Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Suikoden Review

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Suikoden has always been regarded as one of those many staple JRPGs that graced the North American Playstation with its presence after Final Fantasy VII paved the way for the genre to become mainstream in the United States.  In contrast to Square’s innovative title, Suikoden is a transplant from the late SNES days and  to a certain extent its 16-bit roots show (and not just graphically).  Couple that with developer Konami being relatively new to RPGs itself and you see why the overall game feels like a dated throwback to the days before even Final Fantasy IV or VI (II or III in the US), but despite these shortcomings there is the foundation of a much stronger title.  Oh yeah, and did I mention that the game has up to 108 playable characters?

suikoden_plotSuikoden is based off of the Chinese novel Shui Hu Zhuan (which basically translates to the same name) that tells a tale of politics, religion, revolution, and social unrest, which is somewhat common of Eastern storytelling in classic literature.  You play as a hero – named whatever you choose – that enters into the posh world of being the son of the empire’s top military officer.  It’s early in your life and no one respects you yet.  When your father travels off to the north to protect the borders, an adventure unfolds that has you not only questioning everything you know, but lands you as the rebel leader for the army opposing the empire.  There is, of course, a lot more to it than that, but for the sake of the review and your enjoyment with the game, we’ll leave it there.  From the very start you can tell that Suikoden is going to throw more characters at you than you may be used to.  Some of the earliest missions you partake on have you hot-swapping up to six characters, many of which will join your party along the way and you’ll be using in battle within moments.  By the time you come to storm the final area it is possible to have a whopping 108 character roster, all with different weapons, stats, abilities, combo moves, magic abilities, and places in the storyline.  It’s daunting to say the least and having now completed the game – I got the bad ending because I didn’t collect all 108 and meet other unmentioned criteria – I feel much less attached than I did with games like Final Fantasy that had me working with only four characters throughout the whole game or even Final Fantasy VI that expanded the list to more like 14.  It’s impossible to be able to wrap your head around each of these characters that you may spend as much as the whole game with and as little as, say, 10 minutes with others before they leave or are taken from you, that it shouldn’t shock you to discover some played this game off the cuff like me and yet others study the elaborate character profiles and spreadsheets online.  To Suikoden‘s credit, the game does keep a digital record of all your recruits and allows you to access this record before embarking on various missions, but I found that most of your characters depend so much on what level they are, what equipment they have, and who’s in your group that you really have to just get them in the field and see what happens.  This is why I found it hard to believe upon starting out that Jeremy Parish’s claim of only 15 hours for the main campaign in various Retronauts episodes to be true, and now I can safely say that it’s more like twice that amount and can easily expand into the 40-60 hour range if you plan on doing everything without a guide.  Still, with the straightforward manner in which your tasks are given to you, a guide won’t be that necessary for figuring out where to go or what to do.  Well, actually the next thing you need to do is always spelled out for you, but the finer points like getting certain characters, performing certain tasks, and simple things like figuring out how to use runes and items aren’t really explained at all.  So I guess you always know where to go but you’re not always prepared for what you find.

suikoden_battleBeyond the massive character army you amass, Suikoden is a rather basic JRPG from a gameplay standpoint.  You traverse and overhead map with items like mountains and seas blocking your path until certain criteria are met and will frequently find random encounters along the path.  Each encounter enters a battle screen where you get a standard list of menus to navigate your options and there is a thankful “free will” option that just has the computer fighting for you and selecting the enemies it sees fit.  It may be tough to trust at first, but save for a handful of rougher enemies at the end and boss battles, you’ll be getting rather bored by encounters that “free will” quickly becomes your best friend in the game because it gets the job done.  No more than six characters will be in your party at a time and your formation is a 2×3 grid of fighters with the back row needing ranged weapons or magics (known as runes in this title) to be able to do anything more than use items or defend themselves.  Don’t worry too much about that, because you’ll always have a good mix of melee and ranged fighters to have a proper six that can all be offensive and defensive from their positions provided you apply basic common sense to your party selection.  The rune system is a bit unique in that these runes are tethered to characters based on inventory slots and a special type of shop, but once associated allows for magic powers provided the character has available magic points.  This keeps magic a somewhat limited and not as often used resource as you may be used to in games almost anything from Square or Enix in a large part of the 90s.  It does, however, give you a better feel of how impressive a group heal spell or fire blast would be in real life were it to be used.  Most of your battles don’t really require runes or much logic to which enemy to hit as much as managing your barebones inventory for each character (you’ll constantly be swapping items between them) that includes your armor, runes, and if you have any room, one or two items to heal or revive people.  You can tell the developers hit this as a snag because instead of getting medicine for a single use heal you’ll get them in groups of six for each slot to be used for your various needs.  In short, it’s quite complicated for the rather rudimentary uses in battle.

