Suikoden IV (PlayStation 2) review
"Following an unfortunate trend, Konami's fourth installment concentrates on improving its graphics and incorporating vocal dialogue in order to compete with the current trends in the RPG genre while not giving enough attention to gameplay. Somehow, something went horribly awry during the transition between Suikoden III and Suikoden IV. No one can explain why most of the game's problems could have been easily fixed simply by glancing at Suikoden III. Though maintaining Suikoden's standard for cre..."
Following an unfortunate trend, Konami's fourth installment concentrates on improving its graphics and incorporating vocal dialogue in order to compete with the current trends in the RPG genre while not giving enough attention to gameplay. Somehow, something went horribly awry during the transition between Suikoden III and Suikoden IV. No one can explain why most of the game's problems could have been easily fixed simply by glancing at Suikoden III. Though maintaining Suikoden's standard for creating 108 distinct characters, Suikoden IV deteriorates the Suikoden series with poor execution, oversimplification, a dissatisfying storyline, and a lack of enthusiasm.
To offer some leniency, Suikoden IV did have extremely high expectations. Its predecessor, Suikoden III, enticed us with an experimental storyline that superbly and delicately weaved multiple storylines into a unified and groundbreaking epic, taking the effort to present the plot from five significant angles. With a unique 3-pair combat system, customizable skill sets, a consistent pacing, and multiple means for exploration, it served as an example that graphics are never necessary in making a great game. Here, however, many of these features were either removed, watered down, or made unimportant and even detrimental. During the process of trying to make the Suikoden series into a "mainstream" RPG series with detailed graphics, voice acting, mini-games, and a four single-character combat system, Suikoden IV became a conceptual mess with Suikoden fragments hanging off of bits and pieces of mainstream RPG. This lastest horrah lacks a sense of identity and consequentially endangers the Suikoden series from losing its original concept and image altogether.
Suikoden IV has a baffling number of problems and has the ill-fated situation where every flaw intensifies the severity of every other flaw. In terms of difficulty, Suikoden IV is just too easy. Anyone who has played an RPG before can master the game within the first hour of gameplay, since the four single-character combat system does not have much depth at all. All of the standard options are retained: basic attack, combination attacks, automated attack, rune magic, defend, and running away by retreating, releasing, or offering potch. However, not once during the game, does a player need to run away, defend, or perform a combination attack or even the newly-added rune combination attack. The enemies are not very challenging, and the variety of enemies and enemy formations are few and far between. Granted that Suikoden III's 3-pair system was not realistic, it did have the complexity missing in Suikoden IV. Moreover, the majority of the game becomes a question of how many times one can abuse the Auto function before succumbing to boredom. However, players can usually forgive a game for being repetitive. Regrettably, Suikoden IV is both monotonous and frustrating.
The sheer gravity of the frustration in Suikoden IV leads anyone to wonder whether the game was even play-tested at all. For someone to miss the fact that the game has one of the highest encounter rates in RPG history is beyond belief. If it were not for Viki's ability to instantly teleport the ship to another island or the R1 button, which is a hidden feature the game doesn't really tell us about, I would have become petrified myself. However, assuming there are enemy encounters, it actually takes about 15-25 minutes, which I now know is how long it takes to play one full game of Tekken, unless one changes their abuse of the Auto function to the Escape function. The number of battles ensures that each of your characters has enough potch and experience to equip high defense items and breeze right through almost every battle. There is also no means of controlling the encounter rate either through an item or some ability. In essence, these factors reduce the willingness of the player to explore and delve into the oceanic world of Suikoden IV. If the purpose of the excessive encounters is to ensure character development, then the game could have just made the experience rate higher.
Still, the most maddening aspect is the invisible repelling walls that serve as a boundary around the sea as well as every island. If the main ship hits an invisible wall, the player immediately loses all control and the ship automatically turns around and retreats. Thus, what seems to be a fairly easy task of docking onto a harbor becomes a tedious and aggravating affair. If the reason why the ship can't travel faster, ride along the edge of the islands, or wrap around the world map is due to realism, there are numerous ways to balance gameplay and realism without sacrificing authenticity and game movement. The walls could have been made recognizable or a larger docking area could have been highlighted.
