Suikoden is a rare RPG franchise that prides itself almost entirely on continuity. Every single game in the series is set in the same world, admittedly during different time periods, and you can encounter familiar characters or their relatives or descendants, which makes the entire thing feel like a cohesive whole. This also made it hard to get into the franchise as it progressed, as certain plot elements would only make sense if you had played the earlier games in the franchise, and since Suikoden 2 is considered one of the rarest games on the original PlayStation, not a lot of folks have. Even Suikoden 5, which did its best to be accessible to everyone, was mired in continuity, and that made it a bit too dense for newcomers to enjoy. It's no huge surprise that for the series' first official non-PlayStation outing, Suikoden Tierkreis for the DS, Konami decided to step away from the Suikoden world and into the Infinity, the vast number of potential alternate dimensions only briefly mentioned by a few characters in the earlier titles.
Tierkreis takes place in one of the aforementioned worlds of the Infinity, completely separate from the main Suikoden world. Players join an unnamed hero who lives in the small village of Citro. He and his friends are part of the Citro Defense Force and are tasked with guarding the town from rampaging monsters. While on a routine quest, they discover that something strange has happened. A local valley has turned into a lush forest, and nobody remembers it as being any other way, except for the unnamed hero. Investigating the forest causes the group to discover a mysterious book that treats them to a vision of a silver-haired warrior fighting an unseen foe. The book also restores their memories of the way the world used to be prior to the arrival of the forest, and it even grants them special powers called Marks of the Stars. The group discovers that a mysterious dictator known as The One King is behind the sudden appearance of the forest, and the group is forced into a battle against The One King for the fate of their own world — and the fates of the infinite number of alternate realities.
The plot of Tierkreis is fairly interesting and involves a lot of unique ideas and interesting developments to help players overlook the fact that it is, at it is core, a clichéd story. It has a strong cast of memorable characters, although a lot of those characters end up being underused. Perhaps the weakest point is the main character, who seems to have no personality beyond "well-intentioned youth" and seems determined to not be bothered by anything. He can discover someone has a dark secret about his history, that an ally is the secret monarch of a hidden society, and that his allies are planning to betray him, and he'll just shrug it off. Admittedly, it is a refreshing change from the hero who doubts himself at every turn, but his reactions tend to diminish the gravity of a situation. Fortunately, he has a strong supporting cast, and while a good number of them are clichés, they're at least likeable clichés.
As with every other title in the franchise, Tierkreis is focused on the collection of the 108 Stars of Destiny, who make up the 108 potential characters who can join your army. In Tierkreis, a Star of Destiny is someone who can touch the magical book and receive a vision, which in turn grants him or her a magical power. While a good number of the 108 stars join your army automatically throughout the game's plot, most will have to be recruited by performing side-quests. Complete a side-quest successfully, and you'll gain another member for your army. The downside to this is that Tierkreis' recruitment is basically worthless compared to the other Suikoden titles. Except for a handful of useful shopkeepers, most of the recruitable characters will never do anything useful. The biggest reason for this is that Tierkreis completely removes the "war battle" system that was in all prior Suikoden titles. War battles allowed you to use almost everyone in your army, and seemingly useless characters would pull their weight in large-scale battles, but here, they never will. The largest battle you get into requires six teams of four characters, for a total of 24 potential characters, and you can usually win those battles with one or two strong fighters and two supporting characters. Since the majority of those battles require you to use specific characters anyway, there's no real reason to use most of the cast.
The cast bloating is made worse by the changes to the battle system. Tierkreis joins Suikoden 4 in varying from the traditional six-person party with a four-person party instead. Combat is your average cookie-cutter RPG model, with players taking turns hitting enemies and getting hit by enemies until one of them runs out of HP. Tierkreis varies this even more by removing the Runes system found in the other games, and in its place, you have a traditional MP-based system. Every character who is capable of fighting gains a new attack spell when a major plot event occurs, and each can equip up to four spells at a time. Perhaps the only unique thing about the combat system is that it retains the cooperative attacks found in other Suikoden titles. Certain character combinations will give you the ability to unleash powerful combination attacks by sacrificing their turns, which gives them a very powerful attack with a unique animation. These powerful attacks require a specific party, though, and some of the individual members are usually weaker, so it achieves a certain balance.
The big problem with the battle system is that it is both more and less customizable than the previous Suikoden titles, and unfortunately, that ends up being for the worse. Each character can now equip different kinds of weapons, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. The weapon balance is extremely off, though, so you're unlikely to use any weapons besides dual-wielded clubs or swords and the occasional magic staff. If a character isn't made to use those weapons, then he falls behind the characters who do, and there is no real way to make up for that. Another problem comes from the new magic system. Each character has a specific set of magic spells that he or she learns as the game progresses. Some of these spell sets are good, while others are so weak that there is no reason to use that character. The Rune system in prior Suikoden titles allowed you to shore up a character's weak points or customize toward their strengths. Here, you're simply stuck with what they have. It doesn't help that until the end of the game, many of the characters have the same handful of available spells, which further trims down the number of potentially useful characters. Why use a character with a good healing spell when you can use a better character with the exact same spell?
