Although the fourth part in the series, Breath of Fire IV is the first chronologically, taking place hundreds of years before the first Breath of Fire. Here, the designers set out to tell the story of the two dragon clans at their origins. Though rumors may have led people to believe that the title would appear on the PlayStation 2, those were ultimately unfounded and the game was released late in the PlayStation’s lifecycle in 2000.
Breath of Fire IV takes a much more typical route with its storytelling than prior installments in the series. It’s a classic good verses evil story, with the evil Fou Empire of the west, fighting against an alliance of good kingdoms in the east. The evil empire is using forbidden ancient weapons against the alliance kingdoms which causes many places to be put under a “hex”. Hexed areas can not be traveled to and mutated, grotesque monsters reside there. To put it into a modern perspective, it’s almost like an evil empire is indiscriminately dropping nuclear bombs on unsuspecting, innocent countries! However, the empire’s dabbling in ancient forbidden arts does not stop there.
Millennia before the game takes place, an emperor attempted to summon the God Yorae, in order to unify the world, but the summoning did not work as intended which caused the God to be split in two, by both time and place. The God that appeared first was called Fou-lu and he entered a sleeping state upon his summoning in order to wait for his other half. The game opens with millennia having passed and the other half of Yorae has appeared in the form of a young boy Ryu, which in turn, wakes up Fou-lu for his mission to unite both his body and the world under his rule.
Although the story is a vast departure from previous titles, one thing that hasn’t changed is the colorful cast of animalistic inspired characters that all have very distinct personalities. Ryu returns as the silent amnesiac protagonist again, along with his power to transform into dragons. Though that power is much reduced in this game. Ryu’s other half, Fou-lu is the main antagonist with similar abilities, though he doesn’t use them for good. Nina is back as the princess of Windia, and she’s just as airheaded as she was in Breath of Fire III, although she’s far more useful this time around - sporting the best recovery magic in the game along with powerful wind magic. Cray is your typical tank from the cat-like Woren tribe, he has great combat ability along with earth magic and buffing spells - too bad he’s gone for half the game. Ershin, or Master in the Japanese version, is a mysterious robot with extremely high HP and defense, but doesn’t gain many special abilities until much later in the game. Ershin is also easily the most annoying character in the game because of her obnoxious quirk of referring to herself in the third person. Scias, a dog-like red mage from the Grassrunner clan, Bow’s clan from Breath of Fire II, is a red mage and he can attack twice per round. Rounding things out is Ursula, a fox-like army commander skilled with guns that hit all enemies and a wide array black magic.
The “Master System” from Breath of Fire III returns, allowing players to customize each character by having them apprentice under different masters found throughout the world. Similar to Breath of Fire III, the conditions you have to meet in order to learn skills are pretty astronomical and can lead to a lot of frustration if the player tries to get every skill in the game. The fishing mini-game also returns, unfortunately though, it has lost it’s fun-factor and has become a lot more tedious this time around. You will be constantly snagging your bait on rocks and catching the same fish over and over again, rather than the one fish that you want. If I wanted to do that, I would actually go fishing! The fairy village mini-game is back as well, but they require much more babysitting than they did in Breath of Fire III, though the heart of the town remains the same.
While you are still restricted to battles with only three party members, all six characters travel with you at all times. The battle system has been revamped and is much more user friendly as you can switch out and change which three characters will be in your front row at any time; a system not seen since the first game. A nice addition is that those not participating in the battle will slowly recover lost HP and MP and characters in the back row may also help you out by giving you an unexpected buff or attack Also, multi-targeting healing spells will not only heal those fighting, but also those in the back row as well!
New to Breath of Fire IV is the Combo System, which allows certain spells or skills to be cast in a specific order to gain bonus damage or other effects. Casting two earth spells back-to-back, for example, will produce a stronger earth attack, while a fire spell followed by a wind spell will create an explosion-based attack. This is pretty cool and adds an extra dimension to using magic in combat.
As impressive as the combat and magic systems are, the designers didn’t do everything right and really dropped the ball when it came to Ryu’s dragon transformations. The look and feel of the dragons are very disappointing, especially after seeing the impressive transformations in Breath of Fire III. The “Dragon Gene System” is completely gone, though Ryu still finds pieces of chrysm with dragon genes inside them, but now once you find a dragon gene, you can simply use it to transform into a generic dragon whelp form. After that you then have to use another spell in the whelp form to fully transform into a dragon, effectively using two turns just to transform, which pretty much negates any additional damage you would have done in dragon form.
Graphically, Breath of Fire IV is very different, not just from previous Breath of Fire’s, but from just about anything else I’ve ever played! The new artwork is watered down and everything is painted with a pastel color palette. The design of the world is a lot more generic though, following more typical “Earth inspired” medieval, Arabic, and oriental motifs rather than the unique uses of fantasy and tribal culture the previous games in the series had. There’s also no traditional world map, it’s just a brown screen with dots that you travel to, it’s extremely uninspired.
Capcom cut a few scenes out of the English versions of Breath of Fire IV. A scene where Fou-lu decapitates Emperor Soniel was removed, as well as a minor scene where Ryu attempts to spy on the girls taking a bath, and another when Ursula threatens to pull down her pants. Also, all references to Scias’ alcoholism were removed. None of this is a big deal to me however, I don’t get very bent out of shape when it comes to censorship, I’m just happy that the game got released in the west at all!
I like Breath of Fire IV, the characters are nicely designed, Nina is finally a useful white mage with wind magic and there are many secrets to be found, but it does have its flaws. The world map is completely gone, it’s a point and click map with no exploration at all, unlike the previous games. The art style takes some getting used to - a good amount of the game takes place in a desert also - I hate deserts. I do feel that the localizers were lazy as well, for a full retail release, there is an unforgivable amount of Japanese text left in the game and although there aren’t a lot of voice acting, none of the voices or songs were translated to English. Overall though, it’s a solid game, better than Breath of Fire III and Breath of Fire, in my unpopular opinion.