Breath of Fire may not be the most talked-about RPG franchise ever, but it's one I've always had an admiration for since I discovered it in the 90s. The games were well-designed and fun, with very imaginative character designs and worlds to explore, some nice writing and humor, and gameplay elements that were surprisingly unique for their time (though still built on a traditional turn-based JRPG format). Capcom brought their best effort to everything they did in the mid-to-late '90s, and the end result was a fun and captivating series that never quite got its due; even developers who have worked on the games have said that while they enjoyed making them and they were well-received by those who played them, they unfortunately never made it big in raw sales. So with that in mind, I'm going to give Breath of Fire some much-needed recognition; let's look at all five games in the franchise and give them each a ranking.
Breath of Fire (1994)
The first Breath of Fire was actually localized by Square, with translation duties handled by Ted Woolsey, and they did a good job with it. It has the same problem as a lot of RPGs of the time did - very limited namespace resulted in all item names being crushed down to six letters, so you saw things like MRBL1, MRBL3 and NiceHT in the menus; fortunately, each also has a description one can bring up to explain exactly what it is, so this spares confusion. It has quite a large cast of playable characters, too; in addition to series mainstays Ryu of the Dragon Clan and the winged Nina, you get Bo the wolf archer, Mogu the mole, Ox the bull-man, Gobi the fish-man, Karn the thief and Bleu the sorceress, and each has some unique abilities both in battle and out, lending a lot of variety and treasure-hunting to the experience. You can hunt and fish on the map to earn extra items, some of which are quite useful. Characters and enemies alike have large, detailed and well-animated sprites, and Capcom's musical talent shines through, creating a quite epic RPG soundtrack. It's certainly not the most balanced game ever; early on you can infinitely spam the Earth Key to deal damage to all enemies, and late-game fusion magic combines multiple party members together into one massive juggernaut that has the combined total of all of their stats, which is rather hilariously overpowered. The final boss is also an anticlimactic one, mostly just consisting of spamming a max-damage attack over and over until you win. Still, it's a fun journey with some vivid imagination and sense of humor, plenty of hidden secrets and a generally epic feel, and a damn fine 16-bit RPG to boot. It might be a controversial call to some, but I'm giving it an A.
Breath of Fire II (1996)
The followup to the first Breath of Fire, which definitely went for a darker tone and, as much Japanese media of the time was apt to do, depict organized religion as something vastly sinister. It comes across as a bit corny here, though, especially as it's handled with all the subtlety of a brick to the face; the villains and their schemes are cartoonishly evil and its dialog is unsubtle and heavy-handed to the point of being comical. The gameplay also feels much less well-refined this time around; most magic and character-specific skills are totally worthless, Ryu's dragon forms are now just turned into one-shot spells that take all of your MP for a heavy attack, and few other characters really have any noteworthy abilities at all. The graphics feel flatter and lack much of the life of the original, and animations in general are a lot less impressive. Character fusion from the original is gone in favor of fusing with six elemental shamans that transform characters into new forms; some of these are pretty cool looking and have surprisingly powerful abilities, but you inexplicably lose them if that character drops to critical HP, requiring you to backtrack and fuse them again. It's also a lot more grindy than the original game, particularly near the end where you have to stop and power up for several hours before you stand a chance in the final dungeon. The translation is also one of the worst I've ever seen in any game; it isn't too bad at the beginning, but by the midpoint it's a barely-decipherable mishmash and the plot becomes almost impossible to follow.
I've been ragging on this one a lot, but I will say that despite all its problems, it's not terrible. Breath of Fire II still has some legitimately great elements - the introduction to the game is incredible, setting up a good mystery and punctuating it with an epic opening scroll that still gives me chills every time I watch it. Some of the story beats are still very imaginative, too - I especially like the small town that slowly gets upgraded over the course of the game into a flying fortress. The music is high quality Capcom fare, and it may not have the same feel as the first game's, but it still conveys the mood of a grand adventure and the combat themes are driving and intense (and more than a bit reminiscent of Mega Man X). On the whole, though, this one just feels like it was rushed to get it out the door before the SNES was retired; the balance and variety simply isn't there and it has a severe lack of polish in comparison to the original. BoF2 is still a game worth playing, but I definitely consider it the weakest of the series. I'll give it a C.
(Oh, and if you're going to play it, do yourself a big favor and get the fan retranslation patch!)
