Monday, June 18, 2018

Breath of Fire 2's Characters' Abilities

Yes, today I’m nitpicking a gameplay issue--something which I believe to be totally inconsequential in estimating the worth of an RPG--of a game so old that its era in gaming history can now be classified as ‘quaint.’ Again. Look, I don’t hide the fact that this blog is totally pointless. The sooner we all accept this, the better.

Y’know, it’s weird. When I wrote that rant about the oddity of Breath of Fire 1’s cast in terms of combat utility, it wasn’t even in my mind that I might make something along the lines of a continuation to it. But afterward, I started thinking about how the sequel handled combat roles for its cast far better...and then I remembered that it also had a noticeable flaw in that regard, too. So, here we are today, about to criticize the gameplay mechanics of yet another RPG so incredibly old, that Capcom wasn’t even completely and utterly evil at the time they published it.

So, Breath of Fire 2 added a little more nuance to its combat system and characters’ roles in it, improving upon the very basic battle mechanics of the first game in many ways, to the point that there was actually some strategy to be utilized in party composition, character placement, and ability use. The best party combination is no longer beyond debate as it was in the first game,* and there are even multiple approaches to combat to choose from, now. It ain’t just “Here are the only 4 characters in the game with useful spells, now go away” like it was in BoF1.

Unfortunately, though, not everything to do with BoF2’s combat is a step up from its predecessor (not the least of which being the overall feel and flow of battles; is it just me, or did Breath of Fire 1 feel way smoother and more polished in its gameplay overall?). 1 of the ways that characters are unique in combat is that each has a personal ability in combat beyond just his or her spells. Sort of like how characters in, say, Final Fantasy 6 all have their own unique talent in addition to whatever magic they’ve learned from Espers. Unlike Final Fantasy 6, however, whose character talents generally stay relevant for 95% of the game until everyone gets the chance to just learn Ultima and equip Economizers...Breath of Fire 2’s characters’ special abilities almost all just suck from the get-go.

First of all, there’s Ryu. He gets the Guts ability, which restores some of his HP during battle without needing to use magic points to do so. This sounds good, but the thing is, the amount of HP restored is greater depending on, A, his Guts stat, and B, how damaged he is. This means that it’s wildly unreliable for most of the game, as you don’t have a very high Guts stat for a while, and without that to boost it, it just doesn’t restore enough HP to be very useful--either you’re not damaged enough, and so it barely does anything, or you’re so hurt that you need something way better to do the job. And once you’re late enough in the game that Guts starts healing a decent amount, you’ve got a lot of other, more consistent healing options anyway.

And that’s actually 1 of the more useful abilities! Sten gets RIP, which lets him do an attack with less chance of enemies targeting him, but its utility is limited since party-hitting attacks aren’t uncommon and this ability doesn’t do anything to avoid them. Jean gets Stab, which hits all enemies that turn, but at such a reduced attack power that it frequently does almost no damage. Spar can call on the forces of nature to come to his aid, which is handy, but it only works outdoors, and nearly all dungeons in the game are, well...dungeons. So aside from traversing the world map, which by the time you get Spar you’re not doing a whole lot of any more, there’s very little use for it. Bow gets Shot, which either instantly kills an enemy or just deals 1 damage, but has such a damn low chance of working that I usually find I can kill the enemy faster just by having Bow attack it normally anyway.

Rand gets Wake, which can either be used to wake up a sleeping party member, or revives them at 1 HP. This sounds far more useful than it actually is. First of all, getting physically attacked wakes up a party member anyway, so there’s a good chance that the enemy is going to do it next turn, and then you’ve just wasted Rand’s chance to act. Secondly, Wake only revives dead party members sometimes, compared to revival spells and items being guaranteed to do so, so it’s really only an extremely desperate last resort.

