I must say this is a first, reviewing the ‘new’ release of a 19 year game from a platform that’s over 2 decades old. Gamers and critics everywhere are going bloody loopy over a Playstation game that had its run back in 1997 to fairly big success, yet it’s a title that has universal acclaim from those that remember it fondly, enough so to deem a digital release on the Playstation Network. What’s even barmier is that it spawned a sequel that was a commercial bomb, however that said game is apparently one of the finest JRPGs ever made … but how have I never heard of this series. In all fairness when this series launched I was only 7 years old and nothing other than Crash Bandicoot, Pandemonium or the Die Hard Trilogy got a look in on the console; plus for all I knew a JRPG was an injection I needed to fight measles or cholera. I must shamefully admit that I was introduced to RPGs very late but it was only this year that I realised I’ve perhaps missed the single most significant role playing game ever discovered, but not because it was the single greatest game ever produced, but because it created a sequel that arguably is.
Suikoden originally released on Playstation in Japan back in 1995 and now 2 decades later Konami have re-released it digitally on the Playstation Network for all of Europe to enjoy. If you’re like me and this tale completely escaped you, Suikoden follows a young hero, the son of a great and respected General of the Imperial Army that has to question his beliefs and chose his own destiny. As your Father heads North to secure the kingdom’s border, you are quickly caught up in a land of corruption as you watch close friend Ted be left for dead by the captain in charge. On his death bed, Ted passes a mysterious Rune to you, a powerful artefact containing unimaginable dark power, to which he asks you to restore light in a darkened world. Thus begins your adventure, banished from your home, a fugitive of the Imperial Army and without a cause or reason to fight. Our Hero stumbles across the low key and few in numbers ‘Liberation Army’, who gives him the power to overthrow the Imperials and eventually an army to control. Though initially it sounds like a fairly standard plot line for an RPG, you quickly discover that this is unlike any other you’ve ever played, which is strange as the game is so old yet seems so far ahead of its predecessors.
Having only ever controlled a maximum of 4 characters at a time during an average turn based battle system, I was rather surprised to find I could control 6 warriors at once on 2 separate lines of offence, “oooo this is new” I said to myself. As you control 2 rows of command per battle, each of your characters will have a specific requirement on where they can be placed in relation to their reach of attack, Short, Medium or Long; there’s no need to go into grave detail but to put it simply you won’t succeed if you put a Short range character at the back. As with most things, adding in interesting elements of a game can mean other existing elements can get away with being simpler, hence my shock when I discovered you have the same weapon from start to finish. No more are those difficult decisions on whether to blow all your dosh on that expensive sword you can’t equip just yet or just save up for a better one a few hours down the line, in the world of Suikoden you simply ‘sharpen’ or upgrade the weapon you begin with, with each upgrading being more expensive than the previous one, simples.
By far the most impressive feature of Suikoden, which flows into its sequel, is the sheer scale of its cast. It’s fair to say that in most RPG’s the cast list doesn’t tend to exceed a dozen or so playable characters, however even back in 1995 Konami gave you the opportunity to discover 108 characters scattered throughout the land, each at your disposal. A huge theme in the game other than squashing the imperial scum, is to locate the 108 Stars of Destiny, or in idiot form, 108 people who will fight for your cause. A good chunk of your warriors are unlocked through playing the campaign, however most of them require you to sniff them out as they could be hiding anywhere. To add a level of difficulty and cheekiness not found in your average Nandos, not every star of destiny joins you through a simple chat, nor do they necessarily indicate what you must do in order to lure them over, whether it’s by reaching a particular level or by having a particular bloke in your party, it’s up to you to work it out. Now of course not every character is different from one another, anyone who fights with a sword will more or less act the same, likewise sticks, bows and magic but the real treat is in what combination you fight with. Amongst your typical attack, defend, item commands, if you’re lucky you’ll stumble upon ‘Unite’, which unfortunately for your enemy means you’re about to kick its ass! When 2 characters are in the party together that are compatible for a combined attack, by selecting ‘Unite’ you’ll be subjected to an awesome and super powerful joint attack that can be used as much as you please per match. If you’re flabbergasted by the idea of obtaining 107 additional fighters to stand alongside you, prepare to have your jaw hit the floor when I tell you can actually control tens of thousands of characters … well kind of. Once you have progressed enough into the narrative you will gain control of a several thousand manned army, and using the perfect strategy can make all the difference against your enemy which commands twice the power as you. Rather than simply charging at every opportunity, you can improve your teams’ moral to boost stats, you can use bows or magic to chip away their defence, or alternatively you can send in scouts and messengers to predict their next attack to counter their efforts. There really is a lot to love about Suikoden’s gameplay, yet it sadly doesn’t come without its discrepancies.
