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Retrospectives – Suikoden series, part 1

posted on May 9th, 2007 by chris

Imagine, if you will, a role-playing game (of the Eastern variety) which creates a persistent fantasy world for an entire series. This world is so large that, even in the latest entry, there are still entire countries that have been mentioned, but that players have yet to explore. The plot of each game concerns revolutions and wars – the sort of things most RPGs leave to the background – and the player is the architect of these nation-spanning changes.

Suikoden, called “Genso Suikoden” or Fantasy Suikoden in Japan, is an RPG series on the PSX, Saturn and PS2 that has been around since 1996. The “Suikoden” in the name comes from the Japanese name for the Shui Hu Zhuan or (usually) Outlaws of the Marsh, one of the four Chinese Classics (alongside the better-known Three Kingdoms and The Journey West).

Outlaws of the Marsh takes place at the end of China’s Song dynasty. The plot concerns a group of 108 bandit generals (corresponding to 108 stars of heaven and earth) who band together to revolt against a corrupt government. They pledge their allegiance to the emperor himself and continually defeat all armies the government sends to destroy their fortress.

Although the book is quite good, the game series does not take its plotline from the book (though Koei’s Bandit Kings of Ancient China does). Instead, the game takes some themes, major and minor, from the novel. This is one of the moves that makes Suikoden so interesting. The book can get bland, but the characterization of major characters is great, which carries through to the game series as well. Several smaller nuances of character and detailed, believable back-stories shine through in each and every game.

What a page turner!

The games take place in a deeply-crafted fantasy world which, unlike Final Fantasy, carries over from game to game. For example, Suikoden II takes place a few years after the first game, and in a country to the North of that in the first one. Some characters appear in multiple games, but each entry is self-contained. Playing through other games of the series can make the overall experience more rewarding, but it certainly isn’t necessary.

The overall theme of the games is one of a country’s upheaval or change. Generally, there is a corrupt or power-hungry government that is seeking to profit off of others’ suffering. The main character is eventually brought into the camp opposing this Evil Empire ™, and manages to become their leader. It sounds (and sometimes is) cliché, but the story is usually much deeper than that. Suikoden has also found a niche somewhere between the “high fantasy” and “dark fantasy” – you can expect to see darker events, including the death of characters, in the series.

One of the factors that makes Suikoden different from most other fantasy-themed games is the quantity of characters in the games. Recruiting all 108 is required for the best ending and can also get you other bonuses. Unfortunately, this can be difficult to accomplish without a FAQ. Characterization generally does not falter, despite having so many to develop. The plot-related characters are enjoyable and colorful, as are many of the optional ones. Suikoden II and on have optional character development you can access, as well. 108 characters does seem like a lot to collect, but the game manages to avoid the “Pokemon” feeling by making many of the characters very straightforward to recruit.

The strategy battle system, an abstraction for battles between large armies, likewise makes the game more enjoyable for strategy fans. The system is never as deep as normal strategy games, but is still entertaining.

The normal battle system goes through a few modifications, but all of the games have the same basic magic system. It’s much like that of the first Final Fantasy. There are four levels of magic associated with each magic rune. Each character can use each level of magic a set number of times for each time they rest.

It sounds simpler than many RPGs, but since all Suikoden games (except the fourth) have up to six characters in each battle, a simple magic system keeps the game from getting too cluttered. In addition to magical runes, there are also stat-altering runes, which gives a lot more customization to the system. All games likewise have a “unite” attack system, in which certain characters can do a special attack when combined with others.

It may not have a lot of complexity on the whole, but the battle system feels great for the amount of characters you have to use. It’s just complex enough that you get into some strategy, but it’s easy enough to use that it’s not a big deal to add a different character. Of all the series I’ve played, I like the Suikoden’s battle system best for this reason.

Other less noticeable features in the series include upgrading (rather than buying) weapons at blacksmiths, much quicker leveling than usual(experience you gain is relative to your level and the enemy you defeat) and the ability to eventually teleport from your castle to any town you’ve visited. All of these make the management of characters relatively simple, and keep the game from requiring ridiculous amounts of micromanagement.

Viktor, Flik, Pahn and Gremio. A more awesome team of warriors there never has been.

