It is a rare occurrence in today’s gaming scene to find someone who truly enjoys the ways of the old RPG simply for the gameplay aspects. It is rarer, still, to see an RPG released with the old characteristics of classic RPGs: level grinds, random battles, labyrinthine dungeons, and slow turn-based battle systems. Newer games in the genre have distanced themselves from the age of the classic Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, adding in real-time action based battle systems, scaling monsters to the player’s party level, or even holding the player’s hand throughout quests with a nice “to-do” list and compass pointing to quest objectives. With these standards in mind, Zeboyd Games’ Breath of Death VII: the Beginning will appear archaic to newer RPG fans.
At first glance, Breath of Death VII is almost indiscernible from the early entries in the Dragon Quest franchise. The 8-bit sprite party members are all displayed on-screen, all battles occur on black backgrounds in a first-person perspective, area tile sets and monster sprites are reused throughout the game, and actions in battle lack any kind of animation. While it definitely looks like an old-school RPG, the game does bring some interesting additions to the genre. Upon starting the game, the player is able to choose the difficulty they wish to play on, allowing novices and seasoned gamers alike to enjoy the game. Each area contains a limited number of random battles, and the battles themselves utilize a simple but interesting combo system to power up various attacks. Characters earn level-ups surprisingly fast, and each new level grants an opportunity to choose one of two upgrades for each character, ranging from new attacks to passive status enhancements.
Unlike old RPGs, Breath of Death VII does not throw wave after wave of random monsters at the player, expecting them to have a pouch full of potions and ethers to keep the party alive. Rather, after every battle, the party has their HP completely healed and their MP refilled based on the amount of turns spent in battle. Random battles can prove as difficult as an average RPG boss fight, requiring the player to use each character’s special techniques to their fullest ability. As another added difficulty, the enemy party is given a large boost to their strength after every round of attacks. Because of this, the automatic restoration of your party after every fight is crucial to the battle system; without it, the amount of restorative items needed during even the earliest of dungeons would be ridiculous, and would cause players to feel as if money and level grinding was required to clear the game.
Along with the constant after-battle heals, the party is given additional in-battle help in the form of combo and unity attacks. Unity attacks, similar to Chrono Trigger‘s cooperative techniques, require two or more party members in order to perform a powerful attack or cast beneficial magic. The combo system is a unique new addition to the classic turn-based battle system, where each hit landed by a player character increases the combo count, and the value of the combo count then increases the effectiveness of abilities with the “Combo Boost” trait. However, abilities with the “Combo Break” trait will reset the combo count. This system gives the player more options to juggle in battle, possibly causing them to favor a weak multiple-hit attack, or forego a Heal spell (which bears the “Combo Break” trait) in order to strengthen a “Combo Boost” attack.
Despite all of the assistance the party receives in battle, the genre’s necessary evil, monster grinding, still manages to sneak itself into the game. But like the combat system, Zeboyd Games goes about random battles in an interesting way. Instead of endless random battles, each dungeon has a limit to the amount of enemies the party may encounter. This number usually ranges from twenty to forty battles, depending on the length of the dungeon, and the player may view the remaining battles at any time using the pause screen. In the event a player finds a dungeon too difficult to hack and slash their way through, they may instead sit at the dungeon entrance, or near an MP restoring save point, and repeatedly select the “Fight” command form the pause menu to force a random battle, and steadily reduce the amount of monsters in the area, saving and completely healing after every fight. While this is, at the most basic level, level grinding no different than any other RPG, once the dungeon is cleared of its monsters, the player may freely explore, without any interruption from random encounters. If the player decides to skip this simple method of depopulating a dungeon, the battles encountered through normal dungeon crawling will be only slightly less than the amount needed to clear the dungeon of monsters, making this a faster, but more dangerous method to reach the boss.
Level-ups occur frequently, and it is not uncommon to earn three to four levels from a single boss fight. Unlike most games which use conventional leveling systems, when a character reaches a new level, the player does not have a list of status increases shoved in their face, instead, they must choose between “LVL-UP A” or “LVL-UP B.” These serve as upgrades for characters, and include new combat abilities, enhancement to old abilities, and simple status increases. The set of choices at each level always remain distinctly different, but each option may appear equally useful. For example, one party member is given the the option of removing the “Combo Break” characteristic from the Heal spell in lieu of giving Heal the ability to affect the entire party at once. The bulk of the ability upgrades are usually split between techniques useful against single targets, like bosses, and techniques useful against large parties of monsters. The status upgrades are split in a similar fashion between increases in magic-based parameters and physical-based parameters.
A single play through of Breath of Death takes around four hours, excluding time spent repeating sections due to game overs, but the short time spent on the game is highly enjoyable. The story, from the very first line of the opening cinematic, is a massive parody of the RPG genre as a whole, featuring references from a slew of different popular games, mockeries of party relationship and love systems, and references to the “RPG making code.” Talking to NPCs upon reaching a new town not only helps the player figure out the location of the next dungeon, but also brings in a new wave of jokes; the party members even remark about the short length of the game, complaining that the price tag of three dollars is too high for the little content the game has. Thankfully, none of these jokes ever go into the realm of the internet memes. There are no lolcats, no cakes, nothing over nine-thousand, and no one in the world of Breath of Death takes part in “The Game.”
The bulk of the fun gameplay lies in the boss fights, which at times can prove to be more of a matter of luck than strategy, but provides a sense of accomplishment all the same. The increase in difficulty of the random battles from area to area can make prolonged play an absolute chore, especially if players employ the area clearing strategy discussed earlier in this review. The level up system does make hunting for experience points a little more fun, but some upgrades feel absolutely useless, and it is entirely possible for a player to screw themselves over with a few bad upgrade choices. These flaws are easily forgiven when the price tag is taken into consideration, though; Breath of Death costs only $2.99, and for that price includes Zeboyd Games’ very similar title, Cthulhu Saves the World.