The names “Final Fantasy” and “Dragon Quest” used to inspire awe and admiration among the gaming public. The Japanese role-playing game was on top of the world with these and other heavy hitters, but then things turned sour. Cliches and reused character archetypes ruined in the eyes of many what once was a revered and much loved genre. Zeboyd Games has something to say about that with their premier game “Breath of Death VII: The Beginning.”
Make no mistake, this is one game with no prequels preceding it. The name is meant to parody the ridiculous sequel phenomena that plagues the current Japanese RPG scene. In fact, going by the name alone, anybody can tell this game is not meant to be a serious Japanese RPG. Looking past the obvious parody elements, one will find a fantastic old-school Japanese RPG that mocks its subject matter without going down the same path many others have failed on.
“Breath of Death VII” stars Dem, a skeleton in a world full of the undead, on a quest to be a hero. He’s a mute, but the player and one other party member can read his mind, lending the game a much needed charm and wit that many other games in the genre lack. Dem’s commentary gives the player an insight into what those mute heroes in games like “Chrono Trigger” may have been thinking as the adventure went on. It’s a subtle poke at an accepted character archetype that still persists to this days in games like “The Legend of Zelda.”
“Breath of Death VII” is a “Dragon Quest” game in terms of gameplay and aesthetics. The party travels through villages, forests and dungeons on a quest for boss monsters, loot and glory. Battles are first-person with a minimalistic menu with the usual features of attack, magic and tech. Where the game varies slightly from the formula is that the game encourages the player to finish battles quickly for two reasons. While after every fight, each party member’s HP is restored; the party member’s MP is restored by a small amount dependent on how fast the battle was won. The other reason is that each turn the monsters remain undefeated, their strength goes up by 10 percent.
Leveling up is unique as well with a semi-tree leveling system. I say this because it is an amalgamation of Western and Japanese design. Whereas Western RPGs let the player pick and choose which stats to level up and which abilities to learn; Japanese RPGs automatically assign those stats and abilities to the player. “Breath of Death VII” finds a nice balance between the two by letting the player choose between two options every time a character levels up, usually stat increases or a new ability. The only thing that goes up every level without input from the player is the HP and MP.
Of course, the most annoying thing about Japanese RPGs to many players is the random encounters. “Breath of Death VII” would not be a Japanese RPG without it, but it tweaks this mechanic to make it more approachable. Each dungeon and the overworld have a set limit of battles in them. Take for instance a dungeon has 25 battles in it, after completing 25 battles the player will no longer run into random encounters. The player can still fight from the main menu if they want to grind, but it removes the tedium of random encounters from the game. It also smartly prepares the player for the dungeon boss. If the player fights the allotted battles in a dungeon, chances are they are ready for the dungeon boss.
“Breath of Death VII” never outstays its welcome with a main campaign that only lasts about six hours dependent on player skill. The game offers multiple difficulty levels and a secret dungeon after the main campaign is completed to increase the playtime. The game is only $3 on Steam or Gamersgate and is bundled with the similarly excellent “Cthulhu Saves the World.”
Zeboyd Games has crafted a Japanese RPG that not only entertains, but it is better than the majority of modern Japanese RPGs by sidestepping the very things that plague the genre while retaining those elements that made the genre loved in the first place. I just hope that major Japanese publishers take a look at this simple indie game and see how perfectly crafted it is especially from a gameplay perspective. It may not be a Japanese RPG renaissance, but it is a great return to form that demands to be played. At its price, how could anybody resist?