One of my glaring omissions in JRPG games would be the Suikoden franchise. Suikoden II in particular is often proclaimed as one of the greatest JRPG’s of all time and I’ve never taken the time out to play it. Well, nothing has changed because I didn’t play the first sequel but instead the original Suikoden.
In all honesty, I was expecting…more? Not that Suikoden is a bad game, but specifically in the narrative I was hoping for something a bit different and unique. Instead what came out was a JRPG set in a time of dragons and castles where you become a traitor to your empire after a mysterious individual came in and seemingly changed the Emperor of the kingdom. As the son of one of the great five generals of the Imperial Army, you are pretty well known for someone who hasn’t done much of anything up to this point in your life. It’s a typical plot one would see in these games, so that never carried me through the game.
Despite not liking the actual story all that much, it gave a reason for the thing I enjoyed the most about the game which is the recruitment process. Since you are a traitor to the empire, you take up the role of leader of the Liberation Army. Tasking yourself with fighting back against the empire, you set off to recruit other individuals around the land who would be willing to fight back and bring their forces to fend off the future battles. All together you can have a total of 108 main characters (including yourself) that can either be set as a party member in battle, used as merchants in your castle, a librarian, a vault keeper and more.
While some are easy enough to recruit by just finding them, others require certain characters to be at a high enough level. Some come through you for story purposes. Some won’t join until you have enough members in your army to have grown your castle to a new level. Whatever the reason, this type of recruitment mechanic hits the right part of my brain that I absolutely love. I found myself more invested with finding new characters to use than I did about the actual plot of Suikoden.
However, as one can imagine, there is a drawback to a roster this big. It’s the same problem a game like Chrono Cross ran into. When the gang can grow to this size, there isn’t much character development that comes with it. Unfortunately this is the case here as well. Very few of the characters actually had a background at all even referenced much less thoroughly detailed during the game. So it’s hard to be invested in the majority of the characters since Suikoden really didn’t give me any reason to do so.
The problem with the large roster doesn’t end there though. While not all 108 characters are playable, a good number of them are. This leads to more trouble than it’s worth when it comes to outfitting every character with the best armor or leveling up their weapon to max. It’s not necessary since you aren’t forced to use a good chunk of the characters, but it gives you even less reason to try them out. At some point it’s more trouble than it’s worth and by the late-game moments you kind of already have a feel for your favorite party members.
The other main problem I have with this large roster comes with the leveling system. Suikoden is surprisingly easy to get a character in the ballpark of where you need to be. There were times where I was forced to use a character who was 20-30 levels behind my main cast, and in almost no time were they at the same level or close to it to not be a detriment. Thankfully it’s easy to do that….but with a huge cast of characters…it kind of makes me wish that these characters would just auto-level even when they aren’t being used. It’s one of those draconian JRPG mechanics that needed to disappear long ago, and sadly, Suikoden came out during a time where that was still in full swing.
The battle system is mostly what you would expect from a JRPG from 1995. There are a couple things about it I want to note because I really liked it. First off, I enjoy when JRPG’s allow me to use a large number of characters in a battle. In Suikoden, it isn’t limited to three or even four, but instead up to six can be used in a fight. Also, depending on who you use, certain characters can use a “unite” move. This is a sort of special move between two characters to inflict more major damage than two separate attacks. Unfortunately I didn’t get to use this much as the characters I chose didn’t coordinate with each other.
The magic system is easily manipulated allowing for experimenting among characters. Instead of characters being limited based on what was programmed for them, characters can be attached with crystals that do two things. First are different sets of attacks. While most will provide types of magic and higher character levels unlock new magic attacks; some also allow for character boosts of some sort. The Counter Crystal for instance ups the chance to retaliate when being attacked or the Holy Crystal allows for the character to run (which should just be a standard option….). I both liked and disliked this approach because it’s nice not being tied down to any one thing, but some felt mandatory (like the dashing Holy Crystal). Perhaps if it allowed for multiple crystals to be equipped or have it where skills could be learned from crystals and then could be switched out to learn new ones…I don’t know, but I feel like it could be improved here.
Another thing worth mentioning in Suikoden was the bigger war moments. Several times during the game, there would be moments where your army goes up against the Imperial Army in an attempt to overthrow either a general or get a foothold in the region. If it wasn’t for the rock-paper-scissor approach to this, I would have enjoyed it more. There is some tactical ways to approach it (using ninja’s to detect moves for instance), but the chance involved made me hate this every time it came up. To use as an example, using a charge move is bad against magic. In a case like this, the charge never makes it through as the army just stands there as the magic attack goes through. A set-back like this can be pretty bad, and considering it’s held to chance, is not something I can get behind.
Reading through everything I just typed, I think I come across more negative than anything. Let me reiterate: I enjoyed Suikoden. Most of it was standard JRPG fare with some experimental things tossed in, and I can appreciate that. I had fun even though many things kind of irritated me. But it’s important for me to remember that the first Suikoden isn’t the game I’ve heard so much about. That would go to Suikoden II. Not knowing anything about it, I’m going to assume things are improved upon in the sequel. I’m hoping that is the case, because I do plan on playing Suikoden II at some point.