|Numb To the Very Core
Disclaimer: This editorial presents only my perception, feelings, and subjective thoughts on the three games of the superb Suikoden series. I do not intend to prove anything; I am merely using this opportunity to express my distraught and dissatisfaction with Suikoden III in order to perhaps illicit others to reflect on their own experience of the game in a different light.
The Suikoden series has become a cherished staple of RPG gaming in the hearts of many ever since the first iteration in 1997. Like many others, I have lived and relived the massive adventures present in both Suikoden I and II multiple times over, every time enjoying myself as much as I did at the beginning. While not being a genre-defining, ground-braking series, the unexplainable charisma conveyed throughout the entirety of both games have made many gamers fall in love with Konami's great franchise. To me, three broad characteristics truly define the "Suikoden experience": the music, the plot, and the overall atmosphere. Once the development of Suikoden III had been made official, I rushed to my closest gaming store to pre-order my very own copy of the next RPG gem. My expectations were sky high, but I was confident that those three defining criteria would be indubitably as well fulfilled as they had been in the previous games, and that was all I needed to take the third Suikoden plunge. However, after completing the game and pondering on what has been experienced, I have come to a greatly consternating revelation: Suikoden III is not a Suikoden game.
Let me specify that this editorial will address only the three critical aspects of a true Suikoden experience as I see it, that is, music, plot, and atmosphere. Whatever alterations were made to the interface, battle system, or visuals do not concern me at all, for they do not form the core of an RPG (much less a Suikoden game) in my opinion. Allow me to begin with the most seriously floundered category, moving down to the most complicated issues regarding the failure of Konami's giant experience.
The soundtrack of the original Suikoden was, and still remains one of the greatest OSTs ever recorded. From the delicious acoustic guitar and whimsical flutes to the powerful percussion and vibrant chorus, the soundtrack is a heart-warming feast from beginning to end. Back in 1997, it set the standards for what a soundtrack should be and single-handedly gave the Suikoden series a name for itself. In the case of Suikoden II, while the arrangements were not as vibrant and the quality not as thorough as in the first game, the multitude of truly delectable tracks, combined with the omnipresence of the most touching central theme ever once again made a statement for the series: Suikoden has a heart, a pulse, a soul. One who once played Suikoden cannot think back on his/her experience without feeling the musical vibe in their hearts. The castle themes, the overworld compositions, and the theme songs are, for both games, pure musical ecstasy.
Such is not the case with Suikoden III. The composition for the intro sequence was a push in a different direction, and for better or worse, it was original and served to give the game a sense of style. Suikoden III did present a few greatly enjoyable tracks, such as the Karaya Village theme, the Duck Clan song, and the very good "Gathering of Heroes". But those types of songs, or "leisure compositions" if I could use such a term, are not what the Suikoden series is all about (or any other RPG). The crucial role of a soundtrack is to give life to the emotional moments of the game enhancing the feeling, atmosphere, and realism by a few notches. Suikoden I and II's soundtracks accomplished this feat spectacularly, but Suikoden III's failed miserably, for one clear reason: it did not even try! During 95% of the cut-scenes, the only sounds heard were the sound effects emanating from the characters' clothing. Simply put, there was NO music.
The game had no heart, no soul, because it did not contain any emotional tracks related to the characters, the casual events, or the very (supposedly) poignant incidences. When Lulu was killed, when Luc revealed himself, when Geddoe told Joker about his True Rune, when Yun sacrificed herself, during every flash-back regarding the Flame Champion; during every single scene actually there was NO music. I didn't feel sadness, joy, anger, or surprise when I should have. All I felt was the perplexing idea that something vital had been removed or omitted from my Suikoden experience. And when music was accompanying cut-scenes, it was either the same bland arrangement of chimes used over and over or the barely serious, childish and clumsily performed "victory" theme. That is not to mention the absence of a central theme performed in a variety of variations, and the incredibly boring, sleepy, and soulless "HQ theme". This flagrant lack of voice (music is the voice of a game) made it impossible for me to be subdued.
The "Trinity Sight" system showed incredible potential. If partial success was extracted from the premise, it was from the fact that having four central characters with their own entourage allowed for many more characters to be properly developed out of a cast of upwards 108 personalities. Being able to play the various sequences at different intervals also served to boos the replay value of the game and create the illusion of intricacy for the storyline. And there lies the most crushing aspect of Suikoden III; the game only appears to be complex, multi-sided, and engaging. After all, from a game at least 65 hours long, one can't help but expect such a thing. That "Trinity Sight" system was the perfect cover-up to make up for the plot's extreme simplicity, lack of emotion, and uselessness for over two thirds of its unraveling.
