Suikoden is another RPG series I had completely missed out on until recently. Well, that is partially true since I actually bought Suikoden V when that was released, but was gravely disappointed with it and never made it more than a couple of hours in. But eventhough I had tried that game, or maybe because of it, I knew very little about the game series. I guess that game (Suikoden V) also somewhat dampened my interest to know more about it, at least until I had checked out other, more interesting looking series first. That changed some month ago however when I was listening to one of my VGM podcasts and one of the hosts was hailing the Suikoden series, especially the first two and recommended everyone to give it a try. Maybe that was all it took to make me revise my first impression, I like to think that Suikoden had just slipped my mind a bit and this reminder is what I needed to think "you know what? Why not?". So there I was about a month ago, booting up Suikoden and having not the faintest idea what awaited.
I wasn't lying when I said I knew little about the series. I had (and in fact still don't, since I've only finished one game in the series so far) no idea how the games tie in to eachother. Is it like the Final Fantasy series where they merely borrow elements of eachother or more like the Star Ocean series where they're in the same universe? I knew nothing of the gameplay or style of story (although being released in the mid-90s I had a general idea). I was curious and excited to see what was awaiting and hopeful that it would be something that held up more than 20 years after it was first released.
What can I say, other than - yes, it definitely does. What a great game Suikoden is. It has a lot of interesting elements that could've been handled so much worse than they are, instead I found that a lot of my initial fears upon exploring the gameplay were completely removed as I realized the creators seemed to have been actually focused on making the game present itself beautifully.
Firstly, it's a relatively short game. I clocked in at under 17 hours, this is to be compared with for instance Grandia (released 1997) which I am also currently playing where I have more than 30 hours of gametime and no end in sight. The explanation for this is simple however, Suikoden is storywise one of the least confusing jRPGs I have played in a long time. There are just very few timesinks and instead it is efficient. The amount of times I found myself wondering what I needed to do next could be counted on one hand and probably all be attributed to me being distracted or otherwise failing to read easy-to-understand instructions. In this sense you might call the game linear, but oh what a relief that is. Whenever I play RPGs from this time period I dread the amount of time I am going to spend randomly running around the map trying to find the next place to trigger along the story. This happens very rarely in Suikoden as it is heavy on cutscenes moving you ahead - but don't worry, we're not talking MGS heavy. These cutscenes are neat and short and just what you need to keep your interest and to further the story. Far from interrupting, they help build up the characters and your relation with them.
Speaking of characters, there are 108 that you can gather. This was one thing I had some worries about going into the game, as I had read of it prior to playing on the Wikipedia page. I was very curious to see how they could make you care about any character when there were 108 to choose from? And wouldn't that just make everything feel cluttered? There are other games with a big cast, but I can't think of any that even comes close to 108. This turned out to be one thing the game handled without any problem, in fact it turned it into one of the best and most unique elements of the game.
This brings me to the story, which is straightforward and fairly standard. The empire is evil, you must thwart the empire. In fact if I would have anything bad to say about Suikoden it would be that the antagonists are nowhere near fleshed out enough and because of this you never really get the same feeling of success when you finish the game that beating a maniacal bad-guy can do. Rather than being the world-saviour it feels like Suikoden chooses to cast you in a more low-key role, as the commander of a rebel army that sets out to liberate the lands of the empire. This is one of the few jRPGs I've played where the entire world isn't even part of the story - for all I know there are lands on the other side of the planet that don't give a crap about me and my battles. I don't have a problem with that though, I find it kind of endearing whenever you're NOT cast as the planet-saving-hero, especially in these pre-2000 RPGs where that was still a very common theme. And the story on the good-guy-side allows for quite a lot of emotions - I haven't seen this many main characters killed off since Game of Thrones. My only qualms with the story are, like mentioned, that the main antagonist are barely in it. Kefka springs to mind as a good comparison - Suikoden does a lot of things better than Final Fantasy, but this is not one of those things.
|Although maybe a bit over-the-top...|
As the commander of the Liberation Army you get your own fort however, and this is where the 108 characters actually come in handy, believe it or not. Not only does the sheer amount allow you almost endless tinkering with party setups, if that's your cup of tea - a lot of the characters you recruit end up having a practical role in your fort. By recruiting you can make sure you have access to an inn, a blacksmith, a teleporter, an elevator... you name it. I love this idea and it is executed superbly, characters necessary for progression will be recruited to you through the storyline, but I only got some half of all the possible characters so there is so much more to explore. It is a completionists heaven.
But what about the problem with the leveling, you may ask? Surely you would never want to swap party-members, since whomever is left behind needs to be leveled, wasting precious time? Yes, this is another thing I was worried about when I started playing the game, especially since the game will often force characters into your party for story purposes, characters that may well be 40 levels below your main character. But even this Suikoden has solved brilliantly - leveling is extremely dynamic where low level characters will receive a huge amount of experience for high level enemies. This means it will only take you a handful of battles before your low level character is up to date. What the character swapping will have you spend a lot of time with however, is gear swapping. Because characters were often swapped around beyond my control I stopped actively gearing new party members because I never knew how long they would get to stay in my party. Instead I used a system of hand-me-downs, where I only geared my main character and passed down whatever he replaced.
This might sound tedious, but it's only a minor issue. Furthermore, gear doesn't seem to have a huge impact on the game - it's definitely important, but it won't make or break a fight as long as you have a few characters with good gear (you can control six in total).
Speaking of fights, they are overall fun and never wore on me. Some of the boss monsters really required some tactical thinking but in general I never felt like the game was overly difficult. Not once did I have to grind levels to manage a certain area, which I can only put down to the clever experience system, always making sure your characters are quickly leveled up to match the area they are in. I also commend any game that gives you an "auto-battle" feature, especially in a game where there are six people to control. Gold star to Suikoden for this, as it really comes in handy.
When you're not auto-battling, you will notice that your character setup changes your options during battle. Some characters can team up and do combo-attacks together, and I also read (unfortunately after finishing the game, so it was never something I did myself) that you can do combo-magic. Magic on the other hand was something I never really got the grips on. Unlike most RPGs that have dedicated mages, this game allows you to give any character a rune that will allow them to cast certain spells (some characters have locked runes that can't be swapped, some runes do other things than allow spell-casting). There is no mana, instead each spell has a certain amount of uses, similar to FFVII, only way way fewer of them. I never got any spell to break double-digits in uses, and as such I very rarely used them, but saved them instead for the harder fights. For instance, there is no healer as such in the game, rather you will mainly rely on using potions to get through fights (there are runes that give healing spells, but the uses are too few to be used on a regular basis). Potions are cheap and easy to get by so rather than becoming a problem this allows for every character in your party to be a healer - clearly the designers did not want to limit you when setting up your party (other than for story reasons). I really liked that. So overall I felt like the magic worked fine and it especially gave me the feeling that there was a lot of exploring and experimenting to be done with the different runes, just as with the party set-ups.
There is so much more to be said - I could for instance talk about the variatons in battle they throw in, sort of mini-game style, to change things up a bit, I could talk about the graphics and how some of the cutscenes have the sweetest pixelwork I've seen in a long time - but if I were to wrap it up I guess I would have to say that I really enjoyed it and I definitely recommend it. The gameplay basically begs you to replay the game and everything is set up for you to want to.