As you may or may not know, I’ve been on a writing hiatus for a few months in order to focus on some other things and to catch up on some games that I’ve wanted to play but haven’t gotten around to. Since one of those games was Suikoden II, which falls into the category of ‘one of the most under-appreciated games of all time’, naturally I figured I’d give the game its due. I figured this wouldn’t be an easy one to write about, since I went into this with even more hype and expectation than I did the original, and, while the original was definitely not a bad game, I think that the expectations I had surrounding it definitely did the game a disservice in my eyes.
Now, I will preface this by saying that this game is much, much harder to come by than the original. The original had the benefit of a PSN re-release, and for reasons that I will get into later, Suikoden II does not have that benefit. I was lucky enough to have a friend who owns the game, but I’ll go into what all you will need to do in order to play the game if you do not have similar connections. However, all that aside, you’re probably wondering what I think about the game itself, after the solid 3.5/5 that I gave the original (or would have, had I used a numerical system of rating games). Well, here we go!
So let’s start this off like we always do. What is it?: Well, Suikoden II is, obviously, the sequel to Suikoden. Aside from that, I can tell you that in terms of basic game structure, nothing has changed. The art style is the same, the battle system is the same, and the number of characters that you have available to you throughout the game is the same.
So… 108, right?: Yep! Only this time around, there are fewer cases where you are forced to take one character or another with you. Those situations are still there, but there are far fewer of them. The end effect for that was, for me, anyway, I actually stuck with the same six characters for about 80% of the game. The flip side of that is that no matter what characters you pick, most of them are, or can be made to be, useful in some fashion.There are very few outright terrible characters, from what I could tell. I mean, they do exist, but there are fewer ‘filler’ characters, I thought.
What you’re saying is, more of them have actual reasons to join you?: Exactly. The way the plot works out, it makes a lot more sense for a lot more characters.
You pointed out the plot as one of the things you didn’t really care as much for in the first game. What changed?: Both everything and nothing.
What.: Let me explain. I mentioned in my first review that the plot of the first game revolved around a pretty cliche’d war against an expansive empire that betrayed the main character on a very personal level. The overarching plot structure for Suikoden II is almost exactly the same as that. Riou (or whatever you choose to name him) and his best friend Jowy are members of the Youth Brigade of the Highland Army. In the opening scene of the game, the country of Highland arranges for the Youth Brigade to be slaughtered and for blame to be pinned on the neighboring country of Jowsten in order to give Highland motive to invade. Riou and Jowy, being the sole survivors, flee and are eventually caught up in the resulting war. From there, the overarching plot is a straightforward ‘we must defeat the highland army’ sort of affair, but with far more minor twists and turns than the first game had. That’s where the difference lies, I think. The game really tries to affect the player on a more personal level this time around.
What about the world itself? Similar in tone?: Almost exactly. There is still an element of magic about everything, and people seem to treat all of that as just as commonplace, so they definitely kept the tone consistent there. There is even a school that teaches magic along with all other aspects of academia, which again seems to show the player that supernatural ability is just something that is accepted in the world of Suikoden.
I’ve heard that there is a pretty major villain in this game, what can you tell me there?: Oh man. Okay. So, the villain’s name is Luca Blight, which, yes, might seem like an obviously villainous name except that really, it could also be translated as Ruca Bright (and probably should have been), so I don’t think it was meant to be so obvious. That being said, everything else about him is meant to be obviously villainous. The man is brutal, heartless, ambitious, and insane. And this is all information that can be gleaned from literally the first five minutes of the game, so it’s not like it’s any sort of spoiler at all. And fighting him is absolutely horrifying, for reasons that I will let video game cover band The Returners tell you about:
Yes, in a world which includes wizards, vampires, and runes of demonic power, the most absolutely terrifying character in it is a normal human so completely fueled by madness that he is nearly unkillable. And really, I think that’s where some of the brilliance of the plot comes from: in a rational world, how do various countries deal with a situation that includes a leader who is completely irrational?
