Platform: PlayStation, Sega Saturn, Windows, PlayStation Network
Summary: Dr. Magnanimus
The son of General Teo McDohl, the Scarlet Moon Empire’s greatest war hero, had always lived under the shadow of his father’s reputation. That all changed the day Teo was sent into battle in the north, leaving his son at home to start his own military career in his father’s absence. With the assistance and guidance of several family friends, the son dutifully went on several missions issued to him by his Imperial superiors. During these expeditions, however, it became apparent that the Empire had grown corrupt and oppressive towards the common subjects, and the son secretly questioned his allegiance. His misgivings would eventually lead to outright rebellion when he and his like-minded allies joined forces with an underground resistance group. Thus began their desperate war of independence to overthrow the powerful, tyrannical monarchy.
Review by: Dr. Magnanimus
Version Reviewed: PlayStation 1
The 1990s was a really rockin’ time for JRPGs in America. Gamers had the pleasure of playing some of the best-crafted titles in video game history. It was the era of SquareSoft, the industry colossus that was producing one hit series after another across multiple consoles: Final Fantasy, Seiken Densetsu (Secret of Mana), and Chrono Trigger, to name a few. With so much capital gained, even the American branch of the company was able to birth a hit release of its own: Secret of Evermore. It seemed that Square would have the JRPG market cornered for all time. But then, in 1996, Konami sought to change all that when it released Suikodenfor the PlayStation, a simple fantasy RPG that quickly became one of the most popular and bestselling games for that console.
If a single phrase could suffice as a description, it would be “easy to pick up, hard to put down.” Suikoden delivers simple gameplay that is tailor-made to accommodate gamers regardless of their skill level or experience with RPGs in general. Towns, castles, dungeons, and fields alike are all straightforward and easy to navigate. Characters come equipped with one preferred weapon which can be upgraded with the aid of blacksmiths, via either ‘sharpening’ or by having jewel shards embedded in them. Furthermore, the characters require only a few periodic changes of armor and accessories. Such low character maintenance certainly means that any adventure-bound gamer has one less major hassle to worry about.
The combat system is easy to use, and random encounters are quick and to the point. In particular, the method of obtaining battle experience is perhaps one of the most efficiently-devised I have ever had the pleasure of utilizing. Many classic RPGs have developed a reputation of burdening players with the tedium of level grinding just to advance from one location to another and survive. However, in this game, level building is completely relative to the level of the enemies you face. Every level-up is only 1000 points, but the values are dependent on the characters’ levels versus the enemy’s. The greater the disparity between the stronger enemy and the weaker party, the faster experience is gained, which thereby encourages the player to move through the game at a comfortable, moderate pace. Characters are also aided in combat by equipping special Runes, the source of all magical power in the world of Suikoden. The Rune spells, while helpful and powerful, can only be invoked a few times per day, thereby making regular rest-stops in towns and hideouts mandatory.
There is more to be offered than just this all-too-familiar role-playing system, though; in an unprecedented first, the hero has the capacity of recruiting a whopping 108 characters to his cause, the majority of which can tag along with you in a traveling party of six. Most of your choices are staple warriors and wizards, but you can even bring thieves, tricksters, ninjas, vagabonds, bandits, fishermen, farmers and even cooks into your entourage. Additionally, as the story progresses, the player will be required to take command of an army of rebel soldiers and fight in many tactics-driven campaigns against the Imperials. The success or fail of these skirmishes are determined by the choices the player makes in fighting off each wave of attackers, but the available commands are simple enough to use and understand. Similar tactical battles are also fought in one-on-one duels between the main character and a particularly formidable foe. In all, these departures from traditional gameplay make for a very unique and entertaining experience.
In spite of the game’s intentionally simple framework, the technical aspects are quite attractive. The music and visuals of the game can be best described as ‘ethnically-driven;’ each region of the expansive Empire is molded differently to reflect the many interesting and diverse people, cultures, and environments of Suikoden. Talking to individual people further allows the player to experience firsthand the tense political atmosphere that hangs over both sides of the conflict. Overall, these elements breathe life into the rich storyline, making you feel that you are just as much a part of this world as the characters are.
The storyline is by far the strongest asset of Suikoden. This comes as no surprise, since the tale was inspired by a very famous Chinese novel called “Shui Hu Zhuan” (which also contained 108 unlikely heroes banding together to fight against a ruthless dynasty). The flow of the game sticks to a novel-like format, so it’s very linear with a few minor diversions on the way. The first scenes of the game introduce you to the world of Suikoden, the hero and his initial band of allies, and a sampling of the other supporting cast of characters and the parts that they play in this tale. Most of the allies you pick up develop as time goes on, and their reasons for fighting by your side are revealed more and more. Even the antagonists are fleshed-out, which lends to the understanding that the conflict at hand is not a war between absolute good and evil, but rather one fought between the universal ideologies of glory and domination (The Empire), and humility and autonomy (The Liberation Army). Furthermore, the story of Suikoden is one that many people can identify with, especially regarding its themes on war, politics, and human nature. More than any other game before, this could easily qualify as a stand-alone work of literature in its own right.
There is certainly little doubt that Suikoden was a worthy contender for other popular RPG bestsellers when it first came out, and it even does a great job by today’s standards. The decision to go with simplistic game design allowed gaming neophytes to experience a crash course in RPG gameplay, but without the excesses of inventory bookkeeping or the time-sinking chores of obtaining combat experience. As a result, this game can be enjoyed at a basic level of immersion without the unnecessary distractions that tend to be stuffed into modern games. At its core, the creators understand that a truly good game is one that is not only fun, but also thoughtful and intelligent. That is the legacy that Suikoden has carried forward for almost 20 years, and will hopefully maintain even as newer roleplaying games come out for today’s much more advanced gaming platforms.