More noise than signal

Breath Of Fire 2 — Gameboy Advance

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

A few initial points so as not to waste some folks time – if you don’t like old school, random encounter SNES style RPGs this isn’t the game for you. If you don’t like developers’ habits of lazily porting old SNES games over without changing owt, this isn’t the game for you. If you’ve already competed this on said SNES, this probably isn’t the game for you.

Anyone left? If none of these points bother you unduly, you’ll find that Breath Of Fire 2 is a competent, challenging RPG-em-up that has a few deft touches that compensate for a mildly formulaic plot, as these things go. We are introduced to a young boy named.. well whatever you want, with a limit of four characters. Being an egotist I chose to name him Scot, but to fit in with the overall scheme of the games let’s call him Ryu.

He’s charged by his father to find his younger sister, and the usual wandering about talking to everyone establishes she’s playing in the hills behind the village. Off you trot, finding her only to be attacked by a demon five times you size. Before he can slaughter you and get through to your sister, your father shows up and saves you. Before returning to your village, your sister says if you go and sleep by the dragon slumped over the hill, you may dream of your dead mother.

Yes, dragons. How else do you think it ended up being called Breath Of Fire? Think it was about curry eating? Anyway the dragon is regarded as protector of your village, with the inhabitants praying both to the Dragon God and to the rising new church of St. Eva, although some people are a little suspicious of the newcomers. After sleeping there for a while you do indeed have a strange dream with strange visions of an eye and some mystical ranting. After waking up and heading back to the village, you enter the twilight zone, with nothing being as it was. Your family has vanished, with no one remembering them, so you are taken in by the church.

And you rejoin the game years later with you grown into a strapping young lad. Of course, by the end of the game you know what happened but the way these calamitous events are glossed over in the initial stages seems bizarre. Obviously it’s designed to pique interest in Ryu’s situation, but it’s a little odd to go almost immediately from losing your in-game family to your first quest of tracking down an escaped pet despite the intervening years. But that you do, as your first mission as part of the hunters guild, aided by your good friend and large talking dog Bow.

While Ryu appears human (albeit with blue hair), the remainder of your party and people you meet can be anything from monkeys to slugs, in a sentient ass-kicking form naturally. They all have different natural affinities and abilities, the usual mixes of attack power, offensive or defensive magics, healing magics and so on. While many of the spells are known to more than one character, they each have one specific special ability to set them apart some more useful than others. Ryu can regain a little of his health, Bow has an attack that has a chance of instantly killing your attacker, Katt has a useless skill of taunting your opponent making her more likely to be attacked than the rest of your party and so on.

You gain control of the rest of these characters as you make your way through the game, meeting various people and completing quests. I found the first quest to be irritating, as you will have to spend some time wandering about being randomly attacked for a while to increase your character’s power and statistics before taking on the first bosses. This is one of my pet peeves of late, as you’re essentially twiddling your thumbs unable to progress the main story because you haven’t learned some critical spell or some such nonsense. Thankfully this is the only time it’s really required, with the sizeable remainder of the game being on a better difficulty curve. You may still have to do it to get any newly acquired members up to snuff though, which is tedious and repetitive, although to be honest it’s a flaw present across nearly all RPG’s, so it’s not going to put off too many fans of the genre.

You travel the world taking on tasks of increasing importance and difficulty in an ultimate quest to find out what the strange force is that has appeared in the forests near your old home village that appears to be sucking up all the energy of the world. For certain of these tasks you’ll be forced to have certain characters in your team. There are a total of 8 playable characters, of which you can select 3 to party up with Ryu. Expanding this choice after a fashion is the soul fusions that can be carried out after finding various shaman characters around the world. Various combinations are possible, giving either mild stat boosts or in the case of particularly successful ones a whopping great increase and a change in ability for the character. A shamanised Nina gains an extra roughly fifty percent magic point boost and the ability to banish monsters should you tire of slaughtering them. Shamanised characters even get different and equally well-drawn graphics.

Many of your quests boil down to the standard RPG ‘find out you need McGuffin[1], talk to someone who has McGuffin[1] and will exchange it for McGuffin[2], fight a bunch of creatures and a boss to collect McGuffin[2], return and get McGuffin[1]’, but several show more imagination, and several quest have you assume the role of just one of your characters to make use of their special abilities, such as a lengthy solo quest at Sten’s hometown to vanquish a demon, uncovering much of his (to us) unknown past. It’s useful to see such stabs at character development, hampered only slightly by some strange translation choices that don’t seem quite right.

The game took me something in the region of 30-35 hours to complete, although admittedly that did include a lot of ultimately pointless levelling-up of characters I ended up not using for any length. Nearly a day and a half of solid gaming. To me, that’s a hell of a lot of time. Strange to think then that this picked up some flak for being too short. Jesus, how long do these pencil-necked geeks want to play games for? I used to consider myself pretty hardcore but even I though that I was spending too long on this game than was strictly healthy. If it was any longer I’d probably have bugged out.

Or stopped playing. But the time I’d reached the final battles I was getting more than a little pissed off with the near continual battles that were being thrown my way every four steps, to the extent of running away rather than standing and fighting because I was bored of them. Some especially cheap tricks used by the game in the final area inexplicably strip your characters of their shaman soul fusions, forcing you to either carry on regardless with a weak party or traipse all the way back through these lengthy, monster filled dungeons to get back to your township and reinstate them. It’s terrifically annoying and plain sloppy game design, eking another hour or half hour out of a game that’s already long enough.

Despite having multiple endings and two strong, challenging boss fights at the end that can have a tendency to disappoint in RPGs, there’s little to no replay valve. If you wanted to you could try and find all of the tenants for your township (more on which later) to see who’s best, but it’s hardly necessary. Still, given the time spent on it I could hardly say I was short-changed in the value for money department, and despite the minor niggles about the first and last hours everything in between is a great amount of fun. The story is perhaps a little generic overall but in places but there’s a fair amount of unexpected innovation, such as being miniaturised and transported inside a Queen’s body to cure her by literally fighting the disease in place of her immune system.

One other touch of originality is your very own township. Early into the game you find a hideout that can be used for a free rest and recouperation, and after saving some carpenters in one of the quests they express their gratitude by returning to your crib and building another three houses. Many of the random characters met during your quest will offer to take up residence, providing various services depending on who you pick. Some will be able to teach powerful spells to you, some open up armories so you can gain access to more powerful weapons a little earlier than usual and so on. Others seem to be entirely useless, just wasting perfectly good oxygen.

Graphically it’s fine, if uninspired. It shows its SNES roots very clearly, with limited texturing and flashy effects. Stuff like Golden Sun has shown that there’s no need for things to look quite this bland, but on the positive side some of the character design of the later, larger monsters is very good indeed. Some of the spells have a nice initial wow factor but after seeing them more than a few times you may be thinking that a shorter animation would be nicer, but none of them are lengthy enough to be irritating.

The sound is bland and inoffensive, although more variety would have been appreciated in the world map scenes as it’s possible to grow very bored of the same tune is continually played as you travel. The effects are lacking however, the spells never getting the cracks and booms to match the visuals.

Overall, it’s hardly perfect, and it’s not going to even vaguely appeal to anyone that isn’t a RPG fan already in the way that Zelda or the Golden Sun games have. Similarly if you’ve played through the SNES version there’s little to no reason to buy this apart from the nostalgia factor of playing it again, but this time on the move. For those not deterred by it’s flagrant old-schoolism, there’s enough nice touches to make it worthwhile investing some time in, especially now that the almighty Zelda has finally been released driving the price of this down substantially.