I have a confession to make. Before about two weeks ago, I had never played Suikoden. Mostly, this is due to when it was released: that awkward time right after the Playstation was released when I didn’t actually own one. By the time I did, Final Fantasy 7 (and Final Fantasy 8 and 9, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Xenogears, for that matter) had come out, and that was where my RPG attentions were firmly focused. And yet, people kept telling me that Suikoden was a Thing I Needed To Play. And I kept firmly putting it off, firstly because I kept having other games to play, and then because Suikoden became fucking expensive.
Well, now the Playstation Network exists, and Suikoden is on it, for a very reasonable price, and I no longer have any excuse to give as to why I haven’t played it yet. So I did. Did it live up to the hype? Well, I don’t think that anything could, really, so the question becomes: how close did it get? But first of all, cue intro sequence!
So what is it?: Suikoden is a very early Playstation-era RPG. How early? Well, to put things in perspective, Suikoden came out the same year as one of the last, and greatest SNES games, Chrono Trigger. Yep, I looked it up. Same year. That right there gives one a little bit of perspective, because one can easily imagine that Suikoden was originally conceived as a SNES game. The fact that the graphics are (mostly) sprite-based, though, means that they have actually aged better than a whole lot of other games from that era that went all polygonal on us. Anyway, it’s a turn-based RPG in which there are something like 70 or 80 playable characters.
Whaaaaaat?: Yep. Actually, there are 108 characters that can be recruited for your home base, but some of them perform non-combat functions such as shops, item storage, or various cosmetic functions like changing the color of the text windows (no kidding). But the reality is that you will have more playable characters than you will know what to do with, especially considering you can only have six in your active party at once.
So how do you pick?: Well, my experience was that I only really used about ten of them on any sort of regular basis. Most of the time, the same two or three are shoehorned into your group because they’re the ones that the plot seems to focus the most on. Aside from that, a lot of characters are fairly interchangeable, so it comes down to personal preference or who has the best combo attacks with other characters.
Okay, well, I’ll deal with that when I play the game. What’s the actual gameplay like?: Typical turn-based, really. The combat screen is isometric, and very reminiscent of Breath of Fire. Aside from basic attacks, each character can equip a rune that either bestows magical attacks, special skills, or stat boosts on a character. Additionally, some characters can perform combo attacks with others, much like in Chrono Trigger, except that in Suikoden, they don’t actually consume any sort of resource in order to use, so there’s no real reason not to use them. Effectively, this makes the game way easier than it should be, because some of the combo attacks are completely, utterly, game-breakingly powerful.
So the game’s easy, then?: In more ways than one, and not just limited to combat. For example, one can make absolutely ludicrous amounts of money in less than five minutes, pretty much anytime they want to, provided one has recruited a certain character into one’s base. This is balanced by the fact that you have a lot of characters you may or may not want to keep current with equipment, so it would actually make the game unreasonably hard if money /were/ harder to come by. The only real challenge in the game is in finding and recruiting all 108 characters, and sometimes in figuring out what, exactly, to do in order to advance the plot.
So about that plot thing, then. What’s it like?: Well, in terms of its complexity, it is actually on par for the era when the game was released. It serves as a nice ‘bridge’ game between what was seen before on the SNES and what would soon follow on the PS1. The game follows Tir McDohl, the son of a decorated general, who, through a series of unfortunate incidents, finds himself caught up in a civil war. There is also an element of mysticism involved, as he has been bound to a rune called the Soul Eater. Which, as you might guess, is Not A Good Thing.
So, without spoiling anything, does the plot revolve more around the magic or the mundane?: Actually, I would say that in this world, magic /is/ mundane. The way the setting is developed has a lot to do with what the characters /don’t/ react to. Certainly, magic is a common thing in this world, as are fantastic creatures, and this is made apparent to the player sometimes solely though the complete lack of surprise shown by the party members. It’s the difference between “HOLY FUCK, IT’S A _______!!!” and “Oh crap. It’s a ________. This is gonna /suck/.”
Okay, so let’s get down to it. What did you like?: I liked that it is delightfully old-school, because, well, it /is/ old-school. Sometimes, I’m not in the mood for fancy combat systems and just want to button mash ‘attack’, ‘defend’, ‘magic’, and ‘item’. I also like that the game didn’t overstay its welcome. There was a distinct lack of filler, in terms of plot. Your characters have a very specific goal in mind, and everything they do is for the sake of that goal. Similarly, there aren’t any weird unexplained mazes that you have to explore to reach the Big Bad you happen to be chasing after. No, if your army has just seized a town and you’re storming the castle in the center of it, you’re going to get exactly what you expect when you go in: a gauntlet of dudes in armor and not a whole lot else. Also, even with all those characters, each one does seem to have at least a little bit of a quirk or distinct personality, even though I did eventually forget that at least 25% of them were there. Also, there were some incredibly surprising things that happened through the course of the plot that, while might be fairly standard for today’s games, were not things I expected from a game that came out in 1995. Not because they happened, but because of how little buildup there was for them. It treated certain things in the way that they would be treated in the real world, where things just /happen/. Also, as I mentioned before, the game doesn’t overstay its welcome. Leveling is mostly a non-issue; it is very easy to bring a character you haven’t used in awhile (or ever) up to speed, even at the very end of the game, and aside from character recruitment, there isn’t a whole bunch of sidequests that pointlessly eat up your time.
And the part we all dread…what /didn’t/ you like?: Well… really, I’ve just got to come out and say it. This game went out and got a box of tropes, brought it home, and ate as many as it could. Evil empire? Check. Mind control? Check. Mysterious characters with dark pasts? There’s about twenty of those, at least. Deus ex machinas? Yeah, there’s a couple of those in there too. Also, those incredibly surprising and heartbreaking scenes I mentioned? Probably would have worked a whole lot better if the protagonist were not silent. I also wasn’t terribly impressed with the music. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t bad, but wasn’t amazing to me, either. Also, even though I mentioned that there isn’t a lot of unnecessary padding in the plot, there /is/ a lot of unnecessary padding in the character roster. I understand it’s hard not to do that when you have as many characters as Suikoden has, but it is something I noticed. There were a whole lot of recruitments that went more or less like this: “Will you join the liberation army, whose sole purpose is to defy the Emperor, the lawful sovereign ruler of this land?” “*shrug* Wasn’t doing anything else today anyway, why the hell not?” Eventually, the game does imply that there is a valid plot-related reason for this, but it is still fairly odd.
So here’s the burning question, how close to living up to the hype did it get?: Well, that’s a hard question to answer truthfully. There was a /lot/ of hype. And I tried to keep my expectations as a blank void, so that I could judge the game by its own merits and flaws, but some of that hype does seep in. However, what I will say is that the game does intrigue me enough that I do want to keep playing the series. Would I recommend it? Yes, with the caveat that I probably would tell whoever I recommended it to that they should ignore the hype and go into it with their mind as a blank slate. It’s definitely something one should play if they like SNES RPGs, and want to see the step that the genre took in that transitional period before Final Fantasy 7 showed up. All in all, I’m glad that I played it, and I really do wish I had played it earlier in my life.
[This review is reposted with my permission at Attack Initiative.]