Breath of Fire IV is practically intoxicating with its greatness. The game itself is… well, not precisely fun, really. By all accounts it’s a somewhat-better-than-middling RPG. But the sound and visual quality is so mesmerizing that the whole experience is improved. There are only a few games in the world I can really say that about, and BoF4 might be only one of two or three RPGs.
That said, there are areas of game design that don’t often come up in reviews and discussion. Little intangible things which, though not worth anything on their own, can add up over time to affect the overall experience. These are things usually described as “annoying, but not a dealbreaker”. Or, in the case of a negative review, “good, but not enough to save the game”.
Condiments. Bells and whistles. BoF4 has one that’s worth pointing out.
The world of BoF4 is built out of isometric blocks. Hold on, let me go get an example…
(You have to see the sprites in animation to get the full effect of how amazingly detailed they are. Until then, take my word for it.)
Anyway, as I was saying: the world is built of isometric blocks. The blocks aren’t exactly tiles, though, as in an SNES game; you can’t really tell by looking at the ground how the grid is laid out. Nonetheless, pressing the d-pad towards any of the four corners causes the hero to take one precise step in that direction.
However, the game offers 8-directional movement. You can move towards the edges of the screen, as well as the corners. In fact, in the default position, it’s much easier to do so. So in addition to walking along the grid one block at a time, you can also walk across it, 1.41 blocks at a time.
(We all remember the Pythagorean theorem, right?)
Sideways steps cause a rather notable problem: since the hero is moving a greater distance when walking side-to-side, the game has to pick either speeding the hero up for that one step, or making that one step take more time. Neither option is very good, as they each break the illusion of fluid movement. Either your character is constantly “shifting gears” as he motors around the map, flipping between two constant speeds… or the sprite animation doesn’t precisely match up with the number of steps he takes. It’s difficult to animate for 1.41 steps.
BoF4 uses the “shifting gears” method; the hero moves at roughly 141% speed when moving side to side. The effect is very jarring, and lasts for the entire game. For whatever reason, I don’t remember BoF3 having this problem; so either it didn’t, or it wasn’t as pronounced. (I think the hero in BoF4 moves faster in general; that might be the problem.)
The issue isn’t unique to BoF4. Fire up whatever copy of Final Fantasy VI you have handy, and try walking up some stairs. You’ll notice the character moves up and down the stairs much faster than they actually walk across the map. This isn’t because all the stairs in FF6 are escalators; it’s because moving diagonally through a square-tiled map is, by necessity, faster. Of course, the issue isn’t as prevalent in FF6 because stairs only exist in a few locations. You can’t cross an entire map at an angle.
Now, does this ruin the BoF4 experience? Assuredly not. The game is still really good. But navigating the map is a lot jankier than it needed to be, and it’s not because of the map design or the play control. Just an intangible thing, one of hundreds, floating on top of the rest of the game experience.
What weird intangibles have you noticed in the games you’ve played lately?