The plots of both Suikoden I and II were initiated by the same factor: the main characters' burden of carrying one of the 27 True Runes. The acquisition of those Runes occurred nearly at the beginning of both Suikoden I and II. Not Suikoden III. It took me 50 hours before reaching the true turning point where all three heroes converge on the Flame Champion's hideout. What happened before that is simply a setup to the true storyline. These events are what transpired in order for the three heroes to finally unite their strengths:
1- There is a war between Zexen and the Grasslands.
2- Silver Maiden "Chris" kills lord Zebon. In actuality, it was merely Sara in disguise.
3- The Grasslanders attack Zexen during the truce following the assassination of their beloved chief.
4- Zexen decides to attack Karaya Village in order to showcase their supremacy.
5- Thomas struggles to retain his castle.
6- The Lizards attack Iksay to get really even.
7- Battle at Chisha, where everyone finally realizes that everything was a ploy set-up by Harmonia for an imminent invasion.
8- Yun sacrifices herself to be part of the True Water Rune.
Tell me that is not what the entirety of the "first part" (the individual chapters) is all about. My opinion can be summed up as follows: 50 hours for that? That was a truly, utterly, poorly spent 50 hours. The opportunity of seeing this massive, complicated, mind-bending, emotional (sarcasm at its highest) tale from three different perspectives was but an illusion. The events happening before the "meeting" with the Flame Champion are meaningless. Thomas' chapters were even more meaningless, boring, and trite than Hugo, Chris, and Geddoe's adventures. Thomas had no reason to be other than welcoming new recruits to the supposed "resistance castle". In fact, his entire story can be skipped and no aspect of the big picture would be overlooked (and gameplay-wise, acquiring him and his party still occurs regardless).
The main theme of the Suikoden series has been that everything is possible if people put their petty differences aside in order to face their fate as one, powerful, unshakable nation. That's where the Headquarters (HQ) becomes so very important. In the first and second game, the HQs were acquired very early on, which immediately gave you a sense of battling on a grand scale and striving to unite people not with force or fear, but with compassion and respect. Both heroes from the first two games had to create alliances with other nations, to demonstrate their intent of bringing peace, of upholding justice and standing for what they believed in. Those sequences of alliances and betrayals, great friendships and rivalries are the very essence of Suikoden (to me). Where did that theme ever surface in Suikoden III? Only once, and that was near the very end when your newly chosen Flame Champion made a poorly expressed speech that all Grasslanders and Zexens alike should unite for their own good. Indubitably, the "united we stand" did not reverberate very strongly in Suikoden III.
I did not get the feeling that a major war was brewing because it didn't until very late in the game. An excessive amount of time, effort, and gameplay was used as mere "setup" for what was truly important out of the storyline: to vanquish Harmonia and bring back "peace" to the Grasslands. I say "peace", because at the end of the game in the final character bios, it is clearly expressed that nothing has been resolved from the entirety of your actions. Yes, humans, ducks, and lizards will keep on living, but they will still live fighting each other for no good reason. Haven't they learned anything from all that transpired? Nope. They saved the world, now they're back to their routine of killing one another.
The true story lied within Luc's resolve to destroy the True Runes. That element was very well depicted, very heartfelt, and mystifying for sure (though, again, NO music was served). Nevertheless, that plot aspect was expressed at the very, very end of the game. It was all a ploy? We fought for nothing? No one was taught anything? Well damn.
Once I reached the turning point when the Flame Champion was about to take up arms once more, I had hope. Hope that for the remainder of the game, I would finally get to experience what Suikoden was really about. The Flame Champion would unite people, he would tell the secrets of the world, unravel all the mysteries... if only he wasn't dead. That is the lamest, most disappointing climactic sequence ever in any movie, novel, anime, or videogame. I felt betrayed, I felt dirty, I felt cheated. But worst of all, I would finally give up hope. From there on, the game tried to pick-up the pace, but it was entirely too late. The events following the meeting with the Flame Champion can be summed up as such:
9- "Let's meet the Flame Champion. Surely, he will guide us and bring peace to our land. But alas, he has died."
10- New Flame Champion named; a resistance will ensue.
11- Battle against Harmonian Forces at Brass castle, including the Le Buque people.
12- Harmonia has been duped by Luc and his party who were collecting True Runes all along.
13- A decision is taken, a stand is made to go crush the idealistic bastard.
14- Luc's true intentions are revealed, followed by a very anti-climatic ending and poor music; the end of my suffering.
Let me state that I did not see the final chapter, the one dedicated to Luc. However, my gripe with the game has nothing to do with Luc and his intentions. In fact, that is the only thing that interested me in the game. The overall problem with Suikoden III did not lie at one precise instance; it was fragmented all across the course of the experience. Presumably viewing the action from three different perspectives was a complete illusion, as no important and effective actions truly unfolded during that time.