Wow, that does sound pretty interesting. How difficult of a game is it?: Well, I mentioned in my review of the original game that I thought the game was really easy. Suikoden II fixes a lot of the balance issues that I think the first game had. There are still combination attacks which can be spammed, but few of them are as completely game-breaking as they were in the original. To compensate, the rune system has been expanded, with characters often able to equip more than one rune, giving them expanded magical abilities. The method of making simply ludicrous amounts of money is not present in this game, and armor and weapon upgrades are still very, very expensive, so there is a certain element of grinding that has been added back in. There are also some rare item drops that have a very, very low drop rate, so if one wants to collect absolutely everything, one should really be prepared to grind so much that it’s barely worth it. However, nothing on that list is absolutely essential to finish the game, so I wouldn’t say that the game skews too far in that direction. Characters still level up very quickly, so there isn’t too much of a penalty, from a statistics standpoint, for using a character you haven’t used in a long time. All in all, I would say the game is still easy, but less so than Suikoden I.
What did you really like about the game?: Everything on my list of ‘likes’ from the first game still applies. The game doesn’t overstay its welcome, all the characters have their own distinct personalities, and there’s even less ‘filler’ in this game than there was in the first. In addition to those things, almost everything that I had complained about in the first game was improved upon. There are very few of what I would consider ‘deus ex machina’ scenes, and the ones that are there I didn’t mind so much. Returning characters had their stories elaborated on in very meaningful ways, new characters were endearing, and there were far fewer people who joined for no discernible reason. The music was also better, especially any of the music involving scenes with Jowy or with Luca Blight. Also, the game does a very good job of showing examples of ‘good’ guys not always being good, and ‘bad’ guys not always being bad. Specifically, there is an absolutely brilliant character by the name of Shu who is the very definition of ‘moral ambiguity’ and ‘do what it takes to win the war’. To me, he seemed very similar to Citan and Jin Uzuki from Xenogears and Xenosaga, respectively, and, in fact, they are all likely based on the same historical figure.
And were there still things you didn’t like?: Well, yes, but like I always say, no game is perfect. This time around, I only had one or two complaints. First, there are a couple of dungeons in this game that I would say are unnecessarily long, though at least their length makes sense in the context of what they were there for (Rockaxe Castle, for instance, was specifically constructed to confuse and repel invaders, so mission accomplished, really). Second, yes, I realize the main character is pointed out as someone around whom destiny revolves, but it’s still a little ridiculous that the people around him basically say “Oh, this kid won one battle using deception and ambush. Let’s give him an entire army to lead!” Also, the translation is abysmal. There are so many typographical errors that it was noticeable even to me, and most of the time those sorts of things slip by me.
You mentioned the game is still hard to find?: Absolutely. Due to the aforementioned translation errors, the game has not, and probably never will, get a PSN release. [Update: Looks like the joke’s on me! As of December 9, 2014, there actually is a PSN release!] That, coupled with the fact that the game got a very limited printing when it did come out, means that the game is excessively expensive to acquire a physical copy of. Your only two options are to borrow it from someone who has it, like I did, or to use, er, alternative distribution methods to acquire it. This, actually, illustrates one reason I think that emulation is so absolutely essential: it preserves games like this that would otherwise eventually be lost to time. That, however, is a discussion for another time and place.
Anything else?: Here’s the amazing part about this game, I think. Not only does it stand on its own merits, it actually made me retroactively enjoy the first game more. An analogy that I would use for it is a field. Suikoden I is the field in which seeds are planted. Sure, not much immediately results from a lot of those seeds. However, it creates the setting. Suikoden II takes that setting, that world, those characters, and expands on them, while still leaving things there for future games to pick up on. This actually makes a great deal of sense, because I actually learned that Suikoden II was written first. Suikoden I was then written as a prequel in order to set up the world and to give the team experience developing a game. I would also say it is absolutely essential to play the first game, well, first, both in order to get an appreciation for the world and also because it is possible to import your save file into the second game and see some pretty great cameos (as well as an additional quest). All in all, I do recommend this game, and it definitely, definitely lives up to my expectations.