Genre: Fantasy Turn-Based RPG
Many games in the mid-1990s tried very hard to impress with story, spectacle, and complex characters and situations. In most of those games, your travelling party would vary anywhere from two or three stalwart heroes to a team of six to eight on average to choose from. Some very intrepid games like Final Fantasy VI took on a varied cast of up to fourteen with fantastic results. Then you have Suikoden, a little known gem from Konami loosely based off of an old Chinese story. How many characters can one game hold and still keep a coherent and interesting storyline?
Suikoden tries for 108. You read that right- 108 characters can be recruited in the many hours of the game’s epic tale. How well does it juggle these different personalities, and does the game keep on being interesting beyond this potential gimmick?
The game begins with your main character, Tir McDohl, as the up and coming son of General Teo McDohl, one of the five great generals of the Scarlet Moon Empire. The plot does not strike incredibly interesting ground right from the start, as it is the typical rigmarole of joining the army and doing menial delivery tasks with your father’s aides and your best friend, Ted. Upon meeting a seer named Leknaat, it is revealed to your that you are destined for greatness. Of course, Tir and company just go about their business until an unfortunate incident brings about a secret that sets into motion a series of events that will threaten the world, placing young Tir in charge of assembling an army and leading them into victory against the malevolent forces that would seek to rule with an iron fist.
Now the main draw to this game is certainly the idea that you can assemble an army of 108 potential characters. In the end, only about 50-60 of the characters are usable in combat, which is still a hefty number. Each falls into a Short, Medium, or Long range attacker, which governs where they can strike from out of your group of five that can join your main character. Some of them are central to the story, and you’ll see them develop as such. Many of them are characters that you will find and require you to bring them something specific, beat them in a duel, win a gambling game, or simply tell them “Hey, I’ve got a castle”. Some of those characters allow you to open shops in your headquarters, storage space for items you want to keep, or play some mini-games if you want to earn some money. You certainly won’t be bored with exploration or trying to find people to join your ranks, always denoted by having a character portrait presented when they speak with you.
If you’re not a completionist, that is all well and good. If you really want to fill your headquarters to the brim with characters, you’re in for some mild frustration. One character only joins if you provide her with an item that drops from a specific enemy. One only appears randomly and in one of three towns. Backtracking is the name of game to retrieve a lot of these characters, too, but if you recruit the right characters, that is made easier through being able to teleport between places.
In reiteration, the story is not all new and inventive, though it does have its moments, including some particularly tragic and emotionally potent stingers. Fans of the political intrigue and varied viewpoints presented in games like Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy XII will be pleased with the tone of this game. There are fantasy elements- magic is prevalent and certain magic even includes summoning creatures- but the majority of the game is rooted in realistic tones. Fighting soldiers, bandits, and wild animals is commonplace. Alongside regular battles, you fight brutal duels (in a rock-paper-scissors fashion) and large scale army battles, where some of your characters can even die if you choose the wrong attack. You can even choose between executing certain characters that have committed grave misdeeds or recruiting them, in some cases, though there are plenty of ‘choices’ where there is only one real answer. In the end, there is a visceral and grounded feel to the game, no matter how fantastical the situation is.
The music and presentation of the game are a special treat to those that are fans of instrumentals. There are many influences in the music across Asia and Europe, and the music makes the game feel even more unique, each locale and dungeon being lent their own cultural feel. The characters and locals of each country feel the same, though the art is painful at times. The character portraits range from artistic and sharp to sloppy and disproportionate, which is really the weakest point of the game. The sprite work in various incarnations is spot on, and the scenery is beautiful.
Having spawned four direct sequels and various other games, Suikoden has fallen under the radar to a lot of RPG fans, and it is a shame that more people haven’t experienced the series. The first game of the series certainly suffers from some kinks that are ironed out by the sequel, which many consider to be the best of the series. There are a few translation errors and similar things that plagued many similar games at the time. Suikoden has charm for days, and with such a variety of characters to interact with and utilize, it is easy to find a multitude of side stories and characters to enjoy. If you’re interested in checking it out, Suikoden, along with two of its sequels, is now available on the Playstation Network. The series has a strong following pushing to get the rest of the series re-released and get some new games from Konami- which, if you’re interested, is called the Suikoden Revival Movement- so to those of you interested in checking out a new kind of revolution? Here it is, in all of its RPG golden age glory.