Genre : RPG
Release Date: January 11, 2005
Mega Man X6. Chrono Cross. Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest. Super Mario Sunshine.
Every video game series that has a history and a hallmark of quality behind it has its black sheep. You know the type; it's the game that comes out of nowhere when an unsuspecting populace is expecting a sequel to deliver the same rock-solid awesomeness it's been spoiled on for years.
But something happened along the way. Perhaps the designers tried to go into a new direction. Perhaps the game tries something different, rolls back a previously welcome feature, or adds an unwelcome one. Maybe it just tries something people can't easily get used to; or perhaps the game has some genuine problems.
It doesn’t mean that a game is inherently bad, mind you; it simply means that, in the end, people can't deal, and it's instantly decried as the "worst of the bunch" when future discussions about the series surface. Depending on the medium upon which it's discussed, the reactions can range from mild ire (see: actual real-life discussion among civilized people) to boiling wrath and promises of fire and brimstone upon the coders (see: pretty much any Internet discussion forum you can name). It's never a pretty sight.
Readers, say hello to our newest black sheep, Suikoden 4.
My head hurts, and I must share the pain.
The story goes like this--you and your friends—and your best friend, Snowe, who becomes more important to the plot as time goes on--are brand new fresh-off-the-training program Knights of Gaien. (I say “you” because you name the hero yourself; he has none by default. He’s also the “silent hero” type to a fault. Instead of taking a page out of the Chrono Trigger handbook and having the game act as if you are interacting with the cast, you’re almost completely ignored as the world talks around you. It’s not pretty.) Your main duties are pretty mundane; ferry this message from one place to the other; guard the camp from pirates, beat up some sea monsters, basic cadet stuff.
Meanwhile, there's this scarybad Rune going around like a bad virus, called the Rune of Punishment. It's able to inflict massive damage on people and things, but at the cost of one's own life force. To make things worse, the only way to get rid of the thing is to die.
When your city and ships are attacked, the rune ends up embedded in your hand, triggering a barrage of events that turns your character’s world upside down, turns friends into enemies and vice versa, and paves the way to forging his destiny.
The world the hero lives in is made up of islands which don’t get to communicate with one another all that efficiently, as well as wandering pirate ships. Since this is the wonderful world of Suikoden, everybody who's anybody is at war with one another, and one of those anybodies has a super-weapon that’s on par with that rune you’re packing. Go on and guess what they plan to do with it. Go on, guess. Yeah.
Got all that? Good, because it doesn’t get any less complex. In time, you’ll be recruiting over a hundred people to your cause in bringing this previously mentioned oppressive nation to justice, and embark on a tale fraught with deception, heartbreak, betrayal, and all that other stuff that’s made role-playing games popular since they first got coded.
Suikoden 4 is a prequel to the first three games in its series, and in fashion agreeing with itself, goes back to basics in a number of ways; story structure, battle systems, and modes of transportation, to name a few.
The only problem is that they rolled things back a little too far, and a lot of things needlessly suffer as a result.
Since, as said before, the entire world’s covered in water and made of naught but islands, primary transportation is by sailing. In fact, your stronghold (a staple of all Suikoden games, where you and your recruits become housed) is revealed to be a gigantic ship mid-story. This affects most of the main gameplay dynamics, some of which are good, some of which you will hate.
You will hate the actual sailing itself, because it is every single one of The Legend of Zelda: the Wind Waker’s sailing woes rolled up into one. Your ship plods along at a brisk five miles an hour as you navigate harsh, windy waters to faraway islands that take no less than fifteen minutes at a time to reach and that have only one point of entry. If you end up on the wrong side of an island, you have to sail all the way around to its port. Realistic? Sure. But a royal pain nonetheless, especially due to the game’s other shortcomings, the biggest ones of which will be discussed forthwith. Viki, the (sort of) teleport specialist) will become your absolute favorite recruiter simply because she cuts the blasted sailing down to a minimum; even then, it still annoys.
The programming in this game has obviously gone down a few notches. Environments often consist of nondescript, barely colored rooms, and islands that look more like polygonal movie sets than actual atmosphere (that is, with wonderful exceptions such as the Kobold City, which is filled with giant houses shaped like cats, and people to match). Sometimes these can be excused because the power of the PS2 instead goes to rendering lots of people. More often, however, it cannot, because of one simple fact: every single screen transition takes 4-8 seconds to occur.
Every. Single. One.
