Genre: Tactical RPG
Release Date: November 8, 2005
Buy 'SUIKODEN TACTICS: PlayStation 2
Writing this review as a Suikoden fan, I have to say I wasn't particularly excited about Suikoden Tactics. The standard RPG Suikoden games that preceded this one all had fun tactical battles, certainly, but this promised to be a straight-up square grid-based tactical RPG, a genre I've played quite a bit of, but never had a particular affinity for. What's more, the game was going to be placed in the same scenario as Suikoden IV, and the general consensus on that title was that it was the worst in the series, a plodding, thinly plotted piece of mediocrity. I braced for the worst.
I'm still not particularly excited because, as it turns out, Suikoden Tactics is not a particularly exciting game. It is a fun and addicting game though, and doesn't get lost in the intense difficulty levels or overly complex mechanics that make tactical RPGs largely impenetrable to non-genre fans. To genre fans, this will probably come off as an exceedingly easy, basic game, but if you are Suikoden fan with a passing interest in tactical RPGs – and I understand this must be a very small group, of which I am a member – congratulations, you've found your candy.
As I've said, Suikoden Tactics doesn't make a great first impression. Story-wise, it acts as a direct sequel to Suikoden IV, which wasn't particularly great or memorable a game, so Suikoden Tactics plots itself in such a way that the story is whole without playing its predecessor. Now it may be that there is a good, interesting story in the conflict between the Island Nations and the Kooluk Empire, which has now been chronicled in two games. This story may have the political intrigue and deeply personal, reverberating conflicts that the other games in the series had. As of this review, this story still has not been told.
Fortunately for Suikoden Tactics, being plodding and thinly-plotted actually work out just fine for a tactical RPG, as the combat engagements are long and meaty and only need to be tied together by string. Thus, it can tell its tale about cannons that turn people into fish people without drawing too many raised eyebrows. The main character of the game, Kyril, his father was turned into a fish monster by such a device, and as a result, he watched his dad being put down. Kyril then takes his father's cause, the research of these "rune cannons," in the hope that maybe he could destroy them all in a kind of misguided vengeance. It's all rather silly, but it's as good an excuse as any to collect a huge number of characters into a merry band.
The story is excusable, but the graphics are not, and actually do a great disservice to the title. The combat arenas do a fairly good job of capturing the Suikoden IV areas when they try to, and look decent in the initial fly-over shots, but when they zoom in for combat it becomes clear that there are no details in the textures. As a result, most of the levels look colorless and washed out. The characters are brightly colored, but their rectangular and stubby design doesn't endear them, and the animation – which games of this type admittedly don't need a lot of – doesn't go above and beyond. Even the spell effects are rather generic.
It's a shame, because the rest of the presentation is actually very good. The music does a great job of placing the faux Mediterranean setting of the Island Nations, and the 2D character art and menu backgrounds are of consistently high quality. The voice acting is about par for the course; some of it will make you cringe but some of it, especially in the early goings, is rather good and really helps to set the tone of the game.
Where Suikoden Tactics really excels, however, is in its tactical combat system. Sure, it doesn't look great, but the game did a great job of boiling the basic genre mechanics down to their essence, and then adding just enough to bring the combat beyond "attack from behind" without making it inaccessible. Most of the game really is the same standard system that games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre have used in the past – combat takes place with two groups of units facing off on a level that is really just a square-based grid. These units try to gain tactical advantage against each other, usually by placing themselves in such a way that they can attack their enemies from behind or the sides. Suikoden Tactics rounds out this system with the usual contrivances – the magic system, the ranged based attackers, the flying units (actually, in this game, you can mount most characters on owls to make them fly).
The most important system to keep in mind in battle, however, is the elemental attribute system. Every unit in the game has one of six elemental attributes, and the ground, either through the nature of the level or some magic spell, can also be imbued with such an attribute. Place a unit with, say, a water attribute on ground that has been imbued the water element, and their natural affinity will result in a huge stats bonus and automatic end-of-turn healing. Of course, every element has a counter-element, so if you place that water elemental character on lightning-imbued ground, they'll take a massive stat hit and lose health at the end of their turn. This can result in some interesting battles where the player strategically turns the level into a series of advantageous elemental fields, though mostly it seems to mean picking characters of two different affinities specifically, moving them into their corresponding advantageous elementally-imbued land, and digging in.
The AI won't typically do a lot more than charge right into your waiting trap, at which point your weaker characters are pumped up by the terrain bonus while your stronger characters flank around them to attack from the back. It is when the AI does choose to do something more than charge – say, attack with some very strong ranged units, or turning your terrain element into its counter-element – that the battles become really interesting. Figuring your way out of these situations can actually be quite addicting, though it is rarely difficult.
The game also gives you more excuses to get into combat than the string of the narrative. You can hunt monsters to pump up your characters to the point where the game is really easy, and there is permadeath in this game, but it only applies to non-critical characters in the story; the main characters merely withdraw from combat. Excising these non-main characters from your core group makes the game significantly easier as well. You can also go on quest missions, which can provide additional powerful armor and accessories and new characters. The whole time, you'll be gaining character levels, money, and skill points, the latter of which goes into a shared pool which you then use to upgrade your unit's various skills – say, increasing the odds they will dodge an attack, or increasing the number of times they can attack in a turn. The joys of watching your character stats increase and your money pouch grow are all in full effect here.
Even with these additions, Suikoden Tactics does not span the breadth of time that is typical of games in this genre. You can play the central story and many of the side missions to completion in fewer than 30 hours. While this may go quite a ways to annoy genre fans, it also continues this game's trend of accessible tactical gameplay.
It is this game's accessibility that made me like it as much as it did, but in the end, it also complicates the issue of for whom this game is suited. Interested players new to the genre would likely enjoy Suikoden Tactics, except it comes off as a straight sequel to a mediocre RPG which was itself a sequel to three underappreciated RPGs – and this game is much more enjoyable if you know the mythos. Genre fans and hardcore strategy fans will probably find this game easy and almost offensively short, and they have to get over the Suikoden bias as well. Fans who just want another Suikoden game that doesn't remind them of the previous installment should try this game and see if the solid gameplay wins them over, as it did me; they may find that this dulls the sting of the last game a little. Ultimately, however, Suikoden Tactics can only really be recommended to Suikoden fans who are curious about tactical RPGs, and to tactics fans looking to whittle away a small amount of time before Nippon Ichi's next product is unleashed in the 'States.