Review by Compass
Well, there's a few thousand reviews out there for Suikoden II but I'll toss mine into the ring anyway. My review is unique (maybe) because I played Suikoden when it came out ('96? '97?) but just finished Suikoden II last night (March '03). Since I can't remember much of the first game, I won't spend the review comparing the two titles but instead judge the sequel solely on its own merits. So why the lull between games? Because I'd grown weary of turn-based rpgs and having read the major magazine reviews of Suikoden II (which were above average but not exemplary), decided I could live without it; I liked the first one but wasn't blown away by any means and a sequel just wasn't at the top of my list of must-play games. Well, a few months ago something reminded me (can't remember what) how cool that hand-drawn look that Konami had going for Suikoden was. And then of course, I recalled that I skipped the sequel and, hmm, maybe I should check that out. I was currently playing FFX and really had a craving for something simpler -- well, perhaps simpler isn't the right word, but less ''big-budget'', with more heart if you will (not that I have anything against the final fantasy series or multi-million dollar videogames in general; FFVII and VIII are two of my favorite RPGs ever). I read some glowing online reviews and my need intensified. I checked ebay and the prices were a bit steep but at this point I was obsessed with getting this game and mystified at how I managed to live without it up 'till now. So a few days and $46 dollars later I'd bought a used (but perfect) copy off ebay, and got ready to play what I figured would be a pretty good game but nothing spectacular. Fast forward a few months, I've finished and I'm writing this review -- my first ever, and for one main reason: I simply must extol this game's virtues to someone, anyone who will listen.
Yes, it's that good. And then some.
Graphics (11/10): Okay, as I mentioned above, Konami has this very unique, hand-drawn look that it uses for the (first two) Suikoden games. Now, lots of games of yore have used hand-drawn sprites (well, virtually all of them before the advent of polygons) but Konami does it with a flare and an attention to detail usually reserved for 2D fighting games. If you've played any of the recent Castlevanias starting with Symphony of the Night, you have an idea of the basic look. Some might complain that this style is antiquated but oh, I beg to differ. You see, Konami puts so much love and expression into these little sprites' animation that I literally had tears welling up in my eyes on various occasions. Not because the moment was necessarily sad but because it was delivered with such poignancy, such earnest sincerity. The little sprites move and act out all these little scenes and the drawings are so expressive you can't help but be utterly captivated as a scene unfolds. You'll see a character cut himself with a little knife and watch as blood pours from the wound, you'll see characters close their eyes in pain and collapse after being hurt, fling rings to the ground in defiance, sit and eat lunch, run and throw their arms around someone they've missed, hold out a hand to help somebody off the ground. It's as if real actors were shrunk down into miniature and colorful cartoons.... It's actually not like this at all... it's much better. The fact that it's your in-game characters doing all of this, the same sprites you see throughout the course of the entire game, not CG renderings in a cut-scene, makes all the difference in how your brain accepts it. It's quite exquisite and honestly needs to be experienced within the context of the story to be fully appreciated.
Then we have the battles. Many of your 108 stars of destiny (also known as the people and animals you recruit along your journey) can fight with you and they all have their own specific attacks, unique and individually animated. One really nice touch is that once you've input your commands, the interface drops away and it's just a clear, beautiful screen of you and your companions laying the smack down on the enemy forces (people or monsters) as the camera pans and zooms according to the severity of your attacks, magic, etc. When you've executed a particularly devastating hit, the camera zooms in ultra-close and the pixels of the sprites become very evident -- I could see this bothering nitpickers but I think it looks cool. It's a stylistic choice, like cel-shading, where it's not supposed to look ultra-realistic, but rather the charm comes from its blatant fictitiousness.
I could honestly go on for pages on just the graphics (and have a ball doing it) but I'll move on so this review isn't a book.
Music/Sound (10/10): Sound effects are all competent: weapons clang, spells sound suitably mystical, etc. The soundtrack on the other hand is extraordinary. The music in the opening cinema for instance, performed by a live orchestra, is nothing short of a sweeping and brilliant masterpiece; grand and majestic, capturing the adventurous spirit of the game perfectly. Coupled with the FMV through which the characters are depicted in glorious, high-res 2D, it's one of my favorite game openings of all-time and does precisely what a game intro should: gets you pumped and excited for what's to come. I get chills just remembering it (and I'm not kidding).
The various songs throughout the game, several recycled from Suikoden, range from decent to extremely good. There are some genuinely emotional ballads, world-music type town songs (reminded me of Chrono Cross sometimes -- a good thing), some imposing military-style pieces, and fantastic boss-battle music. Luckily there are lots of bosses or at least boss-like caliber fights where this music is used so you get to hear it a good deal. The normal battle music is probably pretty good but honestly, by the end of the game, I'd heard it so much that I'd lost all objectivity and didn't care for it one way or another.
Gameplay (9/10): I'm ''only'' giving this a '9' because at its heart, this game is still using the archetypal rpg mold where you explore towns, fight lots of random battles, and progress the story in short bursts. If that was all it offered though, I would've only scored it much lower. But there's actually much more. Mini-games abound, from a cooking contest to rock climbing to mole whacking to dice throwing to fishing and more. I didn't spend a lot of time with these 'cause they are very simplistic (being mini-games, naturally) and I get bored easily. But they're there to give you a break from the main story whenever you need them. Most are earned through recruiting the various 108 stars of destiny for your army, thereby upgrading your castle through four levels which is fairly satisfying in itself. Inside the castle, you have a library which you can fill with books, a farm to be populated with critters and crops, even a bathhouse that you can decorate with found trinkets and which is upgradeable from some oil-can drums filled with water to an open-air hot spring. Elevating the overall gameplay score further are the massive army skirmishes, similar but more complex to the ones featured in the first game (though they don't feel quite as epic, maybe just because they aren't new anymore?) and the occasional, fighting-game-ish in appearance, but turn-based, one-on-one battles between the hero and a boss. The backgrounds and camera panning make these duels a joy to behold, rare as they are, and a nice change after so many random battles.
