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Dipping Into the Classics: Suikoden

I have always meant to go back and play more of the 16-bit and 32-bit RPGs that I missed during their prime. It may take me years upon years on end, but I do eventually hit up what many consider the “classics” (even when I don’t finish them — hello, Final Fantasy VI — I want to give them at least a little bit of the attention they are supposedly worth).

Many personal friends have recommended Suikoden II as one of these games to go back to. It continues to be one of the genuinely “rare” games, though — one that reaches that fantastic $200 price tag on eBay, shared by a few of its peers like Panzer Dragoon Saga. If I were to play a Suikoden game (or series of games), I would likely start with the first. The barrier to entry is far less with the original, particularly when you take the PlayStation Store into account, where it goes for a semi-ridiculous $6.

As a part of their 15th anniversary celebration, Sony offered the first game for half-price back in September 2010. Yes, the game cost $3. At that price, who could pass it up? I sure couldn’t.

I did not get to the game right away, though, having plenty of other things to occupy my time (such as still wading through Dragon Quest IX). Thanks to the remembrative (that’s a word, right?) power of Twitter, I know that I started the game on January 18th — we had a delayed opening at the office, but due to car pooling and train schedules, I ended up heading in at my regular time and hanging out at Starbucks with the PSP.

(Side note: I have reached the point where my tolerance for Japanese RPGs requires that they be portable. If I cannot bring it with me and play in short bursts, I cannot and will not dedicate the time to it. Therefore, Suikoden ended up getting played on the PSP courtesy of Sony’s somewhat gracious option of PSOne Classics being both PS3 & PSP compatible/transferable.)

Having just completed the game yesterday, and at the suggestion of some friends and Twitter followers, I figured I would share a few thoughts on the game. A long entry like this makes up for a drought in terms of articles and podcasts, right…? Try not to think of this as a review, though — it is far too casual for that.

My overall experience with the game was a hugely pleasant one. The game has, in fact, spoiled me in terms of playing current Japanese RPGs (yes, a game that came out 1995/1996 has plenty of leg-ups on today’s games, much like the amazing Chrono Trigger, which I detailed in two pieces). I will analyze some of these, but I would be remiss not to mention some of the annoyances I experienced with the game, too.

Right off the bat, I was extremely impressed with the presentation of the game. I specifically noted areas of the sound design, such as noise from the water fountain panning across the speakers as you walked past.

If I suffer any amount of data loss with a game, it is likely that I will immediately drop it in disgust, never returning to it again. About a week into my playthrough, and directly upon starting up the first major battle in the game (not a boss fight, but rather a special rock-paper-scissors army battle), the PSP froze for a few seconds and turned itself off. Thankfully (more for the game’s sake rather than my own!), my prior save point was only a few minutes prior, which meant returning to the same spot was not a major ordeal — the worst part was simply re-reading a ton of non-skippable dialogue.

Despite completing the game now (and under the 30 hour mark), I do not feel as if I ever fully “got” the magic system. In fact, I did not even use magic for approximately twenty of those hours…! I understood that there were these “runes” and that I was collecting “crystals”… but for the life of me, and even after reading through the instruction manual (which is included in the digital version of the game), I do not think I actually know how I got some of those magic abilities. The town-by-town basis of where certain types of merchants were (those that sold items, attached crystals, sharpened weapons, etc.) did not reinforce any of the concepts to me through normal game play, so it was up to individual experimentation to find what worked with what. Some crystals even specifically noted they were for certain characters (the “Boar” rune being for Pahn…?), but I would collect a dozen of them from defeating enemies, leaving me scratching my head. In addition to not fully comprehending the system, I found that my physical attacks were always strong enough to take on any enemy I came up against, essentially turning magic into a completely irrelevant concept in my mind — I was all about sharpening those weapons, and nothing else!

So how do I feel about that? Part of me thinks back to the days of the original Legend of Zelda, where exploration was left up to the player without holding their hand — I enjoy that quite a bit. On the other hand, this was not just about combining certain items and finding cool uses for them on your own, a la the Materia system in Final Fantasy VII (which, as a 15-year-old kid, I also had trouble understanding right off the bat, but eventually through my own experimentation was able to not only fully understand, but exploit!). I guess I am conflicted — I understand the basics of it, but never felt as if I was in enough control of the progression. Perhaps I’m wrong. I may just be stupid. Were I to replay the game, I would likely start messing around with crystals and such far sooner in the story and do so far more often, rather than just relegating it to a side thing to occasionally use.

