It’s a well-known fact that there can never be too much Suikoden. Shortly after the release of ‘Suikoden II’, Konami seemed to realise that consumers felt this way too and promptly released a pair of visual novels that were set around the events of that larger game and built on plot elements that would pay dividends when ‘Suikoden III’ rolled around.
Sadly neither Swordsman of Harmonia, nor its sequel ‘Duel at Crystal Valley’ were ever officially released in English, a fact that means we are having to rely heavily on an excellent, but strictly unofficial fan translation for the purposes of this review. The games were released onto the original Sony PlayStation and the lack of interest in the Visual Novel as a medium outside of Japan at the time coupled with the planned release of the PlayStation 2 scuppered any hope at the time. Luckily a good chunk of the staff who worked on these games was absorbed into the key writing team for Suikoden III because these canon entries into the series mythos are outstanding stories in their own right.
Graphically these titles have aged particularly well. Using the strengths of the Visual Novel medium, the game plays with static background images with large character illustrations in an anime style used to denote those partaking in a scene. These illustrations look great and lovingly recreate some of the fringe characters from Suikoden II (and the leading cast) in splendid detail that couldn’t be seen on the sprites of that title. The game re-uses the text boxes and some elements of the visual HUD from that title as well, making for a seamless transition for players between the two games. This is a visually lush package, and opens with a wonderful animated video that sets the tone of the title perfectly.
Whilst many of the games sound effects are pulled from Suikoden II, the score is excellent. Sound design is used throughout to punctuate scenes and beautiful renditions of several themes from previous titles intermix with original compositions to create a very well rounded audio package. The opening cinematic does an excellent job in terms of grabbing the player’s attention with its music, and action sequences are livened considerably by their musical selections.
In terms of narrative, a Visual Novel will usually draw higher than average marks in this category for its tight focus on storytelling. Swordsman of Harmonia manages to elevate this by drawing on the pre-established world of the series to date without relying on a familiarity to it to tell its tale. This means that new players can hop into the game and play through without confusion whilst established gamers can enjoy a variety of cameos and subtle timeline nods throughout. The games story follows Nash Latkje (who later will play a key role in Suikoden III, giving these games excellent hindsight-value) as he searches for evidence that a True Rune has appeared in the City States, essentially looking for the hero of the original ‘Suikoden’ game, an agent of Holy Harmonia’s border defence force, he’s essentially a spy behind enemy lines in peace-time. Along the way his path interconnects with the story of Suikoden II at multiple points, whilst telling an episodic tale that greatly expands the series mythos. Nash is a likable rogue, who typically outthinks his opponents but does possess two cursed blades that he tries to avoid using at all costs. The story arc he undergoes is well paced and the English fan translation is well written, applying all the correct translation elements as used by Konami in the releases of other titles in the series.
Gameplay is deceptively simple. The game uses music, sound, static images and text to tell a series of adventures that are interlinked by an over-arching narrative. Gameplay elements are light, with the player using the O button to forward the text one box at a time, and occasionally select an option at one of the games frequent branching paths. Often these don’t involve risk, but occasionally when the games action picks up there will be multiple branching paths in close connection, guiding you through an encounter. On these occasions a small bar on the right hand side of the screen shows you the potential risk factor of each choice. If the right choices are made then points are added to this counter, affecting the game by allowing you to spend them on making riskier choices and (if maxed out) opening up a hidden chapter of the game. It’s a relatively passive system that manages to draw the player in through strength of writing and near flawless presentation.
Overall, if you’re a fan of Suikoden II you owe it to yourself to play this game. This does mean emulation as no official version exists, but because of that very fact the damage is severely limited. It’s highly unlikely that Konami are going to dust off, translate and release these titles now. Whilst there’s not a great deal of gameplay to the title, it’s extremely well executed and dripping with high production values throughout. In this modern age of tablets and mobile devices, it’s the perfect game to play in short bursts on the go and the equivalent of carrying an extremely good novel around with you.