Suikoden I-V Wrap-up

Suikoden 1: Graphics: 6/10 Sound: 8/10 Gameplay: 8/10 Story: 8/10 Translation: 8/10 Overall: 7.8/10

Suikoden 2: Graphics: 8.5/10 Sound: 8.5/10 Gameplay: 9/10 Story: 9.5/10 Translation: 6.5/10 Overall: 9.4/10

Suikoden 3: Graphics: 9/10 Sound: 6/10 Gameplay: 9/10 Story: 9.8/10 Translation: 9/10 Overall: 9/10

Suikoden 4: Graphics: 9/10 Sound: 8/10 Gameplay: 6/10 Story: 7/10 Translation: 8.5/10 Overall: 7/10

Suikoden 5: Graphics: 7/10 Sound: 9/10 Gameplay: 9.5/10 Story: 9.3/10 Translation: 10/10 Overall: 9.3/10

This is going to be an unusual review in that I’m looking at a whole series. I’ll mention briefly the overall themes, then describe each game in turn.

The Suikoden series is loosely based on the novel Outlaws of the Marsh, a Chinese novel written in the 13th/14th century AD. It takes its name from the Japanese name for the story, translating directly to “Water Border Legend”, but probably more appropriately “Marsh Legend”.

Briefly, the novel is about 108 men and women (corresponding to 108 Stars of Heaven and Earth) who, persecuted by a corrupt bureaucracy, form a closely-knit group of outlaws at Liangshan Marsh. They declare loyalty to the emperor, whom they believe has no idea about what is going on. After they defeat government troops several times, they are eventually pardoned by the emperor and go on to distinguish themselves in wars against invading “barbarians”.
The Suikoden series takes from that novel the concept of 108 Stars of Destiny. That is to say, each individual game has 108 characters, several dozen of which the player must find scattered throughout the realm and recruit. The games also take several recurring themes from the novel, including a single friendly strategist who is miraculously cunning and well-informed (except in the case of 3, but that’s for later) and several characters being “non-fighters” (in the novel, there was a doctor, a seal carver, a calligrapher, horse expert…). Not all characters are required to finish the game, but they are necessary to get the most plot and the “best” ending in all the games. The player obtains (usually halfway through the game) a castle which grows in size and utility based on how many and which characters have been recruited.
It’s also interesting to note that all of these games, unlike most RPG series, take place in the same world. For example, Suikoden 1 takes place in the Toran Empire (“Scarlet Moon”). Suikoden 2 takes place around 5 years later, somewhat Northeast of there, and one of the places you must go for military aid is the capital of the newly formed Toran Republic.

All of these characteristics make for stories that are altogether believable and well-done. Characterization is remarkably good considering over 100 characters (in fact, much better than the original novel) and I still don’t see why the Suikoden series doesn’t seem to be especially popular.

Suikoden 1 is, naturally, the first of the series, and as such is not especially well-polished. The sprites and portraits, though generally not bad quality, are fuzzy and it is sometimes difficult to tell what is going on. That said, music is quite good, carrying the theme of any given part of the game.

Battle mechanics are somewhat odd for the genre – you have a 6-person team with which to fight normal battles. Multiple enemies can be attacked (or attack) at the same time, so rounds go relatively quickly. The magic system is somewhat akin to that of Final Fantasy 1, but has several improvements to make it much nicer.

There are also “major battles”, which work like a gigantic rock-paper-scissors match, with enough quirks to make it relatively strategic.

The game, like Suikoden 2 and 4, has a ‘silent’ protagonist. The protagonist, that is, never says anything unless you are making a decision. These decisions range from relatively inane (whether or not you want to try and flirt with your female bodyguard) to more important (whether to execute an enemy general or try to recruit him), but the result is that characterization for the main character is pretty good despite him never really talking.

I won’t go into too much of the plot, but essentially ‘you’ are the son of a distinguished general, Tir McDohl. Your friend, Tim, who Tir adopted some years previous, has a disturbing secret which drags you into a rebellion against the empire, which by now you have realized is full of corruption. Eventually, you become leader of this rebellion, and gain the services of a strategist, a former teacher by the name of Mathiu Silverberg.