Combining an absent soundtrack with an extremely poorly executed plot kills off much of a game's atmosphere. All that I have said above are only examples to depict my dissatisfaction. The main problem with Suikoden III cannot be concretely and accurately explained, but to me, it lied in the fact that it did not *feel* right. Nothing contributed to form what has made the "usual" Suikoden experience so very touching, emotional, pleasant, satisfying. Aside from reasons brought about with the music and the overall plot, there are also many little and not so little elements that were either absent or barely riveting.
The "major" battles in Suikoden I and II were not only fun to *play* (especially in Suikoden II's case), they were also crucial to the main storyline. The strategies devised by Mathiu, Apple, and Shu were sometimes dangerous, others appalling, but they were always engaging. They pushed the story along and had their reasons to be. They made you *feel* like your entire army was struggling and battling for a common belief and objective. But most of all, those sequences set the tone to the games better than a "normal" battle ever could have.
My dismay once I entered by first "major" battle in Suikoden III was unequivocal. The sense of a massive battle had completely evaporated. The presences of normal unknown fighters were naught. I was merely fighting normal battles were I had no control over my characters. I was not shocked because of the lacking gameplay. I was shocked by what the game had failed to make me feel. Those battles simply got worse and worse along the progression of the game. Caesar did not once devise an intelligent and surprising strategy. The major battles were either a case of "bait-and-run" where the enemy was far too easily duped, or a simple matter of "march-and-crush". The sequences in Suikoden III were boring and totally lacked any gambling of safety and sense of risk.
In the two previous iterations, great human losses also heightened the emotional impact of both productions. Odessa's death gave the Liberation Army their ultimate motive in their fight to end the corruption. Gremio sacrificed himself so that the Hero could pursue his very important quest. Parn made a stand against his beliefs and stood strong against his hero, his mentor, his master in the person of Teo McDohl. Flik and Viktor put themselves in harms way at the end for the Hero's sake. Nanami gave her life to protect her dear brother. Lady Anabelle stood strong for the people of Muse through every ordeal. And the most heart tearing of all, Jowy turning enemy against his greatest friend.
While Suikoden III did present a few character deaths, none of them made me feel anything. When Lulu was killed, I was actually glad to be rid of such a little weakling. His death was also the only event that was best represented without music. I didn't care, because it happened much too early. When Yun sacrificed herself, I waited eternally for my cue from the touching musical composition, but it never presented itself. Wyatt (or Jimba) did put his life on the line in a noble fashion, but once again, the lack of voice from the game made my indifference all too strong. To put it very bluntly, I did not care about any character from Suikoden III aside from Luc. However, Luc's moment occurred at the very end, and his motives were identified much too late.
The castle also felt very impersonal. You were practically not obliged, at any point along the game, to really settle down in your HQ. It merely served as a convenient spot to assemble the entirety of characters. It never felt like my castle, it was only lent to me by that pansy Thomas. The HQ was optional in Suikoden III. It was a mere gimmick. It had no real reason to be, no centrality to the plot in any way. Suffice to say, I did not spend much time at all talking to my people, playing the mini-games, or enjoying the music, very unlike Suikoden I and II where I could always return to the place I called "home sweet home".
Though many characters from the first game were left out of Suikoden II, a good deal of familiar people resurfaced to my great pleasure. Victor and Flik had their moments in the spotlight, while Clive had an entire side-quest dedicated to himself. Many people assembled once again under the new bearer of the True Rune to fight for their freedom. Even Gremio and McDohl reappeared if you had properly completed Suikoden I, making for some very nostalgic encounters around the capital of Gregminster (as well as a superb track in Teo McDohl's mansion). Suikoden II was an entirely new experience, but it provided a good sense of continuity with the first experience.
Aside from the new, but familiar geographic emplacement (the Grasslands, west of the City-States of Jowston, south-west of Harmonia) and Apple (who had very little bearing on the plot), absolutely nothing was created within Suikoden III in order to bring about a feeling of continuity with the series. Of course, two scripts pertaining to an event of each Suikoden I and II were included, but that can barely be considered as a viable effort. The near entirety of people from Suikoden I and II were ditched and replaced by even less likable personalities. Luc's part was grand but underdeveloped for 4/5 of the game, Apple's presence was futile, and ...that's about it. Lilly did make a bigger impression, but I find it all too saddening that the developers did not showcase the opportunity to revisit the land of Tinto given its proximity. Why weren't we given the chance to re-unite with some characters of the previous installments that had ventured into the Grasslands? Why were the Hero, Jowy, and Nanami completely forgotten?
Why did Suikoden III not *feel* like a pure and true Suikoden experience?
The one objective and irrefutable fact to assert my revelation is that Tetsuya Murayama, the main man, the major creator of the Suikoden series left midway during the production of Suikoden III. It was his vision that created the two first experiences, and it was probably his absence that corrupted the core of Suikoden III. Though it would be hard for me to say that Suikoden III is not a good game, I won't hesitate to say that it is unquestionably not a Suikoden game.
- Phillipe Richer