Review by Zotmaster

Reviewed: 05/14/06

A beautiful girl with two black eyes

Once upon a time, there was Suikoden, and it was good.

Then came Suikoden II, and it was great.

After that came Suikoden III, and it was epic.

A while later came Suikoden IV, and this one was, well, not so good.

Then came Suikoden Tactics, and it was largely good for yawns.

While the series doesn't exactly show signs of stopping, it was clear that this latest installment was clearly meant to put Suikoden back on both the path of redemption and the path of greatness. While the series certainly has its die-hard fans - and I count myself in as one of them - it still doesn't have the mass-appeal of, well, Final Fantasy. This Suikoden returns to its roots in more ways than one, and that's both very good and very bad. What results here is a shame: the game could have been so much better.

Story: The story can be broken down fairly simply. You're the Prince of the Kingdom of Falena. Your parents are pretty cool but tensions are mounting as seeds of disloyalty are being sown among your people. Add in a sinister plot to plant a usurper as next in line for the throne, and out you go, fleeing your own kingdom and eventually working to get it back. Of course, that's easier said than done, and you're going to have to fight some major battles and count on up to 108 people to help you out along the way.

The story does have a few twists, but it is, for the most part, largely predictable fare. Any Suikoden vet will already know what's going to happen, and even new players will probably be able to guess a few of the game's plot twists. The flip side is some of the supporting characters are developed really well. Within those supporting characters are twists that you won't expect, and I enjoyed seeing their personalities flesh out over the course of the game.

The problem, however, is that the main character is not one of these people are developed really well. Konami still doesn't understand that silent heroes are ill-conducive to a fully developed story. The only Suikoden with talking main characters, Suikoden III, tells you more about its main characters in the first 20 minutes of gameplay than you will get from 50 to 60 hours of playing V. That's a problem.

The thing is, here, is we are being told a story. While you can occasionally choose dialogue options, you do not have the freedom to go and do as you please. In games that do give you that freedom, such as, say, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, it is perfectly fine to have a silent character since it is, essentially, you, and you go wherever you want and do whatever you want. However, that is not the case here, and the story greatly suffers because of it. Think of it this way: would anyone have cared about Final Fantasy VII if all we knew about Cloud came from Tifa and Aeris, and we never knew why Cloud did the things he did? Would we have been drawn in to Ramza's bitter struggle in Final Fantasy Tactics if it was up to Delita to tell us about him? What would a book be without a narrator?

In fairness, the Prince stands head and shoulders above other silent heroes in terms of character development, but that's really not saying much. There's a reason why wooden heroes are largely becoming a thing of the past: better stories are told with characters who speak.

The story also starts out fairly slowly, which is going to irritate some people greatly. Thankfully, the story does pick up and get interesting...after the first couple of hours. The problem, though, is the most compelling scenes in the game either have nothing to do with the hero at all, or feature him out of the spotlight. It kind of defeats the point of making the hero important. Konami needs to wise up.

Graphics: Honestly, I think this is a big step down from Suikoden IV, and, in ways, even Suikoden III. The big problem with Suikoden III's camera was that you couldn't control it, but you could always see what was right in front of you in good detail since it was right behind you. I thought IV did a great job of fixing this by allowing you to rotate the camera as you pleased. Apparently, Konami did not like the idea and settled with a fairly distant overhead view. The camera can zoom in, but if you do that, it's then too close to the action. There is no happy medium. You will miss lots of details at any range, and the backgrounds look pretty dull and vanilla. Worse, a lot of the Stars of Destiny look like fairly normal people at a distance, so don't be surprised if you end up, quite literally, running past many of them. That shouldn't happen. Even the menu interface is ugly and convoluted, actually requiring something of a learning curve to master.

On the flip side, though, once you get in close, the character models are fairly excellent. A lot of them sport a lot of detail and some are designed quite creatively, even though I wouldn't want to move too quickly or suddenly if my name was Sialeeds. This is especially true in the cutscenes. While characters don't quite seem human as of yet, Konami's getting there, and they still look good in these scenes. It's just a shame that the rest of the game is, in all honesty, fairly unsatisfying to look at. Even the spell animations, which are usually pretty cool, are lackluster and boring in this installment. I wish I knew what went wrong.

