Among the RPG genre, very few series can claim to have a consistent world whose differing regions and cultures are developed and fleshed out within each individual game. The Suikoden series is one of these few, with the six (eight if you count the Japanese only SuikoGaiden series) games showing events of political turmoil and conflict over a period of nearly two centuries within the series' world. Because each entry takes place within the same world, the series' charm has always been its cast of recurring characters playing major roles and building even more mysteries upon the impressive Suikoden mythos. Fans of the series have been clamoring for the sixth entry in the main Suikoden series, but so far nothing concrete has been announced, outside of the developers' enthusiasm to continue the series. In this interim, however, the developers have released an entry to the series; titled Suikoden Tierkreis, it sheds the existing storyline to start fresh with a brand new set of characters.
Suikoden Tierkreis focuses around the theory of The Infinity, the concept in the Suikoden universe that there exists an infinite number of worlds or multiverses, of which the main Suikoden universe is only one. Tierkreis takes place within one of these worlds, though it's a world completely unknown even to Suikoden veterans - while past games have focused on worlds where only dragons exist or the world of monsters from which villains summoned beasts to do their bidding, Suikoden Tierkreis features a world entirely disconnected from the rest of Suikoden lore.
Set in the Kingdom of Salsaville, the player takes on the role of a young warrior who has been raised in Citro Village since being abandoned as an infant. At the game's outset, the player and his cohorts leave the village to destroy the nest of some wild beasts that have suddenly become violent and attack humans. While out, the player's party finds a book that bestows certain people with the "Mark of the Stars," a enigmatic emblem that grants incredible power. This book turns out to be one of many sought out by the Order of the One True Way, a tyrannical kingdom that believes in predestiny and is spreading its beliefs and territory through force. Eventually, the Order sets its sights on the small village of Citro, leading to an alliance between the player character's army and that of the neighboring Magedom of Janam, which is preparing for all out war against the Order. However, despite this alliance, Janam's motives don't seem to be entirely clear.
What the game does well is not only highlight the political conflicts between two opposing nations, but also the intrigue within the nations themselves. The Magedom that the player allies itself with seems quite friendly at first glance, but further study reveals troubled waters within. The story lends itself to some JRPG clichés, but also does a good job of emphasizing the effect of multiple major forces vying for power. It also never strays too far into feelgood territory, as more people die in this game than in any prior Suikoden gamer. However, it lacks an important part all the other Suikoden games have - the aforementioned recurring characters. Previous Suikoden games have always had recurring characters (some across all the games), but Tierkreis has no familiar faces at all. While not a flaw in and of itself, veterans of the series have always looked upon this aspect of the games as part of the series' charm, and losing it can be considered a flaw by longtime fans.
Many fans, myself included, will argue that the largest pitfall of the game's story is that it could have easily taken place in the main Suikoden world. The act of relegating it to an alternate universe scenario is both puzzling and irritating. Puzzling because it potentially alienates longtime series fans by starting a whole new world, and irritating because only a small region of this new world is explored; and it can easily be either discarded in the future, or replace the mainline Suikoden universe, thereby terminating over a decade's worth of effort spent developing and enriching the Suikoden mythos. So the question is: why set it in an alternate universe when it could've been a new area for the mainline Suikoden titles? It is a mystery to us all.
The translation and localization for the game is decent, but not up to the standard of previous games. Obvious mistakes such as writing "one" instead of "won" bring up questions as to who was doing the proofreading. A lot of the lines are wooden or unnatural, but as a whole the storyline's translation is competent enough to prevent distraction or annoyance.
The visual style of Tierkreis is quite well done, with 2D backgrounds and 3D characters. While the environments are incredibly well done and varied, the character models are, to put it bluntly, quite ugly. It's a consistent question I have to ask whenever I see ugly 3D graphics on the DS: why couldn't they have stuck to sprites? Not only would sprites have looked better, but they would've been much more suited to the beautiful hand drawn environments in the game. As it stands, the characters are disproportioned troll people and it's a good thing the story sequences don't play out with the in-game engine, otherwise any semblance of seriousness in the game would've been lost. Instead the game utilizes a mixture of character artwork and anime cinematics in order to progress the story, and it's quite well done. While the art style and designs can be somewhat of an acquired taste, the characters themselves are all quite distinct and individualized in their appearances and personalities.
