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The Suikoden series has never really enjoyed the commercial success of other RPGs for the console platform. On the PS2, the Final Fantasy series seems to suck up all the prestige and players. The Xbox does not have a defining RPG series really, though Fable went a long way to establishing excellence there.
Despite the fact that its not the most popular RPG, Suikoden has quite a lot of fans, and they are all very loyal to their game series. One reason for this is probably the unique fact that all the Suikoden games take place in the same game world. So it's kind of like a neighborhood where you grew up. Things change, but you always know where the local store is, where your buddy used to live and the good and bad parts of town. Suikoden IV takes place 150 years before the original, so it's a distant prequel.
The basic gameplay is that you have one single main character that you name yourself. Then you have a lot of extras, 108 NPCs in Suikoden IV, that can be recruited to join your party. NPCs either hang out on your ship, once you get one, or they become part of your active party and join in when battles start.
Combat, which is a huge part of the game in that it seems to occur all the time, is turn-based. Your group of four people lines up on one side of the screen and the monsters line up on the other. Who moves first is random, but also based on your level and your character's speed. When it is your turn to go, you select what type of attack to use and which opponent to go after. Some attacks can affect an entire monster group, though these are normally limited in number and require rest before you have access to them again.
You start the game as a orphan. Your best friend is the son of the local magistrate. He treats you fairly well, but mostly it is a lopsided relationship. He tends to want all the glory, and has a serious character flaw in that he can't seem to take it when you start to come of your own as a knight. Even your friendship combo, which is a move the two of you can make together in combat, has him standing gallantly commanding you to move forward and do all the work.
Eventually the two of you come to a falling out, which happens to occur just when you are accused of being a traitor. You see there are these runes in the world floating around. Most of them are pretty darn good to have, but the one you stumble onto is cursed. It's called the rune of punishment, and while it offers you terrible power in battle, the tradeoff is that it saps the life from its user slowly and surely, till they are dead. And it's now implanted itself into your hand. You are accused of having something to do with its previous owner's demise, and are exiled by being put into a little boat and sent off into the vast ocean.
Thankfully, some of your fellow knights know the truth. They stowaway in your little exile raft and join you on your quest.
You are at first shipwrecked on an island, but eventually make it to civilization where you become entwined in the world's problems. The king of another kingdom gives you a ship, you are after all a fully trained knight and sea captain, and you go about trying to set things right. Eventually something happens and you are given an even bigger ship, where your 108 NPCs will live if you can find them.
In addition to combat in the different groups, there is also ship to ship combat. This involves maneuvering your ship into the proper position and firing the right type of element (fire, earth, water, air) at the opposing ship to overcome whatever element they are using for attack.
There are also some personal duels where you alone have to swordfight a bad guy. This is basically a game of rock, paper, scissors but the mouthy bad guys generally give away what they are about to do (attack, guard or counter) by talking before the next blow. So if they say "I am going to cut you up" you know they are probably going to attack and can guard. This is one of the more fun elements of the game, though it does not occur too often.
The two biggest complaints I have with the game is the too-frequent combat, and the need to train up your NPCs. Combat seems to occur all the time. If you are sailing from one place to another, which happens all the time in this nautical game, you can expect that some slimy creatures will hop onto your ship about every thirty seconds, which triggers a battle. This happens so much that by the time you reach where you are going, you have likely forgotten why you were making the journey in the first place.
Secondly, the NPCs you recruit are pretty weak when you get them. The characters you start with end up becoming powerful given the constant battle you are in, and bringing new people up to speed does not seem worth it most of the time. However, if you really like a new character you meet, it is not too difficult to level them up. All you have to do is just pop onto your ship and sail around with them. All the constant attacks will get them the experience you need. Still, for anyone other than a diehard fan of the series, this repetitive gameplay can get to be quite boring.
The game can be solved in about 35 hours, though this is increased quite a bit if you go about leveling all your characters.
The nautical theme and the really nice graphics helped keep my interest in Suikoden, but the highly repetitive gameplay bogged it down a bit too much for me. If you know what you are getting into, then you will probably enjoy Suikoden IV, but otherwise, those other top RPG titles for the console hold the most popular crown for a reason. Suikoden IV earns a respectable 3 + GiN Gems.
John Breeden II is the Chief Editor of GiN. While a forward thinking man he admits to a fondness for older video games. You should have seen him at Videotopia. John can be contacted at : firstname.lastname@example.org.