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Suikoden (PlayStation) artwork

Suikoden (PlayStation) review

"Good, but not great Ė this is the tragic theme that pervades Suikoden, a competent game that has received more praise than it deserves. Many of the features Suikoden fans purport as its most distinguishing aspects are actually its greatest flaws. Make no mistake: Konamiís foray into the role-playing genre is a solid one, but their inexperience with the genre is glaring: the result is a highly generic role-playing game that fails to evoke the grandness that allows a console role-playing game to t..."

Good, but not great Ė this is the tragic theme that pervades Suikoden, a competent game that has received more praise than it deserves. Many of the features Suikoden fans purport as its most distinguishing aspects are actually its greatest flaws. Make no mistake: Konamiís foray into the role-playing genre is a solid one, but their inexperience with the genre is glaring: the result is a highly generic role-playing game that fails to evoke the grandness that allows a console role-playing game to transcend mere goodness.

The inflated cast of characters is something fans love to rave about, but this is easily one of the gameís most obvious weaknesses. Deceivingly advertised as having 108 characters, the truth behind Suikoden is that it doesnít have 108 playable characters. But thatís not the problem: even considering the sizeable number of unplayable characters, the remaining playable ones still bloat the cast beyond all practicality, revealing Suikodenís massive cast as nothing more than a gimmick.

Iím perplexed when someone presents the size of the gameís cast when speaking favorably about the game, because it enhances the experience in no way. By rough estimation, Suikoden can easily be completed using as few as twelve characters. Itís worth noting that not only would the experience be roughly the same if you were limited to that many, but that itíd also simply be far more convenient. Thereís never even any good incentive to use all of the gameís playable characters, considering your starting few are perfectly capable combatants, while many of the additional playable characters are practically useless. Whatís funnier is the fact that the game rarely even gives you the chance to use all of the extra characters: out of a six-person party, you are often forced to use the same two or three principal characters, in addition to your irremovable hero.

The only significant effect of Suikodenís large cast is a wholly negative one: it inhibits character development, which considerably hinders the story. The entire cast of characters can be separated into the following categories: The absolute essentials, the temporary essentials, and the extraneous nonessentials. The absolute essentials exceed no more than fifteen characters, and they are the only ones who play a crucial role in the story. The addition of the other two groups results in a lack of focus on the absolute essentials, meaning that out of a cast of 108, not even one is even remotely compelling. The temporary essentials play moderately important roles at given plot points, often by providing solutions to obstacles. However after theyíve played their parts, any further presence they have is completely meaningless. The extraneous nonessentials, which make up the bulk of the cast, serve little purpose, such as greeting you to your castle or providing you with an elevator.

Most tragically, the worst victim of Konamiís massive cast gimmick is our protagonist. The hero is the son of the empireís greatest general. More specifically, the hero is the mute son of the empireís greatest general. I have never been particularly fond of mute lead characters in role-playing games, but when said character is supposed to be such an inspiring, charismatic leader, like in Suikoden, this is especially inappropriate. Merely having other characters speak highly of him simply isnít enough. Their comments arenít believable because we never see him exhibit any of the great qualities heís supposed to have.

Only a little while after the hero and his friends join the imperial army do they realize that itís corrupt. Predictably, a sizeable resistance movement is formed, captained by our faceless hero. The empire seeks magic runes to suit its own selfish desires. Yet for some reason, it seems like the story often forgets about this portion of itself, choosing instead to focus mainly on battle strategies and territorial gains. A story that casts a distant eye on its events with little emphasis on the human motivation that drives them, Suikoden feels like an empty, soulless shell of a game with no understanding of human emotion, no means to touch the soul. There are no believable, rising moments of tension, nor is there a great climax. Despite all the major, thousand-man battles that occur, the gameís lack of excitement becomes particularly apparent when the game nears its end. It ends so abruptly and uninterestingly that the ending would be more suitably called a truncation.

At major plot points, major battles ensue, pitting your liberation army against the imperial army. This part of the game is yet another thing that Suikoden fans praise but I personally have trouble getting excited about what is undeniably nothing more than a glorified version of Rock-Paper-Scissors. This is certainly not where the gameís true strength lies. It seems at the time of Suikodenís development, Konami was not yet at the point where it could really defy conventionality and be successful. I like this game much more than it may seem at this point. Most of Suikodenís true strengths lie in its conventionality.

Excluding the aforementioned features, Konami has taken a highly conventional approach to the console role-playing game. The fully turn-based combat system offers a pretty basic set of RPG commands, allowing you to do things such as attack, defend, and use items. Itís slightly unbalanced: magic is always immensely powerful but incredibly limited, making them a waste in normal battles and necessitating their reservation for boss battles. It also unsuccessfully tries to innovate: certain characters can use a ďUniteĒ command to perform an attack together, but normal battles are just as easily completed with regular attacks, and the importance of magic in boss battles outweighs virtually everything else. Ultimately however, there are no annoying parts or show-stopping problems, so the basic combat is what makes Suikoden a reasonably enjoyable game.

There are also some parts where Konami does go above the call of duty, so to speak, by adding some creative extra features. The most noteworthy example is the castle you acquire, which is used as a base for all your operations. It starts out small, ramshackle base, but as you get more characters and time passes, it expands into a bustling command center. Itís filled with plenty of interesting, but nonessential features, such as listening to the gameís music, playing mini-games, or viewing some literature in a library. These small features do not compensate for the overall lack of completeness Suikoden suffers from, but it serves as a nice reminder that Konami is actually trying.

However, no matter how hard Konami tried with Suikoden, they simply couldnít break the mold. No word could possibly be more apt for Suikoden than decent, which is precisely why the massive praise that it receives bothers me. The decent story and gameplay are accompanied by equally decent graphics and sound. To its credit, Suikodenís character portraits are artfully drawn, and this is easily the gameís greatest strength. However, this minor merit doesnít outweigh the utter lack of excellence the rest of the game exhibits.

The best role-playing games make all of its aspects to immerse the player. Great gameplay entertains, a great story captivates, great graphics amaze, while great music sets the mood throughout the experience. A second tier of role-playing games may miss on a few counts, but make up for it on others. Suikoden falls below that, failing to particularly impress on any level. Itís just a consistently average game that never really excels. Konami may or may not be looking to innovate, but this entry alone isnít enough to carve out their own niche in the genre. They show promise, but Suikoden is by no means their paramount effort.

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Community review by radicaldreamer (November 06, 2004)

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