One of my favorite aspects of Dragon Quest IX (and from what I understand, is a large part of prior games, as well) was the little story vignettes. The larger story was there to push you along, sure, but the real heart and charm would lay in each individual town and its smaller, compact, tightly-knit group of characters. There is certainly a town system in the first Suikoden, but the heart of the story was not with the townsfolk — it was with your own rag-tag group of friends. Even with a staggering amount of available characters, and even knowing that some of them would be woefully extraneous and near-irrelevant, I still found myself engaged by nearly all of them and genuinely curious about their plights. The game has a couple instances of short, sequential cut-aways to various areas of your castle with certain groups of characters having conversations with each other, reminding you of their own struggles with loyalty, self-discovery, revenge, and loss. It brought a wonderful sense of camaraderie to the group, which is one of my favorite tropes (did the shonen anime love not give that away?).

That being said, as relatively interesting as the greater cast was, the fact that the main party consists of six characters led to a lot of favoritism. When you consider the party’s formation (short, medium, and long-range attack capabilities), you can see how this would happen. I found myself returning time and time again to Cleo, Vikor, and Flik. Kirkis wound up as a long-range fighter and healer toward the end of the game, and somehow Tai Ho ended up in there, too.

(Oh, and hey… did anyone else not know Cleo was a woman until 20 hours in when she is actually referred to with gender information? Anyone? Anyone at all?)

That also being said, I was incredibly impressed with how easy the game made it to bring other characters back into the fold. Any characters forced into the party for certain situations were usually ones that had been along for the ride and were equipped already, but in the instances they were not, it did not take long for them to get up to snuff. The game dishes out experience not at a flat rate, but somewhat exponentially based on the level of the character — a character at level forty may only get 3 EXP from a monster, but a character down at level five may actually jump straight up to level ten from the match (the numbers not being accurate, but a generalization). Therefore, so long as you kept that forced character alive, they would likely be on par with the rest of your group in just a couple fights along the way.

Without spoiling things too heavily for those that have not played, major character deaths are a semi-recurring trend in the game. Each one was obviously coming by the nature of those forced party members and certain quips, but they all at least brought a twinge of emotion in me. I am sorry to say that I did not gather all 107 (yes, minus a certain one…) characters, which sounds like it would have resulted in a nice “Awww…!” out of me toward the end of the game. On a second play through, I would certainly go for this.

So far, I have only hinted at the story and my feelings toward it. I noted the cast of characters, enjoying the time I spent with them, etc. What about the larger story, though? There is a villain and main plot, right? Well… I suppose so. I hate to keep doing comparisons with Dragon Quest IX, but I think it is an apt one to make in this case — where as Dragon Quest IX smartly held back the main “villain” and its respective goals/plot/interactions until later in the story (and yet still providing that overarching narrative that tied things together and led you along so that it all still felt like it truly was one giant story), Suikoden attempts to do the same thing at times, but misses the boat. It was as if the game designers and writers wanted to show me how the hero’s story was relating to the larger world and the villain’s plot, and those bits shined at key points, but I still felt far more disconnected than they probably would have liked. This “Windy” lady…? Who is she, again? Oh, and this other cloaked figure that shows up from time to time talking about runes…? One particular story where the team is sent into the past to witness a key event really helps set things up, but without reinforcing those story ideas just a little more often, I was far more concerned with my party’s own turmoil than with the world’s. Maybe that is OK. I definitely liked my characters, so if I got enjoyment out of them, isn’t that enough? It was clear that the writers wanted me to care more about the world, though — but I just didn’t.

(Speaking of villains, what the Hell was that last boss I fought…?)

Moving back to game mechanics and design, I had one incident where I spent the majority of play time over the course of two days completely unable to advance the story. I was told on Twitter by a few folks that the game is very heavily “check-pointed” (for lack of a better phrase) at times, where these event flags indeed prevent you from continuing the story unless you complete a very specific action. I thought I had encountered something like this during the poison rose scenario, but it turned out I simply had not walked out a door on the top floor of a building to find Milich. This is a recurring thing with me and video games (not seeing the obvious), but I like to think that this was the game’s fault, rather than my own — many of the “doors” in the game are, frankly, not obvious as anything other than a plain ol’ wall unless you know what to look for.

