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The Water Margin
Suikoden actually features three different battle systems which are, in order of frequency: party battle, military battle, and the occasional duel. Party battles consist of your party trying to defeat the enemies and are similar to battles in most other RPGs. You can fight, guard, and use items, but magic is a little different. Each character can equip a rune which grants them a special ability like immunity to status effects, a powerful attack skill, or magic. The MP system is similar to Final Fantasy as each magic slot has its own MP. Certain characters can perform combination abilities when together in your party. These special attacks use the turns both characters, but they are powerful and sometimes have special effects such as hitting all enemies. Military battles are similar to rock paper scissors except with ninjas. You can use physical attacks, bow attacks, or magic attacks, each with its own strength and weakness. You get a few special units too such as strategists which raise your physical power and ninjas which spy on the enemy and see what their plans are. Duels are also similar to rock paper scisors. In order to win, the character you use needs to have good stats and you need to read the enemy dialog carefully to figure out what they're going to do next and gain an advantage. You can do a powerful attack, normal attack, or defend and the last fighter standing wins.
You gain exp based on how close your level is the enemy's level. Defeating a powerful enemy can result in gaining 10 levels in a single fight while defeating a weak enemy may not yield any exp at all. Since the game likes to keep you on or near a specific level as you progress through the game and adjust enemy difficulty accordingly, you're pretty much at their mercy as far as battle difficulty goes. For most of the game they tend to be quite generous and most enemies are easy if you have a balanced party. Military battles quickly become very easy as well with the addition of ninjas to your party as you can see what the enemy is planning and use an attack that's strong against it. Some of the later fights can even be won without a single casualty. Duels are all pretty easy as long as you pay careful attention to what your opponent says.
Some of the menus are a little strange, but the rest of the interaction is pretty good. It's easy to control the main character whether he's traveling on the world map, riding in a boat, or running through dungeons. It gets a little annoying always having to equip a special rune to run though. The dialog is pretty well done as well. No real complains here.
Suikoden is a very original game. Despite most of the basic battle systems coming from other RPGs, the military and duel battles are unique to Suikoden. In addition to these battles is the 108 character and castle system. As you gain more characters, your castle will gain many improvements. The storyline from the point of view of a military leader is fairly original as well.
While the viewpoint of the story is original, the actual story isn't that great. Though you gather 108 allies, very few of them have any major significance to the plot or even much personality. Each character is very limited in his or her effect on the story, especially optional characters. There are a number of characters that can't even participate in battle either. Luckily, the characters that do have an important role in the story are fairly well done. The story is decent overall, but there are a lot of missions that are almost exactly the same. Tons of 'so-and-so is a general that has an unbeatable attack, we have to collect the -insert item/unit here- in order to defeat him/her' missions.
While the music doesn't have a lot of variety, it isn't too bad. Sure there are a few themes that one gets tired of listening to repeatedly, but the rest are a little bit catchy, especially the military battle themes. The sound effects are pretty average, though some are quite good. I like how the sound of war in a military battle sounds like kids playing at recess since it helps distract you from the fact that they're killing each other. o_O
Most of Suikoden's visuals are average. Each character/enemy sprite is only slightly detailed and each animation has only a few frames. Backgrounds look good though, especially on the world map. Each character also has a portrait or two to help tell characters apart. While none of the visuals are stunning, they're decent overall.
The main thing Suikoden has going for it is the large number of original concepts. While it doesn't take advantage of it's full potential, it leaves the series with a lot of room for improvement. It was decent overall, but it's still worth playing if you're tired of traditional RPGs. It's also worth playing if you want to play Suikoden II to its full potential because some data carries over.
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