Suikoden III - Review

Bittersweet scars left by unfulfilled expectations

By: Phillipe Richer

Review Breakdown
   Battle System 8
   Interface 9
   Music/Sound 5
   Originality 9
   Plot 5
   Localization 7
   Replay Value 6
   Visuals 7
   Difficulty Hard
   Time to Complete

65-80 hours


Suikoden III

   The expectations for Suikoden III were high. The growing fan base for the series combined with a long period of anticipation placed the bar high for Suikoden III. Perhaps the standards were set a little too high. The series always had issues, but the incredible music and detailed storyline were the major points which stuck with RPGamers after playing both Suikoden I and Suikoden II. While Suikoden III certainly is a great RPG for many reasons, one can only wonder just how great it could have been if some of the critical elements were improved.

   The game's storyline continues 50 years after the plot of Suikoden II. After ongoing skirmishes between the Zexen Federation and the Grasslands, the legend of an old hero resurfaces, one who is destined to bury the ax of war and establish a new world order. It is up to three unforeseen heroes, Chris, Hugo, and Geddoe, to uncover the truth behind the Flame Champion.

   The battle system has been completely revamped. Again, you'll have the possibility of forming a party of up to six combatants, although you can now bring along a supporting character who will lend his or her skills outside of battle. The one thing you will instantly notice is that you can only assign only three commands per turn. You can't use six runes at once or six items either. If you select any action aside from defending, the other character in that team of two will automatically attack. Pairing your characters well is more important then ever, not only because it's the only way to use the pair's united attack, but also because you have to know the innate battle personality of each character. The attack range component is gone, so if you always wanted a powerhouse party, it's now possible.

Challenging battles packed with strategy. Don't fret; the
Challenging battles packed with strategy. Don't fret; the "auto" feature is still present.  

   Characters must move towards their target to deal their blow, and won't return to their original position. If an enemy or ally is surrounded by friendly characters, they will remain untouchable by physical assaults. The big consequence of moving-in to attack is that some spells now have an area of effect - and friendly-fire is enabled. Since selecting a rune spell will cause your other character to move towards the enemy, you must always be aware of what you're doing in order to prevent sudden death. Most characters will move away an ally's spell, but the chance of them staying in the radius of damage is still great. Just allowing three commands per turn brought a lot of strategy into Suikoden III's battles. The game's relatively high difficulty level is also welcome when compared to the recent pool of easy-as-pie games.

   Spells also have a chanting period which varies in accordance to a character's proficiency with a type of rune. If you're attacked while chanting you may just see your spell canceled; creating great problems for healers. Another innovation is the inclusion of upgradeable skills ranging from increased physical damage to higher proficiency with a type of rune. Your active characters will gain skill points after every battle, and you can then spend those points in education or training centers for either physical or magical skills. Characters can equip anywhere from three to eight skills. This feature allows for thorough customization and gives greater incentive to level-building, which has never been really useful in the past. The effect of restorative items can now be split between two characters of the same team, a nifty idea which will save your life many times. Overall, there have been great improvements, except for the battle speed which decreased due to constant roaming.

   Duels are back without much change, aside from a sort of stress bar which marginally incapacitates a character after successive failures. The biggest letdown, however, is found in the major battles. Those war sequences are now nothing more than normal battles with more restrictions. You move your troops (composed of only four characters) along dotted points, and once clashing with the enemy you select one of three options: attack, defend, or retreat. Defending is useless, and attacking gives control of your characters' to the CPU. The only strategy behind these battles is to know when to retreat. Even more appalling, you never really see any normal soldiers fighting. It's your Stars of Destiny faced with glorified normal encounters.

   After arranging a formation, you will be able to see what united attacks can be done. Also, once you get your castle and party together, you can finally outfit and improve your characters in the various shops without bringing them along, saving you large amounts of time. The developers also had the sensible idea of including a helpful mini-map for every location. The traditional world map has now been replaced with a dot-to-dot affair. I don't mind the change too much, but the effect of this is that there is no illusion of vastness. How can it take five days to travel to another town when there is only a one-screen plain to traverse? Even so, it's a minor issue which doesn't impair much.

   The music was composed by a team of three composers, Yoshida Takahashi, Yamane Michiru, and Kimura Masahiko, and is mostly enjoyable. The world map theme will remind RPGamers of previous Suikoden melodies, and there is a good variety of tunes for normal and boss battles alike. Particular compositions, such as the Karaya village and Duck clan themes are very uplifting and retain some noticeable strings with the series. The low-tone enchanting piano composition in the song "Gathering of Heroes" is a pleasant and soothing track well suited for the anticipation brought about with the key dungeon it accompanies. Hostile areas can also count on some more whimsical tracks than what was found in the previous games. There are some drab compositions, such as the cacophony heard when roaming about Brass castle. The castle theme, which was a staple for both Suikoden I and II, is a very conservative composition that doesn't convey the sense of pride and importance the home-base should carry. The stunning opening anime sequence, which attains a level of greatness untouchable by any FMV ever made, is accompanied by a distinct piece of music that is well suited to the game's atmosphere. In battle, sound effects are usually appropriate for what they represent, although the sounds chosen for most weapons aren't particularly inspiring. Rune spells are a notable exception.