Nina’s Will is sort of helpful, in that she can recover her Ability Points with it. AP recovery items are both uncommonly found, and annoying in Breath of Fire 2, in that most of them lessen your HP by the same amount that they restore of your AP. What the point is of this trade-off, I can’t guess; it certainly isn’t balancing the game in any useful way. So a magic-user being able to restore her AP without relying on subpar and rare items is good...but much like Wake, it’s a toss-up as to whether this is actually going to work, and it restores a small enough portion of her AP that it’s only really good for 1 spell at a time, if that.

And then there’s Katt. What the hell was the reasoning for giving Katt the Dare skill? Dare uses that turn’s action to make enemies more likely to hit her, instead of other allies. That’d be a useful ability...if it was given to Rand, or Ryu, or Bleu, or pretty much any other character in the game. But Katt is a low-HP, low-defense glass cannon whose role in the party is very specifically to kill enemies as fast as possible! I know that these were the earliest days of the aggro-control gameplay concept (for all I know, this game invented it), so one should expect a few bugs to work out, but Capcom picked the absolute worst possible party member to give this to!

The 1 character who gets a personal skill that’s actually undeniably helpful is Bleu, whose Shed power restores her to full health, no questions asked. Sure, it lowers her defense, but that mild detriment definitely doesn’t stop it from being useful now and then. Unlike every other character-specific ability, this is a case of the downsides balancing the ability’s use, rather than destroying it.

Now, there are some abilities that are unlocked by fusing characters in certain ways, and those tend to be a lot more viable in combat. Hell, some are even overpowered; Demon Katt gets an attack-enhancing ability that is absolutely devastating, and Holy Jean gets this crazy insta-kill attack that targets the entire enemy party and actually has a high success rate. And that’s great and all. But powered-up forms should have powered-up abilities; the fact that Capcom got that side of it right doesn’t make up for the fact that almost every member of the party has a shitty ability that isn’t even as useful as just the regular Attack command. And it’s not like this was some revolutionary idea on their part or anything--Final Fantasy 6 came out 8 months prior to BoF2, and Final Fantasy 4, which also featured this idea of unique abilities specific to each party member, and employed this concept quite competently, was 3 years old by the time BoF2 was published! There’s just no 2 ways about it: the character abilities of Breath of Fire 2 were poorly handled.

* I say this objectively, but in my heart of hearts I know that there’s no way someone could convince me that anything other than Katt, Bleu, Rand, and Ryu is best.

Unless the game were coded so that you didn’t have to have Ryu, that is. I’d totally go Jean over him. To hell with this game’s shitty 1-and-done dragon abilities.


  1. While it's true this game came out close to FFVI's release date (and development cycles may have even overlapped), games were traditionally created in a vacuum. This was the beginning phases of the internet after all.

    Also, and this might sound strange, I think Capcom's approach was to intentionally make the unique skills as crap-tastic as possible. As you mentioned, they were basically last resort type skills, and balanced as such. Honestly, outside of the overpowered fused skills, I've gone entire palythroughs without using any of them. It would be an interesting experiment to balance the game around highly altered (and useful) personal skills.

    1. Yes, I'm sure Capcom didn't have enough time to really adapt their system to the point that it could rival FF6's, but I also mentioned that FF4's simpler but adequate use of individual character abilities had been around for quite some time by that point--at the very least, Capcom had a better example in that extremely well-known RPG to follow than the product they eventually came out with.

      See, though, if you have an entire system in your gameplay which can be completely ignored in any normal playthrough, without the player specifically planning around its absence, that's not good game design. A character's special abilities don't need to be absolutely necessary, but that's not the same as said abilities being completely superfluous.

      You take, say, this RPG I've been playing recently, Darkblood Chronicles. There are a lot of spells and powers that its characters have access to that are unique to each of them. Now, its protagonist Sam, she has this ability that doubles her attack power for the next strike. I've never used it once. But the reason for that is that I've concentrated her build around magic and support, roles that she is at least equally suited for in combat. That doesn't mean her double-powered ability doesn't have utility, it's just that I play her a specific way in which it isn't necessary. But, another player could use Sam as a physical attacker, and be effective with it, and for that player, this same ability is useful. Darkblood Chronicles, you see, was created with basic competence.

