When I started playing Breath of Death VII, I didn’t think much of it. It was an oddball RPG, and in many respects it was exactly what I expected it to be when I bought the game on Steam. Old school generic JRPG-style gameplay with tongue-in-cheek meta-humor about actual old school generic JRPGs.
During the first few hours or so, I still wasn’t exactly sure as to what my opinion of Breath of Death was. The thing with meta is that it can backfire very hard, very fast. It’s something that needs to be earned. Being incredibly self-aware and pointing at the loose threads that tie together in the whole of the finished product only works well if the loose threads are strong enough to hold up to being exploited individually. Meta is an invitation to look at the individual mechanics of the whole construct and judge it. If the construct isn’t strong enough, meta will break it.
So I wasn’t too sure about a game immediately going meta right from the start. There wasn’t a position or camp I could settle myself in at the start, and the amount of meta humor that comes up in the narrative makes it hard for me to really look at the narrative critically.
After a while, like with most RPGs I play, I took a break from Breath of Death to focus on some other things. Not that I decided to take this break or anything, the game kind of slipped from my consciousness for a while. In most cases I come back later on to finish the damn game already.
Coming back to Breath of Death VII was a lot harder than I expected. For the longest time, I just couldn’t play the game. And I’d only taken a break of a week or so. How the hell could I forget so much about such a simple concept that fast?
Oh, right. Meta. That is why.
What sets Breath of Death VII apart from most games going for meta-humor is that the gameplay itself is just as meta as the story. And while the story is as bare-bones as the silent protagonist, the battle system is no joke.
You start every battle at full health. Mana regen depends on how you build your character, but there’s enough ways to ensure you have enough mana for each fight. Every attack you make counts up in a combo count. Certain attacks break your combo, forcing you to you have to start over. Other attacks, finishers, deal more damage depending on how high your combo count is at that point before turning the counter back to 0. Party members die really fast, but return at full health at the start of the battle.
When a character levels up, you get two choices. Sometimes it’s stats, like someone either gets 40 vitality OR 20 MP and 20 Agility. Not an actual example, but just a general example of the stat choices you get to make. Sometimes you get to choose between two different versions of the same ability. One version might stun, the other might deal more damage. One deals way more damage, the other costs way less MP. One deals more damage, the other counts more towards your combo.
You can see how this quickly becomes more and more meta. And the thing with meta in gaming is that this is stuff you forget if you take your mind off of it really fast. It took me a while to relearn the battle system enough to exploit it in my favor again. Which is pretty much a requirement during boss battles. Because keep in mind, even the bosses get the same stat boost every single turn. Take too long to fight them and you pretty much screw yourself over.
Another effect from this kind of gameplay is that almost all of it is under the surface. Meta gameplay is generally the unspoken part that is actively there, but isn’t physically represented in the more traditional forms. It’s the domain of stacked passives, status effects, and multiple effects playing into each other. It’s the knowledge of rules and how to bend, twist, and break them in ways that help you. For a lot of people, it’s the difference that for some people makes it feel like things are getting too calculated and deep, while others feel they can finally go wild with ideas and further self-imposed challenges.
Now that I’ve got a good idea of what the battle system is actually about, I’m genuinely appreciative of Breath of Death VII. It reminds me of The Kingdom of Loathing in ways, another game that references almost anything it can get its hands on while turning very meta, very fast.
Unfortunately, just as I was getting into the way the game worked and was really starting to appreciate it for what it was, Breath of Death ended on me. It’s a really strange short game, and in a way it managed to both exceed my expections and fail them at the same time.