suikoden_neclordAside from the massive character list the biggest draw to this title is the great storytelling, which is much more traditional to Eastern culture than most of the 16-bit generation’s localized JRPGs, but if you lived in Japan it would excel above many of the time.  I like traditional Chinese tales and enjoyed reading the classic books of the East like Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Journey to the West so the plot of Suikoden kept me pressing on.  From what I knew of the concept of the plot, a boy joining a rebellion and recruiting an army, and the initial dialogue decisions that you will make throughout the entire game, I was hoping for more of a Mass Effect flare from a time long ago.  That’s not really the case given that your recruitment of characters is often restricted to solitary task that could net you sometimes multiple characters, others being arbitrary items like winning a mini game, and the fact that despite having dialogue choices you’ll get stuck in loops until you pick the “right” option, it’s very straightforward.  You won’t have much time with the characters so I prefer to think of it as 50-75 short 5-15 minute stories as opposed to one epic saga, but there are a handful of dungeons and battles that will stand out in the main storyline.  One in particular was the assault on a fiend named Neclord who not only is an interesting villain and boss battle for himself, but his castle contains some of the more interesting minutia and enemy battles of the entire game.  In contrast, your final assault is an endless sea of boring encounters that are basically used to waste resources before going toe to toe with the big bad, who can be killed in a matter of moves provided you have the right people and abilities.

This battle screen is a new, but ultimately boring and rare change to the formula.

This battle screen is a new, but ultimately boring and rare change to the formula.

It may be because so much has come out since then or possibly even the fact that I already know Suikoden II takes these ideas and makes them so much richer, but I always felt like Suikoden was lacking from start to finish.  Every time it takes you down a path that could be interesting, introduces an interesting setting, or brings in a unique concept, it’s all wasted by almost immediately forcing you back into standard tropes of the JRPG.  I don’t know this for sure, but it felt like lack of confidence on the behalf of the developers and with hindsight as a factor today, makes me feel like the only real reason to play Suikoden is to appreciate the roots and secure that save file that comes in handy for the sequel.  I don’t much care about the evil emperor, the impending doom, and the endless cascades of opposition I’m going to face when I’m free to explore and examine the people I come in contact with and that I call brother or sister.  I think today’s RPGs tend to be acutely aware of this fact but still the trendsetters in Japan from the 90s understood this as well, but Suikoden wastes all its hard effort and sea of characters by making them afterthoughts to the boring big picture.  I wish I could say I am impressed or accomplished for playing this title but in the end all I feel is this sense of needing more.  Sadly I don’t have the time or really the desire right now to start the nearly hundred hour epic that is the sequel, but for those that are, the blueprints are set here and there’s still a lot to appreciate from one of Konami’s flagship JRPGs from the Playstation era.

Final Score: 3 out of 5  (review policy)

Looking for information on the game’s release, value, or a walkthrough?  Visit the profile page.

Written by Fred Rojas

May 29, 2015 at 1:23 pm

Posted in Playstation, PS3, PSP, Reviews, Vita

Tagged with ,

3 Responses

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  1. I remember all that I went through to recruit all those 108 playable characters, it was hard but incredibly rewarding. Oh, and the cooking mini game was great.


    June 8, 2015 at 2:22 am

  2. …So does the game have “great storytelling” that kept you “pressing on” or was the big picture boring and didn’t make care about the “evil emperor” and “impending doom”??


    November 3, 2021 at 9:28 am

    • Yes this game has great character development and storytelling, which to me was the core of continuing with it. I know some of the biggest fans also like the diversity of so many characters (and subsequent attributes of those characters) providing more of a true role playing experience. Since writing this review I’ve come to terms with the fact I don’t love traditional JRPGs and find turn-based battle systems to be a bore. I got to the end of my journey in about 45 hours and the fact that I stuck with it should speak to the storytelling. I would not do that today. Suikoden II ramps this even further, but having not played it personally, I’m often told it’s best played by first completing the original and importing that save into the sequel.

      Fred Rojas

      November 12, 2021 at 10:21 am

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