Suikoden 1
Both the plot and the themes of the first game in the series bear the most resemblance to the series’ inspiration. The main character is the son of one of the Six Great Generals of the Blood Moon Empire. He begins working as a subordinate of a corrupt official, but shortly afterward becomes a wanted man due to events outside his control. A Liberation Army member rescues him from the capital and then recruits him. He then manages to find a suitable headquarters in a hollowed-out limestone castle as well as a gifted strategist to assist the army.

At this point, the core of the game begins and the beauty of the series shines through. The castle you find and use as your headquarters is initially lifeless and empty. As you recruit more and more people to join your cause, though, it gradually becomes livelier, as each character finds a place for themselves. Most importantly, there are also shopkeeper characters, so the castle becomes more useful as well. Other characters bring minigames, some bring extra setting features (window color settings, different interface sounds), and some merely bring dialogue (though most of the latter are combat characters) that changes with each event. The formation of your headquarters, though, brings a great sense of progress to the game that goes with recruiting the characters.

This “building feeling”, in which you gradually grow from a small cadre of extremists to a united, solid front of like-minded revolutionaries, is one feature that I like the best of this game. None of the other games in the series deal entirely with revolution; most deal with reform or uniting against a mutual enemy. Revolution yields the most satisfying sense of accomplishment at the end of the game, and though I like the plots of the other games, I have to admit the first game’s is most suited to the format.

The characters themselves range from colorful to somewhat bland. In this respect the game follows its inspiration; though all 108 characters are introduced, and some have flowery or inspiring epithets, the main characters get significant characterization and poor Lu Fang is mentioned three times in the entire 2000-page novel. Likewise, Viktor, Flik, and Mathiu are significant and interesting characters, but even though Cleo (for example) is with the main character for the entire game, she has two pieces of dialogue. Many of the lesser stars don’t even have any optional character development (which is changed in the rest of the series). That said, characterization for that many individuals is a difficult task and it’s not surprising that it didn’t work out that great the first time around.

The hallmark of the series, the 108 characters, is my favorite feature of the entire series. This was the first game to be so ambitious in its design. Previous games, such as Destiny of an Emperor and Koei’s strategy game series, had more characters. But none of those games had nearly the level of characterization as Suikoden.

One on one fights were basically identical to the war battles, which were basically identical to rock-paper-scissors.

The first army battle in Suikoden takes place shortly after getting the castle, and it introduces the simplistic strategy system. Essentially, the game is Rock-Paper-Scissors with HP and attack power. The attack power for each type goes up depending on what characters you have recruited. Some characters have special abilities, such as a particularly useful one that lets you see what the opposing army will do next. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot of strategy involved because the battle is usually over so quickly. One or two bad decisions can lead to your defeat, particularly early on. The battles usually last less than ten minutes, which makes it feel more like a required minigame than a significant aspect of the gameplay.

Artwork in the game is pretty good (important in a two-dimensional game) but portraits can have a somewhat washed-out look, and some are odd-looking (Lepant is wearing flesh-colored armor… I hope). The use of portraits in the game’s dialogue makes it much easier to tell who is talking, a feature which is carried over to the successive games. Music is generally good, but many of the themes are forgettable and a bit generic-sounding.

My main disappointment with Suikoden 1 is that it is incredibly short. Even without much RPG experience, the game is within the 20-hour range, and if you have played the game before (or are consulting a guide, as some recruitment is a bit obscure) this can go into the sub-15 range, even with all 108 characters. The translation is usually not too bad in the main plot, but it can get pretty iffy in other places, particularly in the strategy battles.

Suikoden 1 is an entertaining game. Its plot is epic while remaining very believable (between saving the world from space aliens/evil omnipotent maniac and saving a country from corrupt governance, I find the latter much more realistic), it has good artwork and passable music, and a lot of neat features. It also introduces an interesting world that its sequels build upon. It is, though, very short and has a somewhat lacking translation.

2 Comments

  1. christian said on May 10, 2007:

    I’ve only played the original Suikoden, but boy was it a treat. It was short for an RPG, despite the 108 characters, battles were quick and snappy, and overworld travel was somehow not a pain in the ass. I really wouldn’t have minded if more Playstation RPG’s followed its formula; I could go with a snappy little 20 hour war story. Instead they followed the path of FF7, and I guess the rest is history.

  2. chud666 said on May 10, 2007:

    Great post, I am interested in what you have to say about 4+5 which I found to be mediocre at best…

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