Excerpt: “Beauty, Dragons, and Isometric Horror: Revisiting Breath of Fire IV”

Despite gorgeous sprites, fun battles, and great characters, this late-generation PlayStation Japanese RPG just misses classic status.

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In my debut on the Hugo Award-nominated Nerds of a Feather, I’ve got some deep dive impressions into the first several hours of Breath of Fire IV. Released during the PlayStation’s final months, Breath of Fire IV is a throwback to the way Japanese RPGs were on the Super Nintendo, with gorgeous sprite work, a stellar cast, and fun battles. It ain’t perfect, though. It’s held back from classic status by a combination of clunky, four-directional controls and an obtuse camera that makes navigating its tight environments nearly impossible.

Breath of Fire IV concept art

Here’s an excerpt:

By the time of its release, Breath of Fire IV was competing in a JRPG genre that had changed drastically in a very short period of time. Final Fantasy VII ushered in a new era of 3D worlds with visuals that focused on cinematic storytelling and unique set pieces. In contrast, Breath of Fire IV feels like the continuation of 16-bit style JRPGs from a universe where Final Fantasy VII was never released. Its use of brilliantly drawn and animated 2D sprites is nearly unrivalled even today, and they manage to convey a broad range of character and emotion that reminds me of Square’s best work from the 16-bit era — like Chrono Trigger or Super Mario RPG, which really showcased how talented pixel artists could leverage their work for storytelling — but upgraded to the nth degree. This is pixel art perfection.

As tech continues to evolve, we’re reaching ever closer to the point of photorealism, but in many ways I’ve never felt so disconnected from the visuals in my games. Instead, I think one of the main reasons I’m drawn to older games is that they require a marriage between the game designers and the player. These games hold whole worlds within them, but you can only display so much detail at 240p resolution. And so the game reaches out to the player by offering a level of abstraction and asks them to bring their own interpretation of what they see on screen. The sprites here are not photorealistic, but they’re realized, and that, to me, is more immersive than photorealistic models and animations that teeter on the edge of the uncanny valley.

Read more “Beauty, Dragons, and Isometric Horror: Revisiting Breath of Fire IV on Nerds of a Feather.

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Aidan Moher
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Hugo Award-winning writer ft. in WIRED, Washington Post, and Kotaku, and author of "Fight, Magic, Items." He lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and kids.