Very early on the game you get the sense of feeling lost, not emotionally, but literally, you’re standing in the middle of a large country and you genuinely have no idea where you’re supposed to go. Suikoden to me is a game for the RPG elitists, people who don’t need walkthroughs or assistance and know exactly what to do from every cutscene or conversation, yet for casual fans like myself, I need a bit more direction on what I’m supposed to do. Too many times within the first few hours I was stumped as to which town I had to visit next as you are given no guidance what so ever and if you weren’t concentrating during a conversation, you’ll miss the vague help you received from NPCs; no joke I spent 30 minutes walking through a dense forest before realising I only had to go upstairs from the castle I was in previously. I feel like I’m cheating a game sometimes when I use a walkthrough but I felt like I was using one a little too much just to find my feet in the game as the ambiguous mission instructions left me scratching my head and pausing my otherwise enjoyable experience.
A lot of gems from the last generation of gaming can now begin to look a little dated, never mind the ones from several generations ago, however Suikoden if anything looks right and more relevant now than it did 19 years ago. I played the entire game on my Vita, which along with the 3DS and even the PS4 has had its fair share of new retro looking games being released today. When you have games such as Shovel Knight or Hotline Miami finding a special place in many a critics’ hearts, then it shouldn’t surprise you that Suikoden looks as fresh and common place as these do. Sure it’s dead old, but it’s still vibrant, its action packed and it withstands the tests of time that games released 10 years afterwards cannot. Not only am I sucker for a game’s narrative, but I too have a strong passion towards a game’s soundtrack and it was a pleasure to discover that Suikoden’s original score has too survived the turmoil of going digital. When you succumb yourself to an RPG, you spend most of your time walking and sailing, so you need that game’s soundtrack to be your travel companion, some games nail it (Ni No Kuni in particular has a beautiful score) and believe it or not this 2D adventure from the Sega Saturn days too has a remarkable score that almost illustrates the tale in more ways than I expected.
Suikoden in all honesty far passed my expectations as to how I would enjoy a franchise I’ve never heard from a console generation which hasn’t been revisited in quite some time. Though it’s not the lengthiest RPG known to man, it holds a deep, moving and romantic tale of justice and following your destiny. Visually it’s not impressive by modern standards, yet it oddly looks and sounds like it was developed by an indie studio which plays perfectly on the Playstation Vita, which I highly recommend as the platform you chose to play this on. For what initially looks like your typical JRPG, it couldn’t be any more unique with its intriguing battle system, its captivating Army Battlefield fights and the chance to control more than your fair share of eager warriors waiting to die for your cause. If you can get past the character that refuses to move at a speedy pace and the sometimes vague direction instructions, you will very quickly fall in love with everything this title has to offer. If anything you should play Suikoden just so you can stroll into what is believed to be “the greatest RPG ever made”(Kotaku), from what I’ve heard I’ll be a wreck once I’ve finished Suikoden II … wish me luck.
Disclaimer:All scores given within our reviews are based on the artist’s personal opinion; this should in no way impede your decision to purchase the game.