Review by Bizonchik

"The first decent PS2 RPG of 2005"

Introduction

As many PS2 RPG aficionados will probably tell you, 2004 has been a banner year for RPGs on the PS2. If Suikoden IV is any sign of things to come, 2005 is going to be another solid year for us. The Suikoden series has always been about classic role-playing with a few unique elements. Its defining features throughout its 3 previous iterations have been the ability to recruit the 108 stars of destiny (party members), build a home base that grew as you progressed through the game, and 3 types of combat. Those of us who've grown to love that formula will be relieved that it's been left without much change. There have, however, been some tweaks thrown into the mix, some with good results and others with less than stellar ones.

Story

I am a big advocate of strong storylines and interesting characters in any type of game, though they are even more crucial in RPGs. I need a more compelling reason to play than just watch my character's hit points grow. By tradition, the storyline of each Suikoden game starts by placing the player in the role of a youth with humble beginning who is soon thrust into an international blitz of war, political intrigue, and tear-drenching drama. In Suikoden IV the youth you play (which you get to name yourself) has been adopted at childhood by a lord and raised together with his son to become knights. The game opens on graduation day when you and the lord's son, amongst a few other friends, finally make the transition from cadets to full-fledged knights. So as to not give anything away, I'll just say that before you know it your character's whole world turns upside-down and he must vie for his survival across the seas and islands of the particular region of the Suikoden world where the game takes place. There's a mysterious rune with apparently powerful yet cursed powers that you need to find a way to deal with, as well. And on your journey, as you strive to recruit 108 characters to your cause, you will meet a varied cast of people and creatures as you explore a vast and dangerous ocean. The script kept me wanting to find out more and more as I played so I give it a thumbs up.

Graphics / Audio

It is often said that you only get one chance to make a first impression, and that's probably a lesson that Suikoden has adhered to. Both the 2nd and 3rd Suikodens opened with tremendous animation movies that would likely stay with anyone who's seen them for years to come. To say that they were well-crafted, inspiring, and breathtaking would be no more than an understatement. Suikoden IV has big shoes to fill in this department and so I feel that it didn't quite live up to my expectations in this department. While the montage of touching scenes borrowed from key points within the game flutters by, this time with some interesting filters thrown in for—I assume—a more stylistic feel, they lack the colorful, anime-inspired dramatic poses that have been an essential element of the previous opening movies. The gameplay graphics, for the most part, fare better. The characters and their surroundings are represented in more subdued, less saturated colours. Personally I like this kind of look, as I feel that it embodies the spirit of the game better. This isn't Mega Man, after all. This style carries over to party battles and individual duels as well. What I found disappointing, however, are some of the visuals during ship combats. The overhead view of the battlefield, while convenient for the play sequence itself, is portrayed at such a high angle that everything appears really small and underwhelming. I would have liked the ability to zoom in and see each ship in all its glory. Front Mission 4 ring any bells? That's what I would have liked! On the other hand, after each attack, the resulting explosions are shown in short but sweet-looking little cut-scenes, which does make the experience a bit more immersing. One more thing I have to mention is the support of progressive-scan mode. Not many games take advantage of this technology (the only other game I own that has this support is Soul Calibur II) which is a shame since it's been around for a while now. Not that the graphics seem bad without it, but this feature does add a crisper, more attractive look to everything.

The music in the game is fairly adequate. Battle theme quality is always important since you get to hear it all the time, and in Suikoden IV it's pretty good. Many character and scene background themes are quite pleasant and unobtrusive. There's also the occasional spoken dialogue for many game characters. There are a few bad spots here and there but generally the voice-acting is passable. Not bad for the first entry into voice-overs for the series. You also get to pick from two kinds of voices (or mute it) for your character. He won't speak outside onscreen text, but he will make grunts and yelps in battle with the voice you've given him. A nice little touch.

Gameplay

As soon as the game starts proper, you get to immediately experience the 3 types of combat. Conveniently enough, these first few battle are accompanied by an informative on-screen tutorial that guides you through the command executions. For veterans of the series this is old-school, but for newcomers it's a helpful way to learn quickly and easily how to fight and win your battles. As I've stated, there are 3 types of combat. Party combat is your generic player party vs. random enemy encounter. This is pretty much identical to party combat in previous Suikodens, although with one sore point. Most battles in other RPGs involve a player party of only 3 or 4 characters against the enemy but in the Suikoden series you've always been allowed to have up to 6 party members. In Suikoden IV, regretfully, this number has been downgraded to just 4. I feel as though this game has lost some of the uniqueness of the series with this design decision. The upside to it is that—since there are less characters and thus less actions to be executed—is that each random battle ends quicker than before. That may come as a blessing in disguise since you'll find that random battles occur quite often, especially at sea. The regular encounters (particularly at the start of the game) are very easy, and aside from boss fights you should be able to breeze through them. Since your party will battle so often, as you go from place to place you'll find less of a need to just look for random battles in order to build-up your characters' levels. Instead of looking for monsters to beat in order to get experience and cash (Potch is the currency here) the monsters will come to you! As long as you're a patient player, you might, like me, find that it works out just fine.

