More than meets the eye...
Growing up in the Berkeley area, I have seen my share of schizophrenics. On any given day, I could see a bearded man dressed as a woman yelling at a crazy right-wing Christian preaching to the masses through a bullhorn and not be fazed in the least. However, a full-fledged transformation is something I have yet to see. (Unless you count the thing that my mother would turn into when I returned home after two days having not called and smelling of booze.)
But transformation is an everyday occurrence for our hero in the latest installment of the Breath of Fire series. For Ryu, transforming into a dragon comes naturally, as he is descendent of an ancient peoples who can turn into big freaky lizards. Great party trick.
Breath of Fire IV is a classic RPG. It's got a dramatic storyline linked by cut scenes and progresses with turn-based fighting and exploration. And for those of you with short attention spans, there are a few mini-games to keep you distracted.
The story starts with our hero having lost his memory. While on a quest to find her missing sister, Nina, the princess of Wyndia, finds Ryu butt nekkid in a large crater. Ryu then joins the search for Nina's missing sister and attempts to rediscover his true self along the way. (I just wonder why Nina doesn't recognize Ryu from last time and fill him in on all the blanks…)
The fun factor here is high. The story is solid enough to keep you intrigued, and character progression is always something to look forward to. Returning from Breath of Fire 3 is the ability to learn magic from the enemies you fight, so meeting new baddies has it's own reward other than the standard experience points and money.
The new high-resolution graphics are clean and the environments both in and out of town look great. The animations for Ryu's transformation have also taken on a whole new look...very cool. I was happy to see that they left the original Japanese intro intact, voices and all, the Japanese anime movie really sets the stage for a great game.
The menus are intuitive. Some RPG's get a bit technical and evoke bizarre new magic/weapon systems (like FFVII). Balancing materia, weapons, abilities, and such required serious dedication and attention to detail - way too much for casual gaming. But then again, how many casual gamers play RPGs to begin with? BoF IV manages to be deep but not at all confusing or overly complex; there's no mistaking what spell to use, or confusion around which abilities to hone, so you can focus on playing the game.
The characters in BoF IV are standard RPG fare; little cartoon guys cruising around with much more detailed faces in their dialog boxes than is reflected in their character. And the monsters you come across have a very cartoonish feel as well. The fact that you can actually take this game seriously with silly little guys running around fighting big cartoon monsters attests to the strong story and engrossing character design.
The battle system in BoF IV has received a slight overhaul. When there are more than three people in your party, they are all selectable in battle. The only catch is that you are limited to three active battlers per turn. The serious advantage this holds is that you can rotate characters in and out of battle, utilizing all of the abilities your party has to offer and pulling allies aside to heal before they fall. The members that are resting also have support abilities that kick in. From healing spells to attacks, your off-screen buddies really come in handy during the heat of battle.
Sadly, the gene splicing system from BoF III is gone. In fact, this time around Ryu can only transform into one dragon form whose abilities progress and change, rather than possessing the ability to transform into any one of hundreds of possible combinations like last time. As good as this game is, I still miss creating different dragons to fit different situations.
However, the fishing mini-games are back, and I couldn't be happier. These little games can absorb hours, while providing characters with rare and valuable items. Seriously, the fishing mini-game is as fun as any full-on console fishing title I have played and the fish you catch prove to be some of the most useful items in the game.
Some may also have a problem with the camera. The game is set in an isometric perspective, so occasionally lining things up properly is awkward.
But as far as RPG's go, Breath of Fire IV is no let down. The new battle system and improved graphics mixed with solid features from the past make for a seriously addictive game. Great for old school vets and newbies alike.