Breath of Fire, developed by Capcom and modified for the US by Squaresoft, is possibly one of the best video roleplaying games ever made. Bold statement? Certainly. However, I am well-prepared to back it up. Be warned, this will involve some minor spoilers.
Breath of Fire is a 16Mbit cartridge game for the Super NES. In this tiny space (not much more storage than a single ordinary floppy disk can offer) has been packed a world with nineteen towns, seventeen dungeons, eight characters who each actually have a unique purpose and use within the game, and more quests, subquests, and diversions than you can shake a stick at. Its failings (if you want to call them that) are both few and far between, and generally seem to come more from the mindset that Squaresoft has passed on to basically all of its RPGs, rather than thoughtlessness or a failure to implement ideas properly.
The basic story of the game involves a long-running conflict between the light dragons and the dark. There are some keys which are somehow connected to the Goddess Tyr, the absolute power of the land. You have to go questing for the keys in order to stop the bad guys and save the world.
This is sort of an interesting title in that Capcom is primarily known for its fighting games, especially the Street Fighter series. Squaresoft has built up a well-deserved reputation for quality RPGs, starting with the classic Final Fantasy, a world which has spawned something like twelve roleplaying games to date, not counting titles like Final Fantasy Tactics which are only kind of RPGs, and are more properly referred to as strategy games, though they feature character development. Breath of Fire itself has a sequel, Breath of Fire 2, also a SNES game. BoF and its sequel have also been brought to the Game Boy Advance; this review is entirely about the SNES version.
This is interesting to me, because the game plays out in a manner typical of Squaresoft RPGs. It can be exasperating if you fail to adopt the proper mindset. The game does not hand you anything on a silver platter, except for money and experience points. Everything else has to be earned. It actually becomes somewhat pathetically easy to advance your characters if you spend much time training, which ends up being sort of a side effect of trying to find things. You must look under, behind, around, and in the vicinity of everything you find. You must also take some things very literally, a tendency which might simply follow translation issues, since like most RPGs, it was first released in Japan. The dialogue in the game is generally very smooth, however, and there are only minor difficulties, many of which might be alleviated by reading the manual. This is something I try to avoid in general...
For example, you are told that you will make your way easily through the forest with "Bo" leading your party. I didn't take this seriously enough - What, you mean I won't be leading my party or something? - but when you put him at the head of the party order, you can walk right through the forests that formerly barred your way. Bo, a wolf-man, is not the only character that opens up new areas to your group. In fact, most of your characters provide you access to locations you could not otherwise reach. One character is a thief who opens locked doors for which there is no key, besides also being able to open the rare booby-trapped chests without setting off the traps. One of them turns into a gigantic fish, and carries the party over rocky areas under the sea - which you gain access to somewhere around halfway through the game. Another digs holes (in specially-marked locations) which open into subterranean vaults which contain treasures, or people who teach some characters spells.
This sort of thing is only one aspect of the depth of the characters in the game, however. Some of your characters gain abilities that you have no inkling that they would acquire later on. Your main character winds up being able to turn into several types of dragon, and the aforementioned thief can eventually merge with other characters to form beings which can get you into some new locations, and which are also combat monsters with huge numbers of hit points.
Even the equipment in the game is exceptionally rich and varied. The names of objects are short (a common characteristic of older RPGs) such that the Dragon sword is the DragnSD, the World Mail is WorldML, and so on. However, the inventory screen (which shows all items not currently equipped, conveniently greying out items you can't use in your present situation) features a help option which tells you the characteristics of items, what they do, and who can equip them. Only a few items are not clearly explained, besides the various healing items not telling you how many points they restore. Most of the interesting equipment is, of course, well-hidden. Some of it is optional, while other items are needed to progress your main character to the point where they are capable of completing the game. In particular, you have to go fishing (literally) for his interesting equipment, and the only fishing rod (there are four of them) capable of pulling it up is hidden under a box in a room hidden under a safe in a castle that you have to jump through hoops just to enter. If you talk to the people in the room where you find it, however, you are given a clue as to its presence, so it's not all obscure.
The game is visually and audibly stunning, as games for the Super NES go. The music is not exceptionally well-varied, though in general each significantly different area has its own tune. The sprites are very well-drawn and each character has not only their ordinary set of animations, but also a wholly different set to show status such as poison, curse, and even zombification. The latter even depicts the character with pallid skin, prominent teeth, and arms outstretched ala Frankenstein's Monster. The SNES provides plenty of colors, and the game makes excellent use of them. Each area of the game tends to have at least some elements not shared with any other area, with the exception of some of the dungeons. Climbing one tower to retrieve one of the Goddess Keys, the player finds themselves walking through the rain, and then across a floor filled with the sky, clouds sweeping by under their feet.
The storyline, too, is relatively mature as such things go. In particular, it is not afraid to be abusive to characters or NPCs. Whole towns are destroyed. Good people die, and if you count the towns but not the faceless minions you wade through on your way to achieving your goals, in greater numbers than bad people. Whole peoples are enslaved or ensorcelled, providing opportunities for the heroes to demonstrate their greatness achieving their freedom.
All in all, I have found Breath of Fire to be one of the most enjoyable games I have ever played. I would not recommend it to the easily daunted, unless they are the type who does not feel cheated when they resort to a walkthrough or strategy guide (same thing, really.) Even with all I've described here, there are a hundred beautiful touches to be experienced, throughout every part of the game. To me, the most objectionable part of the game is the relatively slow walking speed and message speed - though in both respects it is superior to other games I have enjoyed playing, such as Dragon Warrior on the NES. This was certainly not enough to make me think any less of it, but it does make the game take somewhat longer than is strictly necessary. However, it is well worth the time of any lover of VRPGs.