I’ve always had a soft spot for Capcom’s Breath of Fire series. A lot of people dismiss it as a Final Fantasy also-ran, and to a large degree they’re right, but I’ve always approached it on its own terms and found that the series is a lot less derivative than it would seem on first glance. Thanks to an off-hand comment on Talking Time my nostalgia bone started aching up for a replay of Breath of Fire III. While it’s not the best game in the series (that distinction belongs to Breath of Fire IV (that’s right, not Dragon Quarter, someday, when I’ve found the right words, I’ll explain why)) and though it has its share of peculiar design choices it never apologizes what it is and it’s a pretty fun ride… for the most part. Most importantly it’s the turning point of the series. BoFIII is where the series started moving away from the world spanning adventures of the SNES games to focus on the smaller, more character driven tales of BoFIV and Dragon Quarter. BoFIII’s opening segment is an example of this. And what an opening it is.
Atypical of an RPG of its era the game opens with no establishing or expository narration. Instead, the camera pans over a mural of the heroes from the original Breath of Fire fighting that game’s final boss, the goddess Myria (translated at the time as Tyr by Mr. Ted Woosley), followed by the game’s title and character naming screen. It’s a small detail but it ends an air of mystery to the game. We’re given no hints to why we’re seeing the first game’s characters or how they tie to this story. That it’s a mural only tells us that this game is (presumably) set a long time after the first one and that the events of that game have passed into legend. Letting the game’s title screen play out does lead to a little backstory. We join a pair of miners, Gary and Mogu, as they make their way though a mine pontificating on the nature of the magical creatures and how, when they die, they turn into the valuable ore chrysm. They also discuss how at one point dragons tried to destroy the entire world during “the war” and how glad they are that the dragons are all dead and gone. As they walk by a giant chrysm dragon fossil this brief intro ends with a bizarre dedication to “the dragons.” I’m sure they’re all very appreciative.
Upon starting the game we join Gary and Mogu as they are setting up detonations around a large chrysm crystal. Inside the crystal is the preserved corpse of a baby dragon. Mogu tells Gary, this happens sometimes and that it’s nothing to worry about. They proceed to detonate the charges, shattering the crystal, and freeing the dragon which to no great surprise isn’t so dead after all.
Panicking the two miners attack the dragon and initiate the game’s first battle. In a neat twist we find ourselves playing as the dragon and in short order we’ve reduced Gary and Mogu to charred skeletons. That we play as the dragon should be no great shock to players familiar with the series, as the protagonist in each game belongs to the Dragon Clan and has the power to turn into such (note: when I mention the entire series I’m mostly referring to I through IV because Dragon Quarter is crazy and throws away most of the series’ established tropes). But I think for a new player who didn’t know the history this would come as a pleasant surprise. “You get to play as a dragon, man! And you’re, like, burning up all these guys!” this player would exclaim on the playground the next day. For the rest of us the segment in the mine is still a fair bit of fun and it establishes two things: 1. The power of the dragons. It’s easy to see why, even though the race is extinct, dragons are so feared. Even as a baby nothing stands a chance against the dragon whelp. Some miners do try to fight the little guy but they all share Gary and Mogu’s ashy fate. 2. The character’s innocence. Not all miners will try to attack the dragon. In fact most are so terrified by the very idea of a live dragon that they scramble away, begging for their lives. The dragon can even try to talk to some of the miners but none of them understand his cute little dragon yelps. The dragon never hurts these other miners, only the ones that attack him first. Through gameplay we’re shown that the dragon is an innocent and not in control of his destructive power (I know this is an old cliché, but here it works). In fact, the battles work in such a way that if we choose to not be aggressive the dragon will automatically retaliate with its fire breath when hit, further establishing that it is acting only out of self-defense.
Eventually a pair of clever miners bring down the dragon by knocking it out with a heavy crane (or a punch to the back of the head if the player chooses to attack the crane operator first). They then bring it to the surface and loaded up on a train bound for what is surely a horrific fate. Luckily, the dragon wakes up en-route and manages to tip its cage off the train and tumble down into a forest ravine.
The game cuts to a cat-guy who’s stalking wild boar. However when the cage comes crashing down his hunt is spoiled. He investigates the noise and finds the broken cage and a naked little boy. It doesn’t take much to put together that this boy is the dragon but the game never dwells on it. This gives these first few hours an air of ambiguity and an anticipation for the time when we can turn back into the dragon at will. The cat-guy decides to bring the little boy home even though it’s in the middle of a famine and this means another mouth to feed. So the dragon is introduced to his surrogate family (or as TV Tropes likes to define it, his nakama) and the next few hours are spent defining this relationship. And tomorrow I will spend some time exploring these first hours and how they use plot to define character and how this sets the tone not only for the rest of the game but the series as well.