Review by CynicalZealot
"A return to form, and a solid entry in the series..."
Suikoden is a series, and that is usually reflected in the games. While it's possible for a newcomer to start with the later games, the true joy in the series is that each game is clearly taking place in the same world as the others, and characters from one game may be mentioned (or even appear) in another. It's like a massive historical drama, and each game only gives us a piece of the puzzle. Long-time fans have been known to spend endless hours debating things like "So, what happened to the Sindar?", "Does Yuber have a True Rune or not?", and "Just what IS the deal with Jeane, anyway?" Each game raises questions that make you wait for the next game.
Because of this, Suikoden V may not be the best place to begin exploring the vast world.
Sure, someone who's never played a Suikoden game before could easily jump right in. But this isn't Final Fantasy - your enjoyment of a Suikoden game will definitely be increased if you've played the other games.
As such, keep this in mind - this review was written by someone who's played all the Suikoden games, debated some of the mysteries, and certainly considers Suikoden to be the best RPG series out there - so, expect a little bias.
Just from the back-cover blurb and the Instruction Manual (you mean someone actually READS those?), we know a little about the game we're about to play. It's set some years before Suikoden I (and after Suikoden IV), in the Kingdom of Falena (which we've been hearing about since as far back as the first game), and at least ONE familiar face (Georg) seems to be making a reappearance. We also know that the True Rune this story seems to center around is going to be the Sun Rune, so we can add one more Rune to our list of the 27 True Runes. We also know we're going to be able to recruit 108 Stars, and there's probably a reward for finding them all - after all, would this be a Suikoden game otherwise?
The 5-minute Review:
Put it in, load it up, think of a good name for the main character, and...
The Intro movie failed to grab me and drag me in (in the way it did for Suikoden II and III), and the opening song "Wind of Phantom" seems to lack the passion of earlier intros. The quick glance we get at some of the people we'll be meeting fails to impress as well - very few of the character designs really stand out, and scream coolness. Still, first impressions aren't always indicative of what's to come...
Also of note, there's no "Load Data" feature, so we won't be getting any special treats or conversations for loading data from Suikoden IV or Suikoden Tactics. It's a shame, but we can always live without it.
The game begins, and the first thing I think of is "Is the main character supposed to be a boy or a girl?" That's a bad way to start getting to know "myself", but at least the character LOOKS better than the lead from the last game. And this game has the same voice option that Suikoden IV had, letting you pick one of two versions of the main character's voice - one that sounds "boyish", and one that sounds like a young man.
The opening scene takes place, and no complaints so far. The voice-overs don't seem overly jarring - and sound like the usual VAs who do tons of anime and games. We're already getting important information about the setting, and the opening doesn't fill me with ominous dread that the game is going to stink... we'll see how my feelings change (or don't) after some more gameplay.
One Hour Later:
We've gotten lost in a barren forest, had a few fights, faced a little mystery, heard the beginnings of political intrigue, and seen the power of one of the True Runes - not half bad this early in the game. In addition, a certain very attractive Runemaster has already made an appearance... sort of.
While the game isn't the greatest RPG of all time (yet), the political subplot is already starting to grab my interest. Plus, some of the characters are starting to grow on me. At this point, if someone were to ask me to recommend the game, I probably would.
First, the negatives. Controls are a little awkward - it seems like you need to be standing in EXACTLY the right spot to trigger conversation, open a chest, or activate a save point, which can cause problems. In fact, in at least one part, I was attacked while standing directly in front of a save point because I couldn't QUITE switch it on. You'll probably get used to it after an hour or so, though (I did). The camera angles can be awkward as well - in some scenes, you'll walk behind a tall building and disappear, which can get confusing at times. This left me wishing for the ability to shift camera angles with the left stick, but all that can do is zoom in and out...
The game also starts out VERY slow - a lot of exploration and exposition, with not much fighting. For some people, that won't be a flaw at all, but for the sorts of players who want to wade right into the action, it might be frustrating.
Now, for the good stuff - first off, a bunch of Suikoden traditional features are back. Co-op attacks are in, and, as usual, most of the combinations are at least somewhat intuitive (like the Prince and his bodyguard having a co-op attack). Duels are back as well, with the Attack-Guard-Special commands being mapped to buttons, rather than a menu. The main reason for this is that duels are now timed - wait too long to make a choice, and the opponent is going to get a free attack. This, plus the fact that characters no longer regain full health and magic levels when they level up, adds a degree of difficulty not present in earlier games. However, this is offset by the fact that enemies seem somewhat weaker, and the game allows you to recruit a number of VERY potent characters - someone looking to build the strongest possible team will find themselves coasting through the later half of the game.