Breath of Fire III (1998)
The era of JRPGs was in full swing by 1998, and anyone who hoped to compete had to bring their A-game to even have a shot at being noticed. Capcom certainly made the attempt with Breath of Fire III, bringing a number of new mechanics to the table and an impressive isometric visual style that combined 3D environments with detailed and well animated 2D sprites (the opposite of games like Final Fantasy VII and even their own Resident Evil franchise). The cast of characters is great as ever, and owing to a time skip partway through, they go from kids to adults and gain a bold new look and a big leap in power. The lackluster dragon spells from 2 are thrown out entirely in favor of letting you mix-and-match genes to determine elemental affinity, stat focus and other factors, with certain combinations unlocking powerful new forms. All characters now benefit from the ability to learn certain skills from enemies by blocking their attacks, bringing a bit of Final Fantasy 5 into the mix. The hunting and fishing minigames are greatly expanded, and a new game-spanning quest involves building up a village of fairies, giving the player access to some very useful resources. One is also afforded some ability to shape their characters' growth via the Masters system, letting them apprentice themselves to a master to earn skills and stats as their level increases, so there's a lot more going on in terms of gameplay than 2. However, it's not perfect - the game's pacing is rather slow, with an irritating encounter rate, frequent load times and animations taking a good while to play out. It also takes a good while for the story to pick up steam, which leads to a lot of the early game feeling rather drawn out and tedious. The isometric view definitely takes some getting used to, especially it's frequently used to conceal objects you wouldn't know are there unless you constantly stop to check all the blind spots. Still, the third Breath of Fire is a good game; much better than 2 but not quite on the level of the original. The good outweighs the bad, though, and it still manages to hold its own even among the tough competition the PS1 had to offer, which was no easy feat. I'm giving it a B.
Breath of Fire IV (2000)
The first Breath of Fire to take place in an entirely different continuity from the first three. It proves to be a masterful reinvention of the series, though, keeping what worked about the older games while pushing its narrative and design to new heights. IV's story is an enthralling ride, with a lot of memorable and expressive characters, well-realized environments, some great twists and a surprisingly bleak tone even by the standards of the franchise. The game's presentation is fantastic - they've taken the isometric design of 3 and vastly improved upon it, with much fewer visible loading seams and some amazingly good combat sprites and animations. I personally think they're on par with anything Final Fantasy managed to do in 3D; they're that good, and really something to behold on a platform that mostly ignored 2D visuals in favor of pushing the limits of its 3D hardware. The gameplay brings back a lot of familiar beats from 3, including some of its prominent side-quests and minigames, learning enemy skills and the Master system, but dungeons have a new flair too. Each character now has a "field skill" that can be used to clear certain obstacles, adding a bit of puzzle solving to the proceedings. Combat has some change-ups too, with the player able to switch party members in and out on the fly and inactive characters slowly regenerating HP and AP (similar to the Marvel VS Capcom series of games). One very cool new twist is the ability to combine certain spells and skills together to create Combos, which deal more damage or have greater effects than their components. While not as prominent a mechanic as it was in, say, Chrono Trigger or Phantasy Star IV, it nevertheless proves to add another layer to battles. Basically, BoFIV takes what worked about the older games and improved upon it while doing much to set itself apart too, and one could easily make a case that its the best entry in the entire series. A criminally overlooked game if ever there was one, Breath of Fire IV gets an A.
Breath of Fire IV: Dragon Quarter (2003)
Like Breath of Fire IV, Dragon Quarter is another game that takes place within its own continuity. Unlike IV, however, it threw out almost every familiar element of the franchise in favor of something completely new. While the familiar staples of Ryu and Nina are still in it (though heavily reimagined), the backdrop is changed up to more of a dystopian science fiction setting and the gameplay is drastically reworked into a mashup of turn-based strategy, survival horror and roguelike elements. Basically, what you do outside of combat is just as important as what you do in - you set up traps to lure enemies away or set up a sneak attack, or toss bombs to deal damage or status effects before the fight starts. Once you're in battle, though, your goal is to take out enemies as quickly as possible, giving them as little opportunity to attack as you can (mostly because healing is expensive and save tokens even moreso). Fortunately, you have plenty of tools to do this - Nina sets up traps, Lin can push enemies further away or pull them in closer, and Ryu can mop up whatever's left with melee attacks. Bosses are virtually impossible before you've played through the game several times, though you get something of an equalizer in Ryu's dragon powers, letting him deal enough damage to make very quick work of them. It is important to use them sparingly, though, as utilizing any of them boosts his D-Counter, and if it hits 100% at any point, the game immediately ends. A very unusual game and a stark departure from its predecessors, but surprisingly fun and rewarding once you've adapted to its style. It may not be the most highly-regarded Breath of Fire by most fans, but it's an interesting and mostly successful experiment that's worth playing, especially because you can still get it at a very affordable price. I'll give it a B.