Suikoden IV - Retroview  

Sailing Takes Me Away
by Mike "JuMeSyn" Moehnke

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20-40 Hours
+ Entertaining cast
+ Mostly-interesting story
- Random encounters ad nauseum
- Not a very interesting location
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   The task of creating a new Suikoden game without Yoshitaka Murayama at the helm was probably more daunting than Konami would like to admit. A little more than two years after Suikoden III's Japanese release came the next installment, demonstrating a number of new ideas without deviating from series tradition. Suikoden IV certainly manages to feel like a legitimate part of the series instead of something cobbled together by committee, but it's a step down in quality from the heights this series reached prior. This one doesn't even enable importing of data from Suikoden III.

   Instead of directly continuing the tale of the first three Suikoden games, this one rewinds to 150 years before the original installment. It takes place in the southern ocean where cadets on a small island aspire to join the ranks of Gaien's full-fledged knights. A routine mission goes awry when a stubborn pirate bequeaths the True Rune of Punishment to Commander Glen, who doesn't manage to keep it very long before being forced to use its destructive power to thwart an attack on the harbor. From him the Rune passes to the protagonist, who receives the blame for the Commander's death and is sent into shipborne exile for it. Eventually the protagonist and the companions who chose to join him in exile wind up in the nation of Obel fighting against the aggression of an expansionist country called Kooluk, a struggle that will encompass all the islands of the southern ocean.

   Certain aspects of IV's storytelling are well done. The protagonist's friend Snowe develops in a very different way than might be expected, quickly shown to have Larry David's diagnosis of the worst character traits someone can hold; a fiery temper and no guts. Snowe's story gets short shrift later in the tale, but it is his cowardice and betrayal that set events in motion early on. As the game progresses numerous interesting characters appear, and the personalities many display are quite memorable. Konami's localization is solid, leaving the rotten job done on Suikoden II as but a memory.

   On the other hand, going from the trio of personable lead characters in Suikoden III back to a single mute protagonist feels like a bit of a regression. IV has quite a bit of dead time between major happenings, and the finale doesn't work as well as it could. The narrative is nevetheless interesting throughout, but comes nowhere close to what the second and third games achieved.

Do not stare directly into the light lest its strobe power induce a seizure! Do not stare directly into the light lest its strobe power induce a seizure!

   At least the story sequences remain appealing, because Suikoden IV's actual game play is a colossally mixed bag. For whatever reason the developers dropped the party size from six to four, which is adequate for killing enemies but makes experimenting with the huge rogue's gallery of playable characters much harder. Combat itself is a standard random turn-based affair that dispenses with the pairs of III while adding nothing of note except extremely unpredictable turn order. Enemy variety is pretty low, making the appearance of something new to fight a happy occurrence. The one innovation appears when the party gets slaughtered, where the game gives the option of trying that fight again in lieu of a Game Over, which is pleasant. The standard Suikoden practice of letting weak enemies off is present, but the level at which this option appears is usually reached long after the ability would have been welcome, and the load time for battle cannot be undone.

   Suikoden IV manages to have an unnecessarily high random encounter rate that couples with its nautical travel to make ocean voyages feel nearly as arduous for the player as they were for sailors of the past. Traveling between the islands of the ocean is done with ships, and these vessels are prone to finding random opponents on their decks with alarming frequency. Ship control near land is also a chancy thing since the game automatically pushes it away from the shore except near a dock, and steering the craft properly is essential if the sight of bouncing off an island and having to circle around again is to be avoided. While they aren't significant individually, the load times that accompany every encounter on the high seas add up to a noticeable chunk of time. This makes recruiting the teleportation abilities of Viki a great moment in the game, though physically sailing into ports for plot developments is still required at times.

   Duels in IV are handled pretty much the same as they were in prior games. Large-scale combat has been given a naval renovation and now involves firing one of the five Rune elements at opposing vessels. In most cases this boils down to seeing which Runes the opposing ships possess and making sure to hit back with the element that either cancels or beats what the enemy has, but for adversaries with more than two attacks available it means getting lucky. Boarding the opposing ship to have the player's characters kill its crew hand-to-hand is also possible, but all options other than physically attacking AI-chosen adversaries are removed, making this choice less than ideal. Ship combat varies the pace of the game, but makes the army battles in earlier Suikoden titles look a lot better by comparison. At least it tends to end quickly.

   As per series tradition, 108 Stars of Destiny can be recruited before the finale. Getting most of them is either mandatory or as simple as conversing, but having every character join the adventure is an endeavor that is exceptionally difficult without a FAQ. Each character has a distinct reason for joining, and conversing with most of them can be entertaining. In this respect IV is no different than its forbears, but the addictive quality of tracking down every last character retains its appeal.

Ah yes, metal armor on those who might be forced to swim suddenly.  Great idea! Ah yes, metal armor on those who might be forced to swim suddenly. Great idea!

   Compared to other titles from the middle of the PlayStation 2's life, Suikoden IV isn't ugly but looks rather bland. Its environments aren't very interesting to behold, and gazing at large stretches of water between incessant random battles isn't the most visually stimulating activity. Locations on land aren't much better, generally lacking the interesting architecture of Suikoden III. The package isn't abhorrent but offers little eye candy.

   The music is generally of the same quality in the earlier Suikoden games, though certain themes will be heard often enough to lose their impact. Plenty of variety among the compositions keeps that from getting terrible, save for the regular battle theme which will be heard constantly. New to the series is voice acting, which is far from comprehensive but appears enough to give major characters personality in a way text could not convey. The performances themselves are mostly workmanlike. Considering the game can be completed in thirty hours or so, the voice acting could have taken up more than about five percent of that time, but at least it's tolerable to the ears.

   Plenty of moments in Suikoden IV are enjoyable, and the cast of characters is as endearing as in the previous two games. It was also quite funny for me to hear Viki sneeze just before her attacks. II and III were games that inspired me to promptly play through them again experiencing different things, though. IV failed at that, and actually felt longer than the game's clock indicated I spent. I don't regret experiencing the black sheep of the main series, but I certainly understand how it came by that status.

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