      A Breath of Fire 2 character, on the other hand, has an ability that isn't useful to them because it's just not useful. And whether or not that's intentional--I have to say I don't think you're right on that point, because BoF2 really isn't well-balanced overall anyway, independently of this aspect of it--it's a flaw. A flaw that is "Working as Intended" is no less a flaw; if anything, intentionally making something wrong actually puts you more at fault.

    2. Thanks for reading and commenting, though! I don't have to agree with a reader's opinions to appreciate their being shared with me!

  2. It's all good.

    I have quite a history with Capcom. They were one of my favorite developers growing up. I will be honest though, what really drew me into their games was not necessarily good game design, but that their games have always had a somewhat indescribable quirky quality, whether it's in the visuals or the, at times, bizarre design choices. As the BoF series evolved, the story-book quality of the visuals reached near perfection. The animation in BoFIV especially was fantastic. Street Fighter, culminating in Street Fighter III had a similar development arc, if you look at it visually. In my opinion, Capcom historically has had some of the best pixel art when compared to their contemporaries in the 16bit and 32bit console (and arcade) generations. Square. historically, has been rather weak on that front. And the recent remakes have been kind of all over the map. But I digress.

    I think we can at least agree that, yes, the personal skills are more or less useless, and that's where I feel it was intentional (more of a gut feeling based on other games I've experienced from their lineup, even outside of RPGs), though the end result, as you said, just wasn't very good. I still stand by them being a "last resort" as a design choice, it's just the way the skills are fundamentally designed. The one that really sticks out though is Katt's. But the others are at least somewhat geared towards that character's primary abilities, but again, as a last resort. Look at Nina for example, you run out of AP, have no items to restore it, and potentially find yourself in a situation where you're seriously considering using her personal skills. As you mentioned, in any number of turns, attacking, using an item, perhaps even defending, will often yield better results.

    And since you mentioned FFIV, that's an interesting point of comparison, because easy type removed a lot of the personal skills, with absolutely no consequence to the main game, even with monster stats and behaviors returned to their original values. I have a similar experience with FFIV when I replay as I do with BoFII, as I more or less ignore the personal skills, as they're almost always the least optimal option available on any given turn. I will say however - if the ATB system wasn't so broken in FFIV, many of the skills would improve tremendously, but they would still feel like an afterthought. Like you mentioned, FFVI made the skills relevant and actually feel like an extension of the character's (at times, loosely) defined class, and were at least 50% of the time the optimal choice (yes, I am choosing to ignore sketch - at least control was near broken when used and abused correctly).

    1. I wouldn't say there was "no consequence." The American audience, who Square had insultingly decided were too stupid for a real RPG even though JRPGs are already the dumbed-down version of a game that Japan ripped off from America, simply made do with a more restricted, less functional game because they didn't know any better. FF4's erasure of substantial gameplay content didn't remove superfluous content, it removed agency from the player to choose different ways to approach combat. Those other ways legitimately worked overall: when I have replayed FF4, I have made use of several characters' abilities without having to go out of my way to do so.

    2. The FF2US release has the unfortunate flaw of Cecil's plot relevant flaw as a Dark Knight taken from him. You're simply told he can't fight darkness with darkness, and you're left to wonder why normal swords don't exist. When he fights himself in Mt Ordeals, you're told to tank hits to the face because reasons.

      In FF4 proper, Cecil's powers actively sap his strength, and this is a real threat in actual gameplay. This flaw is gifted to him by the imposter king of Baron to render him useless against opposition he can't immediately kill, but now it's a real concern, not a theoretical one. In his fight against himself, you get to understand why the Dark Knight is sure to lose; using your own brute force against an immovable object.

      That this is the stronger portion of FF4's storyline only compounds the loss.