Your God is called what?: Breath of Fire II and Religion
If I had one sentimental favorite RPG, it would be Breath of Fire II. Fortunately, I have several, but Breath of Fire II holds a special place in my heart, first for its retro aesthetic and second for its understated story about religion.
(This is an article full of spoilers. But let’s face it: you’re probably not chomping at the bit to play Breath of Fire II.)
I grew up in a religious household. My mother works for the Catholic parish I grew up in, and when I was a boy I bought entirely into Catholic theology. I was an altar boy. I went to Catholic school for thirteen years, from preschool up until my last year of high school. Somewhere in there, in 2002, I stopped believing in the theology.
Subconsciously, I like to attribute that to Breath of Fire II, however sad that sounds. It follows in the grand Japanese tradition of evil, monolithic churches. In the second town of the game, a minion of said church not only makes you fight “with a girl” (much more impressive as a motivator in the mid nineties, and a trope subverted by the game itself) but wants you to kill her “for his god”. He’s running a crooked gladiator ring because his god enjoys watching people suffer.
You know, it’s heavy handed like that. Later, when you gain the ability to sail about the world map (on the back of a whale; it’s a whimsical game), you see a massive, oppressive black structure on a horrible high mountain and yep, that’s this evil church’s equivalent of the Vatican. When you finally go there with a rebel group intent on destroying the religion, evil church’s pope executes the rebel’s leader in some sort of horrible black mass. Eventually their god, the awkwardly named Deathevn, becomes the final boss, and you wonder how the entire game’s game world could worship something called “Deathevn”.
I mean, it’s kind of like if Christians worshiped “BabyKilr”. Kind of awkward, and not just from the spelling.
There is, however, one slightly drawn character, one redeemable character in a church full of wackos. Early in the game, in the same town as the gladiator, you meet Ray, a former orphan just like you and priest of St. Eva (apparently “Deathevn” is short for “Deathevan” and that shortens to “St. Eva”). A little later on, you meet Ray and you help him save a bunch of people trapped down a well with giant beetle like monsters. In a game where religion is increasingly the enemy, Ray is seen as a friend, a genuinely good guy who teaches any member of your party a revive spell after you help him save villagers.
Of course it’s not an overly complex portrayal, but it had a profound impact on me. Here was a good man operating within a corrupt system. He wasn’t the only one, too: while you often saved at Dragon God statues (worshiping the old god of the original Breath of Fire), you also could save at various St. Eva churches; you could also cure various status ailments there. While I don’t know if it was intentional, what it does is it presents a nuanced view of religion: the people involved aren’t bad, just the (literal, skull encrusted) monsters in charge.
This is pounded home later in the game, when Ray becomes a boss. You see, he was taken in by the head honcho of the religion and brainwashed as a child – while his overall good nature makes him a good guy, when you lead an assault on the church towards the end of the game Ray is forced to fight you. Turns out he’s a dragon, just like you (classical JRPGs could sure be heavy handed), and he helps reveal your true power.
It’s a fascinating arc for a game from the early nineties, by many accounts a throwaway title. Here’s this character who almost completely mirrors your evolution: he’s an orphan, and he’s also a dragon. He’s you, except placed into a different setting by chance. Hell, his name is only one letter off from your default name, Ryu. You can see yourself in him, and he, in the end, sees himself in you, too. It’s only through your descent into crime, through the power of friendship that you avoid being on the other side of this battle between good and evil.
It’s a view that profoundly affected me. I could see myself in this character Ray: someone who, through no fault of his own, ended up in a religious family, indoctrinated into something they didn’t fully understand or even agree with. I imagine it’s a character a lot of people could empathize with, whose blanks they could fill in without even trying. Here’s a guy who represents the best and the worst of religion, in one breath: he was a fantastic, kind individual, but one who was, at his core, utterly destructive, utterly ruined and ultimately destroyed by this adherence to a wretched god forced upon him by another person.
I can’t say Breath of Fire II changed how I think about religion, but it was definitely in the back of my mind, a kind of formative experience that to me has stood the test of time. Going back and replaying it it hasn’t aged gracefully, but it’s a game I love because of the things it showed me about myself and the character of Ray that resonated with me, specifically.