But rather, “Who the hell is Nina? Who is Cray, and why does he give a crap about Nina and Elina? Who the hell would even kidnap Elina, and why?” These questions are answered eventually; but they are things that maybe you should already know, Since the game portrays Nina as the main character from the beginning.
From that point on, the fetch quests never end. You want sandflier parts? You have to play some mini game and beat it, so that the guy at the bar will tell you where there’s an information broker (who won’t talk to you before that, by the way). The information broker tells you that there’s a place here that sells parts, but you have to know the password. So, you have to find the password. Then, you go to the place and give them the password…BUT! They don’t actually have sandflier parts; they just repair old parts into usable parts. So, you go to some place in the desert to get the parts, and come back…but! Some general from the next country over is accosting people at the bar. So, you butt in, and then you have to escape from the foreign soldiers by taking an ass-backwards way across the desert to get back to where Cray is…with no sandflier parts, by the way, meaning everything you just did for the first few hours was pointless. So, the party, reunited with Cray, hoofs it to Synesta, where they are met with several more stupid fetch quests.
That was the first five hours of the game, in a nutshell.
This is how the entire game plays out. There will always be 100 fetch quests between you and your next objective. Your objectives rarely change, and and are sometimes so obscure that it´s hard to say exactly what you’re doing and why - Personally, there were a lot of times when I started the game up again, and I had completely lost my frame of reference as to what was going on. Also, you rarely learn new things about the plot or characters, of which you knew so little to begin with. These factors combine to make the game feel very tedious overall, as if you´re slogging through the game, thinking “Maybe It’ll pick up after a certain point”, but it never does.
Also, the game sends you in certain directions sometimes without telling you why. For example, at one point in the game, you reach a town, and someone tells you “Hey, have you seen the aqueduct outside of town?” So, when you leave town, you can suddenly go to the aqueduct. And, it’s supposed to be where you go next, but why? You have no reason to believe that you can find what you’re looking for at the aqueduct, making it feel kind of silly to even go there with no leads. The game tends to do this from time to time, which is obnoxious, too.
The last horribly obnoxious thing about the game is that the main exposition of the game is swept aside for a different, less interesting objective concerning Ryu and his identity. The strangest thing is that for the majority of the game, Nina and Cray seem to forget how important it is to find Elina. And, when the whole thing gets resolved at the end - as powerful an impact as those scenes might make - it serves to be more frustrating than relieving.
There is a slightly interesting, alternate part of the story, too, where you play as Fou-Lu, the first emperor of the ‘Fou Empire’ - the villains. They are played at certain parts of the game when Ryu sleeps, and the game largely hints at a mysterious connection between Ryu and Fou-Lu. Besides the fact that Fou-Lu’s scenes are too scarce, sporadic and short, the intrigue of his story will eventually go down the crapper, too.
There are, of course, many other frustrating things about the game; but, it’s hard to discuss them without spoiling the game too greatly. Rest assured, the game lacks a lot of character development and direction throughout its entire course.
Last up to bat is the gameplay. In all honesty, the gameplay itself isn’t so bad. BoF4 took a lot of BoF3’s innovations and improved on them. The Fairy village, where you make your own town, is much easier and intuitive than BoF3. The fishing mini-game is more involved, although I think it’s a little too hard. The Master system - where your characters learn skills and gain different stat bonuses at level-ups - is greatly improved, since you can change Masters at camp now, not to mention that you learn skills from completing specific objectives, rather than leveling up.
The actual combat is not so bad. It’s not much different from your average turn-based RPG at first. However, once you get more than three characters - the max amount of characters you can have in your party - you can switch in characters not in your current party in between turns. This is a nice touch that encourages you to use all your characters. There are also ‘combo’ attacks, where you can combine spells to deal extra damage, or even make new ones (for example, a wind spell followed by an ice spell makes a thunder spell). This was a, nice touch to the game, if a bit pointless. Also, much to my surprise, every character gets experience for battles, and there is absolutely NO grinding required to beat the game (although you may WANT to grind for the last boss, who is absolutely obnoxious). It’s kind of sad that these two things are a PLUS for this game, when they should be a GIVEN; but, it’s still nice to know that they FINALLY got it right after four games.
There is only one thing that grinds my gears about combat in this game: At about 3/4 of the way through the game, the entire game gets abruptly harder, due to physical attacks becoming obsolete. It never gets so hard that you have trouble, but it does make the otherwise quick battles take an unreasonably long time. I’m not sure why they couldn’t make more fights where you had to strategically use both physical AND magic attacks…but, they didn’t. To that end, the game balance feels kind of lazy, as you blow through the entire game with no problems, then slowly trudge through the last stretch of the game.
What else…the game is about thirty hours; a tragedy, since you could cut way more than ten hours of extraneous bullshit out of this game. There is also a PC version, which is kind of cool. There are a handful of problems with it, though. First off, if your graphics card is really good, there will be a HUGE disparity between the quality of 2D and 3D graphics (even though the 2D graphics are slightly improved on the PC version). Sometimes, when playing mini games, the game will explain the instructions with the default buttons, leaving you screwed if you changed anything. Lastly, and most obnoxiously, the game has a tendency to crash if you get anything that pops up in windows, like an Instant Message window or something. The game also crashes sometimes when you have specific party members in the front ranks versus a specific group of enemies on the first turn (oddly specific, I know; but it’s true!). Thank GOD this never happened when playing as Fou-Lu, or else it very well could have been impossible to complete the game on PC.
And that’s that. The story is pretty awful, and Capcom could do - and by this time had already done - a lot better. There’s nothing aesthetically interesting about this game - also, even less so than its counterparts. The gameplay boasts a lot of neat features, and the combat is passable at the time this game was released (2000); however, there are a TON of games that take turn-based combat and do it a lot better than Breath of Fire 4. If you seriously have a hankering to play a Breath of Fire game, play BoF3, or BoF:Dragon Quarter, for your own sanity.