Better late than never
I know what you're thinking. "What is he doing reviewing a game that's almost five years old?" If you've been following the mood in my recent reviews (*cough* FFX *cough*) and in our discussions in the old forum, you'd know that I'm unhappy with the direction that RPGs are heading towards today. So what's the cure for this kind of discontent? Return to your roots. Return to the things that make you happy! This came in the form of Suikoden II. For those of you not in the know, Suikoden II was released back in 1999 along with Driver and Star Ocean 2 for the original Playstation. I can vividly remember that time because it was when I bought Star Ocean 2 and was enlightened forever. Heck, I can even remember standing in line at the Funcoland in Southland Mall and looking at the Recent Releases whiteboard where it announced Suikoden II's release. Now I'm not here to discuss my reasons for choosing Star Ocean over Suikoden, instead I am here to praise the game for providing an experience not easily duplicated. Having never played the original Suikoden, this review will represent a "first impression" approach, so I will not compare it directly to its predecessor. |
Unlike many RPGs, the Suikoden series is rich with history and background. Even though the series has only had a few games, the story is undoubtedly one of its biggest strengths. It's going to be difficult for me to make any sense out of the game without first explaining some of the background, so please, bear with me. The series is loosely based on the classic Chinese novel, Shui Hu Zhuan (Water Margin, Outlaws of the Marsh) in that it uses the same idea of the 108 Stars of Destiny. In the game, gathering all 108 stars is essential to victory during conflict, which is why the series boasts tons of playable characters. Before discussing the story, I will list the major nations involved in the Suikoden world. There is the Highland Kingdom, The City-State of Jowston; which is made up of an alliance between several cities sharing the same continent, The Holy Kingdom of Harmonia, The Toran Republic, Zexen, and the Island Nations. The latter two have very little exposure in the series, however. In the first Suikoden, the Gate Rune Wars took place and the hero, Tir McDohl led the Toran Liberation Army to victory against the Scarlet Moon Empire. The Jowston City-State engaged in conflict against the Scarlet Moon Empire as well, but ended up losing the territory they had taken over. This sets the stage for the second game. After suffering crushing defeats, the Jowston City-State begins to break apart and distrust becomes rampant. It is this distrust that gives one of the neighbors of the Jowston City-State, the Highland empire, the signal to begin their move to expand their empire and take over the entire continent.
Now Suikoden II's story begins to pick up. The story revolves around the two major characters, Riou and Jowy. All of the events are seen through their eyes and are affected by their actions. In the beginning, they are patriotic Highlanders who join the Unicorn Youth Brigade to aid in the war effort. At the very start of the game, the City-State has signed a peace treaty with the Highland Kingdom and the war seemed to be coming to an end. Unfortunately, Luca Blight, one of the members of the Highland Royal Family, has a grudge against the City-State, so in order to keep the war raging, he orchestrates the massacre of the Unicorn Brigade by his own troops disguised as State soldiers. Needless to say,the brutal slaughter of innocent teenagers was more than enough to rekindle the conflict. Luckily for Riou and Jowy, they narrowly escape the killing and the Dunan Unification War begins. Keep in mind that this is only the beginning of the game! I refuse to say more because the story gets better as the game progresses. Riou later reunites with his sister Nanami and the three find themselves in the middle of a full scale war. (Note: I list the hero's name as Riou for uniformity. You actually get to name him yourself, but this is the name he is given in the novels released in Japan.)
Konami also does an amazing job developing the characters. Their fears, inhibitions, joys, and feelings are made known to the gamer and this helps us connect with them better. Their world is at war and you can feel the apprehension, which enriches the game's atmosphere. Since the three main characters are kids, they don't want to be war heroes, but their lineage and their fate keeps them from escaping. By the end of the game, the characters feel so real that you have trouble believing that it is all finally over. Hell, I haven't felt this way since I played Final Fantasy VII and Star Ocean! It's all very difficult to explain in words because you must truly experience this to know it. This is the very definition of character development and I couldn't ask for more.
Suikoden II's graphics are somewhat of a mixed bag. Some might say it's a welcome throwback to the better days of the 16-bit era and some may say it's a step back from the time's standards. Unlike Star Ocean 2 or Final Fantasy 8, Suikoden II does not use pre-rendered backdrops for the game's locations. Instead, it uses old fashioned 2D sprites for practically everything with the exception of the battle scenes. During the battle scenes, your characters' sprites are placed on a 3D background and the sprites simply perform their actions. When Runes are used in the battle, the spell animations are illustrated with basic 3D effects like rays, shapes, and colored lighting. The combat sprites are the only things I had a problem with, they look very pixellated and they look almost like a smear of colors when the camera zooms in during critical hits. Having played Star Ocean 2, I can't help but compare the two; with Star Ocean coming out victorious by a wide margin. While some may dislike the 16-bit era visuals, I enjoyed them immensely. There's just that charm to 16-bit that never ceases to flatter me. The character sprites are very well made (especially since there's 108+ of them!) and the locations are just beautiful. It may be different strokes for different folks when it comes to the graphics, but this is proof that state-of-the-art visuals don't make a game, no matter the genre.
There's not much to say about the sounds except that they do their job. They're far from stellar as some of the effects can sound as if they were recorded with a cassette player. This doesn't bother me much since it is only evident during the battles, so it does not detract from the experience at all. The music on the other hand, is some of the best I've heard since Final Fantasy 6 and 7. The battle themes are amazing, especially the Neclord battle theme, which is an unusual mix of Techno and classical Bach! Some of the city songs are great as well, tracks such as "If You Listen", "Kyaro", and "Teo's Manor" are incredible to listen to. The ending theme "La Passione Commuove La Storia" is almost indescribable. It's entirely in Italian, but if you translate the lyrics into English, I am sure you will be inspired. The soundtrack does what any good soundtrack should do: touch your mind, heart, and soul. Though the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern-ish flavor of some of the tracks may not appeal to everyone, they add a good amount of diversity to the package.
