In the early part of the 1990’s, there were basically two companies known for producing Japanese Role-Playing Games: Squaresoft and Enix. Square, as the legend goes, was rescued by the success of a last ditch effort for relevancy in the form of Final Fantasy for the Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System. Prior to that, Enix had already staked its claim to RPG supremacy with its hit Dragon Quest (known as Dragon Warrior in the US). During the 16 bit era, Square would come to surpass Enix as the premier publisher for the genre, as not only were Final Fantasy’s many sequels hits, but so was seemingly everything else Square etched its name on. These two companies were not the only ones exploring the JRPG genre. When someone strikes gold with an idea a legion of copycats arise. Capcom would enlist Square’s help with localizing its own take on the genre with Breath of Fire. Capcom has since dabbled with the genre here and there without ever becoming a true power. One of the other main Japanese game developers was Konami. Back on the NES, Capcom and Konami were arguably the two most popular so it made sense for Konami to toss its hate into the JRPG ring and it did so with the Suikoden series.
Suikoden debuted on the Playstation in 1995, but the series truly arrived with its sequel in 1998 simply titled Suikoden II. Suikoden did not break the mold in terms of what it brought to the genre. Rather than trying to be something entirely different from the established franchises at the time, it opted to be a jack of all trades. Turn-based battles entered into via random map encounters paired with large, map-based tactical confrontations more commonly found in a series like Fire Emblem. Suikoden’s approach to variety is part of what made it a success, but also contributing to that success was its massive stable of characters and high stakes.
When the Playstation was in vogue, I was an early adopter. I wore out my Playstation which conveniently ceased to function just a month before the launch of the Playstation 2. During my time spent with the Playstation I played a ton of RPGs, but none of the Suikoden games. For years, I’ve often heard from friends and relatives that I should seek out and play Suikoden II, if nothing else, but the game fetches obscenely high prices on resale markets and I was just never willing to pull the trigger (or borrow such an important game from a friend). Finally, Sony and Konami were able to make the game available this past June on the Playstation Network, and I’ve been playing it on my Vita ever since. It is kind of a shame that I did miss out on this one back in 1999 (when the US version was released) because I would have really enjoyed it then. However, that didn’t prevent me from enjoying it now.
Suikoden II is not unlike many games in the genre in terms of pacing and structure. As the player, you control a nameless, voiceless, shell of a character who seems unimportant at the game’s start but soon is arguably the most important person in the world. The main character and his best friend, Jowy, are soldiers in a youth brigade that soon is attacked from outside, and within, and disbanded. War has broken out across the land as the most powerful, ruling family is not just seeking to bring everyone else to knee but seeks total chaos and destruction of the world. The main antagonist, Luca Blight, is a villain so evil he’s boring, but like many games in the genre, he’s only the main villain for so long as another emerges from the shadows and the stakes get higher. Throughout the hero’s adventure he’ll encounter over 100 recruitable allies. Each character has his or her own reasons for joining the resistance against Blight’s tyranny and the player is free to mix and match parties of six almost at will throughout the entirety of the game. Travel takes place on a world map and the player can enter and exit towns and dungeons as they are found. If you’ve played any other JRPG from this era then it should feel pretty familiar.
Battles are also pretty straight-forward. Enemies, aside from boss fights, are encountered randomly when on the world map and in dungeons. Battles are turn-based with the heroes and enemies having their order of attack determined by an individual speed score. There’s no active component to the fights as the player simply tells each character what to do and watches the round unfold. If both sides survive, then another round commences. Where Suikoden separates itself is by having battles be, up to, two groups of six. When assembling a party, the player is expected to pay attention to each character’s range: short, medium, or long. Short range characters have to be placed in the first row and can only attack the opponent’s first row. Medium range characters can attack from either row, but can only attack the opponent’s first row. Long range characters can attack any enemy from the back row. By forcing the player to go with a 3×3 formation, the player is forced to mix-in medium and long range characters which is important because the short range ones usually pack the most punch when it comes to attack power. In addition to standard attacks, characters can also make use of runes, which once equipped to a character or weapon, grant the character magical abilities. Some of these, such as the ability to heal between rounds, are passive while others are actual attacks or defensive spells. Rather than have a collection of mana or magic points, characters simply can only cast a certain amount of spells in between rest stops (such as sleeping at an inn). Early in the game, a character may have access to three level one spells and a single level two spells, but by the end of the game that same character will likely have access to level five spells as well. Characters more proficient with magic can equip more runes with the best able to equip one on each hand plus one on their head and weapon. And not all runes are equipable on all characters. This helps make each character feel unique not just among the other 107, but even from one play-through to the next. Lastly, borrowing a page from Chrono Trigger, certain characters can be paired with other characters for Unite attacks. These are kind of a secret in the game, but they’re also logical in terms of the pairings. Experimentation is encouraged.
Occurring at set points during the games are the tactical battles. As mentioned before, these battles very much imitate Nintendo’s Fire Emblem as characters are moved around on a grid and engage in combat that has a bit more of a random feel to it but is also more tactical. Very rarely is the player able to simply overwhelm the opponent necessitating a more thoughtful approach. Death in this scenario also has the possibility of being permanent making the stakes much higher. Even so, most of these encounters are fairly easy and few actually require the player to completely vanquish the opposition. Ranged attackers can often be leveraged to dish out most of the damage against non-ranged enemies with the short-range attackers being called upon to clean up the mess. As a result, Suikoden II’s approach to these tactical battles feels kind of half-assed but they are still a nice change of pace when they occur.
Graphically, Suikoden II comes up short when compared with most of its peers. The game makes use of sprites as opposed to 3D models with very limited use of CG effects. Some of the larger enemies are attractive, but they also seem to tax the system and slowdown is a frequent problem. The original game is said to be buggy at times as well, though I never encountered any playing on the Vita. The simple visuals have kept the game from aging horribly, as some titles from that era have, but it is kind of disappointing that a late era Playstation title wasn’t given a bit more love from its developers. The soundtrack is quite good though, with the game often reserving its best pieces for its biggest moments. This comes at the expense of the more mundane moments and I did find myself getting sick of the world map theme after 40 hours or so.
Where Suikoden II really separates itself from its peers is with its tone. The story is handled in a very serious manner. As I mentioned earlier, Luca Blight is kind of a silly villain but once he’s out of the way the main confrontation becomes far more interesting. The game does suffer a bit from its rigid approach to story-telling, but that was pretty common for the era with more open-ended plots a recent phenomena. I found myself often disagreeing with the choices the game had my character making but it didn’t prevent me from enjoying the storyline for what it was. I also enjoyed watching the hero’s castle, acquired maybe a quarter of the way into the game, improve as the game went along. I also really appreciated the fact that there were not many missable characters or items, as if you want to see the game’s best ending, you need to recruit all 107 characters. I also appreciate that the game made some attempt at giving each character a backstory, and it’s also pretty easy to bring an under-leveled character into the main party and get them up to speed quickly. This is something a game like Chrono Cross should have tried to emulate.
In short, gameplay-wise, Suikoden II is not terribly unique when compared with other games from the Playstation era, but that’s not a bad thing. What’s there works and it’s a fun game to play. Sure, random encounters can get annoying (and they’re really bad during the final dungeon) but anyone who grew up with these games should be able to deal with it. The variety of the characters helps keep the game fresh even on multiple play-throughs. I may have missed out back in 1999 when this game first arrived on US soil, but I’m glad to have experienced it now in 2015. And if you’re in the same boat as me, playing it on the Vita is a nice way to experience the game on the go. If only Suikoden III was playable on Vita then I’d have something to play tomorrow when I’m riding the train to work.