I usually don’t complain about such normally trivial things, but here, it’s a big issue. Let’s say you’re in your stronghold ship. Imagine walking into a tiny room, with nobody inside (such as the hero’s room) and hitting a loading screen for 4-8 seconds. Then you leave, and start navigating your ship. This ship is huge, and has many rooms of varying sizes—and they’re not very far apart from one another, either. Each door you go through is another 4-8 seconds. Bottom line: you’ll have seen much, much more of that loading screen than your actual ship by the time the game is through. In fact, you’ll see just as much of that screen as the actual game. Enemy encounters? Four to eight seconds. Leaving enemy encounters? Four to eight seconds. Time between cutscenes? Well, I’m sure you get the picture by now.
The stop-start syndrome doesn’t just apply to the physical gameplay, either—it applies to the story as well. It sputters like an old jalopy… then jolts forward … then stalls, just as you’re beginning to have fun. These stops are caused by various things—mainly the sailing, but also by events which ask you to simply meander about a place or two; or by unseen character recruitment requirements, or seemingly unrelated sidequests that you cannot avoid. What’s even worse that even though the main plot goes relatively slowly, the characterization goes entirely too quickly, or is overlooked altogether. Try not to get too attached to your cast of tens; unlike older games, Suikoden 4 doesn’t go in-depth with too many of them, either by way of sidequests, sidestories or otherwise. A lot of them are reduced to ship dressing or damage absorbers; gone are the days when you actually were able to care about these folks. It’s a tremendous shame.
Another huge gripe is the enemy encounter rate. Before, the record for encounter frequency had been held by the original Skies of Arcadia for the Dreamcast; anyone who remembers this game is shuddering right now, and rightly so. Suikoden 4, however, smashes this barrier to pieces. It’s worst during sailing—you barely have time to get your bearings before yet another set of enemies makes you wait 4-8 seconds to fight them. Once you’re done, you sail a few feet, and the cycle repeats anew.
One cannot even take solace in the fact that it’s easy leveling—thanks to the series’ trademark experience scaling system, defeated enemies give you fewer and fewer experience points as you rise in levels, making fighting the same types of enemies over and over again almost worthless, even sooner than in other RPGs.
On the plus side, battle itself is actually quite fun, even though there are fewer characters to a party than in the older games. You can only use four now instead of the original six, but unlike the third game, they’re their own individuals again; not tied in pairs. Anyone familiar with the battle system will feel right at home; Rune attacks and the unique magic system are back, as are team attacks, and the always helpful “Auto” option which has all your characters attack physically to save on button-mashing.
It wouldn’t be a Suikoden without a way for armies to battle on a grand scale, and there, that’s answered by ship battling. Ship battling is more action-based and less tactical than most other games that use this dynamic, or even the older Suikoden games themselves. Basically, ships move into position, and fire magical Rune shells at one another. Hits can be countered, and free hits can even be gained provided one plays with their magical elements correctly. Should two ships get close enough, one can board the other, taking the fight up close and personal. It’s a simple, effective, and fun system, and I’d like to see it used again.
It also wouldn’t be a Suikoden without tons of minigames and Easter eggs. The infamous ”bath house” returns, which can spark some pretty funny scenes between characters; and several minigames revolving around chance (which are ironically all interactive in some way) can be found and taken advantage of in order to win money or even characters.
The soundtrack is mundane at best, as are the sound effects. The heartwarming and catchy tunes of previous games are gone; so much of it now sounds either like jazz (good) or elevator music (not so good). The voice acting, however, shows a lot of effort and money put into it. It stands out as one of the game’s better aspects.
Still, even with all of these things going for it, they are but tiny parts of a flawed whole.
The problem with Suikoden 4, contrary to what many other people have said by this point, is not that it fails to stand up to its predecessors. It’s not a simple matter of “don’t go in expecting another Suikoden 2” if you wish to enjoy this game. This is not to say that these things aren’t true; they most certainly are, but that’s not the end of it by a long shot.
The real problem is that Suikoden 4 fails to stand up to role playing games that came five years or more before it. The title looks, plays, sounds, loads, and I dare say is written like a first-generation import Playstation 2 launch effort. Lessons that have been learned in RPG game design seem to have been lost here, as old problems thought to have been forevermore excised crop up anew. An extra year’s worth of polish could have made this game something to write home about; unfortunately, as it stands, it’s a disappointment to the Suikoden name, which has incredibly high sandards attached to it at this point. It’s akin to digging into a cookie jar, only to find out someone replaced them with little discs made out of clay and wax.
All this being said… it’s still Suikoden, and thus, still worth a passing glance. It’s still got its merits, and its innovative points. However, if you were a fan of Suikoden 2 or Suikoden 3, approach with extreme caution. Fans of the first game may have a better time—the series has regressed back to a simpler time, and a simpler way of doing things. However, simple or not, there are still glaring flaws in this go-round that need to be addressed, and quickly—and that just should not have been there in the first place.
At least there’s one silver lining in all of this: the good thing about hitting rockbottom is that there’s nowhere to go but up.
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