Tierkreis also has exceptionally bad combat design. There are a number of elements that just don't work, and it leaves the entire game feeling a bit frustrating. For one, Tierkreis is probably the easiest Suikoden game by far, and this isn't a franchise known for its high difficulty levels. Enemies can barely harm you, and you have so much available MP that even if they can hurt you, healing is not an issue. Even the handful of mini-bosses that can be encountered in each area are barely worth mentioning because they simply get by with a lot of HP instead of being an actual threat. This might not be so bad if the boss fights were good, but Tierkreis has some of the most aggravating boss design I've ever seen. There are lots of battles where you can't win simply because the plot says you can't. It's annoying early on, when you can only do 20-30 damage against an enemy, but once you reach the point where you can defeat the enemies and the game just won't let you, it becomes extremely frustrating. Any boss who isn't an auto-lose, however, is a joke, and most boss fights may last a maximum of two or three rounds, with your ridiculously overpowered team doing thousands of points of damage per attack to enemies with mere 4,000 HP.
The bulk of your time in Tierkreis is spent going to your headquarters, getting a mission and then going to complete that mission. It's a tedious task, especially if you plan to do all the side-quests in the game. Most missions involve walking through a small dungeon to a certain location, talking to someone and walking out again. There is really no thought involved, and even the least-interesting quests from the previous Suikoden titles tended to be far more interesting. Tierkreis has a lot of gameplay elements that just make the entire thing a less-than-ideal experience. For one, the encounter rate is a bit too high. You'll be getting into battle exceptionally often, sometimes once every two or three steps. Unlike other Suikoden titles, however, there isn't a quick way past these fights. You gain support members who allow you to skip fights, but you have to waste a character slot on them, and the way the fight skips are balanced means that you can almost never use them when you'd like to. This extremely high encounter rate wouldn't be so bad, except that Tierkreis asks players to do a ridiculous amount of backtracking. When you're trying to recruit new members, you'll often have to venture through the same area over and over again to climb a mountain, go back down a mountain, climb it again, back down again, and then climb it again just to recruit a single character. It's a tedious task even if you didn't have to fight the same foes every few steps. Anyone who remembers the tedium of climbing back up Neclord's Castle in Suikoden 1 to recruit a character will be frustrated to learn that almost every quest in Tierkreis involves this, only with a higher encounter rate and battles that are more difficult to skip.
Aside from doing the quests, Tierkreis doesn't offer much for players to do. The only other notable thing is trading, which is a simple process of buying items in one town and selling them in other towns for a profit. It has been in other games in various forms, but Tierkreis makes it nearly essential because the only way to unlock good equipment for your characters is to perform trading sequences. Sell enough of a certain item, and it will unlock new weapons, armor or accessories in your castle shops. This is rather fun to figure out, but once you do, you can kiss good-bye to any remaining game difficulty. Earning a tremendous profit is extremely easy, and I was able to max out my money in a short time by walking between two towns. Since there are no enemy encounters on the overhead world map, this just involves watching your character walk back and forth between two dots on the map for about 30 minutes. Once I was done, I had enough money to buy anything I wanted, and I'd also unlocked the best armor and equipment at my home shop. This was done before I'd even hit the midway point of the game, and it required no real thought or effort. As long as you can tell if one number is bigger than another, you're set.
For a game with such a tremendous cast, Tierkreis looks quite nice. The character models are extremely simplistic, but each is readily identifiable and even has a bit of charm, although the eyes look very weird. The battle animations are smooth and quick, and there are neat little visual quirks that I wouldn't have noticed if I hadn't been looking for them. There is some repetition in the character animations, but it is generally done in a clever way. Characters who have excuses to use the same fighting style will have the same fighting animation, so the identical animations actually make sense and don't stand out. The dungeon design, however, is a little boring, and there aren't particularly memorable areas in the game, just caves and dungeons. One thing worth noting that is Tierkreis has a surprising amount of fully animated cut scenes, which occur at almost every major plot event, and they really make up for the shortcomings of the simple character models.
Tierkreis' soundtrack is quite nice, with a combination of remixed versions of classic Suikoden songs and some nice new tunes that mesh very well. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the voice acting, which is easily some of the worst I've ever heard in a game. The actors appear to have had no idea what they were reading, as they barely ever hit the right tone in any of the scenes, and they even flubbed the simplest of lines. On top of that, many of the characters read their lines must faster than they should, resulting in the entire thing sounding like an old Speed Racer cartoon. It is perhaps the worst modern dubbing I have heard outside of Chaos Wars, and it's almost enough to justify putting the game on mute. It's particularly bad during the animated scenes, which are supposed to express very emotional points, instead of being unintentional comedy.
Suikoden Tierkreis manages to feel like a Suikoden game on a handheld, and it deserves respect for that. Unfortunately, it doesn't feel like a good Suikoden game. The interesting plot and memorable characters are not enough to make up for the extremely dull gameplay, awful dungeon design and bad use of the large cast. The visuals are surprisingly good, but not enough to really be called "impressive," except for the feat of fitting so much on a DS cartridge. The voice acting is bad enough that it might actually drive gamers away from the title. It's certainly a playable game, and I had more fun with it than I did with Suikoden IV, but there are many better RPGs available on the Nintendo DS, and it's difficult to recommend Suikoden Tierkreis over any of those.
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