Suikoden III - Staff Retroview  

Listen to the Runes
by Mike "JuMeSyn" Moehnke

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40-60 Hours
+ Continually-absorbing tale
+ Rewarding skill system
+ Well-defined cast
- Combat lacks some control
- Repetitive environments
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   The Suikoden series spun off a few Japan-only outings on the PS1 and Game Boy Color after its second installment, but they weren't counted as major entities by Konami. Suikoden III was the next proper series entry, and Konami did a much better job localizing it than would have been expected after Suikoden II. Not all of the changes made to this iteration turn out for the best, but the overall package is startlingly addictive and provides a prime exhibit of how enchanting Suikoden can be.

   Suikoden III gradually unveils a narrative from three different character perspectives, steadily making sense of an initially overwhelming sequence of events. A loose alliance of tribes known collectively as the Grasslands and the more urbanized state Zexen are about to conclude a peace agreement when something goes horribly wrong. Zexen knights led by their new leader, Chris Lightfellow, are seen blatantly attacking the Lizard clan of the Grasslands — despite the fact that she was elsewhere at the time. Calm analysis of the proceedings is not on anyone's mind immediately, and the Karaya clan's peace messenger Hugo chooses to fight his way clear of Zexen instead of enduring incarceration. Provocations ensure that hotheads on both sides feel empowered to keep stoking the flames, and keeping the peace seems an impossibility. Whispers abound of the Flame Champion, savior of the Grasslands in a conflict more than fifty years prior, returning to do it again, and mercenary Geddoe of the initially-uninvolved Harmonian nation is tasked with tracking down the rumor's source while doing his best to stay out of the conflict zone.

   Suikoden III's narrative is complicated without being unnecessarily so. Initially confusing events will make sense given the patience to see events from everyone's perspective unfold, and the ride offered by the tale is definitely worthwhile. The consistent pace of plot progression changes near the end, probably due to events behind the scenes during development, but even the more rushed timing as the game draws to a close does not have a pronounced negative effect. Konami's localization is fortunately much better from a technical perspective than Suikoden II's, and the sizable amount of text is never problematic to decipher.

   Chris, Geddoe and Hugo each receive considerable screen time to become known by the player, and eventually one must be chosen to take on the title of Flame Champion. Though the story follows the same overall course no matter who is selected, its details vary immensely based on this decision, providing a fine reason to replay. The only real annoyance that stems from playing three narratives that eventually join is being unable to use any Stars of Destiny recruited by another protagonist until relatively late in the game, but enough of them are available for recruitment to ensure each character has extra options for a party.

Chris Chris's horse knows how to teleport when she grabs items off the ground, then come back instantly. Too bad this has no effect in battle.

   As in the prior pair of Suikoden games, a total of 108 characters can be recruited — though four of them are inaccessible except as a fascinating postgame scenario. Recruiting all of the possible characters is a time-consuming and challenging undertaking, but Suikoden III is very generous about the timing required. Instead of the frequent easy-to-miss windows for recruitment found in the previous two games, this one courteously keeps characters around until the endgame. They aren't necessarily easier to recruit, but removing the precise timing required reduces quite a bit of the frustration.

   New to Suikoden III is a skill system, wherein slain enemies will bequeath points that can be used by characters for improvement to their abilities. Making use of these skills will greatly enhance character combat proficiency, but it also provides an excellent means of customization to further differentiate the massive cast. Some characters have unique skills, and while everyone has access to a solid pool of them, no two personages are able to use them in precisely the same way. Some of the skills characters are already learning can be forgotten to clear space for new abilities the player chooses while regaining some of the points initially used, further increasing the capacity for customization.

   The combat in which these skills are mostly used has unfortunately been severely altered from Suikoden II. A maximum of six characters can still enter battle, but they are now arranged in three pairs that receive orders instead of as individuals. For simple carte blanche attacking this works well enough, but only one member of a pair can use a spell per turn, and items are only applicable to the pair they are held by. Many abilities now affect an area on the battlefield, making it bothersome that characters choose their own paths to run about instead of the player having any control.

   Combat is hardly a complete loss, since it progresses quickly and the hiccups can be dealt with. It introduces a frequently useful support character who does not directly participate in combat, but can aid in after-battle healing or money acquisition. Several nifty ideas to keep things interesting are in evidence, such as occasionally encountering much stronger enemies instead of easily-dispatched grunts, an almost complete absence of traditional treasure chests in favor of harvestable herbs or other such supplies that seem more naturally found in the dungeons, and multiple respawning bosses that guard valuable stockpiles of money and items. These pluses do not outweigh the minuses, especially compared to how quickly battles proceeded in the prior Suikoden, but they temper the issues to a reasonable level.

   Duels have changed a bit in Suikoden III but remain fundamentally the same procedure of whittling an opponent down by picking the correct counterattack method. Army battles now involve multiple groups of up to four allies engaging with similarly organized foes on a map somewhat reminiscent of a board game. The major impediment to enjoying these army conflicts is that, once a group has engaged in battle with enemies, its actions are chosen entirely by the AI, which can be a recipe for aggravation. They can nevertheless be entertaining with a little patience and strategy, though only for the final two can the player finally organize and prepare all the possible units.

Contrary to established wisdom, these undead use fire spells.  They burn well anyway. Contrary to established wisdom, these undead use fire spells. They burn well anyway.

   Since the game is played from a trio of perspectives viewing many of the same locations, players will visit certain areas many times. Most of them are short enough that this isn't a major issue, and the trips don't feel the same due to the different teams that will be taking on the local adversaries. Until teleportation becomes available relatively late in the game, however, there will be an awful lot of walking between locations to do. This is useful for helping various characters become forces to be reckoned with, but the lack of quick transit options becomes tiresome at times.

   Rushing through this game might produce a playing time somewhere between forty and fifty hours, but the temptation to explore it fully will push that number past sixty with ease. Taking new characters out for a test mission is often quite entertaining, but a play producer offers the opportunity to see the entire recruited cast partipate in short theatrical exhibitions that often test the acting abilities of the performers far past their limits. Suikoden III is engaging enough that spending hours not even advancing the core plot is rather easy to do, just by interacting with its denizens and trying different character combinations in combat.

   By early PS2 graphical standards, Suikoden III does not impress compared to Squaresoft's contemporaneous efforts. The game certainly does a fine job of making its characters and environments distinct, and certain dungeons have very appealing visual styles, but the hardware is still not being pushed to the level Final Fantasy X did. The music continues to be strong in this series, with a particularly appealing selection that gives unique aural accompaniment to every location. There are a few instances of the game using ambient audio only that are less successful, but the music as a whole never fails to be worth hearing, with a particularly good variety of battle themes.

   Yoshitaka Murayama left Konami a month before Suikoden III's Japanese release, but whatever effect that would have upon the future of the series is hard to see from this game. Its combat is admittedly not ideal, but most of the other components succeed well enough to make fighting battles that are only adequate no problem whatsoever. Suikoden III is one of the few games I've played in recent years that fully justifies its lengthy playing time by never seeming to run out of gas, and that's an impressive accomplishment. I wouldn't necessarily rank it above Suikoden II, but they're definitely on the same high level of quality.

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