Suikoden, in case you’re unfamiliar with it, is a JRPG series inspired by one of China’s “Four Great Classical Novels,” Water Margin. From what I know of it, Water Margin tells the tale of 108 outlaw-heroes who form an army to fight against an oppressive government.
Suikoden, likewise, tells the tale of 108 “Stars of Destiny.” In the first installment (PS1), these heroes band together to rebel against a corrupt government and bring about a peaceful new order. As far as JRPGs go, it’s quite a standout. All of these 108 stars can be recruited. Some of them join you automatically as the story advances, but many of them have to be sought out and found, either by completing some task, satisfying some condition, or simply by virtue of having found them in a strange or hidden place. These characters then populate your base. Many of them can join your party and participate in regular battles, some of them will open shops or provide other services, and some will also take part in “army battles.” More on that later.
I’ve played through Suikoden several times, but I had never gotten the “good” ending. That is, there’s a tragedy that occurs at one point in the story, and it can only be rectified by collecting all 108 Stars of Destiny by a certain part of the game. If you miss any recruits, you miss this “good” ending. In addition, the Suikoden series allows you to carry over data from previous games to influence the proceeding installments. Yes, games were doing this before Bioware! If you get the good ending, so much the better for your playthrough of the next game.
Suikoden 2 (PS1, available through the PSN shop) has been sitting on my PS3’s hard drive for a while now, and so a few months ago I decided the time had finally come. I am a big fan of the original, and I’ve read that many people consider 2 to be the peak of the series.
So I played through the first Suikoden again, to get the good ending this time. I’ve actually gotten pretty quick at getting through it. I think I beat it in about a week, and I finally got the optimal outcome (following a recruitment guide very carefully, of course). It’s interesting how successive playthroughs can be fun in different ways. Now that I was very familiar with the story and characters, I found myself swapping more minor characters into my party to try them out in battle. And man – the main character + Kai is a sick combo! They’ve got a team attack that lets them damage all enemies!
Suikoden 2 was next. I beat it a few weeks ago. How did it hold up? I must say, my impressions were mixed. Let me try to break things down a bit.
Ok, Suikoden 2 wins handily here. We’ve still got late SNES/Playstation era sprites going on (which is actually a draw to some of us, but not beloved by everyone), and the CGI cutscenes are pretty terrible. But the character animations are a lot better than Suikoden’s.
I actually thought the original Suikoden’s soundtrack was a lot better than its sequel. This could be because I’ve played it so many times, for sure, but not only do its songs stick in my head, but I always enjoyed listening to them. There’s a good variety of music, and individual tracks fit a variety of moods as needed for any given scene.
Interestingly, some of Suikoden’s tracks struck me as kinda Eastern European-sounding. Not that this is an inherently good or bad thing, just kind of unusual and attractive to me.
Suikoden 2 reuses music from Suikoden, but its arrangements didn’t really impress me. Frankly I just didn’t find its soundtrack as catchy or stirring.
Both games are decent on story, setting up and exploiting conflicts and relationships fairly early on. In Suikoden, there are many smaller stories going on, but the main relational focus is on Tir McDohl (the protagonist) and his father, who is a general for the emperor. Tir’s friendships with the other members (servants? hirelings?) of his household also feature prominently. In Suikoden 2, the focus is on Riou’s relationships with his sister, Nanami, and his best friend, Jowy.
Let’s be honest, neither one of these games is Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. There is political intrigue, betrayal, and the like (not much romance, though, for what that’s worth). The stories move and engage. They are pretty good by JRPG standards, but there are weaknesses for sure. On plot, I favor Suikoden. The story just felt like it flowed better and more naturally. In Suikoden II, I had trouble understanding the motivations of some characters (including the ultimate antagonist). A lot of it seemed to boil down to stupidity, simplicity, or just being evil (which can be okay, but usually evil has some ultimate selfish motive such as power or wealth).
Both games feature three distinct battle systems. In normal fights, you’ve got your party of up to 6 characters. They can attack, use items, use runes to cast magic or employ special attacks, and perform team attacks. In duels, you basically play a rock-paper-scissors in which you can predict the enemy’s attacks based upon what he says between each round. Then there are army battles, which make use of your characters on a grander scale.
I must say I have a clear preference for Suikoden’s army battles. The graphics, music, and system itself (which is basically another rock-paper-scissors but with special units that can be employed to spice things up) were much more enjoyable than the tactics-style army battles of Suikoden II. Suikoden II’s system was close to being fun, but most of the battles don’t even matter – they’re prescripted and your decisions have little impact over whether you win or lose. The battles also drag on longer and feel less satisfying.
Again I prefer Suikoden here, but this isn’t by a huge margin. Both games have some fun characters (I’m sure favorites will vary from person to person). In Suikoden, Mathiu, Pahn, Viktor, Gremio, Valeria, Kasumi, and Krin are among my most liked (some of them are quite minor, but still). In Suikoden II, I was a fan of Eilie and Rina, Shu (who’s basically just Mathiu II), Nanami, Flik and Viktor, and Miklotov. Minus points for Freed – he sucks.
One of the strong points about both games is that of all the recruitable characters that can be placed in your immediate party, there are many viable choices. Sure, as you get toward the end you pick up a few OP individuals who are super strong, but there are plenty of solid choices if you have other preferences. Also the way experience works, it’s a pretty simple/quick matter to catch up characters who are severely under-leveled, if you haven’t used them in a while or ever but want to try them out or use them in a boss fight or something.
I don’t want to say Suikoden is flat-out better than its successor, but I do like it better in most ways. Another thing, neither here nor there, but worth pointing out, is that like many games from Japan, they’ve both got localization issues. And like many games from anywhere, they’ve got glitches. I’ve run into all this stuff. One thing that got to me in Suikoden II wasn’t a glitch but a design flaw. If you import Tir from Suikoden, you can use him, but he isn’t a recruitable Star of Destiny. This means that any time there’s a party shuffle (which is quite often), you lose him and have to go pick him up again. If you could teleport straight to Gregminster this wouldn’t be a big deal, but you have to trek through a long dungeon first. Pain in the ass!
Anyway, I’ve avoided spoilers in the hope that anyone who hasn’t played these games may decide to give them a shot. Suikoden shows its age, but if you’re a fan of SNES and early Playstation RPGs, chances are you’ll really enjoy it. There’s a lot of really cool stuff, like a magical rune that transforms itself into a sentient, vampire-killing sword!
If you do give it a play, feel free to drop a comment to let me know what you think!