From there, the plot has several twists and turns, and I wouldn’t want to spoil anything. Suffice it to say, the story is good but not especially predictable.

Suikoden 2, the next entry of the series, is much better polished. Sprites are clear, portraits well-done, and the plot is well-written. Most music is better than in the first, but not all.

The battle mechanics are much the same, but since graphics are much clearer, you can get a much better idea of what is going on. Major battles are much better, but still play like a ‘lite’ strategy game (most like Warsong or a Shining Force / Fire Emblem game).

Plot is excellent. Since the game takes place only five years after the original, there is a good amount of room for overlap of characters, and instead of only having cameos, several of the major characters of the original work into the plot and are better characterized in this version.

There are so many good characters in this game that it is hard to think about beginning to describe them. A good portion of the way through the game, you’ll get Shu, a strategist who studied under Mathiu of the first game. Shu is by far my favorite of the strategists, mostly because he is well-informed and reminds me of Zhuge Liang of Three Kingdoms.

In fact, there are several references, minor and major, to Three Kingdoms. Whether it’s intentional or simply a side-effect of having a basis in Outlaws, it makes the game a bit more interesting if you’ve read the book or played the games.

This is not to say that you should avoid the game if you haven’t. Suikoden 2 is probably my second favorite RPG for the Playstation (after Lunar 2), and is well worth a play if you can track it down for less than $60.

The only major problem I have with this game is the translation, which ranges from a well-turned phrase to some of the most grammar-challenged stuff I’ve seen (a blacksmith says “I haven’t sharped in very long time”, for example). This generally doesn’t interfere with the plot, though.

Suikoden 3 was the major changing point for the series. While the second entry was a more polished version of the first, the third is a reimagining of the series – and what a reimagining it is.

The main difference is that KCET implemented what they call a “Trinity Sight” system, which in more plain words means that there are 3 main characters, each of whome has a unique perspective as to what is going on. The player will thus have a much larger view of the events in the game. This system is well-implemented, allowing you to choose which character’s chapter to play next each time one is finished. Chapters are between 1 and 4 hours long, and each character has 3, along with Chapters 4 and 5 where you select which character to become the ‘main’.

The world in Suikoden 3 is rich and colorful, but occasionally annoying. Environments are particularly nice-looking, with realistic-looking cliffs and forests. Characters themselves have very well-drawn portraits, as well as correspondingly nice models (done in an anime-esque style). Instead of modelling emotions as a shift in the polygons of the face, though, or not showing it at all, in Suikoden 3 the characters have drawn faces which change depending on the emotion conveyed. Although it can look rather odd, it usually has a nice effect. The only complaint I have with the graphics is that town environments range from very nice to drab and repetetive, but the nicer ones more than make up for the so-so ones.

Gameplay mechanics changed big time. The battle system is now location-based, which is to say it’s like the Lunar series, and honestly looks really nice. It’s very suitable for the series. In between battles, there is a skill system built atop the leveling system, allowing for some nice customization. If you like some number-crunching and optimization in your strategy-RPG games, you’ll probably enjoy this portion.

Music took a pretty big hit on this one. I’m not certain, since I haven’t checked the corresponding credits, but I think KCET lost their original composer for Suikoden games, which means that Suikoden 3 has music that is, while generally atmospheric, pretty repetetive and not especially inspiring. Some songs can be good (town music among them) but the main battle themes are short and not very suited to battle. Boss themes are somewhat better, but they’re even shorter.

Another slight gripe about this game is that sometimes it seems to take forever. It’s by far the longest of the series (my shortest game was 32 hours, while for 1, 2, and 4 I had 15, 20, and 15), which is mostly a good thing, but a goodly portion of that time was in running across the exact same field for the 10th time in a row. It becomes much easier to skip once you get the teleporting character and the Blinking Mirror, which takes you back to your base.

Plot-wise, this is the second best of the series. The three characters that can be chosen have different personalities, and each is well-characterized and pretty likeable. Two or three dozen minor characters are given good characterization as well. The strategist for this game, Caesar Silverberg, is interesting at first (being that he seems to be habitually lazy and unmotivated) but I got the impression he wasn’t really that skilled (and seems largely unnecessary as a character).

