Breath of Fire as a series has always had a dedicated following for its traditional yet imaginative design, but unfortunately that never really translated into raw sales. Developers for the series have even gone on record as saying that while they enjoyed making the games and they've almost always gotten a positive reception, they've also never really been profitable for Capcom; hence why the franchise has been virtually unheard of since the turn of the millennium. Probably the closest it ever came to mainstream success was in the Playstation era, where it was among many RPGs to ride the genre's newfound wave of popularity kickstarted by Final Fantasy VII.
Sure enough, Breath of Fire III's first outing on the system really strove to set itself apart from its 16-bit counterparts in a number of ways. While still set in the same world as the first two games and retaining many of its key themes, the game saw a definite visual upgrade, utilizing an isometric perspective with 2D sprites on 3D-rendered backgrounds. Surprisingly, it also did not utilize a separate "combat screen", instead having the map screen shift slightly with all of the players' characters and enemies becoming visible on the map itself, making the game feel a bit more realistic and immersive. It did of course play a bit more slowly than the first two games, with noticeable loading times for many special moves and transitions to and from combat, but it's far from the worst example of such I've seen in this era of gaming.
Breath of Fire always sold itself on having a distinct and memorable cast of characters and abilities thereof, and 3 certainly is no different there. Each character has their own ability that are used in various puzzles and opening hidden paths. Rei can pick open locks, for example, while Garr, being by far the largest character, can push heavy objects the others cannot. Each also plays very differently in combat, getting a variety of spells and vastly different stats; for example, Momo has a powerful bazooka weapon, but it tends to miss a lot, so equipping her with items to boost her accuracy is generally a good idea. Rei is speedy but not particularly strong, while Ryu is a well-balanced character physically but has relatively low MP. Throughout the game, one can offset many of these weaknesses (or accent a character's strengths) by training under a Master. Masters are found throughout the game and will influence your characters' stats as they level up, and can even grant some extra abilities they wouldn't learn normally.
Another interesting addition are "Skills". Essentially, these work like blue magic or Enemy Skills in the Final Fantasy series, allowing you to learn moves when you're hit by them while using the Defend command. Also like blue magic, many of these skills are built on specific stipulations like dealing more damage to specific enemy types or having extra effects based on the user's stats (such as having damage based on the Agility stat, rather than Strength). A lot of these end up being surprisingly useful, so it's worth it to feel out what new enemy types can do (and take the occasional turn to defend so that you can attempt to learn their skills for yourself) rather than mindlessly blasting through everything in your path.
Another iconic element of the series - Ryu's dragon morphs - returns as well, and like many other things in the game, it has seen a substantial overhaul and puts emphasis on player customization (perhaps an apology for the very watered-down version from Breath of Fire 2). Throughout the game, one will find a plethora of "Dragon Genes". Up to three of these can be mixed and matched when the Morph command is used, and the result will be a dragon with the properties of all three. Some affect stats, generally raising some while lowering others, while some change the dragon's elemental property to one of the five elements in the game (Fire, Ice, Electricity, Shadow, Light). Certain combinations will also unlock larger and more powerful forms that get big-time stat multipliers, so it's well worth it to experiment with combinations of genes throughout the game. Interestingly, one gene in particular (the Fusion gene) even retains some elements of the Fusion mechanic from the first Breath of Fire, allowing Ryu to combine with one or more party members to create a powerful new hybrid form. This definitely ends up being one of the game's most interesting mechanics due to the sheer number of forms you can create, and as mentioned, it's a massive improvement over the first game and especially the second's dragon mechanics.
Of course, Breath of Fire III also doesn't skimp on side-content. A small management sim exists in the game in the form the Faerie Village, where the player can assign tasks to faeries in order to influence the growth of their town, unlocking benefits like shops that stock rare items, minigames and a sound test. Fishing returns as well, letting the player catch fish that have a number of different effects, as well as tracking the largest of any given type they've caught. Saving outside of towns is now possible too via the "Camp" option, which opens up a screen allowing the player to interact with party members and rest at their leisure.
Breath of Fire III is considered the best in the series by a lot of fans, and it isn't hard to see why. It really did bring the series into a new console generation in style, keeping its interesting mechanics, characters and overall setting intact while making significant leaps forward in design. Being able to customize one's party via Masters, Skill learning and a huge pool of Dragon morphs keeps the gameplay fresh, while its strong story and a plethora of hidden secrets and optional content ensure that it never just feels like a mindless monster-slaying simulator. It was one of many RPG franchises playing second fiddle to the juggernaut that was Square, but that didn't stop Breath of Fire III from being a great example of the genre of for the platform. Or being the only game in the series to get a port to the PSP platform years later.
Publisher: Capcom, Infogrames
Platform: Playstation 1, Playstation Portable, PSN
Released: 1998, 2006, 2016
Recommended Version: As usual, the PSN port is a direct emulation of the PS1 game. The PSP port is also quite good, though it features significantly longer load times than the PS1 game. You may be better off just downloading the PSN version to a Vita and playing it on there instead.
Tags: JRPG, Fantasy, Customizable Characters, Turn-Based, Random Encounters, Combat Minigames, Optional Minigames, No Saving in Dungeons, Long Campaign, Great Music, Humorous