On Breath of Fire III and the possibility of an ambiguous game

The BREATH OF FIRE series is largely unappreciated in the west, although I believe it is well received in its native Japan. I recently played through the 3rd one again, a game which I played in my tender youth, and which remains a very enjoyable experience (the nostalgia helps).

What sets this RPG series apart from others is that the whole saving-the-world aspect is secondary to another goal. RPG’s tend to imply an epic quest, and what is more epic than saving the world from an ancient evil and/or a person gone mad with power? (See FINAL FANTASY I-IX).

This is where the BREATH OF FIRE series stands apart. The main goal of BREATH OF FIRE III is to find the goddess of the dominant religion to ask her why she ordered the genocide of a race of dragon people. (This post is full of spoilers of BoF3! You have been warned. Go play it now if you want the unspoiled experience – it is worth it!)

As it turns out, she fears that their power could lead to the destruction of all life. Her solution, 500 years ago, was to create warriors who would slay the dragons. In the game, you play as the last survivor of the dragons (the blue haired fellow in the center of the above image) (you can transform into a dragon) (many different dragons, in fact). In the end of the game, when you finally meet the goddess, she offers you a choice:

  • You can agree with her that the dragons are too powerful for the world. Consequently, you choose to remain in peaceful isolation in her garden for the rest of your life. Fin. Or,
  • You can assert that the people of the world no longer need her babysitting services.  In which case, she tries to kill you in order to preserve the peace she wants for the rest of the world. You fight back, defeat her, and she remains in her lair as it blows up. Her sister appears to her and tells her that the people will be all right, that they are more able to take care of themselves than she gives them credit for. The world enters a new era of true freedom. Fin.

You get to pick which ending you get, and this is what makes this game interesting. The first time I played it, I chose the first ending, which leaves the world in certain, controlled peace. I then reloaded and chose the second ending, which leaves the world in uncertain, uncontrolled freedom. As in many games, there is a “good” ending and a “bad” ending. It is made clear by the developers which one is “good”, in terms of the story structure, the overall game structure, and how it’s all presented: choosing to fight the goddess leads to the big final boss fight, which leads to a satisfying ending cutscene (more satisfying than the alternative, at least), and end credits with a theme song.

But what if both endings had received an equal treatment? The game sets you up for a great choice. The goddess actually begs you to choose the peaceful option. If you chose this one and saw a slightly more satisfying resolution, for example of life continuing peacefully in the rest of the world, and then closing credits… would this not make the “bad” ending simply one of two alternatives?

On a side note, it would be a small stretch to interpret the player’s second choice as revenge for the genocide of the dragons. And perhaps this is OK, since genocide is massively wrong. However, my general impression is that “revenge” is seen as a bad thing. It is often contrasted with “justice.” Is revenge a good reason to kill the goddess?

This is also asked by the game itself: near the end, you find the refuge of others of your race who fled the war. They waited for you, to entrust you with the true power of the dragon race. While many of the survivors hate the goddess and wish for you to exact revenge upon her, the Elder makes it very clear that the power is yours, as well as the choice of whether to use it or not. Another of your race says that he harbors no ill will towards anyone, and doesn’t care whether you strike down the goddess or not.

The game suggests room for ambiguity, but a player choosing the “bad” choice gets a very anticlimactic ending. There’s something interesting in this ability to choose, and I only wish the developers had provided equivalent levels of resolution in both endings. BoF3 goes a long way to creating a morally ambiguous scenario for the player to resolve, but there could be more, I believe… Still, it’s a great game, and I encourage story/narrative enthusiasts to play it!

COOL GAME STUFF

Besides its story, this game has some really nice design to it. It’s of course an RPG, which means turn-based battles where you input commands to your three party members. They level up as they gain experience, and their attributes increase with each level.

One of BoF3’s sweet features is the master system. By apprenticing under a master, a character’s growth is affected via their attributes. For example, one master provides boosts to growth in HP, Power and Defense, and penalties to growth in Agility and Intelligence. This means that when the character levels up, their HP, Power and Defense will increase by a few extra points, while their Agility and Intelligence will increase by fewer or perhaps no points at all. This affords customization of characters  through stat management over time.

For more immediate customization, there are Skills. Abilities are divided into two types: the innate ones which the character learns naturally by leveling up, and Skills. Skills can be learned by apprenticing under masters for a specified number of levels. Many can also be learned by observing monsters during battle! Skills can then be traded around between characters. This fast customization nicely complements the slower customization via the master system, enabling you to mold the six available characters to a party of your choice.

Fishing is, apparently, the pastime of choice for last scions of dragon people. This minigame returns in BoF3, complete with fishing spots with different kinds of fish, a variety of baits, and points racked up for the size of the fish you… fish. This minigame is fun on its own, and it’s made even more interesting via a race of fish men who are traditionally merchants. Catch one (they always make a bee line for the “coin” bait) and you can then trade fish for equipment and items. Fishing can quickly net you an awesome inventory!

The last great feature of the game is the dragon gene system. After you gain control of the power to transform into a dragon, you start with the basic Flame gene. You receive a few additional genes through the story, but most of them must be found through exploration. In battle, you can combine up to 3 dragon genes for transformation. The combinations aren’t endless, but enough to keep you trying them out! Certain genes have elemental properties, while others grant certain types of forms, such as Force granting a powerful warrior form. Furthermore, some combinations of genes create unique dragon forms. The Pygmy (right) is ridiculously cute, has some nice attacks like Magma Breath, and squeaks when hurt.

On the other hand, the Tiamat (left) is immune to bad status, is pretty powerful, and looks like a big freaky serpent thing. The dragon gene system provides many possibilities for experimentation, you could spend a lot of time just trying out combinations and seeing how they work – provided you can find the genes in the first place!

I feel I’ve gone on enough about BoF3… for now. Suffice to say, it’s a special game to me. I feel it does many things very well, and I’m still in the process of working out some of those things. I’ve tried to outline them here, and maybe others will be able to see what I see in it.

Until next time… I feel like continuing in the BREATH OF FIRE universe. It’s a nice one, with races of anthropomorphic people, ambiguous scenarios, and lots of interesting mechanics. Next one is IV!

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