Throwbacks to Suikodens 1 & 2 can be found interspersed in the plot, but do not become a major issue. You can load in save data from Suikoden 2, but the only major perks are 2 scripts (1 if said Suikoden 2 data did not have loaded Suikoden 1 data) and the Suikoden 2 nation’s name (I forget the default) being changed to whatever you named it in-game. I’m glad that they allowed this because it’s always neat to see a country you named mentioned, even if only in passing. Some characters from earlier games reappear – Futch, Apple, Yuber, and Viki being the only ones from the first 2 and Tuta,being the only one from Suikoden 2 that I can recall. Several characters are referenced, though, such as Maximillian, Ronnie Bell, Freed Y… the end result is a slightly richer experience if you’ve played through the first two games.

All in all, this game is excellent. It is my second favorite PS2 RPG (though that might change with a new Valkyrie Profile) that I’ve played, and can still be found for a reasonable price (unlike 1 and 2!), though that price is going up. I highly recommend it. It is no wonder it has a successful manga series, even in the United States!

Suikoden 4 is another changing point for the series – namely, back to the old. Unfortunately, there is really nothing I can say about the game that is definitely better than in any other game.

The battle system is the same as Suikoden 1/2 – the only differences being only having 4 members in a party (and only one “row”, so no more back row for easy survival of caster characters). Well, with such a drastic reduction of complexity, you’d better hope the other feature is darned neat. Unfortunately, the “rush” feature is largely an empty add-on, allowing for a single attack before batle starts under certain situations.

Thankfully, the game is easy enough that it doesn’t really matter. In fact, very little about the battle system matters – it’s less complex than the first entry of the series, and is an easier game.

Graphics are, as in Suikoden 3, 3-dimensional and quite nice. Characters look much more realistic than they did before. Towns look a little more repetetive than in 3, but it’s no big deal.

Story is sort of questionable. KCET went back to a “passive hero” – that is, one who only is considered to be speaking when you, the player, is making a decision. In the first two, there were more decisions that didn’t matter, and enough characters that the hero cared about to bring about some real characterization. The only character this hero seems to care about is the pompous Snowe, a character who is so weak, whiny and all-around unlikable that he’s nearly unbelievable (nearly as bad as the main character of FFX, possibly worse), yet he is still friends with the main character after being a real jerk to just about everybody who isn’t evil. Thankfully, the strategist Elenor Silverberg (ahh, that last name again) is funny enough to make up for Snowe, but some of the plot just seems too convenient / contrived / “easy” for the main character.

Translation is, like the third entry, excellent. Although no Working Designs (which incidentally went out of business recently), the translation team seems to know what it’s doing.

A major departure for the series is (finally, in the eyes of some – unnecessary, to me) is that of voice acting. The same studio that did Star Ocean did this game, and they seem to have done an even better job. That is to say, this is some of the best voice acting this side of PC games (Jagged Alliance, Arcanum, etc). Some characters have annoying voices, but they are generally in-character and audible. The main character, of course, has no voice.

Only a couple throwbacks in this game. Suikoden 4 takes place in the Island Nations off the coast of the major continent in the Suikdoen series, 50-some years before Suikoden 1, so they could only have a few. One, at least, is guaranteed to delight players of Suikoden 1, however.

Taking place on island nations does bring a couple of interesting mechanics to the game. You are expected to find islands based on relatively vague directions, which starts out interesting but ends up being annoying. The ships are generally slow and difficult to maneuver, so you will likely run into a dozen random battles betwen towns The headquarters, too, is a giant ship – but the teleporter character can be gotten so early that it hardly matters that it can move at all. The new Strategy Battle system is generally uninteresting – a large game of rock-paper-scissors with a few more elements at best.

My final problem with the game is that recruitment is sometimes random. There was only one ‘star’ character in the past three games where you had to wander and have a random chance of getting them; there are something like 6 or 7 in number 4 alone. On my last play-through, I gave up because of this frustration.

Overall, a good game, but certainly doesn’t live up to 2 and 3 – if it were a sequel to Suikoden 1, it would be a pretty decent game, but when they take out a nicely done skill system and a decent, nice-looking battle system and replace it with a system that is less complex than the *first* game in the series, there’s really nothing to be said. This is a good game, but only a mediocre way to continue the series.

