A short and Inexpenisve trip back in RPG time
(EDIT: 1/30/2013 - Changed Star Rating to reflect removal of half stars from the new Giant Bomb Site. Revise down to 2 stars from 2.5)
Retro gaming and 80’s homages are not new or rare concepts in video gaming, but few take it as far as parody JRPG Breath of Death Vii does (and its’ companion sequel Cthulhu Saves the World). This bite sized throwback 8 bit-esque RPG comes at an extremely bite sized price to match.
Gameplay and Controls
Breath of Death Vii appropriately controls very simply as you would expect for a game that apes 80’s NES RPG design, hewing very closely to the Dragon Quest (called Dragon Warrior in America) formula. It follows the typical three part environment map rotation style of town (stock up, save, gather info from NPCs), world map (find & battle to dungeon) and dungeon (find treasure, survive battles and defeat Boss). Rinse and Repeat. Navigation is pretty straight forward movement on the arrow keys. Like most turn based RPGs game is essentially played in menus, you’ll interact in towns in menus and also in combat as well.
The game does have some pretty nice wrinkles that remove typical RPG annoyances from games of that era and makes me wonder no one has thought of these before. One in particular is the addition of turning on “run”, which allows your sprite move very very quickly. A very welcome addition since the game decided to keep the byzantine design of many 8 bit dungeons, that necessitate a lot of back tracking. Another very welcome addition is the game has a set number of Random encounters per zone, allowing OCD treasure hunters the ability to search for treasure without being endlessly harassed. If the player wishes to level up in an area they’ve already cleared, you can select battle in your party menu at any time.
The game also has minimal item and equipment management. Each character can only equip one character specific weapon and one character specific defensive item at a time. Given that the you generally encounter one new item per area for your characters, there aren’t many decisions to be made, it’s always safe to equip the latest item you find. Consumable Items on the other hand are in scarce supply as stores only stock weapons and armor. You’ll have to find all the items you plan to use and given that there aren’t many chests in the game you’ll probably want to conserve what you do find for boss fights. Unlike typical RPGs the lowly Potion is extremely powerful healing item in BoDVii and will pretty much be the only item you'll need. Fortunately the game is extremely generous when it comes to health and mana regeneration, after each battle all of your health will recover and part of your mana. At save points your mana will completely recover.
The battle system is undoubtedly the high point of the game, which is good since like most RPGs of this era fighting & exploring predominates your time. The fights look basically like an old Dragon Warrior game, your view is essentially a static first person view from your party’s perspective surrounded by menu HUD. The battles are purely turn based but once you do input your commands they are very fast and pretty challenging. The responsiveness and speed of the battles are a very welcome change from the drawn out animations common today. Unless you are over leveled you can’t sleepwalk through random encounters (especially on Hard). As a balance trade off to receiving full health at the end of each battle , enemies hit you pretty hard . Even common enemies can wipe out your party in a few rounds if you aren’t careful. The game encourages aggressive offensive play as each round passes enemies will gain stat boosts in 10% increments (i.e round 1 100%, round 2 110%, round 3 120% etc). Another wrinkle is that your player characters can combo chain attacks increasing the power of a finisher special move (unique to each character). Later on as you accrue levels and party members , your characters will also gain more powerful "unite attacks" which use two characters' turn for a very strong attack.
The Boss fights due an excellent job of ramping up the difficulty while extending the fight, still you will feel the pressure to end fights quick as the longer they go on the more likely it is you will lose. All these mechanics makes for an unusually interesting battle system and one that is superior most 8 bit battle systems.
Leveling mechanics are non descript following, with each level you get to pick an upgrade. Each upgrade is a one shot deal and there is no guidance on what you’ll be offered down the line so select with care. Like many RPGs a good party build tends to favor specialists instead of generalists. You’ll likely max out in the level 30 area or so , which seems a little early to the old 40 stand by,
Exploring is pretty mediocre in this game, the game does have a couple very short optional dungeons but for the most part despite the world map it’s a pretty linear experience. The dungeons are full of superfluous twisting branching path , many terminating in numerous dead ends and notably very little treasure. There are a couple things to read but nothing to interact with to speak of. This makes dungeon crawling pretty boring. For the most part the environment is merely something to run through until you get to a Boos fight or town.
For those who haven’t played many mid to late 80’s JRPGs they may be surprised by how spartan the story is. BODVii owes a lot more to Dragon Warrior’s story telling style than Final Fantasy’s. Right away you’ll likely pick up that tone of this game does not take itself very seriously. Much of the game’s dialogue and conceits are homages and light parodies of tropes from NES era games, most of which go right over your head if you never played those games (e.g. the opening is riff on Phantasy Star and there is a boss based off Adventure of all games). Some of them are mildy amusing but most the references for the most part are pure punchlines with little to no setup. References and such are great but as any comedian can tell you, you need to setup the premise to the punchline to make the joke funny.
The basic premise is that this game actually place in the distant future after an apocalypse has wiped out humanity and human civilization. All that’s left is the undead (Ghosts, Skeletons, vampires, Zombies etc) and varied mutated monsters that roam the countryside. You play as a mute(he projects thoughts with his mind?) Skeleton named Dem who gets roped into an adventure for treasure by a perky ghost named Sara along the way you'll recruit Lita (a vampire) and Erik (a zombie). They banter (an option from you party menu as well) and have wacky hijinx along the way and that’s basically the whole plot. Even by 80’s standards this game probably had the least story of any RPG I’ve ever played. Fortunately the banter is above average but it lacks weight since you are given very little context on the characters. The meta and fourth wall jokes are easily the best, but even they would work better in a better fleshed out story. While most RPGs error on the side of too much dialogue and story, BoDVii could really benefit from having quite a bit more.
The characters while one dimensional are memorable and moderately amusing. Dem is easily the most likable as he most closely says something closest to whatever the player might be thinking.
Graphics & Sound
Well the game doesn’t look great ( I personally think the 16 bit look works better today than 8 bit), but it‘s actually trying not to look fantastic, so in that regarded it succeeded. The character design is easily the best looking part of the game. The enemy sprites are pretty well detailed and while they don’t animate they are interesting to look at. The character portraits are distinctively evocative and look like they would pressing the limits of what a NES or Sega Master System could render. The character design looks more inspired by Final Fantasy than Dragon Warrior.
The town and world map design is largely forgettable and the dungeon design is very dull.
The Sound is probably the other high point of the game besides the battle system. Every song while not amazing really feels like it fits in the era. The victory music especially sounds like a catchy Japanese jazzy midi tune.
This game is incredibly short for a RPG. If you play normal or easy you can blow through this game in a couple hours if so inclined, no joke. I played on Hard and explored every dungeon, beat every boss and it still only took me 8.
Unlike modern RPGs there’s no new game + or equivalent, there is however a score challenge mode. But unless you are a hardcore fan you probably won’t play through more than once as there is no achievements or leaderboards or new story content.
Breath of Death Vii is incredibly short for a RPG of any era, with a weak story and a bland world. It does have a very polished and riveting battle system especially if played on Hard and some mildly amusing in jokes. But given that the traditional story rewards for the completing Random battles is not compelling your mileage may vary. The people who will like BoDvii best are the people who like old school RPG fights.
BoDVii’s best asset is actually its' price. As of this writing it can be had for less than 3 dollars on Steam or Xbox Live. If it weren’t for that I don’t think I could recommend it. At three dollars however it feels like a bargain.
If you have a hankering for a short trip back in time to old 80’s RPG sensibilities BoDVii scratches that itch quite effectively at a very low price. BoDVii is probably best suited for old school hardcore RPG players who have nothing better to play or don't feel like playing a long game.