Speaking of the random battles (which is where you'll spend much of your time), they're actually pretty well executed as far as these things go. For one, the encounter rate is usually reasonable with some dungeons allowing minutes to elapse before throwing you into another fight. And they're fast too. You'll be using the ''auto'' command a lot and since characters don't wait for each other to finish, a typical battle from beginning to end, can often clock in at around ten seconds. Another very loveable aspect of the fights is that they're all very serious, yes, but some of your character's special attacks are just downright adorable. This contrast works like a charm! A rare combined attack between the hero and Nanami consists of you (the hero) fighting while Nanami rests and regains some HP. But her resting consists of eating a picnic lunch, reading a book, playing what looks like a gameboy, etc. She does all this super-fast as you're pounding away at the enemy. Injecting these seemingly out-of-place, lighthearted little spurts is distinctly Japanese and I love it to death. It's like even when the overall game is supposed to be desperately serious, they just can't help tossing in some cute little morsels when you least expect them.
Story (11/10): Okay, so I'm giving graphics and story 11s out of 10 and you may think I'm just being overly enthusiastic. But really, I can't overemphasize how impressed I was. I've played through way too many rpgs and am usually annoyed or bored or confused (usually all of the above) with what passes for most plots. Well, I was still a little confused at times (but this is probably more due to my feeble brain when it comes to following a narrative through 40 plus hours) but never bored or annoyed. Indeed, quite the contrary, I was riveted throughout and frequently moved. The graphic style and animation which I ranted about before really plays a big part here. In most rpgs, story is delivered through dialog in text windows with characters standing around either doing nothing or gesticulating wildly. In Suikoden II, you're still reading text boxes but you also frequently get to watch the characters acting out their parts. I can't overstate how much this adds to a scene! Whether for whimsy's sake, or drama (usually drama), or just to show off a character's darling and effervescent personality (Nanami!!!), it rules and was a huge contributing factor to my love affair with this game. I always read how people feel ''drawn in'' to an rpg plot line. I rarely feel drawn in. In fact I'm usually put right to sleep. But this fantastic story filled with betrayal, love, war, evil, humour, and delivered with a sparkling charm and coupled with the most expressive and animated sprites in rpg history *really* drew me in. I'm usually not one for these kinds of storylines of warring states and tactical strategy and military invasions. Frankly, I usually tune out as I find it all a little dry. But in this case, it was executed masterfully enough to where someone like me who doesn't know a lieutenant from a general (okay, I know that much but nothing else) could enjoy it. The last time I felt this close to videogame characters was in Saturn Grandia (dare not speak the horror that is PSX Grandia!). The only thing that would've made it better (and I know this is asking for too much) is if a few of the main characters had moments of spoken dialog in pivotal scenes in either well-acted English (see, I told you I was asking for too much) or, ideally, Japanese (okay, I'm living in a dream world, I admit it). Saturn (import) Grandia had this and it did wonders to bring Sue, Justin and Feena to life. But I digress!
Overall (11/10):Yep, another '11' score but let me reiterate: I've never written a review for a game for no other reason than that I loved it to death until tonight. Considering I've been playing games since Intellivision and am cynical and jaded to the point of numbness through most games, this is most significant. I could be playing another game, reading a book, watching tv, but instead, I've spent the last couple hours sitting here writing this. Suikoden II is the only rpg (and possibly the only game) that upon completion, I immediately hit 'Start->New Game' and was on my way all over again. (This was last night and I probably won't finish my second play through because I have too many games I haven't played a single time, but the point is that I restarted an rpg at all... a first!).
Is the game perfect? No way. The menu interface is clunky and plain (not Dragon Warrior plain but close). Your inventory is way too small. You can't run diagonally (though I didn't even notice this until the very end). There is very little challenge overall. The tactical, army battles can be tedious. The overworld map is the essence of blandness (it's like they ran out of every color except light green and grey -- grey for the ocean? what?!). And finding some of the cooler things and getting the best ending virtually *requires* you use a walkthrough (a pet peeve of mine). None of these things had a significant negative impact on my enjoyment of the game however which is why I've lumped them all together in this little paragraph here at the end. (Okay, actually the inventory issue was a bit of a nuisance but I survived and you will too.)
So don't let that little list of quibbles up there bother you. I had to include it to prove I'm not googly-eyed with passion and unable to see imperfections where they exist. But for all the nice things I've said so far I've really only scratched the surface. This is the kind of game that illicits a devout and fanatical following. One that will only grow more legendary as time goes on and it becomes more and more clear just how good it was, as newer games consistently fail to surpass it. A game that exudes charm and possesses that all too rare quality found in only the best rpgs: heart. I loved this game. And let me thank the developers here and now for bringing it to all of us.
A tip: use a walkthrough to get all 108 stars of destiny and discover what's necessary to achieve the best ending. Ideally, you'll want to play through the first time without help and use a walkthrough the second time but if you don't have time to play twice, use the walkthrough the first time. There's no way you'll find all 108 characters on your own and believe me, it's worth it for the best ending. I wouldn't dream of spoiling it but let me just say it's in my top-five rpg endings of all time up there with the likes of FFVIII/IX, Mario RPG, and Arc the Lad II.
Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 05/04/03, Updated 05/04/03
Got Your Own Opinion?
You can submit your own review for this game using our Review Submission Form.