Suikoden 5 is, in some ways, like 4 in that it is a return to the roots of the series. In 4’s case, however, Konami seemed to regress too far back, while in 5, the best parts of the old games – with the possible exception of the graphics – are meshed into one great game. There are only a couple aspects of the game that truly need improvement. Suikoden 5 is easily the best PS2 RPG I have ever played.

In terms of gameplay, the combat system is most like Suikoden 1/2, but it manages to incorporate some aspects of 3 (a toned-down version of the skill system) to create an excellent experience. Outside of the combat, wandering around towns is also like it was in 1 and 2 (which is somewhat disappointing), with the view being either too far zoomed in or too far zoomed out (you pick between one of three zooms). Since you can’t rotate the camera, it’s occasionally very hard to see things.

One of the few aspects of Suikoden 4 that was good in terms of gameplay (or lack thereof) – namely, the cutscene system – has been greatly improved, and despite a few lackluster performances (and a few annoying, if accurate ones) the plot is well carried out. This is aided by the best translation I’ve seen of a PS2 game (“Isn’t it the most awesomest thing EVAR?!”) to make the plot as well as the characters both accessible and entertaining.

The game takes place shortly after Suikoden I, and a few years before Suikoden II. Only five familiar faces show up in this game – namely the two characters who are always there (Jeane & Viki), Georg Prime (who appeared in Suikoden II), Lorelai and Killey(I/II and II). That is to say, it’s the lowest number of recurring characters for the games that are within a century of each other – but despite this, Konami created 103 new characters, the vast majority of whom are likeable.

The main character (although somewhat scary-looking) comes across as a more interesting character than the one in 4. Not only is the plot more interesting, but instead of coming across as a passive, dull guy who happens to have a true rune (and a passably interesting backstory) the main character in this game comes across as a pretty competent, likeable guy who got the short end of the stick early on.

Supporting cast members are interesting and well-carried-out. The plot develops very nicely, although it is a little slow at first (over 5 hours – minimum – before you get to the really good part). Strategy mode is sort of real-time, and can get overwhelming but reminded me most of II’s – which is a good thing!

On the whole, a great successor to the series. I can only hope Suikoden 6 is as good.

The entire series, taken as a whole, is quite good. Even if Suikoden 4 doesn’t stack up well against the others, it is not a terrible game – simply a frustrating and sometimes overly simple one. I have now played number 5 and I know it lives up to the series’ greatness.


  1. Lord Yuan Shu Said,

    January 2, 2007 @ 9:23 pm

    Not a fan of the first one eh? Your Suikoden III rating is a bit more generous than I would give it…but it’s nice to see we see eye to eye on great games like Suikoden 2 and 5. A fine review of the most underrated RPG series in the world

  2. niahak Said,

    January 3, 2007 @ 12:56 am

    The first one was really unrefined. I thought the strategy battle system was a bit too simplistic. Same complaint as for most of the second one; there aren’t enough strategy battles without “gimmicks”. I’d probably give it a higher rating now than I did when I wrote this (wrote I-IV probably a year ago, V sometime in April), and I want to play the series again. Just not motivated enough right now. Maybe I’ll do that instead of the Xenosaga series.

    I liked 3 a lot better when I played it more recently. The first time through, I didn’t understand the skill system until the end of the game. This time, though (3rd time) I explored a lot, and generally took my time, leveled up skills, and had more fun.

    Thanks for your comments, by the way. You’re the first person to comment on this blog besides my blog itself (a feature I just turned off 😛 )

  3. DarknessSavior Said,

    January 13, 2007 @ 1:20 pm

    I have to agree. Suikoden I is great, but not perfect. Suikoden II definitely picked up the best parts of I, and made them better. III I liked for the most part, but I am still fond of the battle system from the first one (though the added Skill system and such is a great addition). I haven’t played IV yet, though I own it, and I don’t have V or Tactics yet. Did you plan on reviewing Tactics?

  4. niahak Said,

    January 13, 2007 @ 4:55 pm

    I don’t have Tactics, and IV really put me off to the idea of continuing the story. I guess the characters and plot were decent, but I was worried that it might be as clumsily done as IV itself. I’ve heard good things about it, so I may pick it up eventually.

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment