The transition between the 2D rpgs of the SNES and Megadrive era into the Playstation generation was very much an interesting period for the genre. Some chose to try to bring three dimensions to the platform and flashy FMV sequences (both of which would date horribly) whilst others focused on producing more content on their 2D games that didn’t push the system to its limits. Suikoden firmly fits into the ‘more is better’ category for a number of reasons.
Released unexpectedly in 1995 and looking like a SNES era rpg in almost every way (in others less visually appealing than some of the later games on that last-gen system) it’s a surprise that Suikoden is as good as it is. Whilst it certainly has its flaws the game lays the groundwork for an impressive tale set across a sprawling world and featuring no less than 108 recruitable characters, most of which can be added to your party. This was Pokemon before there even was a Pokemon, and the game made sure that almost every character had a background and motivation of their own, even if it was as little as wanting to be the NPC who says ‘welcome to the village’ each time you meet them.
Visually Suikoden uses big chunky sprites that are taller than the average 2D sprites of the time, cramming in more detail but at the same time under-animated in some ways. They range in size and shape between character and a differing amount of builds go into adding variety that helps differentiate it all. The setting itself is based on a Chinese folk story and uses typical Chinese visuals blended with more pedestrian Western fantasy literature tropes in order to create a world where politics and armies carry real weight. The backgrounds are the real let-down on this title however because they feel bland and repetitive, even when entering a new area, with cavern, forest and castle textures re-used time and time again. Areas are quite small and load almost screen-to-screen which can lead to some frustration when jogging between them. Each character has his or her own unique portrait to help add extra definition to their character, however in some cases this can lead to gender confusion where obviously female characters appear like anime men, whilst some androgynous men have extremely feminine portraits. Decisions such as leaving fountains unanimated or poorly animated in other locations serve to lessen the games polish.
Musically a lot of effort has gone into Suikoden and it shows. Tracks are crisp, well written and still sound great when played through the speakers on your flat-screen tv. The battle theme, which you will head a lot of, can begin to grate on you in the longer dungeons, but it too manages to set the tone of the game very well. Sound effects vary between cartoony clips that undermine the seriousness of what is happening in some circumstances and nicely recorded audio for sword swings and clashes. Dragons are represented by a cry that somebody has captured from an elephant, which does cause a chuckle when it’s heard. Some of the spells in battle are visually very appealing for the time of launch but some of the SFX undermine the gravity of what you’re seeing on screen. The game makes good strides toward cd quality audio at a time when it wasn’t expected from a game of this kind and although it carries across some lesser elements from development that must have started with another system in mind (perhaps the Sega MegaCD add on for the Megadrive) it’s a quality presentation.
The story in Suikoden is loosely on the classical Chinese novel ‘Shui Hu Zhuan’ by Shi Naian. Essentially it is the tale of a self-titled hero (named Tir McDohl in canon) who is the son of a mighty general in service to his nation’s emperor. Recently a woman strongly resembling the emperor’s dead wife has been brought to court and is serving as his advisor, with word beginning to spread that she is a witch. On the emperor’s orders the generals, your father and his troops are mobilized and you are left as the newest recruit on the imperial guard, accompanied by a childhood friend and a small group of loyal servants. When a mission turns out to be much tougher than imagined your childhood ally and best friend Ted steps up to defeat a monster using a mysterious rune that turns out to be one of the ‘true runes’ upon which all magical runes are founded. The witch then swoops in to retrieve it from him but he passes the rune to you and covers your escape from the capital by sacrificing his own life. From here you accidentally fall in with a resistance movement in a neighboring country hoping to repel invasion and the real journey begins. The gist of the story from there is taking down the kingdom you once served one general at a time and recruiting all 108 pre-destined ‘stars’ who can join your side and earn you the ‘good’ ending. The story itself should be just a frame upon which to hang the recruitment and base building premise, but it manages to be both deep and interesting with an outstanding world to explore. The true runes are a great concept and the writers only allow you to see a fraction of them over the course of the game, leaving the others to the imagination. Characters are given motivation and backgrounds throughout to keep them interesting and you’ll spend time with almost all of them in-narrative before choosing your pick of the best as you’re a-squad.
Gameplay really sells this title. Unlike many JRPGs the dungeons and loot-finding aspects of the game have been dialed right back to their base aspects. Dungeons suffer to an extent because of this because they are very simple with no branching paths but many serve as a simple gauntlet for fights that push you to learn what works quickly or risk being wiped out. Combat allows you to bring six characters (including the hero) into battle with a front and back row each consisting of three characters. Every character falls into one of three catagories, S for short range, L for long range and M for versatile. S cannot attack from the back row and L cannot attack from the front, so you will have to juggle your party to accommodate that and make use of runes or special attacks if you’re stuck with a bad layout. Each character can equip one lesser rune, which grows as they do to learn more spells of that runes type or bestows a static ability like ‘more speed’, ‘run’ or ‘attacks twice’ to a character. Special attacks require party members to have a story connection and to team up to deliver said attack, so the hero and his mentor can double up to hit everything on screen in one turn. These do not require MP and spells are limited use, with the only drawback being that some joined attacks can leave the members who took part dazed and unable to attack again the next turn, instead limited to items and defense. When you factor in all 108 characters, most recruited through making in-game choices or sub quests then that’s a lot of versatility. Characters can equip an item to their head, body and two accessories with some being able to also hold shields. Any space left over in their personal inventories is taken up holding loot that gets dropped which needs to be stored back at base because you’ll run out of space quickly. This works well given the 6 character party and doesn’t feel like too much of a hassle. There is a reliance on healing items since magic of that kind is rarer and has similarly limited use, but overall it balances nicely. Weapons are not brought and equipped to characters but rather trips to a blacksmith of sufficient talent allow you to level up the weapon you already possess for a hefty chunk of currency. The talent of the smithies in question stops you from maxing out too early and plays into wanting to complete your base of operations to max weapons out to level 16. You can also have the smiths add special items to your weapons for additional effects in combat such as elemental properties or regeneration of HP. Aside from combat with your party there is also 1-1 duels between your lead character and opponents of different kinds and battles between armies to take into account. Duels amount to rock, paper, scissors and use comments made by your opponent as to what they will try next. Battles on the other hand use a similar concept but allow you to stack the odds in your favour by using the special abilities of characters under your command, who naturally fall into parties based on their class. Ninjas for example tell you what the enemy will do next, allowing you to counter appropriately. A word of warning here, because failure to recruit and keep all 108 characters alive gives the bad ending it should be noted that the game gives you limited chances to recruit some individuals and others can be missed entirely if you’re not careful. Worse, battles can be won but allies perish permanently, meaning its reset or live with the lesser finale. On top of all these features the game managed to throw in a series of gambling mini-games and also adds a new set of status effects to combat that are markedly different to the normal ones seen in JRPGs. One that sticks out in the memory is enemies who attach balloons to characters, with three balloons making them light enough to take off and float over the battlefield unable to take part until a needle is used to burst them.
Overall Suikoden is a masterpiece, but one flawed by age. Graphically it’s presentable but not fantastic, aurally it works but doesn’t stand out against bigger titles. Story and gameplay value are amazing however and really sell this game. It recently appeared on the Playstation Network as a part of their classics range for a budget price and I highly recommend you play it on either PS3, 4 or PSP/Vita as soon as you can. Remember to keep your saved data too because the sequel can import some aspects of your original game.