by Jason Parker (Ragachak)
December 2nd, 1994
Editor’s Note: Several screenshots are from other versions of the game: GBA and the Retranslation.
On this date, a revolutionary video game was released. But why is it so revolutionary? What makes this particular title so special? Breath of Fire 2, developed by Capcom really pushed the envelope for the 90s without a doubt. Think back to your classic games: What was the most taboo subject? What was talked about the least? Beyond sex, you degenerate. Religion! Most games that had Churches/Temples had to have their crosses censored because of the Red Cross. God was almost never mentioned. What about God being evil? Nooo, that was most definitely never touched upon. The “evils” of religion were not a topic discussed in a game that I can remember. Sure, there were devils and demons, and evil powerful lords or forces, but they were never the focal God of an entire religion. Despite the (although standard for the 90s) poor, ludicrously poor translation, Capcom took it right to organized religion with their tale of the Dragon Clan (the ancient order) being set aside as it weakened, for a new religion/order in St. Eva.
All is not what it seems with the Church of Saint Eva. Disguised as a pretty standard Church that preaches light and peace, something sinister lurks in their clergy. Every boss in the game that is associated with Saint Eva becomes some horrific monster or devil. In fact, every major boss in the game that I can think of right off-hand (other than beasts in the wild) are men that transform into powerful, frightening creatures with the power of religion. So you play as Ryu, one of the last survivors of the powerful Dragon Clan. In Breath of Fire 1, there was a whole village of them (until you know, the story happens), and as time goes on, of course, their numbers shrink further and further. After falling asleep in the shadow of his mother (The Dragon that defends the town of Gate), he awakens and nobody remembers him! His father, everyone’s memories appear to be erased, or a Rip Van Winkle thing has happened. So now he’s an orphan and meets up with a fellow orphan who just wants to rob the Church. He’s Bow, and he’s going to be your ally! Except don’t count on seeing him in your party for a quarter to half of the game. It’s really frustrating, but I like it as a plot point.
Upon stealing off into the rain, a cave hides a secret: A gigantic demon, Barubary. He reveals that you are special, a child of prophecy, but then he batters you in one titanic blow. Cue story scroll! Your goal is unclear at first, which is pretty great honestly. You aren’t aware that you’re on a quest to save the world from an evil cult religion. At first, you’re just trying to clear Bow’s name of being a criminal. As you undergo this quest for your lifelong friend, a plot hovers just on the edge of your eyesight. That’s one of the things I really love about Breath of Fire 2; the slow boil for the story is masterful, and the characters all more or less have engaging story arcs that explain why they are where they are, or what they’re doing with their lives. Not all of them though. The hidden character Bleu (from BoF1), she remains an immortal sorceress Naga. Spar doesn’t seem to have much, either. The best of all of these has to be one of my least favorite characters, Sten Legacy.
It does lead me to one of the criticisms of this game: It has a habit of forcing you to use characters you might not want to use/aren’t leveled/aren’t strong. Much of Sten’s side-story forces him to be the only character in your party, and if you didn’t take time to gear and level him, it’s going to be a nightmare, and in that case, I hope you have a save point outside of their castle. It takes forever, it’s nightmarish, and it’s difficult. Rand has a similar arc where he must be in the party, and if you aren’t using him, it’s going to be rough stuff. Spar must be in the party for their arc, but it at least makes a bit more sense. Most of these characters (in my eyes) are not terribly strong in combat when you have to do this, and no power leveling will make it better. The difficulty curve in this game slides up and down at a breakneck pace; but lots of grinding can offset this, as can the Shaman System.
This is an optional system but one that really changed how you approach the game. When you unlock the ability to have a town (Township), you can come across a Witch who has a series of elemental-attuned daughters (Shamans). You start with two, but the others (Water, Earth, Holy, Dark, etc) are scattered around the world and you can find/recruit them. You undergo a ritual and one or two of them can merge into a character to change their stats, abilities, and looks! Except Ryu (Dragon Clan are too powerful) and Bleu (Naga are also too powerful), but everyone else can. Each Shaman affects certain things, and there are preferred combos for characters, like “Devil Katt”. Shin (Devil) is the most ideal for her, and a few combinations will work with it. But the Holy elemental Shaman is useful on too many characters. There are people you might not take with you, because you’d rather have Holy Nina instead of one of the other characters, like Jean.
Speaking of characters, combat’s pretty simple. Turn-based, initiative combat, but it always felt like spells took precedence over skills. Like in its predecessor, bosses, once reduced to 0 hp would recover and have a second wind. This is such a damn annoying feature, and I don’t really get the justification for it. I think if only the followers of Eva did it, it’d make more sense. I do feel like difficulty scaling in this game was crazy and infuriating at times, many of the boss difficulties coming out of nowhere. Lots of bosses had crazy strong AOE powers, and many of the regular enemies would crit, and crit often. Status ailments were another very frustrating and could easily spell doom for your party. Taking the time to level, upgrade gear and always having the right items were certainly paramount in Breath of Fire 2. It didn’t contain many puzzles or traps to solve, but there were far more subtle things to worry about. A prime example is when you’re saving the citizens of a town from a flood. There are parasites on their faces, and you’re supposed to kill the parasites and never attack the people. But you can attack them. Depending on how you handle this and other situations, you can unlock special abilities and skills that anyone can use. It had a surprisingly strong moral compass for how you treated others.
But Religion aside, it had other revolutionary systems, like the Township. Depending on what you do in the game (that’s a very common theme), you can acquire one of three types of towns. It can be a golden city with beautiful brick work, something more common, or basically wood huts. You can expand the village out a bit, and for each house, there are certain people in the world that can fill those slots. So be careful, you might ruin your plans for your town! I’ve done it on more than one occasion, and you can’t kick them out of your town once they are there. Speaking of the town, if you fail in certain objectives, you can get different endings! There’s a bad ending, an okay ending, and a great ending. I won’t say what you have to do, but Eichichi and Ganer are incredibly important to the great ending. You might miss Eichichi though… speaking of her, what a fantastic character. In the retranslation, she’s renamed “Gigi Kupps” which is a play off the original name, Eichichi (which is a play on her having huge breasts and being a cow. It can also be a play off of milk, since she’s a cow). At no point in the game is it required to meet her, so you could definitely miss her and miss an ending. It’s not all super serious all the time!
So Much To Do, So Much To See: 4/5
So what’s wrong with taking the backstreets? Okay, I’m not proud of that. But jokes aside, Breath of Fire 2 had such a rich story, with insane amounts of content just lurking in the distance, if you were willing to find it. Hidden items, a hidden party member, extra endings, lots of replay value. You could choose to be mean to people and not get great skills, or you could be a potential saint. There are some moments you can go to areas early, or you have to go back a second time if you want the Shaman that lurks there. This story has something for everyone. The musical score was tremendous, the graphics were pretty, and the enemy sprites were far above anything I had seen at that point. The challenge can be daunting, and having to redo battles over and over because you weren’t prepared? Man, in the 90s this game was rough and unforgiving. But I loved it. I loved the story, it has so many layers to it. The characters grow and change. Rand is more than a Momma’s Boy, Sten is more than a coward who left his army, Katt’s not just a barbarian ass-kicking machine. There are so many damn sad stories in this game. If you want to be moved, challenged, and really be forced to think about life, you’ll play Breath of Fire 2.