Sound: Quite honestly, music and sound has never been a strong point for the Suikoden series, and it still isn't in this installment. That's not to say that the music is bad, but it's nothing that will really stick in your head when you're done playing it, unlike, say, Magus's Theme, among others, in Chrono Trigger. The few plus signs in the music selection are played often enough that they will quickly lose their novelty.

On the sound effects side of things, welcome to Generica. It's not a broad generalization to say it's nothing you haven't heard before: it's the truth. You've heard swords, you've heard grunts, you've heard lightning bolts, and you've heard footsteps. Simply put, you've heard it all.

The voice acting is also largely a miss. The best voice actors in the game are passable. The worst voice actors in the game are laughably bad. Fortunately, the competent voice actors tend to have the most speaking parts in the game, but there are still a few awful actors who do have a few things to say over the course of the game. Also, there is not a lot of voice acting. I understand that Suikoden introduces more new characters in one game than most RPGs do in three installments, but if you're going to do it that way, there's no excuse for skimping on quality, as Konami has done here. Worse, sometimes the music plays too loudly in the cutscenes, so certain quiet voice actors go completely unheard if you don't use subtitles.

Most awkward, though, are the very odd transitions during cutscenes. Many scenes start out with full voice acting, hit a loading screen, then switch to all text. It's always odd, never makes sense, and disrupts any flow or momentum the scene may have built up.

Gameplay: Suikoden is Suikoden. The series just hit its tenth anniversary this year, and I'll be damned if I can find any discernible difference in gameplay between the first game and this one. You still have six character parties fighting turn-based random battles when they're not doing strategy battles or dueling. Characters still have up to three rune slots, with mostly the same runes going in them (which, in and of itself, is not inherently bad).

Moreover, the game still is not, in any way, shape, or form, challenging. Suikoden has never been a difficult series, and this one is almost laughably easy. The one semi-major twist to the battle system - Formations - actually makes the fights even easier. Basically, you can just use two formations: one formation to kill all enemies on the first turn, and one formation that can kill one large enemy on the first turn. A well-built party will tear up just about every boss in the game on the first or second turn. In fact, if not for a built-in damage cap, the final boss would be killable on the first attack. Players should have to work at least a little bit to progress through the game, but I can't picture any Suikoden veteran having any problems whatsoever. The battle system needs a serious overhaul: the only difference there has ever really been was Suikoden III's Pairs System, which a lot of people didn't like. Still, the game is ten years old: it needs new life breathed into it.

The duels, this time around, are almost interesting. It still uses the exact same rock-paper-scissors system it's always used, but this time, you only have a few seconds to make a choice. No, really, that's it. The characters at least move around this time, but other than that, no changes.

The strategy battles are the only gameplay element that really changes from game to game. Basically, you can assemble unit types from up to three characters per unit, but it still falls, more or less, under the exact same rock-paper-scissors system. Add in lots of preemptive special attacks that deal massive damage, and you can win almost all of them without taking a single casualty. The only game to really offer a difference? You guessed it: Suikoden III. More random factors would really make the strategy battles a whole lot more interesting, but too bad. Better luck next time.

As for recruiting Stars of Destiny, well...usually it's way too easy to recruit all of them. This time, it's way too hard. I challenge anyone to find all 108 of them without using a guide. Some characters are only available to be recruited for literally five minutes, and then can never be recruited again, if you're progressing through story events. While I like taking time to hunt for allies, prepare to literally scour the world every time something happens if you don't want to miss anything. Far from fun, it too often becomes tedious.

Bottom Line: I love this series. I really do. The game has some length to it, and you will want to play it through to the end, but you won't do it for the hero. This game should be so much better than it is. Konami needs to learn not to fix what isn't broken, and breathe new life into what is. Purists will even play the game again - enjoying a New Game+ feature - just to see the different endings. Why not make the game more enjoyable while those players are at it? Make the heroes talk! Make the heroes talk! Make the heroes talk! Suikoden pulls you in with story, so make it better! Past that, the gameplay needs an overhaul too. I enjoyed this game a lot, really I did, but there are so many ways it could have been better. I hope the next one is.

Graphics: 8
Sound: 7
Innovation: 5
Gameplay: 8
Replay Value: 9
Overall: 83, rounded down to an 8/10

Rating:   4.0 - Great

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