Warning!!! This is long, so come at it in groups of three, or take a time-out once in a while.
That’s what (s)he said. Now, onward!
The Long, Drawn Out Intro
Everyone’s got their “thing” when it comes to video games, or any other form of entertainment, or really anything in life; there’s always that something that draws people to those specific things that interest them. For some gamers it could be story; when they grab that controller they are envisioning themselves picking up a novel, or it could be crisp, intuitive controls that really make them feel as though they have some say in the shaping and changing of a world, and their avatar reacts as the instruction manual (or in-game controller-config loading screen, who really reads manuals any more?) promises.
Apparently, for the “casual gamer”, gimmicks sell. My roommate plays for pop-culture “references and quotes”, Simpson’s Hit & Run and Path of Neo are the only two games he owns. I know that for some individuals graphics make the game, and may whatever god you worship have mercy on your soul for that, because you give strength to developers that embrace a “graphics over gameplay” Creed
. (See what I did there?)
For me, that “thing” is character. Think fantasy settings are lame? Want me to engage in endless acts of whacking (in the organized crime sense), capping, and grenade-lobbing in your latest stunt-jumping, balls-to-the-wall drunk driving simulator? You had better find a way to make your military trained immigrant as relatable as a guy with over a thousand years under his belt, and thus has had literally every life experience there could possibly be. If you refuse to introduce me to an interesting cast of characters that I might subsequently ponder on rather than focus on exam review, I refuse to play your game.
I would literally drag through all 14 Dizzy games if I thought that considering all twenty characters would occupy more of my time than the ten shots I would have downed before deciding in a drunken stupor to concern myself with a gap-jumping puzzle-solving eggman. But I digress, as the real point of the last four paragraphs is to open for why I love the Suikoden series. So let’s get to it.
For those of you who don’t know and are too lazy to shoot over to Wikipedia and do the research, the Suikoden games are JRPGs that focus on a typically silent protagonist attempting to tip the scales in a political struggle, and subsequently saving the world from the demon-in-disguise that happened to be the head of the opposing political faction. Now, I know what you’re thinking, Shade, that story’s a little run-of-the-mill, and a silent protagonist aren’t exactly terribly interesting as far as characters go. And you’re exactly right.
What the Suikoden games also focus on, however, is the recruitment of 108 heroes, the Stars of Destiny, a concept that is borrowed from and loosely based on the Chinese classic Shui Hu Zhuan. It is finding and interacting with these characters that rockets my love for Suikoden high above many JRPGs, and also what adds to the replayability of the series, as usually around 70-80 are playable in combat. Oftentimes depending on the characters you have in your party or recruited at your castle will trigger other events further along in the game, or allow the recruitment of other characters.
I will never forget accidentally stumbling upon the black knight Pesmerga in the Cave of the Wind in Suikoden II. He always denied joining me, again and again (I went back quite often), until finally when I had recruited enough people, he accepted, and rocked my virtual world. Suikoden is filled with memories like this for me, as I would talk to anyone that had a face appear next to the dialogue box (because normal townsfolk all say the same thing, and either don’t have faces or hide them very, very well) over and over again until they joined me.
Another thing that I really enjoy about the Suikoden series is the idea of building up a “home base” of sorts. In each entry of the series you receive (typically by clearing it of monsters) a castle that serves as a headquarters for your group of mercenaries, and as you recruit characters your castle grows (and becomes more cleanly) to accommodate your army’s size. Many of these characters, around 20, will open shops or provide mini-games that you can access at your castle, many of which will also upgrade along with your castle. One of the most important of these mini-games, and one that actually had some relevance to the main gameplay, was the detective character who would actually research characters for the protagonist. When paid, the detective would provide tips for recruiting characters as well as some background information on characters that had already joined the player’s army. Another favorite mini-game from Suikoden II, and one that must be mentioned, is the cooking mini-game, in which you help Hai Yo defeat various nefarious chefs that are after his secret recipe.
The inclusion of large-scale strategic battles and duels also add to my love of the Suikoden series. The strategy battles are all fought in the name of advancing the narrative, while the duels may either serve that purpose or the purpose of recruiting some character that, in classic RPG fashion, will only join you after you’ve beaten the living hell out of him/her. While the duels are like Rock Paper Scissors with your opponent honestly telling you which one they’re about to choose, they are still fun and offer something that differs from the norm. The strategy battles offer a certain amount of customization in that you choose which characters to group in to the units you control. Most of the characters have special abilities (active and passive) to aid them in these strategic battles, so it adds a whole other layer to an already great JRPG experience.
Now that I have inundated you readers (if you haven’t yet left the page) with an intro and the reasons why I love Suikoden, we get to the fun part. Trashing my favorite series.