Mass combat is basically a combination of war battles from Suikoden I and II - the same variation of rock-paper-scissors logic from the earlier games, with the tactical movement of units as used in Suikoden II. Each unit can be customized with special attacks (like magic, charge, etc) based on who you place in the three slots, and there will be a need for both ground units and naval units in various battles, as you fight both on land and on the rivers (sometimes both in the same battle).
The game also allows six people in your party once again, along with an "Entourage" of up to 4 people. Those four people can either be other fighters, or pure support characters who add special advantages (like increased item and money drops, healing, and so on). If you have fighters in your Entourage, you can swap them out and into your main party from the menu, or even during combat (which can be quite helpful, such as swapping a magic-heavy character out when they run out of MP).
Also a great help (but which some people may never notice), is that if you talk to Lyon, the main character's bodyguard, she acts as a helpful prod if you're lost or confused about what you're supposed to be doing, giving hints of where you should go next.
Some people seem to think that combat is too easy now, but others will likely find it refreshing. There've also been discussions over whether or not the encounter rate is too high, but personally, I found it far from obtrusive.
In general, it almost seems like the developers sat down and carefully examined what was good about earlier games, then focused on that, while trying to cut out the elements that were criticized the most. Whatever the case, they succeeded at crafting a game that I personally enjoyed, with very few annoying elements at all.
Many of the character designs in this game are somewhat plain (though the Queen's Knights' uniforms are impressive), and only a few stand out as being extremely memorable. A few characters change outfits later on, which is an improvement for some (and a downgrade for others).
More importantly, however, are the character personalities - all of which seem fairly distinct (an impressive feat when you consider how many characters there are). A step-up from some of the earlier games, where you wind up feeling like half your army is made up of generic people just tossed in to fill the last 30 slots or so, nearly every character here has a personality and a story. Better yet, the game succeeds in making you CARE about the main characters,
There's also a few characters in the game that will be familiar to long-time Suikoden fans - because the game takes place a few years before Suikoden I, there's some younger versions of people we've already met (or heard about) in the series making the scene.
This game has one of the stronger stories I've seen in an RPG for a long time - interweaving political intrigue, mystery, and heroic fantasy in a way that really ropes you in and doesn't let go. It's strong throughout, and if you play RPGs for the story, this is definitely a game you'll like.
As per usual with the Suikoden series, we also get a few more hints about long-standing mysteries in the Suikoverse, possibly introduce a few new ones, and generally spur debate over just what the hell is going on. Fortunately, this is all part of the background, and hardly distracts people new to the series - the main storyline itself is self-contained and solidly written, with few loose-ends. And happily, in the end, you won't feel like you wasted dozens of hours only to get a lame ending - the ending is strong enough to reward you for the effort you put in.
Certainly not state-of-the-art, but definitely up to the task - the Suikoden series has always seemed as if it was 5 years behind the rest of the genre, but at least it does it well. Graphic quality steps up a bit during cut-scenes, but we're still not talking "anime" or "photo" quality art, here. None of it is especially jarring or disturbing, though - it's not like someone let a child loose with a box of crayons and told them to draw all the art from the game. It serves its purpose without being intrusive, and unless you're a self-professed "graphics whore", it shouldn't bother you at all.
In a field where every new RPG seems to try and out-do all the others with massive symphonies, operatic bellowing in Latin, or radio-quality rock or J-pop, Suikoden has always been a series that seemed more willing to stick with traditional forms of music. This game is no exception - it sounds like most of the songs were composed and performed on a single synthesizer.
The music serves its purpose, though, generally capturing the mood in various scenes, and enhancing the action - it's mostly understated, but it works. A number of familiar themes from earlier games make an appearance as well, which is sure to appeal to the sense of nostalgia of people who enjoy the series.
Overall Score: 9/10
It's not perfect, but it's pretty damned good. If you've ever enjoyed a game in the Suikoden series, buy this one. If you used to like the series, but were one of the many people turned off by the later games, buy this one. And if you're a fan of RPGs that don't start with "Final" and end with "Fantasy", buy this one.
Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 04/04/06
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