The gameplay is where the Suikoden series really shines. There's so much to say about it that it can't possibly fit in one paragraph! Unlike traditional RPGs, the series adds a few modes of play that are unique to its universe. In addition to the usual battle mode, there's also the war mode and the duel mode. Since the Suikoden world revolves around war, it's a no-brainer that a separate mode is included for it. The War mode is nowhere as complex as Romance of the Three Kingdoms or even Advance Wars; it's more or less a spiced up game of chess. You have your infantry and your cavalry units which are allowed to move a certain amount of squares in the field, with the cavalry having the ability to move the most (for obvious reasons). Depending on which characters you have in a certain unit, your troops will be able to perform special actions such as healing, spellcasting, archery, critical hits, etc. Each unit also has an Attack and Defense statistic, which, as far as I know, has no effect on a battle's outcome. Some units with a ton of attack often fail to damage even the weakest of units and vice-versa. This mode definitely could use some tweaking, not to mention more play since you can't start off a random battle for fun. Then there's the Duel Mode, where the main character has to battle another character mano a mano, without healing or spells. It looks like a regular battle except only two characters are on screen and you are given three options: Attack, Defend, and Wild Attack. These battles can be very invigorating, especially since the opponent occasionally slings insults at you. Unfortunately, the Duels are reserved for special characters only, hence duels are very rare. The regular battle mode is pretty self-explanatory. You can have a party of six and you can either fight, defend, use a rune, or do a Unite attack. The Unite attacks are special attacks that can be performed by two or more people (usually characters that have some kind of relation). For example, Riou and Nanami can do the Family ATK, which is basically a double team on an a single opponent, resulting in double damage (Interesting note: sometimes Nanami slacks off during the attack and has a picnic instead, which ends up healing her after the attack). The battlefield is split into the front and rear ranks, which adds a level of complexity because only a handful of characters can attack from the rear and only ranged characters or spellcasters can attack the rear rank.
Another feature of the game's unique gameplay is the 108 Stars of Destiny. While the game doesn't force you to find all 108 characters, it's a good way of getting the player to go out and explore the world. Just like in real life, you will meet a bevy of people in your travels and if you're lucky, you can get them to join your cause. Some characters join with little or no effort at all while others require some special action or item that will sway their decision. All 108 characters are totally unique, in addition to having their own sprite and avatar, they also have their own personality and style. Not all 108 characters are usable in your party, some lend their skills in your castle (which we'll discuss later) or during war skirmishes. Over 70 of the 108 characters can be used in your personal party. Such a huge number of oddballs adds a degree of customizability to each player's game, since some people will undoubtedly have different tastes in their party members' personalities. The purpose of the 108 characters is often debated because as opposed to the original game (or so I'm told), the reason for the existence of 108 characters is never really explained. Nevertheless, I appreciated this feature because it makes the world feel alive and it is another addition to the atmosphere (this IS a war, after all. Why shouldn't people volunteer their services?).
Much like Breath of Fire II, the player is also given a base of operations. If you can recall, Breath of Fire II gives you a small village to build up as you progress through the game. In Suikoden II, you are given a castle that grows as you recruit more and more members. The castle serves as your base of operations in the war and it includes everything from a bath house to minigames. What's more important is that it matures along with you. When you first acquire the castle, you only have two floors and the hallways are fairly empty. After recruiting more characters, it balloons all the way to five floors and people from all over the land are hanging around your many rooms and hallways. The castle is the nexus where all of your characters gather and you can speak to all of them and see what they're up to or you can play a minigame and win prizes. One minigame that stood out was the Iron Chef-like tournaments, where the army chef, Hai Yo battles against his rivals to gain recipes and spread his philosophy of cooking. It's almost as if the castle is an entire game unto itself, so it beefs up the the hours of gameplay by a hefty amount.
With all of these incredible features, you'd think the game was perfect, but sadly, that isn't the case. One of the game's major faults is its translation. The script is not badly written by any means; it's very humorous and fitting, but it's laden with errors that are simply unforgivable. Konami's rush to get the game on the shelves on time resulted in the WORST translation I've ever come across by far. Character names are misspelled so frequently, that it makes it hard to remember the correct spelling. Viktor is mispelled as Victor and Han Cunningham was referred to as Hal Cunningham, so on and so forth. Common grammar errors such as missing plurals and punctuation marks also occur frequently. Then there was this woman in Greenhill that said that the city's mayor (who is a also woman, mind you) was dreamy! I don't care how much you admire a person, you don't say they're dreamy unless they are of the opposite sex. It's amazing how it was even possible for the plot to be revealed with so much glaring errors. Seriously, this is about the only thing that detracted from the entire experience and it's enough to destroy the game's near-perfect atmosphere.
Even with the dismal translation, Suikoden II was one of the most enjoyable experiences I've ever had the pleasure of having. I can't for the life of me figure out why I missed this game back in 1999. It's proof of the fact that truly great games remain this way no matter the time period. Graphics are replaced every few months, but the gameplay and the experience remain eternal. It's a shame the game only lasted for 38 hours; if it was possible, I'd love to be trapped in the Suikoden world. Unfortunately, you may have a hard time finding a copy of the game, since it's been out of print for years. About the only place you can find a copy is Ebay, where they sell for an average of $50-plus dollars. Is it worth the money? Yes. I'm kicking myself for not securing a copy when it came out. Consider me a Suikoden fan from this day forth and I can't wait to play the third offering.
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