The first thing that I will say is that while these suggestions are spawned from my want for a better Suikoden, they could be applied generally to the entire genre of JRPGs, which I feel just all around need a nice reboot for this generation of consoles. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Lost Odyssey but plenty of what could be done to revamp the Suikoden series could also work to improve it.
Starting with combat, which is what a lot of critics of classic RPGs say they take issue with, they have trouble being drawn in to a game that features a turn-based system. While I don’t agree with that standpoint because I’ve always loved turn-based RPGs, I do feel that eventually, in order to grow and succeed, the genre will have to evolve beyond turn-based combat. In the Suikoden series if you choose to attack different enemies with several characters and they would all act around the same time in the battle order, they would all leap across the gap and attack at the same time, then return to their original formation. I like this, as it breaks the mold of the typical attack-return method of turn-based combat, but I think it can be taken a step further, to make it seem more “real” and active.
I think the major criticism for this type of attack-return system is that the battlefield never seems to evolve, after every turn it seems to return back to how it began, almost as if nothing happened. In Suikoden III this is remedied by your characters occupying the space within which they ended their attack, much like in tactical RPGs, but immediately afterwards, in Suikoden IV, this was done away with. Also, in Suikoden III although the battlefield evolves there is still the sense that the two opposing sides are engaging each other at two different times, rather than at once as it would naturally occur. If a KOTOR system were utilized, where actions are queued during pauses and then occur in order, so that the action seems more seamless as opposed to “I slash you, you slash me”. Another major aspect of combat that I think the more recent Suikodens lack that Suikoden III capitalized a bit on is that of character customization. In Suikoden III you could level up skills for your characters that would make them better in combat and gave you added control outside of simply attaching runes (which is the extent of the customization throughout most of the series). If Konami looked at the genre as a whole they would see that customization is what makes many great games great; people like to control how their characters act in combat, what types of weapons and abilities they use, otherwise there would be no market for interactivity and the video game wouldn’t exist. What kept me interested in between Lost Odyssey’s great story segments was the ability to dictate how my immortals grew and learned skills, and the extent of that customization, in relation to a lot of titles (mainly on the PC, like Fallout, Baldur’s Gate, etc.) is really pretty miniscule.
Also, although the plethora of characters is what keeps me so interested in the Suikoden series, I could use a little bit more actual development in those characters. It’s understandable that with 108 characters some of them will sink in to the background, but what I’m looking for is some progression, not just one line of dialogue that introduces me to their past. It doesn’t even need to be part of the main quest, for those that are worried about taking all of their time to play through a game that delves in to the intricacies of so many individual characters, they could simply have a group of sidequests, or even just one or two, for each character.
And speaking of sidequests, what ever happened to those in the typical RPG? Lost Odyssey had them, but they ended up being little more than memories, and the extent of which they unlocked was hints to find treasure, but those weren’t really quests, they were simply “go there, and pick up the treasure”. In Suikoden, the extent of the sidequests are finding all of the characters, and while this does amount to a decent amount of time outside of the main storyline, and it is rewarding to get a new character, I feel like there have to be more compelling quests, and non-required areas to explore. Mass Effect is one of the few current examples I can think of that had extra content that seemed enough to match the greatness of the actual game. Final Fantasy is another series that I feel has always delivered on the amount of optional material, and there has always been plenty to do throughout the entirety of that series, rather than strictly in the endgame. Suikoden as a series could benefit from emulating what Square does, and has done, using even Final Fantasy V as an example. One of my favorites of the series, the best parts of that game for me were defeating side bosses for the tablets to unlock the ancient weapons, as well as fighting Gogo (especially after already having beaten FFVI) to unlock the Mime class. Suikoden could benefit well from these types of weapon quests, to offset the monotony of sharpening weapons for everyone, as well as character tie-ins, as there are a plethora of them at their disposal.
Lastly, if you’re going to include something, go all out. What I’m referring to are the strategy battles and duels, as while they are a great diversion, and fantastic additions for a PSOne game, we are well in to the next generation Konami, it’s time to upgrade or shut down. Gamers don’t have room for more of the same, so let’s get these Rock Paper Scissors matches a little more sophisticated, as well as a little more streamlined. I know God of War and many predecessors have pretty much smashed button sequences in to the ground, but there has to be some answer other than RPS. Improve or remove. And that goes for the full-scale battles as well. It just feels as if there could be a little more effort put forth to make them seem less “tacked-on” and more an actual, viable aspect of improving the series, rather than furthering the narrative and taking up valuable time that loses a lot of its novelty and fun by the time you get to the really important battles.
If Konami just went all-out on a Suikoden VI, and really accomplished something ground-breaking in terms of switching up the genre, they could breathe life in to RPGs on the newer consoles, and thus breathe life in to me, because it’s been a while since I’ve had an RPG to fill the void in my soul. Sorry for the extreme length, I hope you enjoyed it.