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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Just Breed

A relatively late addition to the Famicom's RPG lineup, Just Breed is a surprisingly large one as well, with large-scale battles pitting dozens of characters against one another and some surprisingly advanced visuals and music for the platform.  But does it all add up to an overlooked gem for the system, or does it climb too high for its own good?

Developed by the obscure Japanese studio Random House (not to be confused with the similarly named book publisher), Just Breed is a game that famously spent over three years in development at a time when such things were rare, as a result saw a relatively late release on the Famicom in 1992.  As a result of that, as well as its surprising size (6 Mb!) and utilizing extra sound capabilities the Famicom supported but its western counterparts didn't, it was never released outside of Japan, making it a relatively obscure RPG the platform.

On a technical level, Just Breed was also a cut above most RPGs on the platform.  A tactical turn-based experience to rival games like Fire Emblem or Shining Force, Just Breed carved out its own niche by having detailed graphics with surprisingly little sprite flicker thanks to using the MMC5 chip.  The extra audio channel available on the Famicom is also put to good use, delivering a rich and quite beautiful soundtrack that only adds to the game's impressive presentation.

Just Breed's gameplay is a downright impressive in scale, based around sprawling battles with dozens of units duking it out on both sides.  Each of the main characters is accompanied by up to five units (a mage and varying combinations of fighters and archers), and each squad levels up as a group, so it definitely feels like you're commanding large army-versus-army battles and not just a small ragtag band of characters as in most JRPGs.  It has a few quirks, though - the main characters (who lead each unit) must take their action before any of their underlings can, all characters in a unit have to move before another unit can, and all units have to stay relatively close to their general (within the same screen), so traversing maps can be somewhat slow, which isn't helped by an abundance of narrow corridors and bridges you get to squeeze your entire squads through one at a time.  Not to mention a lot of side-paths and dead ends with enemy spawners you'll have to split off and close so you don't get flanked later.  In addition, if a general falls in battle all of the units under their command will retreat, so keeping tabs on them, limiting their exposure to monsters and healing as necessary is definitely important.

Another quirk is the unusual ranges of many of your weapons and spells.  For example, many bows and basic spells only shoot in a straight line, which can make it difficult to get your archers in position when they have to jockey for space with dozens of other units.  However, boomerangs can attack diagonally (or indeed, anywhere within their specified range), and some spells have frankly enormous ranges, with your basic healing spell able to heal anyone on the screen and an advanced spell that heals every unit on the screen.  Even some late game weapons get pretty silly, like a sword that hits all enemies in a one-space radius of its wielder, one that hits all enemies in a 3-space wide straight line to the edge of the screen, or even one that hits all enemies on the screen period.  A bit silly, but they all arrive at a time when you're commanding an army of 24 to 30 characters at the same time and battling even larger enemy forces, so they do help prevent battles from becoming too drawn-out.  Having a shortcut in the B button, which automatically moves the cursor to any units that haven't acted yet that turn, definitely helps as well.  Interestingly your inventory of items is also shared between your entire army without restrictions, so you can just pull out a potion at any time for some quick healing if necessary.

Battles in the game are already fairly long, but it gets especially noticeable in battles with monster dens - these are spaces that spawn enemies every turn (including some quite powerful ones like Skeletons) until you move a unit next to them and shut them down.  They get quite numerous on some maps and ignoring them for any length of time can quickly get you overwhelmed, and even better still, they're often placed in inconvenient out-of-the-way places.  Nevertheless, its often a good idea to shut them down as quickly as possible even if you have to split your forces.  They do continue to give XP as you kill monsters though, so they can be handy for leveling up/gold farming so long as you don't get overwhelmed (though I almost never had to actively grind in the game).

Just Breed is an ambitious, surprisingly large and fun strategy RPG that pushes the Famicom hardware to its limits, but that also comes with its own downsides in that its battles tend to get quite long and tedious, particularly toward the middle of the game.  But even with some pacing issues and clunky mechanics, it's a game that's well worth a look for fans of retro RPGs; give it a go if you have the means.

Developer: Random House
Publisher: Enix
Released: 1992
Platforms: Famicom
Recommended Version: N/A