Well, isn’t been a while, hasn’t it? In the… five months since I last posted here I did something I rarely accomplish: I beat a game! My tastes are fickle and I often turn to whatever I’m in the mood for rather than push through to the end. While I have started (and not completed) many games in the past half year, I was able to see Breath of Fire III through to the end. There was a good half of the game that I’m not going to bother summarizing, most of it fetch-questy. The majority of the second half involves tracking down god in order to answer questions concerning the Dragon War and why god wanted all dragons dead. First, Ryu meets up with the reoccurring series bad-ass: Dies, who points Ryu into god’s direction. Turns out he’s allllll the way across in the sea in lands unexplored. Getting there takes quite a long time (though you do finally get to use Beyd’s damn boat) and through a handful of filler-ish (though fun) dungeons. Part of what makes BoFIII’s end-game unique is how isolated it feels. Crossing the sea is a hard task, and the game keeps throwing new obstacles in your way. There is a real sense of accomplishment when you reach the new continent. There’s excitement at setting foot on forbidden, unexplored ground and loneliness at leaving the civilized world behind. Aside from a few pseudo-town there’s nothing resembling the hussle-bussle of the main continent. All the unique sprites and little details that make BoFIII’s world so lived in are gone. I can’t think of any other RPG who’s last levels feel as remote as BoFIII’s do. And then, of course, there’s the desert.
The Desert of Death is probably one of the most hated points in the pantheon of JRPGs. I can’t even begin to guess how many players didn’t see the end of the game thanks to this place. Basically, the player has to use stars to navigate a huge, featureless plain. The way is peppered with random battles and water is limited so there’s a time limit too. It takes forty minutes to an hour to cross and while the solution couldn’t be simpler (turn one degree to the left, walk straight) the game insist on giving you vague and complicated instructions. Worse, the official strategy guide’s instructions were incorrect. If you followed the guide you would walk forever until your water ran out, cursing the designers who came up with this bullshit. These days, what with our GameFaqs, the quick and easy way is fairly well known. But let me tell you, back when this game first came out this section was a hell of a bitch. Now it’s just mildly tedious instead of a game-ending ball of frustration.
But the desert, and all it’s tedium, serves an important place in the narrative of the game. Past the desert, and the ruined future city of Caer Xhan (what a great name) is the stronghold of god: a high-tech orbital platform. By this time we know that god is actually the demon boss from the first Breath of Fire: Myria. It’s striking though that the last dungeon isn’t a temple to Myria’s greatness or an oppressive dank and dark kind of place. It’s an abandoned scientific lab and feels like it really was once used for that purpose (in a RPG dungeon-y kind of way). There’s even an idyllic forested area preserved inside. Teepo is here, all grown up. Turns out he was a dragon too and Myria has him locked away for his (and human kind’s) own good. He begs Ryu to stay with him, arguing that the dragon’s power is too dangerous to be at large. He’s also snobbish and kinda a jerk, so of course he has to die. He may have a point though. The three dragon fights (Zombie, Elder, and Lord) are the toughest in the game. Even the last boss is cake compared to these guys. I’m not sure if this was intentional, but it fits thematically, so… neato!
At the center of the station is Myria. She offers the same old arguments: the dragons are too powerful, they’ll destroy the world, she’s protecting humanity, Ryu must stay with her in blissful captivity like Teepo did, etc. It’s never outright said, but there is a fair bit of implication that Myria is a petty vengeful sort who started the dragon genocide as revenge for beating she took way back in BoF I. But she throws in a new twist. The world, she claims, was destroyed already by high-technology and so she’s been controlling the rate that new technology is introduced back into civilization. Throughout the game we’ve seen examples of humanity abusing what technology they do have, so Myria’s reveal has the ring of truth. What’s more, except for the small amount of habitable lands under Myria’s protection the rest of the world is covered by the desert. Without her the desert will claim what’s left of the world and everything will die. And so we have the central conflict of the game: is it better to be free and lost or trapped but safe? Surprisingly, the game doesn’t offer a clear choice. The “real” ending can only be arrived at by defeating Myria and freeing the world from her tyranny. But it’s possible to accept her offer and spend the rest of your life in her orbital sanctuary. This ending is just as valid as the real one, and the game doesn’t condemn it as the wrong choice. It simply shows Ryu sitting in the station before fading to black with the words “And so time passed… unchanging…” Sure, the world might be in a state of stasis but at least it’s safe.
Likewise, the “good” ending is just as morally ambiguous. Upon defeating Myria the station collapses and Myria laments the end of the world. She asks that if there really is a god for it to tell her what she should have done with the dragons. Despite her best efforts they’ve doomed the world. It seems she really was doing what she thought was best. Garr, his mission complete, seals himself in stone while the rest of the party escape and the final cinema plays. It’s best if you just watch it for yourself.
Ending (Skip to about 6:30 or so)
No denouement, no return to the main continent, just the surviving characters faced with the enormity of the desert. There’s very much a “that’s it?!” feeling to the ending. The real problem, the invasion of the desert, is still very much at large and the trouble with Myria seems almost trivial by comparison. No amount of ultimate weapons or dragon fire breaths are going to be any help against encroaching environmental decay. The game doesn’t have an answer, or even the hint of one. And so we’re left with the heroes (and player) wondering if they’ve really made the right choice. Regarding that central conflict of dangerous freedom versus confined safety, BoF III merely asks the question while leaving it to the player to make up their own mind . It’s rare for a JRPG to offer this kind of moral ambiguity, especially in the “Off to Kill God” trope.
Breath of Fire III often gets written off as “just another Playstation RPG. Certainly it has its fair share of tired clichés and fetch-quests, but it’s progressive in a lot of ways: the smaller world (compared to its contemporaries the amount of mileage you cover is minuscule), a stronger emphasis on character relationships, the moral ambiguity, and non-ending. It’s hard to say just how influential the game was or how the shape of JRPGs would be different if it was more widely recognized. The sequel at least would take a lot that made BoFIII good to become truly great. III now days? It still holds up well. The 2D sprites haven’t aged at all, the soundtrack is as unique now as it was then, and the battle system remains fun. If you can get past the fetch-questy bits and slightly clunky storytelling you’ll find that BoF III isn’t the generic JRPG it often gets pegged as and is defiantly worth the time investment.