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How to Overthrow an Empire in 10 hours
By: James Enright
It's hard to remember just what we were doing in 1996. Or what we were playing for that matter. At the time, the SNES was heralded as the best system for RPG. Also, a recently released system called the "PlayStation" was quickly on the rise. RPG gaming was still not as mainstream as it is considered today; as they were still very much a niche genre. Enter Suikoden, developed by a company otherwise unknown at this point for making RPGs, Konami. Based on a Chinese myth about the 108 stars of destiny, this game came out of virtually nowhere. To this day, it remains a true cult classic. Today an alternative to Final Fantasy, the Suikoden series has formed its own niche among RPGamers.
Hypothetical situation: Your father, Teo McDohl, a General of the Scarlet Moon Empire, leaves on a campaign to the north, leaving you in charge of the household. Armed with only your caretakers/bodyguards, you begin to work for the Empire. However, after being sold out by a rotten commanding officer as traitors and acquiring an extremely destructive rune from your best friend, you join, and eventually lead a group of rebels opposed to the Scarlet Moon Empire called the Liberation Army. No wonder Dad doesn't leave home more often.
Originality was and is Suikoden's main selling point. The game's 108 characters were a first for RPGs. During most of the game though, it's best to be prepared to be hauled for a ride on the rails, with a few stops along the way; exceptions such as side quests and the like.
Plot-wise, Suikoden is one of the first games to break out of the "Mysterious Stranger Saving The World" mold. Instead, we have a more political, military-oriented story. A few hours into this main story, you and your entourage procure an abandoned castle, which becomes your base of operations for the duration of the game. This is where the great character hunt begins. In almost every town on the continent, there are characters willing to join your cause. Some of these characters provide useful services to the castle, such as shops, storehouses, and so on. In addition, after breaking a character cap, the castle gets an upgrade. Mind you, you don't actually get to build a castle Sim-City style, you just get a bigger, nicer looking home-base depending on how many characters you recruit. This has an adverse effect, as well. With so many characters, it's nearly impossible to feel an attchement to more than eight or so, neglecting the other 100 odd characters. Characterization is nearly impossible with so many personalities to highlight. This problem is made glaringly obvious by the game's dissapointing length. In addition, the main character suffers from "Silent Hero" syndrome, save for conversation branch choices. Yet another characterization problem to throw on the pile.
Suikoden's battles are both many in number and varied in type, ranging from a typical Console RPG menu-based battle system, to one-on-one duels, to large scale army battles. In a standard conflict game uses a six-character system, and somehow manages to stay remarkably fast. Abandoning the idea of a ATB system, all 6 characters act after the end of a turn. Each of the 108 characters is rated with a Short, Medium, or Long weapon. Short can only attack from the front row, Long from the back row, and medium from both.Magic is handled with Runes. The better someone's stat is in magic, the more spells they can use from that particular rune. These spells range from single-target spells to powerful full screen variations. Each of the four or so spells per rune has a certain number of uses, eliminating the need for MP.
Weapon shops are nowhere to be found in Suikoden. Instead, a trip to the blacksmith is necessary to sharpen them and raise their level. This can be more expensive than buying weapons in other RPGs, coupled with the fact that you'll be tempted to sharpen more than six characters' weapons. Standard sword and sorcery battles are not all that's offered here. Second up are the almost non-existent one-on-one duel battles. They're nothing but the main character versus an enemy. You select from Wild Attack, Heavy attack or Defend, and battle proceeds from there, much like a fighting game. It's a shame that there aren't more than four or these battles, they really are quite fun. Lastly, we have Army battles. These have been liberally borrowed from the Romancing SaGa series. They basically let you lead a large army. Think of it as a large scale duel, with thousands of troops. Assigning different characters to different units gives those units special skills, spells and formations which turn the tide of the battle.
If all these battles share one common characteristic, it's their difficulty level. Leveling a short time in any one part of the game leads to vast level differences between you and enemies, seeing as enemies don't level with your party. The leveling system automatically promotes a character after reaching 999 experience points, regardless of the level. All that changes is the amount of XP your characters earn for a battle. All the battles become too easy too quickly. That's right, Suikoden's almost frequent random battles are actually over long before you can find them annoying, which could be a plus or minus, depending on your outlook.
Menu crawling in Suikoden is probably how an average RPGamer would spend 40% of their game. A lot of time is wasted with the item storage system; Items are sorted by character, and each character has a limited amount of items which they may carry. Consumables are purchased "stacked", but that doesn't really save much more space. Most medicines, for example, come in stacks of six. On average, you'll use 2 per character. This requires you to stock up on a lot of healing items. So, no big deal, you can always buy more, right? Well...You'd rather be in a battle. Purchasing is in a word, Slow. Items cannot be bought in bulk, so if you want that nice armor for your whole party...well...Get ready to hit X a whole lot.
Speaking of slow, there's the case of Suikoden's world map. Your character typically travels as fast as a quick-moving glacier. There is a fix for your speed on the world map, but it requires a character in your team. The worst part of this is in part due to the warped amount of random battles on the world map. Even to take a trip for a minute or two, you're hit by at least 4 battles.
The music really makes up for shortcomings in combat or interface-wise. Regardless of the age of Suikoden, the music is still great to this day. The pieces range from epic, like the opening theme to haunting, pan flute-filled pieces when on a mountain map. There's nothing really to complain about musically. Everything is spot on in this case. The sounds, however, are a different story. I can understand there being very few sound effects in battle due to technology limitations, but hearing the same attack sound five times in a row can possibly invoke involuntary twitching in any gamer. The translation isn't too well done, as is the case usually with unhyped games like Suikoden. A lot of simple typos, grammatical errors, and syntax errors are combined in one big mess. These errors don't particularly detract from the gameplay experience. Most of them are just fun to chuckle at.
After the first time through the game, the only real reason to play through Suikoden again is to collect characters, and tie up any other side-quests not completed the first time. The former is important because of an interesting feature in the Suikoden series. You can upload your memory card data for extra goodies in Suikoden 2. So, at least one playthrough is necessary, two if you're a complete perfectionist.
Suikoden is a fairly simple game, generally suited to novice RPGamers, or diehard fans of the series that haven't played the first game yet. If you were to power level in the first few hours of the game, and keep all your weapons sharpened, a team could typically become Godlike. Suikoden remains a solid game overall, and is definitely a sleeper hit, though it is often overlooked because of its short length and inferior graphics. If you can look past its shortcomings, you'll have a game that sits in the back of your closet soon after you finish it, only to be dredged out once every blue moon to experience again.
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