Enix RPGs and me seem to keep missing each other, with my current experience extending only as far as Dragon Quest, Dragon Quest X and, um… oh! Dragon Quest Monsters 2. So while that’s not exactly the most varied gaming diet out there I am trying to correct that, and as it turns out Just Breed is the perfect place to start.
This Famicom exclusive came out in December 1992 - to give you some idea of just how late that is in the console’s lifespan I’ll point out that this was the same year Streets of Rage 2 and Super Mario Kart came out in Japan. Yes, really.
The good news for those of us getting to play the game for the first time all these years later is that although this lateness was bad for sales it does mean the game looks pretty damned good for a title running on hardware from 1983 and the relatively huge 6Mb cart is home to a lot of neat animation, monster portraits, the odd bit of proper kanji (thank the heavens!) and other fripperies that you wouldn’t normally expect to see in this sort of thing. Oh and if the cover art looks familiar it means you’re a wonderful person who remembers 3x3 Eyes, as the character and monster design work for this game was done by Yuzo Takada.
Shame about that strange title though.
In any case, Just Breed will feel familiar to anyone who’s ever played a simpler console-style SRPG (to give a reasonably mainstream example, think Shining Force), and broadly speaking the usual rules apply - you and the enemy take turns to move your soldiers and spellcasters around a grid-based battlefield and do your best to knock seven bells out of each other.
The plot – as far as I’ve played – is pretty standard stuff: Go and rescue your freshly-kidnapped childhood sweetheart from the bad people who happened to show up at your local Sapphire Festival. After a short while you find out that this wasn’t an isolated incident and these mysterious chaps are rounding up the festival maidens from the other towns too! It doesn’t sound like the most unique fantasy RPG plot ever but it is done well; villagers are helpful or pleasantly chatty and so far it’s moving along at a fair clip.
When you do reach a battle the first thing you’ll notice is how worryingly large the maps are - the implication being that there’s a long and very tedious slog in your near future - but you soon find out how surprisingly large your party’s movement and attack ranges are and those worries soon disappear.
One-on-one skirmishes resolve themselves quickly as it is, and if you do find dishing out individual orders just too much trouble there’s an auto command that will take over control any team members within your currently active unit for that turn and have them either attack whatever’s nearby or move close to their leader (rather like Langrisser). As the game progresses your evil-bashing forces expands to up to four separate units of six party members (a leader plus five others), so this can save you from a lot of donkey-work like moving people across the map and mopping up mostly harmless bees. The other main conveniences are the lack of permadeath, sparing you from the wrath of the RNG gods, and a spell called “Strim” learned early on that can warp you to any town you’ve already visited - even if you’re in the middle of battle. This means that no matter how bad things get you’ve always got a fair chance of running off with the XP you earned already and can come back better prepared and a little tougher next time.
It’s not all about whizzing through fights as mindlessly as possible though as even the very early stages display some neat little quirks and clever design – holes that must be shut to prevent further monster spawns, enemies that can attack and then retreat to a safe distance in the same turn, and a sleep spell (for you and the enemy) that just for once actually works and can be used to create a real tactical advantage. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s enough – an SRPG with some actual strategy.
While I may only be a few battles in at this point Just Breed looks like a lavish and well designed SRPG that’ll be worth sitting down and spending some serious time with, a game that retains all the natural charms that come from the Famicom’s technical limitations while simultaneously rising above (most of) them.
If you’d like to try out the game for yourself but aren’t keen on wading through in Japanese you’ll find a complete English translation over here - http://www.romhacking.net/translations/566/