Suikoden Strikes Back
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The Suikoden series has always been one of the top RPGs for the PS2. Perhaps not quite as popular as the Final Fantasy series, Suikoden nonetheless has always enjoyed a lot of esteem, and for good reason. Fantastic environments, good storylines and intense combat are the hallmarks of the lineup.
The one problem with Suikoden is that it seems to try and reinvent itself each time a new game comes out. Things get tweaked, sometimes so much that the last game's fans feel a bit alienated. That happened in a big way with Suikoden IV, which many said was worst in the series. Four was not really a bad game, but it was just not up to Suikoden par.
But forget about that, because Suikoden V is here. If the entire series were as good as this one, then Final Fantasy would not stand a chance.
My biggest gripe about most console-based RPGs is the lack of a true plot. Normally the games are almost totally combat based, and that includes some of the greats like Champions of Norrath and Dark Alliance. I did love those games, but I really wanted to get more from them in the way of a plot.
Suikoden V pulls no punches in terms of the storyline. The game starts out and the characters are introduced, and you are totally drawn into the day to day lives of the royal family of which you are a part. In fact, the game kind of continues like this in a sort of day to day environment for a long time. It's not exactly high drama, but you get used to it and start to expect things to happen in a certain way. Then like lighting, things change. And so begins a story totally different than you expected.
The overall plot is that you are the oldest son of the Queen of Falena, who rules over her country in a fairly kind and just way. Because men are not in line to the throne (it's a Queendom) you are a somewhat minor member of the royal house despite your status as the oldest child and a prince. It's your younger sister who will eventually rule. Thankfully, everyone in your family really likes you, and treats you well. Mostly your life is a series of mundane missions around the kingdom, though it does serve to get you used to combat. You also have a pretty female bodyguard named Lyon who never leaves your side. Like all the major characters in the game and most of the minor ones, Lyon has a rich history that you will come to know as you play.
Each character from your heavily drinking Aunt Sialeeds to your father Ferid to the mysterous Queen's knight Georg have stories that you will eventually learn. And unlike most games, even the supposedly minor characters have motivations flushed out and interesting stories. Plus, the villains are not one dimensional here. Each of them have reasons why they are doing what they do, and some don't even see themselves as evil. They are just trying to help their country in a different way, according to them.
Some people will love the amount of time spent building things up, but I should give a slight warning that a few people used to more hardcore combat, might get a touch bored in the early stages. It took me about 14 hours of play before things really started to heat up.
There are two basic interface modes that you will be in, or perhaps three if you count the non-interactive story elements. The first is when you are wandering around on the main map or within cities. Basically you see your icon with your bodyguard following you, no matter how many people are actually in your group. You can move around the map or the city and talk to other people you see by going up to them and pressing X. This is also how you can buy or sell items at the various stores you find.
The second mode happens when you meet an enemy, which normally only happen out in the field. You are taken to a blowup screen where all the members of your party and those of the enemy are shown. Combat now turns into a chess match type of affair. Each of your characters are able to attack one enemy with a melee or ranged attack, or magic. Some characters can partner up to attack multiple enemies, or to do an incredible amount of damage to one opponent. Figuring out and using the correct moves and magic is a key to survival. After combat you will find new items sometimes like armor which can be equipped to upgrade your character. Experience points can also be spent in towns to level your character up.
There is actually one more mode in Suikoden V which was a total surprise to me: commander of armies or navies in massive battles. Yes, your peaceful kingdom (or queendom) can't stand in harmony forever it seems. Soon you will be forced to lead armies into battle. This is done with a fairly simple interface and is the only real-time element of the game. Success is achieved mostly by matching your strengths against your opponent's weaknesses. It's not quite as easy as it sounds. You want to move your archers to attack groups of Cavalry. Cavalry beats infantry and infantry crushes archers. But with everything moving at the same time, is a bit difficult. Plus a lot of your units and some of the enemy ones have special abilities where using them at the right time can mean the difference between victory and defeat.
Naval battles are much like land ones, only the ships move around a lot slower, so they are generally easier to control. There are still three main types of units, with each one beating another type but also being beaten by a third.
Oh, and from time to time you will have to engage in personal combat, which is handled much like it was in Suikoden IV. Your opponent says something that gives you a clue as to their plan for that round of the fight, and you have to choose the best counter move within three seconds.
Graphically, Suikoden V looks great. It may be missing some advanced features like the ability to rotate the map in towns when your characters go behind a wall or a house, but nonetheless it pushes the graphical envelope on the aging PS2 system. And the cut scenes, even when they are just little mood setters to show you a new area or to frame a pending story element, are well done and go to show a lot of care and effort on the developer's part.
The soundtrack is also quite good. Most major characters have good voices and excellent voice acting. And the music is perfect for whatever environment you are in.
Suikoden V is a very long game, but other then the first couple of hours of play, never threatens to get boring. The combat parts of the game are balanced by the story elements, with one transitioning into the other just at the right moments.
This is by far the best Suikoden of the series. Whether you have played any of the other games or not (each Suikoden is its own separate story with new characters independent from the others) you will enjoy Suikoden V. As perhaps the last of the series for the PS2 platform, it's a must have.
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 : email@example.com.