The number of intriguing characters has tripled. Who doesn't like knights anyway?
The number of intriguing characters has tripled. Who doesn't like knights anyway?  

   After such an elaborate depiction of the music, you're probably wondering why I gave the music an average score. There is one inexcusable omission encountered when playing Suikoden III: during 90% of the cut-scenes, there is absolutely NO music to be heard. Nothing! The whole game goes completely silent aside from the sound of clothes rustling. The music in cut-scenes is the most important thing in a game's presenation. It constitutes the life and soul of a production. It seems the creators thought that the emotional events and the stunning revelations, or the very reasons we play our RPGs, would be best brought with NO music. This lack of captivating music, or ANY music at all hurt the game's presentation. Suikoden III practically punishes you for advancing through the plot with those drab sequences. It also has a direct effect on the emotional impact of the plot and completely devalues the strengths of the story. What were they thinking? It was depressing to see.

If you ever get past the lack of music, you'll find that the "Trinity Sight System", a setup which allows you to view the events of the story through the eyes of the three heroes, is a great gimmick executed nearly flawlessly. There are many tie-ins when characters meet one another, never knowing that they will have to face a common enemy together. These scenes are well-placed and coherently executed. Having three different parties for a good part of the game also allows for many more characters to be properly developed, an issue with the previous games. The good back-story also carries the game along for some time, leading to the culminating climax of the game. Unfortunately, that very event which shifts the game into another direction is a major disappointment, for me at least. Not only is it not accompanied with any music like any important event in the game, but instead of really kicking the story into fourth gear, it breaks-up the momentum of the plot and forces the story into a downward spiral of drab events and lack of true fascination.

Major battles, a strong point of Suikoden II's, also took a gigantic leap backwards. Not much strategy is needed in Suikoden III, and they barely push the plot along, unlike what was done for the previous game. The game also presents at least two different endings. I have not yet witnessed the "true" ending of the 108 Stars of Destiny, but the normal ending made me think. After careful recollection of the game's events, I could pretty much sum up the major events of this 65+ hour-long game in a couple of sentences. The plot takes its sweet time at the beginning, showing you interesting soundless events, but all of those sequences are invariably used to bring up one major plot twist discovered after more than 45 hours of gaming. I greatly enjoyed the seemingly "small-scaleness" of the first half of the game, but the story never pushes the boundaries of normal aspirations. Considering that forming a rebellious army in your own castle has always been the series' greatness appeal, there just isn't enough time to fully grasp the impact of the situation and to "feel" the game. Ultimately I feel cheated for my 75 hours of gameplay. There's great execution at the beginning, but no satisfying conclusion for the story itself.

The dialogues are fairly casual, and the glaring grammatical mistakes found in the second installment are gone for good. Characters exhibit a good deal of personality, and there are some funny conversations here and there. However, some more serious and dramatic events (again with no music!) feel odd in their delivery by the characters. It's not an astoundingly powerful script, but it gets the job done. When will we finally see another Vagrant Story?

I bet you a million dollars that there wasn't any music to accompany this touching moment.
I bet you a million dollars that there wasn't any music to accompany this touching moment.  

The incentive of getting the 108 Stars of Destiny is strong: if you don't get them the first time around like me, you'll have to play again. You may select what chapters to play in a different order, but since putting the pieces of the puzzle together isn't really an issue, that element is somewhat irrelevant when it comes to a replay. Spending time in your castle is also less exciting than before. Not only is the spectacular "Iron-Chef cook-off" absent, but as mentioned before, since you'll only truly acquire your castle late in the game, you'll probably want to finish the game as soon as possible. There is a theatrical mini-game to replace the cook-off competition, but again, it's accessible so late that you won't be able to spread-out scenes by playing a little at a time. It is possible to visit the castle before everyone settles in, but this requires straying from the quest.

There are still bonuses you'll get for loading your complete Suikoden II data: two more scripts for the theater. Despite the nice additions, not enough past characters reappear, but some of their identities will truly shock you; at least to the greatest extent it can without music.

You'll quickly appreciate the characters' fluid actions as well as the incredible smoothness of every texture. The area you can cover in one screen is pretty huge, but there are some minor frame-rate inconsistencies. Special effects are great, and overall the game simply looks good, even if not technologically stunning. Anime scenes before each chapter would have been a bonus, but sadly that wasn't to be.

I love the Suikoden series deeply, but playing Suikoden III saddens me. Much like Chrono Cross, my hopes for the game were too high. Like Chrono Cross, the hypnotic effect the game has over gamers at first will probably diminish over time. Perhaps my sentiments are temporary, and I am the one who cannot realize the beauty hidden within the game, but it will be hard for me to get over the absence of music during key events and the plot's lack of depth. In the end, Suikoden III wasn't worth the wait.

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