When two unassailably divided continents first bridge the distance between them, the result of their diversity is all out war. The Fou Empire of the west and an alliance of counties in the east spend many years fighting over their irreconcilable differences, until both sides' military power is literally exhausted and a reluctant armistice is called. Before long though things start going wrong, and Princess Elena disappears. In order to maintain the peace accord the desperate efforts of forces in the east to send out large-scale search parties are thwarted, and it is left to the Princess' sister Nina to find out what has happened, on her own. Breath of Fire IV is the second game in the popular RPG series to make it to the PlayStation. Unlike Final Fantasy and other Japanese RPGs though, Capcom's Breath of Fire series takes a more practical approach, relying on enjoyable gameplay rather than a groundbreaking story or original characters. Throughout the series Capcom have recycled Ryu (no relation to the Street Fighter) and Nina, and for the fourth iteration they are joined by several new characters; the paranormally gifted Fou-Lu, responsible tribal leader Cray, paranoid armour-suited Ershin, mercenary soldier Scias and middle-class leader of the Fou Empire, Ursula. You start off with control of Nina, who discovers poor Ryu dazed and confused in a desert basin, and from there you join forces with various characters you bump into on a quest to unearth the plot behind Elena's peculiar disappearance. Initially fans of the game will probably find it quite tedious dealing with the relationship between Ryu and Nina for the fourth time, even though Ryu's powers of metamorphosis and other abilities are now far more exciting, but as players delve further and further into Capcom's latest RPG they will find something to excite them.
The biggest change from the last game is the scale of battles. In previous games, characters had a maximum of 999 hit points, but for the fourth game characters can have a total of 9,999 if they play long and hard enough. As you make your way through the game you develop attacks which rustle up damage figures of 500 hit points fairly quickly, while in previous games that sort of damage was unheard of. Battle sections are often fairly drawn out, with huge hit point totals to bring down and a real sense of strategy to get used to. The battle theme is also a lot more stirring than in previous games. Your party members can combine spell attacks in battle to defeat enemies with greater ease, and once again Ryu can blow a lot of magic points turning himself into a dragon. But let's face it, you don't have much defence against a dragon, so generally this is saved for larger encounters. Morphing into a winged fire-breathing beast to deal with some of your more casual enemies is rather like trying to swat a fly using a sledgehammer. Although a lot of battles occur through random encounters and boss encounters in larger towns and monuments on the world map, there are occasional question mark areas that Ryu, Nina and band can descend upon. These areas are almost uniformly occupied by large nasties, but often yield some more interesting items to help deck out your companions. They are entirely optional - you can wander past all of them if you're in a hurry - but it's worth stopping off to build up your characters. As a rule there is barely any reason to turn down a fight in Breath of Fire IV. I suppose if you spent the entire game avoiding combat you would be forced to pick and choose your fights for fear of almost certain destruction, but that's not how to play a role-playing game now, is it? Especially not Breath of Fire, where a great deal of the game's poise and sophistication is found in these encounters and not the storyline or FMV reels.
It's a very good thing that Breath of Fire IV endears us with its battle system though, because it's occasionally let down by its presentation. As far as the storyline is concerned, compared to Final Fantasy or Chrono Cross I could take it or leave it - it's nothing special - but Capcom have concentrated on the battle system, the spells and characters, and not for instance the subtleties of full motion video or intricate character detail. There is a certain amount of FMV, but it's hand-drawn rather than computer generated, and I doubt it takes up more than a fraction of the CD, cropping up here and there but by no means everywhere - a far cry from the award-winning FMV that forced Squaresoft to use 3 CDs in the making of Final Fantasy VII. The game's visuals on the whole are very dated. Capcom have used plenty of polygons in the game's more detailed settings, but have used sprites throughout for the anime-inspired characters. It's probably a better effort than Breath of Fire III, but I wasn't especially thrilled with that. On the other hand, Capcom's latest does introduce some particularly fine boss characters who are on the whole generously detailed with some exceptional animation. The bosses grow in size and ferocity as you plough through the game, providing a welcome distraction from the claustrophobic confines of the towns and villages, which polygons or no, look rather grainy and dated. Completing the experience is a much finer soundtrack and complement of sound effects. Battle accompaniment is much nicer, and the game introduces harsher tones as the moods of the characters change. Capcom have used all sorts of instruments, plucking, blowing and lolling the hell out of them for the sake of some excellent music, and the sound effects for the big attacks and such are perfectly fitting. There's even the odd war-cry in battle; gotta love that.
It's the little extras that make Breath of Fire IV so compelling though. Sections of predictable plot development are interspersed by some amusing sub-games and quests, which drag our characters into bars and across deserts. One of my favourites was the game of balancing an old man's drinks and food at the local tavern in one of the villages. Many of you will recall the fishing sections from Breath of Fire II on the Super Nintendo forming an almost fanatical following on their own - this game is much the same. Capcom have perhaps let themselves down by releasing Breath of Fire IV on the PlayStation. It will certainly sell, retailing at a wallet-friendly £19.99 and featuring some hours of absorbing gameplay, but I almost wish they had taken the bare bones of the game and polished them up a bit, perhaps as a PlayStation 2 title. It's extremely compelling, and certainly a good alternative to a couple of rounds at the Boot and Slipper, but with new consoles just around the corner and the Christmas rush to buy PlayStation 2 sure to scupper interest in 'old' PlayStation titles, it may be a bit of a missed opportunity. That said, there's tremendous scope for a PS2 disc compilation of all four games. If Capcom's marketing department is listening - we'd like that, we'd like it rather a damn lot! It seems only fair to end on a bright point, so it's with some trepidation (and fear of having it shoved in my face actually) that I'd like to express my delight over the translation from Japanese to English of the game text. Breath of Fire games have (and this is where I'm sure I'll cop some flak) been an almost unequalled source of translation blunders. You only have to read back over some of the old Breath of Fire II reviews, complete with whole boxouts dedicated to listing the most disturbing errors, to realise how much apparent interest they commanded at Capcom. With Breath of Fire IV though, there's very little to criticize. It might just as well have been written in English to start with.
At £19.99, there isn't much excuse for not buying an RPG like this. Lord knows we barely have enough of them. It may not have the looks and sheen of Final Fantasy, and it certainly doesn't equal it in tale, but Breath of Fire IV remains an extremely compelling and often rewarding RPG, and one certainly worth adding to your collection.