When we last left Ryu (that’s the dragon’s name incidentally) he had been rescued from a naked woody fate by Rei the cat-man. Rei brings Ryu to his forest hide-away home and introduces him to another orphan he had found lost in the woods: Teepo. The next few hours few hours of Breath of Fire III focuses on the relationship between Ryu, Rei, and Teepo and creates the emotional groundwork for everything that follows.
Rei and Teepo are the local hooligans. They make their living from petty theft and robbery and live a carefree life in the forest. You get the sense that they’re not disliked by the community (centered around the farming village McNeil). Rather, it seems like that when Rei and Teepo pull another wacky scheme the people of McNeil simply click their tongues, pity the poor orphans, and hope that they’ll get their act together soon. They’re just misguided kids after all and they do have their share of noble virtues. They quickly bring Ryu into the group, accepting him as part of the family, and look out for him even though it’s the middle of a famine and it means another mouth to feed. And when they learn that a little hard work and helping others feels good they jump at the chance to do it again.
This occurs when the trio decide to break into the house of burley lumberjack man Bunion to steal some food. He catches them and for penance orders them to track down a monster that’s been slaughtering the town’s cows and making the famine all the worse. The trio find and kill the monster only to discover it was hunting the cows to feed its babies not realizing that they had died long ago and that it was bringing food back for corpses.
It’s a pitiful sight and Rei confronts Bunion about sending them to murder a mother. Bunion asks if Rei would still have killed the monster if he knew about the babies. Rei can’t answer. It’s a nice bit of moral ambiguity and the game keeps returning to it in scenario after scenario. It could be argued that these shades of gray are the central theme of Breath of Fire III. It may not seem like a big deal now but back in 1998 this was fresh storytelling for a RPG (I feel a bit hypocritical saying this seeing that I called out Celes’ suicide a few weeks back. That was also something that pushed the medium in a new direction. But I feel that BoFIII’s moralizing, while clumsy, is a lot less ham-handed than Celes’ jump). Both Breath of Fire IV and Dragon Quarter would also return to the theme of shades of gray and with more skill. But the transition from the 16-bit RPG mentality started with BoFIII and is another example of how it’s the turning point for the series.
With the death of the monster the region is able to pull through the famine and Ryu, Rei, and Teepo are hailed as heroes. Riding high on the praise the three kids decide to take on the greedy mayor McNeil who’s taxes keep the village poor. They break into his mansion (which involves a stealth section that isn’t terrible for once) which turns out is haunted (of course). The trio fight through the ghosts and guards and succeed in stealing back the taxes, which they leave on the doorsteps of the townsfolk. However, in another subversion, when they return to the village the next morning to gloat they find that the townspeople have returned all the money to McNeil in fear of reprisal. Turns out that McNeil is tied to a powerful crime syndicate and Bunion warns Ryu and friends to go into hiding.
However, it’s too late and by the time the trio return to their hideout they find that it’s been burned down with a pair of unicorn hit men are waiting for them. These are Balio and Sunder and they are the closest thing the game has to absolutely evil villains. The unicorns have no qualms over murdering some kids and they go ahead and do so. Ryu wakes up sometime later in Bunion’s house. Bunion explains he found Ryu wounded and alone in the forest. Bunion suspects that Teepo and Rei are dead but Ryu figures that if he survived the hit maybe they did too and sets out to look for them.
This search will compromise most of the remainder of the game. Essentially these opening hours are an example of that hoary gaming troupe: the Destroyed Hometown. But because BoFIII focuses on building the relationship of these characters and creating this little surrogate family the punch strikes with unusual force. As the player we want to find Teepo and Rei as much as we feel Ryu does. And because it will be a long, long time until we do the search remains a perpetual carrot and, eventually, becomes a longing for those golden days before the real world intruded into their lives.
BoFIII is often criticized for having a weak or generic plot. Proponents of this criticism are missing the point. The plot is smaller and more focused on characters and their relationships (again, something that is explored further in BoFIV). While some of the “kill the god and false religion” nonsense remains from Breath of Fire II there is much more emphasis on the personal lives of the characters. The actual plot–that is to say, the events that movie the story forward–of these first few hours does, when looked on its own, does seem thin. Basically it can be broken down into: Ryu escapes from a mine, Ryu meets Rei and Teepo, Ryu and friends run afoul some criminals and get separated. But doing so would be to miss all the character building that goes on during these hours that gives the game its emotional core and direction.
The next section of the game has Ryu meeting new friends and dealing with the problem of Bailo and Sunder but Rei and Teepo are never forgotten. And if some people claim that the story devolves into a series of sidequests at this point it’s because the drive to find our missing friends is just that strong.