Breath of Death breathes new life into classic RPGs

Review of Breath of Death VII on XBLIG: Buy
This parody of classic 8-bit RPGs is true to the original style while bringing innovation to the genre.

In the interest of full disclosure, Breath of Death VII has been at the top of my must-play list of XBox Live Indie Games since the first day I saw it on the service. Being an RPG, I knew I needed to set aside a large block of free time, which is why I didn’t jump on it immediately. The Come Play With Us trailer was my excuse.  Consider yourself fully briefed on my objectivity.

Breath of Death drew me in because it appeared to be a spiritual successor to the old 8-bit RPG classics, such as Dragon Warrior (before it was called “Dragon Quest”) and Final Fantasy (before FF7 screwed up its formula with sci-fi and whiny emo kids).  The art emulates Akira Toriyama’s style from Chrono Trigger (arguably the best console RPG of all time), and is polished while not being a direct rip-off.  Based on its appearances, I suspected Breath of Death was writing a check it couldn’t cash—it could just as easily have been a shoddy parody with little substance.

Playing the game proved that Breath of Death is indeed faithful to its roots.  All of the original graphics, sound, and music feel like they were lifted from a Square or Enix game from the 1980’s.  There are moments when I almost forgot this was a parody from 2010.  Gameplay feels like a more refined version of the original Dragon Warrior. Combat mechanics are deep and even introduce a few significant improvements to the classic RPG formula, although a few secondary features don’t feel fully implemented.  Characters’ tech trees offer a wide array of character builds, and force strategic decisions about how characters will specialize.  Maps offer many twists and turns, as well as rewards for exploration in the form of treasure and gold.  The game itself is difficult in places, but doesn’t require too much grinding to complete.   

The story and dialogue are where the game shine.  The plot is a reversal of the typical RPG tropes: humans are wiped out in the aftermath of a world war, leaving only undead.  Dem the skeleton must join forces with Sara the ghost, Lita the vampire, and Erik the zombie to explore (and perhaps save) this odd world.  The script is filled with references to other classic games—Chrono Trigger, Earthbound, Mega Man, and The Legend of Zelda among others.  It’s not particularly deep or long, but it is clever and polished.

Surprisingly, this game innovates on some concepts that have been otherwise left behind by more modern RPGs.  The combo system adds a bit of strategy to the old “attack, magic, or item” choices.  Most attacks add to the combo meter, which can be used to pump up certain Combo Boost abilities, while others (such as heal spells) will reset the meter.  The random encounter system is the cleanest and most unobtrusive I’ve ever seen.  Each map has a certain number of encounters; after this number is reached, random encounters on that map stop.  The game also features a Fight menu command that triggers an immediate encounter, which helps in leveling up.

However, there are a few omissions from the standard RPG formula.  There’s not much of an inventory system.  Potions are the only non-equipment items that can be collected and are only found in chests.  Weapons and armor can’t be sold back to dealers.  MP (Magic Points) are the only resource that requires management—all characters’ HP (Hit Points) are refilled after every battle.  These missing features actually make the game more streamlined and playable, but as a fan of classic RPGs, I had to get used to their absence.  Without them, the game initially felt a bit hollow.

At 80 points, Breath of Death is a Buy.  I can’t say enough about how good it is—both from its nostalgic qualities and the fact that it’s a polished game in its own right.  The game is really a steal for that price—there are several hours of gameplay plus Hard and Score Modes for extra replay value.

Zeboyd Games’ next title, Cthulhu Saves the World, is another parody/homage RPG, and I’m interested to see how that game builds on Breath of Death’s foundation.  These games prove that classic RPGs are a viable genre on XBox Live Indie Games, and they set the standard to which future XBLIG RPGs should aspire.

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