From the moment you watch the opening cutscene, it is clear that this is a game about other games, from the super-condensed setup that starts “In the year 20xx”, incorporates a “War never changes”, concludes that all of humanity has been wiped out and now the undead have taken their place, and dumps you into the shoes of the mighty hero, Dem the skeleton.The games it is most frequently about are those 8-bit JRPGs that the internet loves and I have never played (unless Pokémon counts?). Many great RPGs have benefitted from a dash of comedy, of course, but that tends to work because it lightens the tone of an otherwise grim adventure. Breath of Death approaches from the other side – comedy first, game later. It does well to avoid becoming overly obsessed with what it is parodying, too, the humour is applied liberally and with a broad brush. As more or less a newcomer to this type of game, I didn’t feel like I was missing out, or hear the woosh of jokes flying over my head.
You lead your gang of misfits around a tile-based world map, occasionally transitioning from there to towns and dungeons and lots of dungeons, and sometimes more dungeons. Combat, with the exception of boss battles, is random, wander around an area and you will be assailed by groups of monsters, which you must then fight in a turn-based select-attack fashion. Now, obviously, random combat is the worst thing in the entire world, but Breath of Death makes at least some attempt to improve them. Fights are designed not to drag on and on. You get greater rewards for finishing a fight quickly, and enemy attacks get more powerful each turn (by 10%), and there is a combo system. Every time you hit an enemy, you add one to your combo counter, every time you use a heal skill, you reset the counter. But if you use an ability marked “combo boost”, well, you do a hell of a lot more damage if you have combos stacked up.
Fights are certainly quick, but this also theoretically means you actually have decisions to make instead of spamming your best attack. You could do a lot of little attacks quickly then use a combo boosting deathblow, or you could play it safe, healing every turn and relying on your defence to see you through. I say theoretically because, with the exception of a few challenging bossfights, this doesn’t really happen. On the whole, you can just spam your default attack button and win against nearly all of the baddies you’ll face. Because there’s no level cap, and no efforts to match the level your characters are at, and because you can start fights whenever you want, it’s incredibly easy to just run on the levelling treadmill for a few minutes and emerge significantly stronger than the guys you are facing. Which is a shame.
There’s a lot of little things that the game does do well and I want to particularly praise its level-up system, which fulfils the brief of being simple but adaptable. Every level up (and your whole party will reach level 30+ by the end of the game) gives a choice between option A and option B. One might be a new skill or spell, the other might be a stat buff. You can’t go back and pick the things you didn’t choose, so your characters diversify in the way you want to use them, without the rigamarole of effectively applying tons of character points yourself in a short space of time. The skills and spells and techniques are varied enough that there isn’t just one or even just five ways to fight, and there are also Unite abilities which take two players to use but can be particularly effective.
The game does an admirable job of taking the piss out of RPGs without being bitter or overly sarcastic. I loved their take on the forced romance options that are in every party-based RPG, Sara the ghost declaring her undying love for your stoic, silent skeleton and him shrugging wearily, unlocking the special ability “True Love”. They even managed to take the piss out of finding loot, with Dem refusing to open a chest inside someone’s house on principle while the rest of the party try and convince him otherwise. At the end of a long side-route that you stumbled onto, a chest beckons. Surely it will contain mighty treasures! Nope, 1 gold. Yes it’s arbitrary, but it’s done lovingly and with a light touch that makes you chuckle rather than roll your eyes.
Problems? Yes, there’s vast chunks of the game where you are doing nothing other than move forward some tiles, random combat, just hit enter about eight times to spam your default attacks, and move on, random combat, spam enter, ugh. Fortunately it’s short enough that this doesn’t drag you down entirely but it is very very boring, particularly at the start of the game when you only have the two characters and no idea why you paid good money for this dungeon crawling shit-em-up. But it is quick to play and there are still challenges for the unfulfilled, ones that reward not powerlevelling, though I don’t know if I could face them.
As with V^6, this is simple, enjoyable and replayable, well worth a go for a couple of pounds.
3 stars, 6 hours spent.
One more thing, though, the fight music is amazing. I could listen to this all day.