Long live the City-States
I’ll never love a game more than Suikoden II, and I’m okay with that. It’s twenty years old now—a wisened, elder statesman of the console role-playing cannon. But even two decades after its initial release, Suikoden II still feels fresh, rewarding, and somehow larger than life.
For a video game that takes around 30 hours to complete, that’s no small task.
“A sword doesn’t need fine lineage, it just needs to be sharp.” – Luca Blight
I discovered Suikoden II in the pages of Electronic Gaming Monthly. The ad wasn’t flashy, just an old, withered hand holding two white stones. As far as video game ads go, it was unremarkable. But something about it burrowed deep in my pre-teen brain. I spent years thinking about the game—dreaming about the secrets I’d learn from that creased hand if only I could figure out how to pronounce the game’s name. Soo-ee-code-ehn? Sweek-ode-in?
Whatever I thought about Suikoden II back then, it’s a far cry from how I understand the game today: a surprisingly adult look at the impact of war from both sides of the battlefield. A game where characters question authority and struggle to understand their duties in a world wracked by violence. Suikoden II is a rare game in the sense that it understands how easily people can get swept into conflict. Its characters pursue their causes—often fighting for their homeland in an extension of a war that’s touched generations—with vigor and grim nobility. More than any other role-playing game of its era, Suikoden II acknowledges and builds upon the underlying humanity of its cast. The fires of war are unavoidable.
Suikoden II’s characters rally around war drums and banners. They march against powerful armies and hold fast to the notion that their fates are locked in service of something greater than themselves. They fight and hunt vampire lords. They love and lose loved ones. In Suikoden II, the critical narrative beats—moments of heartbreaking self-actualization and rebellion—carry monumental weight. Even its side quests, like an extended sidequest riffing on an Iron Chef-like cooking competition, work in service of fleshing out its conflicted world. Suikoden II is a beautiful and sometimes bizarre game.
It’s also—at least for my money—the best game ever made. In celebration of its 20th anniversary, here are twenty reasons why it’s so good.
[Image via Kotaku]
- There are 108 recruitable characters in Suikoden II. They’re an eclectic bunch—warriors and thieves, blacksmiths and elevator technicians—who rally around the Hero and his army. Each one of the Stars of Destiny serves a purpose. Most of the characters you recruit are potential party members, but there are a handful of non-combat recruits too. Although you don’t need all 108 Stars of Destiny to finish Suikoden II, scouring the game world and fleshing out your roster is just as fulfilling as plowing through the main storyline.
- Suikoden II is a remarkably grounded game, especially compared to most JRPGs. You’re not fighting an ancient evil or some spiky-haired god. The entirety of Suikoden II takes place on a single continent. Its story follows two countries, the City-States of Jowston and the Highland Kingdom, as they’re pulled into a bloody war. Although Suikoden II isn’t a globe-trotting epic, it is a hyper-focused exploration of war’s impact.
- You can play the entire game using only your left hand. Suikoden II is the best game ever made for left-handed people.
- Highland’s mad prince, Luca Blight, is a truly evil and terrifying villain. He’s cruel, violent, and motivated by an unquenchable desire to watch the City-States burn. Luca Blight kicks off the events of Suikoden II by ordering Highland soldiers to slaughter members of their own Youth Brigade and pin it on City-State rebels to kickstart a war. He destroys a village and orders the sole survivor to crawl around like a pig and oink in exchange for her life. He kills her moments later, laughing at the scene. Luca Blight is so powerful and imposing that it takes three units of six party members to defeat him. Even with eighteen characters, Luca puts up a fight.
- Suikoden II has three different combat systems. You can have six party members at any given time, which makes the standard turn-based fights complex and dynamic. During key story moments, the Hero fights enemies in one-on-one duels with a rock, paper, scissors-like structure based on reading enemy dialogue cues before choosing to attack, defend, or launch an all-out attack. And finally, there are war battles, military engagements with light strategy elements where you move units around the battlefield and battle enemies in a manner similar to Fire Emblem. Although the duels and war battles aren’t as common as your standard turn-based fights, they occur in pivotal story sequences and serve as monumental moments.
- Every Suikoden game occurs in the same universe. Players can import saves from Suikoden and encounter the game’s protagonist in the sequel. Certain characters in Suikoden II played vital roles in the previous game and some pop up in Suikoden 3 (and later entries). The shared setting and frequent use of familiar faces make Suikoden II feel like a playable chapter in a history book.
- There’s a surprisingly robust trading mini-game in Suikoden II that lets players moonlight as a master merchant. Some towns and villages have trading outposts where different regional wares are available for purchase. Each shop buys and sells goods at different prices; crystal balls are dirt cheap in South Window, but they fetch a pretty penny the Kolbold Village, where residents obsess over shiny objects.