The castle (which I named “Grayskul”, by the way) was something I had never experienced before in a game like this. Having a central hideout/base was intriguing to me, especially with all the other games I have played being so linear (not that Suikoden isn’t) in terms of “this town, then this town”. There was always a place to go back to which grew along with you over the course of the game. Even as I began recruiting characters, I had no idea that some of them would actually embellish the castle and put themselves to work! Coming back to my own blacksmiths, armor dealer, elevator, and even my own (free!) inn made me want to go out and seek the full 108 characters. The first time I wandered my (barren) castle I was extremely apprehensive about it, but the game quickly took care of those fears for me.

Something that I never truly struggled with but still found a nice challenge in was the limited inventory system. While you could store items in your vault back at the castle with Rock, each character can only hold a certain number of items, which includes their equipped armor and accessories. Maybe this was a nice prelude to when I eventually get around to playing Final Fantasy: 4 Heroes of Light. Item drops from monsters would occasionally force me back to a town to appraise and then back at the castle to drop, but there were no instances where I was fighting with the system to bring the necessary number of items on the road with me.

I noted earlier that a couple aspects of the game’s design have spoiled me — those would be (1) “Free Will”, and (2) resting at inns.

While many games have experimented, even within the confines of random battles, with how to speed things up (particularly toward the end of the game when you are over-powered), Suikoden provides a battle option called “Free Will” throughout the entire game, by which your entire party will just automatically target opponents and physically attack them — no magic or items will be used, and they will not necessarily target opponents in conjunction with each other. Despite (or because of?) those limitations, the excessive “Press A To Win” (or in this case, “Press X To Win”) game is not necessarily removed, but at least toned down. The minor tedium of those random battles is still there, but at least with a way to speed up the process and still reap the rewards (cash, experience, and dropped items). “Free Will” also beefs things up in the visual department, zooming in a little more with multiple characters attacking at once, which also helps speed through the round.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of the entire game (boy, am I easy to impress…) was how lightning-fast resting at an inn is. Seriously. There’s no excessive “watch the characters walk to their beds” scene. No musical cue to wait through. Pay the innkeeper, screen fades down, screen fades up, no more dialogue to read, go ahead on your way. I simply cannot overstate how impressive this is.

It may go without saying, but were Suikoden II to hit the PlayStation Store, I would grab it in a heartbeat. I am more than ready to dive into what is said to be the best of the series, especially with the first impressing me so much. With a few things cleaned up here and there, a few cameos from the first game… how could I not be interested? It has also made me curious to check out Water Margin, one of the four classic novels of Chinese literature which it is (very loosely!) based on. With Journey to the West also under my belt (which I am coincidentally also about to finish a very loose video game adaptation of!), why not?

Until then, I still have plenty of other classics and cult favorites to get through. Xenogears is finally up on the PlayStation Store now, and you likely won’t see me for a month after the new Pokemon hits this weekend…

2 Comments

  1. The final boss was Barbarossa that used his sword, the Sovereign Rune, to transform himself.

    Did you ever use Kai? He kind of breaks the game, since he has a Unite attack with McDohl that deals 1.5x attack damage to every enemy, and has no negative effects, basically making it super useful for anything more then 1 opponent. Kai himself is mediocre and has a fixed rune that increases his dodge (that is, worthless) but that unite is just too much 😛

    I admit, the spells in this game aren’t that well done. They’re very limited, although are very useful late game (and Soul Eater for the occasional annoying enemy)
    In later games you can have more spells and more then 1 rune equipped, so there’s more playing around.

    The Boar Rune drops also puzzled me too. There’s nothing you can do with those, they’re just there 😛

    I’d like to know what characters (or stars) you missed. (You tweeted you didn’t get like 20 so characters)

  2. Glad to see an update, Mike! I’ve never played Suikoden, but it’s on my (ridiculously long) list of games I want to eventually play. I’m a big rpg fan, so I was right there with you on some of your points. Magic just does not matter in some games. In Final Fantasy XII, for example, I don’t recall using magic much at all. I can also see why you stick with the handhelds for your jrpg gaming. I still like to play the occasional console rpg, but I often find myself playing PSP or DS. Between sleep mode, portability, and the great selection, what’s not to love? One last thing, Mike. With a fondness for both portable rpgs & Journey to the West, do you have any plans to purchase the digital version of Saiyuki: Journey West?

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