As before, you can equip various runes on each of your party members in order to give them the option of casting various spells in combat, or to enhance their regular attacks and defensive capabilities. It allows for an interesting way of customizing your party to your needs, and is one of the series' defining features throughout. It's similar to Shadow Hearts: Covenant's crests system, only Suikoden did it first (though maybe not better.) In SH:C you can fiddle with the crests between battles but in Suikoden you have to go to a town and pay a fee at a shop to change runes. It's something we've learned to live with up until now, though maybe the system can now be revised in light of SH:C's improvement.

The 2nd type of combat is individual duel. It is an extremely simplistic affair where one player character faces off with one enemy character and each turn you get to choose between 3 actions. This is pretty much paper-rock-scissors. If you guess which command the opponent will be using and choose the correct counter-command you'll inflict damage on the opponent. Otherwise you'll be on the receiving end of it. To help you make your choice, the opponent will make a comment such as a threat or a boast which may hint at their intended course of action. It's a system almost identical to the ones in previous Suikodens. I say almost because of one small but welcome addition. Once per duel you can choose to go all out and double the effectiveness of your action. That still doesn't make the whole experience too mentally-taxing, but it's a firm step forward, nonetheless.

And last but not least are the naval confrontations. This sequence, at its core, is a grid-based turn-based strategy game all on its own, most similar to the one in Suikoden II, or—if you stretch it—Dynasty Tactics 2. You get to select the crew of each ship, taking care to balance choices between whom to position as the "pilot", whom to fire the main cannon, and whom to assign as fighters on the deck. Again, not a terribly complicated segment of the gameplay, but still one that makes for an interesting little diversion every once in a while.

Design

Suikoden is known for throwing in some oddball characters and monsters into its mix. One of the first kinds of enemies you may run into will be sentient patches of seaweed who jump aboard your ship's deck and attack you. Now don't freak out, everyone! This has nothing to do with the glue you sniffed earlier. It's actually supposed to be this way. Also, those who were less than enamored with Suikoden III's "duck people" will be happy to know that kobolds are back. These rat or cat-like folks serve as the comic-relief cast from time to time, although their spoken dialogue can sometimes seem obnoxious and annoying.

Another change from previous games, this one for the better, is the increased space and organization of your inventory. In the past you've always had very limited capacity for carrying medicine, trading goods, unidentified loot, bonus items, and others and constantly had to throw stuff away because there just wasn't enough room! In Suikoden IV each type of item has its own category and instead of having the same item in multiples taking up more slots they're just represented by a number on the side of its name. On the other hand, a feature that we've come to expect from previous sequels has been left out. You can no longer receive any type of reward for importing a save game from previous Suikodens. This used to be a nice little perk from the creators to show fans that they recognize and appreciate their loyalty to the series, but I guess it's not that important for them any longer.

Team combos are back, and can now be leveled-up, though I can't find an indicator of what level it's at or when it can improve anywhere. They also need to be unlocked by pairing different characters together and fighting a few battles (sometimes a good number) to see if anything happens. A couple of new additions to the combat menu include the ability to switch to pre-determined parties in the middle of battle while sailing, as well as a new command - Rush. This is a command that's mentioned briefly in the manual, and its purpose seems to be the option of having the hero unleash a multi-targeted attack on all enemies during a battle. After using it, you can't use it again for an undetermined amount of time. Neither the manual nor the game tell you how long it takes to recharge or what affects its own effectiveness, but at least the fact that it's there sometimes is kinda cool.

The towns, villages, and islands you explore appear to be more spacious than ever. I often find myself excited by the prospect of visiting a new place which I haven't seen yet. Every new area in the game looks differently than the last, and they all have their own background themes to accompany them. Sometimes it just makes you want to stand in one place and look around, absorbing the flavor. The home base itself seems bigger than it has ever been.

Every modern RPG nowadays has to have some mini-games thrown in for good measure, and it seems that Suikoden hasn't neglected that aspect at all. As always, there's an incredibly addictive new card game, as well as some original and fun new games provided by some of the 108 stars of destiny, including a spinning top and lottery, amongst others. These games can earn (or waste) your money as well as win you some nifty little unlockables in the form of decorations for your home base. The cooking game in Suikoden II still remains the ultimate mini-game in any RPG that I have ever played, but the ones in Suikoden IV aren't too shabby either.

Ship control can be a daunting and uncomfortable experience at first, but after using the control scheme for a while it get quite easy. You'll soon be piloting your ship with very little effort. Going back to previously visited islands become a non-chore early enough in the game as well. One of the returning characters from previous Suikodens brings with them a magical mirror that can transport you to old areas, and an inventory item that you can activate and be sent back from the field. How much more convenient can you get?

Conclusion / Recommendation

There are some faults in Suikoden IV that prevent it from becoming the classic that the previous games managed to become. It has its ups and downs but overall it's an enjoyable RPG for fans of the genre. Let's hope the series can return to top form in the next installment. If you're a newcomer to the series, you can probably plunge right in and have a darn good time with Suikoden IV. Series fans will have some changes to get accustomed to, but I feel that if you come with an open mind and ready for new experiences you're going to have a blast, just like I did.


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 01/18/05


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