Suikoden - Staff Retroview  

The Last Command
by Mike "JuMeSyn" Moehnke

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20-40 Hours
+ Enormous, playable cast
+ Quick-moving combat
+ Gathering 108 Stars is fun
- Rotten inventory
- Story fails to achieve what it tries
- Inconsistent encounter rate
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   Back in the early years of the PlayStation its RPG library was lacking compared to the Saturn in North America. What titles it did get in the period before Final Fantasy VII have not necessarily aged well, but usually in different ways than the polygon-pushing games of later years. Suikoden's reputation now is one of the better early PS1 RPGs, but it has a number of issues that firmly keep it a relic of its time. That does not make it unenjoyable, but certain aspects are quite annoying.

   Suikoden begins as the son of famed Imperial general Teo McDohl is being given his first assignments in the military. His introduction to relatively menial messenger tasks is interrupted when Ted, a friendly member of his entourage, is set upon by high-ranking Imperial soldiers. A Cursed Rune is what they seek, and Ted passes it on to the general's son in an effort to make certain undesirable people do not acquire it. Doing so puts him directly at odds with most of the Imperial leadership, and survival requires joining the small Liberation Army for support.

   Considering Suikoden's 1995 release date in Japan, its plot is entirely serviceable for the time. There are some twists to the already-standard story of fighting against a tyrannical empire to keep things interesting, and events move at a rapid pace. Much of what the plot tries to do nevertheless comes across as feeling underdeveloped, with several character deaths occurring so baldly that they lack the impact Konami's writers meant them to have. Numerous events transpire quickly and are promptly forgotten, while Konami's localization was workmanlike at the time but has aged badly. Suikoden's story is still interesting, but does not meet the potential of its setting.

   A significant portion of the game deals with gathering the 108 Stars of Destiny for which the Suikoden series is known, and doing so is a rather absorbing undertaking. Plenty of characters join automatically as the game progresses, and finding most of the holdouts is easily done. Getting everyone to join will require quite a bit of effort for a worthwhile result. Since it was being developed at the height of 16-bit RPGs, deep characterizations of everyone in the party will not be found, but they manage to feel distinctive instead of generic. Seeing the castle housing these personages along with its population is quite absorbing.

As another Valeria once said, "Yoo und yoo dawta aah dwoomed!" As another Valeria once said, "Yoo und yoo dawta aah dwoomed!"

   Getting plenty of characters directly affects combat since most of them can participate in battle, and a top party size of six allows plenty of experimentation. Battles themselves are turn-based affairs plagued by an inconsistent encounter rate for random foes, such that it can be difficult to tell whether an area has any enemies for long stretches. Character actions are carried out quickly in battle and the spoils of victory are provided efficiently, making fights go past in a pleasantly streamlined fashion. Inaugurating a tradition for the series, there are also occasional army battles and duels, which are governed by rock-paper-scissors rules and easy to win by paying attention, but supply an enjoyable variety to the proceedings.

   One aspect of Suikoden that will tamp down player desire to experiment with new characters is its wretched interface. The lack of diagonal movement is odd but hardly a game-breaker, yet it is just the beginning of Suikoden's issues. Its most grievous culprit is the item management, which grants every character ten slots including equipment and mandates time-consuming swaps whenever one character's inventory is full. Simply buying a piece of new equipment will place it into the character's inventory and nothing more — one must go into the menu to equip the new material, then get rid of the now-outmoded pieces in another chat to the store operator. The player will constantly have people dictated by the plot thrown into the party, and whenever this happens to someone new it necessitates spending time and money kitting that character properly. Switching items from characters no longer in the party is a handy ability, but even more bothersome than simply trading them among the active members. Travel is another annoying interface aspect, since teleportation is only possible from the castle where all the characters gather, and the game requires quite a bit of hopping between locations.

   Suikoden leaves no doubt with its visuals as to its development era. Chrono Trigger was a contemporary in Japan, and its graphical prowess was actually more impressive on the SNES than Suikoden achieves on the PlayStation. On the other hand, its sprites and hand-drawn environments are much less eye-searing than what some developers would achieve with polygons in the near future.

Don Don't let the size be intimidating; even giant mosquitoes are easily swatted.

   Suikoden's music covers a wide range of styles, and some of the tracks are definite earworms. Not everything in the score is great, and the battle music gets a little tiresome. The quintet of composers fortunately did a fine job of keeping most music varied and interesting, giving players a good reason to keep the volume up. Sound effects get the job done in occasionally odd ways, such as an unachievable selection in a menu being greeted with a duck quack, but at least are not irritating.

   Getting a good ending in Suikoden requires gathering all 108 Stars of Destiny, and doing that will probably stretch completion time to a little over twenty hours. Simply barreling through without paying heed to Stargazing could easily be done in fifteen or less, given that the plot unfolds quickly and the combat is not deadly enough to require massive level grinding. There's something positive to be said about a game that doesn't overstay its welcome, and this one ending sooner than it could is pleasant.

   Among the crop of early PlayStation RPGs, Suikoden certainly stood tall at the time. Playing it today is not an arduous undertaking, and I can see certain aspects being refined in the future installments of the series. This first one, though, seems rather underwhelming. Not a bad game, but not a classic every RPGamer needs to experience either.

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