- Entering battle with specific party compositions allows players to use special moves called Unite Attacks. There are over thirty different combos in Suikoden II. Not only does the Unite system encourage experimentation in combat, but it also fleshes out character personalities and their respective backstories. Suikoden II is a character-driven game and the Unite Attacks help solidify the community aspect of its army-building storyline.
- Suikoden II has a few different endings. Its “perfect” ending requires players to recruit every Star of Destiny, make certain dialogue choices during pivotal scenes, and choose to defend themselves rather than attack an old friend during the final battle. Although unlocking the secret perfect ending is taxing, the extended sequence is an uplifting tearjerker. It celebrates your decisions and struggles throughout the game and ends on a positive, hopeful note.
- In the Suikoden universe, characters channel magic through the use of mystical runes. There are 27 “true” runes in the fiction that attach themselves to key historical figures. Commoners who affix minor runes to their hands and forehead use magic too, though. Playing around with different rune layouts—much like the six-person parties and Unite Attacks—is another element that makes Suikoden II‘s combat system feel exhaustive.
- Story-critical characters join your team at pre-defined levels. However, Suikoden II has a notorious glitch where they’ll join you at level 99. Having a character like Georg, the most powerful swordsman in the game, enter your party at max level is a great way to begin Suikoden II‘s final few hours.
- One of the earliest recruitable characters is a flying squirrel named Mukumuku. If you happen to miss him the first time around, have no fear. Leave an empty slot in your party and walk between Muse city and the nearby border outpost. Keep checking your menu after every few steps. With any luck, you’ll see that the bouncy little dude filled your empty character slot without anyone noticing.
- Much of Suikoden II revolves around the Hero raising an army to defend against Highland. As with any fighting force, your troops need a base of operations. In Suikoden II, players take over a run-down town and castle. With each recruited character, it begins to grow and take on a life of its own. There’s so much to see within your keep’s walls. You can play whack-a-mole in the garden, commission massive sculptures, or soak in a steamy hot tub. Throughout the game, your castle develops from a dingy relic to a thriving community. If leading an army feels like too much responsibility, return to your base and chat with your recruits. Seeing them rally around your cause and make the castle feel like home is a great way to keep your mission in perspective.
- Clive, a member of a spy ring called the Howling Voice Guild, has a secret sidequest associated with him. After initially recruiting the gunman, players can undertake a multi-part journey across the map with Clive as he hunts down a woman named Elza who murdered a guildmate. Clive’s quest plays out like a steampunk-meets-western revenge thriller. It’s excellent bonus content and entirely missable; most of the quest-related cutscenes are gated behind challenging time limits.
- The Hero is like sixteen during the events of Suikoden II, and like many protagonists, he’s selectively mute. There’s something silly, but strangely hopeful, about hundreds of hardened fighters joining a war against an imposing enemy just because some teenager asked them to help out.
- One of the Stars of Destiny, Richmond, is a chain-smoking detective. After recruiting him, the Hero can pay for his investigative services. Richmond can help find additional party members or dig up secrets about the other Stars of Destiny. He’s damn good at his job.
- It’s entirely possible to lose characters in battle. If one of your units loses a fight during the SRPG-lite army battles, there’s a chance the character will die. Sure, there are 108 party members in the game, but after spending hours recruiting them, the prospect of losing one for good is a tough pill to swallow.
- After stumbling upon a wayward chef named Hai Yo (who, for whatever reason, is part of a secret society of master cooks), players can deliver recipes and ingredients to his kitchen. From there, the Hero can create different meals, which function as healing items. Hai Yo also has a goofy Iron Chef subplot where he battles against his rivals.
- Once you beat the game, an extended sequence revealing the fate of each recruited Star of Destiny plays. It’s a nice touch that feels like a “high school yearbook” moment and adds closure to a game with an expansive cast. I always consider it a send-up to Can’t Hardly Wait, but that’s just me.
- During a crucial army battle, your troops get saved by much-needed reinforcements. After the Highland soldiers retreat, players learn that their saviors weren’t knights or mercenaries; the bartender, innkeeper, and other non-combat characters stepped up at a time when you needed them most. The dialogue is touching and wholesome as heck. It’s possibly the most underrated moment in Suikoden II.
More than anything, Suikoden II is unafraid of playing with your expectations. Its greatest strength lies in an ability to take a standard story and build it up with political intrigue and shocking twists. Although the game’s English translation occasionally feels clunky, its script is chock full of powerful moments. What begins as a story about three friends—the Hero, Nanami, and Jowy—trying to keep themselves safe in a dangerous world quickly grows into a tale of trust, duty, and the hardships of war. Suikoden II‘s early hours build upon the main characters’ friendships, which makes watching them fall apart a painful—but necessary—narrative device driving the rest of the game forward. There’s nothing like it.
Here’s to Suikoden II, the biggest little game in the world.