Though comparing the storylines of Suikoden IV and Suikoden III has reasonable legitimacy, their underlying intentions and concepts make them distinct. However, on its own merit, Suikoden IV's storyline is barely passable. The game features a voiceless main character that hardly speaks even through written dialogue. By the end of the game, we know as much about the main character as at the beginning of the game: absolutely nothing. What results is an empty shell that we are not even sure exists in the present. Since the hero lacks any sort of depth, dimension, or character arc, players will curiously feel more of a connection to the other characters, such as Lino En Kuldos. This is not to say, however, that a voiceless first person should never be used, as in the instances of Link in Zelda or many first-person shooters. It is to say that for an RPG where storyline drives the gameplay, a voiceless main character with no character arc has severe limitations and has hardly anywhere to go but 'boring'.
Acquiring the other 107 Stars of Destiny have always been the driving force for the Suikoden series. Suikoden IV does not fail to keep this tradition alive, although in many ways, the execution of the concept has room for improvement. Many of the additional characters are too straightforwardly acquired through simple battle sequences, easy dueling sequences, or simply asking them, "Do you want to come onboard? OK. Done."
Disinteresting dialogue, predictable events, inconsistent voice acting, and the removal of the skill system all reduce each Star of Destiny into a rough skeleton of a character. The game doesn't dispel much information about anyone, except for Lino En Kuldos, Elenor, and Snowe, though even then, there's not much content anyway. The dialogue between characters is straightforward and simple in its execution, neither deep nor interesting. There are a few genuinely heartfelt moments and powerful dialogue does surprisingly occur, but barely as often as it should. Voice acting is the same way: on and off. The performances for Elenor, Tal, Glenn, and of course, Lino En Kuldos, had the impact, the flow, and the precision lacking from the voices for Akaghi, Snowe, and Katarina. It makes an interesting scene when a character filled with ardor and soul is answered with an expression that makes Keanu Reeves seem like an actor.
However, discarding the skill system from Suikoden III was simply ridiculous. Not only did it provide customization where players feel the time they have invested actually means something, but it also created a unique personal facet for each character. In a game that features 108 characters, it is almost impossible to give enough time to make everyone believable. Skill points and how a character's inner strength and personality reflects in how great the maximum potential for a certain skill was an idea that cohesively brought the characters and the gameplay together. This skill system is nowhere to be found in Suikoden IV.
Futhermore, I have three comments. First, the various rune pieces that can be affixed onto a character's weapon does not seem to play even a minor role. They do add an elemental attribute that may or may not increase the amount of inflicted damage depending on the enemy, but the amount added doesn't make them worth it. Second, there does not seem to be a unifying theme in the storyline. By the end of the game, I was asking myself what the message or what the point of the game was besides just playing the RPG for the sake of it. Besides the rune of punishment and its past, the theme of sin and redemption could have been developed further. Last, there are a bit too many mini-games: mahjong, tops, down to one and triple toss, fishing, and cards. I must say that the majority of these mini-games were addictive, especially mahjong. However, these mini-games are very distracting and, except for the forced usage of elements and the faces of characters, they are disconnected to the storyline.
Thankfully, graphics, if nothing else, have made a significant improvement. Backdrops and environmental scenery are detailed, smooth, and lush, bringing the island atmosphere to life without sacrificing the frame rate. Color palettes for each of the environments were carefully chosen and each of the 108+ characters is finished and complete. Sandy, washed out, light tones and vibrantly green plants emphasize the island character of the game. In addition, the fighting stances, be they power, speed, or defensive ones, show a facet of each character's personality. Lighting, shadowing, and movement is all impressive, and the costuming for each of the 108 characters, a daunting task to say the least, enhances the gameplay with style and remarkable consistency.
On the other hand, the music and sound effects are just adequate, but then again, the Suikoden series has never been known for its aural experience. Even its opening song, "La Mer", is quite overwhelmingly basic, although as a counterpoint, much of the redundant soundtrack captures the silent nature of the islands. Thus, though neither capturing our attention nor our interest, they are appropriate and intentionally do not distract us.
Suikoden IV's lack of depth makes the game recommendable only for Suikoden fans. Despite its strong replay value, acquiring each Star of Destiny is more of a chore than a reward. Though its graphics are brilliantly done, without a strong storyline, engaging characters, or an intricate battle system, Suikoden IV ends up only being a mediocre RPG at best.
Community review by draqq_zyxx (September 10, 2005)
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