This review will probably come across as mostly negative, and yet despite all of my problems with Breath of Death VII I still find myself interested in the developer’s later games. I mean, the humor here is spot-on and avoids being too distracting or falling into the same “look at me I’m so edgy” trap that makes Doom & Destiny so painful to play through, and little things like the combat system being designed to be faster than in most jRPG games go a long way toward alleviating the hassles of grinding (which I only found necessary on one or two occasions) and random battles. The game is also mercifully short, which helps keep it from outlasting its welcome. Still, I found myself finding excuses to not play it because of how barren the world is and how tedious the areas are, and that’s not a very good sign.
This is a jRPG parody
All of the familiar jRPG staples show up here and are either made fun of or twisted around into something else. For example, main character Dem is a silent protagonist for about 5 seconds before the narrator turns on thought bubbles, and since the second character you recruit has telepathy and you’re constantly reading these thought bubbles, he ends up being weirdly talkative. Then there are his companions, all of whom force their way into the party because they don’t seem to have anything better to do, mirroring the often tenuous reasons characters join in other such games. Even the town names are combinations of the Japanese and English titles of old jRPGs (and one sRPG, in the case of Warsong/Langrisser). There are also various one-off references to other types of games ranging from Baldur’s Gate to Resident Evil; everything seems to poke at childhood memories like that, and the writing is solid enough that it’s genuinely amusing.
The characters are likable enough
The game’s back story is basically that humans blew themselves up at some point in the near future, resulting in the undead. Because of that, the main characters are all monsters: Dem the skeleton adventurer, Sara the ghost historian, Lita the vampire inventor/scavenger, and Erik the zombie prince. Beyond that, there’s not much to say; there’s not really anything in the way of character development, though the interactions between your party members (accessible using the “chat” feature from the menu) are enjoyable. There’s no character growth or anything, sadly, except for the game suddenly deciding as a joke that two of your characters are in love to give them a special two-person move to use in combat.
Combat is refreshingly fast
It’s obvious that the combat was designed to avoid the lengthy battles of attrition that sometimes plague jRPG-type games, and to that end, enemies become more powerful over time, incentivizing you to finish them off as quickly as possible. To balance that out, Breath of Death uses a combo system where your attacks build up a combo meter, and you can then use a combo-ending move that becomes more powerful at higher combo multipliers in order to do a devastating amount of damage. Not all combo-ending moves are offense-oriented, however, so early on you may be weighing ending your combo with a healing spell or risking having to waste one of the rarer potions (which restore all of a character’s health and even revives them if necessary) in order to last another turn. This allows combat to be surprisingly deep since you’re constantly weighing building up your combo meter against the possibility of being wiped out in the process.
However, that’s mostly only true of the game’s occasional boss battles. Random encounters against normal enemies rarely require using combos or special attacks in general on the default difficulty, and I was able to quickly spam normal attacks (as in the video above) in most cases until everything was dead. That’s not possible against all groups of enemies, though, so I found myself using an “escape” spell Sara gained midway through the game when blindly smashing through mobs risked a game over. Because special attacks consume MP and only Sara and Lita ever seemed to have enough of it to burn on random enemies, sticking to normal attacks almost exclusively just in case a boss fight was around the corner proved a smart strategy. This is especially true since all characters regain full health after every battle and also a small bit of MP. If that’s not the way you want to play, however, then it’ll come as good news that random battles are capped in each area and finishing a certain number of them (indicated on the menu screen) stops the random battles in the area entirely. You can still grind if you so desire, however, by manually starting fights from the menu’s “fight” option.
Level ups force you into blind customization
This is where things start to fall apart. See, when you level up, you’re given two different options to select between as a bonus. That wouldn’t be a bad thing if you knew which traits each character was expected to focus on from the very beginning, but you don’t, and selecting options that don’t suit their strengths can be a bad idea. For example, Sara is a mage/healer type of character, but I wanted her to be good at hitting things to death anyway and selected a bunch of strength upgrades. Equipment is a fairly rare thing in this game, though, and I quickly discovered that her weapons and armor (or in her case, rings) were almost exclusively centered around magic; only one ring I found offered her any kind of strength bonus and was quickly outdated, so the game became much more friendly when I finally relented and started treating her as an ordinary magic user. Same with Dem and Erik, who fare best when you focus on strength. It’s all surprisingly limiting, with each character being suited to certain roles that ultimately render the choices you can make largely irrelevant. You can make a Dem who’s good at magic and a melee-focused Sara, of course, but doing so feels like a constant fight against the predetermined roles the game has assigned them.
This is a budget title, but still
Breath of Fire VII is a cheap game, and that’s a perfectly valid way for some to excuse the game’s occasional shortcomings, but at the same time, my time isn’t so worthless that I can overlook flaws just because something doesn’t cost much. There were all kinds of little things that continually irritated me as I played, like how different groups of graves say different things, but every grave in the group is identical. Things like the world being littered with random items, none of which seem to hide any secret items or have any purpose beyond simply being present. Things like how most doors can’t be interacted with, but then all of a sudden you have to interact with certain doors because consistency is totally overrated.
I could forgive all of that if it weren’t for the mazes. In fact, when I realized that I was finding random things to occupy my time so that I could avoid having to continue playing, it dawned on me that it was because I dreaded having to run through yet another boring maze. These mazes are my single biggest problem with the game and seem to exist solely to pad things out. Basically, there are visually indistinct areas full of random encounters where you have to wander around all kinds of obstacles to get to the other side. There are also chests littered throughout (often within sight with no clear way of getting to them), and since these chests frequently contain new equipment for your characters that isn’t available at the game’s rare, poorly-stocked vendors, you’ll find yourself checking every path just in case it leads to a chest. Most of these paths lead to dead ends, though, forcing you to backtrack, and it’s just an unbearably tedious process. This doesn’t even end when you’ve completed the game; I reloaded my cleared save in order to tackle the (weirdly easy) “super hard hidden boss,” only to discover that this meant trudging through the annoying final dungeon in reverse. Talk about a huge waste of time.
Score attack mode
Once you’ve finished the game, you can start over and play in score attack mode, where you gain points by fighting bosses while under-leveled. This is possible thanks to the removal of random battles, though you can still manually start them from the menu in order to level up and avoid being completely wiped out. It’s an interesting idea for a game mode, admittedly, though I was so burned out by mazes by the point it unlocked that I didn’t bother playing it past the first couple minutes.
The graphics are retro
Breath of Death obviously pays homage to old jRPGs by using sprite art, and this is good for the most part early on. Areas are reused far too often, though, and I found it easy to get lost in many of the mazes because there was so much reused art that it was hard to figure out whether I was making progress or wandering around in circles. Caves are the worst offender here, though there’s a special place in hell for the three-part final dungeon and the ruined city areas. The character portraits and enemy art are pretty good, though, so it’s kind of a mixed bag.
The music is repetitive as hell
All the towns share the same music, all the caves share the same music, and this is true of just about the entire soundtrack. The constant repetition becomes grating mere minutes into the game. That’s not the end of it, either, because tracks don’t even loop properly. Instead, they fade out and start over again, which is unbelievably jarring. The only good things I have to say about the music is that the song that plays during boss battles is pretty enjoyable, and the cave theme is decent. The rest of it is like having a power drill bore into the side of your head.