Original Release: 1998, Platform: PS1, Developer: Konami, Publisher: Konami, Image Source: GameFAQs
After years of unavailability, Suikoden II has been re-released. The big question, of course, is how good this classic really is.
Suikoden II is one of those games. It’s the sort of game that fans speak of with reverence. It’s a skipped over gem or a “best game that no one played.” This is a game that people have paid hundreds of dollars for the chance to play. You can perhaps understand, in turn, why I was so excited by the announcement that a digital version was finally going to be released to Sony’s PlayStation Store. After all of the fantastic comparisons I’d heard (the Game of Thrones of JRPGs!), the prospect of getting my own chance to take it for a spin was incredibly exciting.
And now here I sit feeling kind of let down. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great experince and , overall, I enjoyed it quite a bit. That said, after years of fans raving, I felt like I’d been promised the moon. What I got instead, was a solid JRPG with a collection of flaws that, ultimately, kept it from grabbing me the same way as my other favorite JRPGs did in the past.
The game opens on the eve of a peace agreement between the City State of Jowstan and its enemy, the nation of Highland. The player starts as a soldier in Highland’s youth brigade, eagerly awaiting the promised peace with his peers. Hoping to reignite the war, however, parties in Highland, led by the sadistic prince Luca Blight, slaughter the youth brigade, blame Jowstan and frame the player as a traitor. After escaping from an attempted execution, you soon find yourself caught in the middle of a widening conflict where you’re tasked with raising and a resistance army to fight back against Luca Blight.
Reading up on Suikoden II in the past, that sounded awesome to me. Some of my favorite games are JRPGs, but the subgenre, on the whole, is one that I could often take or leave. I can only stomach so many games about plucky teenagers defying the odds to save the world from some supreme, world shattering evil. Suikoden II sounded splendidly different from that; focusing on a bloody but localized conflict between two nations. The big bad guys are people just like you and your goals are tangible things like securing political alliances and bolstering your army.
Unfortunately, I felt that the story’s execution was, at times, uneven. To be sure, when it focuses in on the war and the surrounding political intrigue it’s exhilarating. I personally couldn’t get enough of the twists, turns and backstabbing that make up some of the best parts of the plot. And don’t even get me started on the scenes involving Luca Blight. They pull no punches with this guy. He destroys villages, conquers cities and proudly murders people for the sheer fun of it. He’s an unrepentant embodiment of human evil who is absolutely intimidating and steals the show whenever he’s on screen.
Not every moment is enthralling, though. There are times when the game definitely drags things out too long (infiltrating the Greenhill academy) and its cast of heroes struck me as being largely less interesting than its fantastic villains. A lot of this owes to the fact that Suikoden II, famously, includes more than 100 recruit-able NPCs. Now, to be fair, the whole recruiting shtick is, legitimately, one of the game’s bright spots. It adds a nice collection element and helps to establish a tangible measurement of your army’s growth. Unfortunately, when you have that many characters, it’s hard to make all of them memorable. The game certainly makes some admirable efforts to combat this problem. Different characters brought to the same plot event will, for instance, usually have unique pieces of dialogue written specifically for them. In my experience though, there were characters the game clearly favored and the rest were different degrees of bland.
Whatever issues I had with Suikoden II‘s story, however, its combat definitely made up for it. The game has three distinct combat types: random overworld encounters, turn-based strategy battle, and one-on-one duels. The duels are probably the weakest of the three, basically just delivering rock-paper-scissors battles that don’t require an extravagant amount of thought. Far more entertaining for me were the random encounters and turn-based army bouts.
The random encounters were an especial high point because of how well they utilize the game’s gigantic range of characters. While I might have not fully appreciated Suikoden II‘s large cast in the story, I adored the freedom it afforded me to select my own party members. The sheer number of character combinations you can pursue are staggering. And when you add in things like fighting rows, magic Runes, and team-up “Unite” attacks, it leaves a lot of room for experimentation.
I was also surprised to find out how much I loved the way the game’s battles flowed. One of the biggest problems I have with going back to some of the PlayStation-era JRPGs is how slow they can be. The emergence of 3D consoles allowed for games to be much more cinematic, which was obviously a good thing. Unfortunately, looking good often also meant moving at a snail’s pace, something I’ve lost a lot of patience for as I’ve gotten older.
Suikoden II ignored the advent of polygonal graphics and instead used the PS1 to make its 2D, pixilated battles look a lot better than they have any right to. Player and enemy sprites are alive with motion; they move and sway in place, lunge forward to attack and grimace when hit themselves. All of this is followed by a camera that moves about the battlefield perfectly, zooming in on characters as they fight and moving to change perspective and give you a better view of spells as they fire off. The end results are fast-paced fights that look leagues more dynamic than the simple, turn-based battle they actually are.
The same can’t be said for the army battles, which don’t look better than your average SNES game. Even with being visually inferior, however, I’d say they have their own special charm. They don’t play as well as the tactical battles in something like Fire Emblem, but they still do a good job injecting some variety into the gameplay while also putting the player in the middle of battles that they otherwise would have been forced to watch as a spectator. I also appreciated how they made further use of the recruited characters, giving you the option to empower your army units by assigning characters to them. This does come with the risk of permadeath should they be defeated, but it’s not overly difficult to keep everyone alive.
In the end, while it didn’t make the same tremendous impression on me, I can see why Suikoden II is cherished by some gamers as intensely as it is. For all of my quibbling, it still delivers a really solid experience that absolutely deserves more recognition than it’s gotten over the years. Does that mean it’s completely without weak spots? Heck no. There were plenty of places where it felt like a grind. For every moment I felt bored, however, there was another that wowed me with the rare and dark places it was daring to go. Would I spend $150 to play it? No. For $10 though, you’d be hard-pressed to find another JRPG that does exactly what Suikoden II does.
Come back next week to catch my discussion of my own favorite JRPG: Final Fantasy VI. In the mean time, feel free to PM me with comments and suggestions for future reviews.