Similarly, the game's music offers a large variety of different tracks and melodies highlighting the distinct cultures and even philosophies of the varying locales. From the haunting, sterile tune employed when visiting enemy territory to the Arabian-inspired themes in the Magedom of Janam, the soundtrack is top notch, and even has a few songs that are reminscent of previous Suikoden soundtracks. This combination of new and old style music makes Tierkreis a treat both for the longtime Suikoden fan and those who aren't familiar with the series at all.
Unfortunately, any semblance of quality in sound grinds to a halt when the voicework emanates from the DS. The voicework is mutilating. Many characters talk as if they don't know what punctuation is. A word of advice to the voice actors: when there's a period, or a comma, that means you pause for a second before continuing. You don't ignore it and keep talking continuously. Not only is it bad form, it makes my ears bleed. I can say without hyperbole that there are no instances of good voicework in the game. This wouldn't be a problem if you could turn off the voices, but what do you know, you can't. So you have to put up with the excruciatingly bad voice acting penetrating your aural canal and infecting your mind if you want to listen to the great soundtrack. It's like having to swim through a canal of sewage in order to find valuable treasure; you don't know whether to laugh, cry, or smash your DS.
The gameplay in Suikoden games often take a backseat to the story and Tierkreis is no exception. It goes even further by simplifying the battles more than needed. Battles are done in traditional turn based fashion where the player's party is comprised of up to four characters with one support. These characters can be put in the front row (where short ranged characters will benefit most as they can't attack from the back) or the back row (for magic users and long range fighters since enemies cannot attack the back row without finishing off the front row first). It's a system similar to that of Suikoden 2, with the only difference being that the player has two less characters to work with in Tierkreis. It's a good compromise, but a compromise nonetheless. The problems crop up when the player amasses a large army late in the game. There's a high concentration of fighters in comparison to previous games in the series, and the loss of two characters to put in the party means that most players won't be able to use nearly all of the characters they recruit. They'll just stick with one specific team to get through most of the game, and keep another two or three teams of four for the larger scale battles.
Speaking of larger scale battles, Tierkreis disappointingly cut that corner as well. Tactical battles and one-on-one fights, staples of the Suikoden series, are nowhere to be found. It's incredibly bizarre that they removed these as there are a large number of one-on-one fights as well as war campaigns throughout the game. However, these all use the same turn based battle system that the normal battles employ. Why the change? Why remove what has been integrated into the series since its inception? Perhaps it's to ensure a larger amount of sales to more casual gamers, but this loss is simultaneously puzzling and infuriating to longtime fans.
The game's magic and weapons system has also been changed up. As players proceed through the story, they will gain Marks of the Stars. These grant each character different spells and abilities: some passive, some battle oriented, some healing. However, each character can only equip four of these Marks at any one time, so players have to mix and match effectively. While by no means a terrible system, it lacks the depth that the traditional rune system had. There's no way to equip specific characters with immunity to unbalance if they don't possess that specific ability, for example, so it's impossible to negate some of the negative effects of other Marks, unlike in previous Suikoden games. Similarly, the game eschews the traditional Suikoden weapons system in favor of allowing each character to equip multiple weapon types. As a result it's fairly easy to turn certain characters from dominating physical fighters to powerful mages with a simple weapon switch, thereby alleviating some of the loss of depth that the new magic system causes.
One of the biggest problems with Suikoden Tierkreis is that not only does it lack a quicksave function, but you can't save anywhere. Why? This is a portable game. Why in the name of the Almighty didn't they put in a quicksave function at the very least? This is something I have no tolerance for. Is making a game where you can save anywhere a monumental task nowadays? It doesn't seem so, because even some console games have that option. So why not portable ones? This annoying habit that JRPG developers have of not allowing players to save whenever they want needs to be corrected already, especially for portable games. What genius at the design conference for this game said, "Okay, guys, this game is portable, so it has to be convenient. Let's make the player search for save points in order to record their progress." It should be a federal offense by now.
While it may seem like I am unreasonably harsh towards Suikoden Tierkreis, the truth is that underneath the simplified battle system, atrocious 3D models, and horrific voice acting, the game is still completely Suikoden. It captures the essence of the Suikoden series flawlessly, letting the player know that hubris, greed, and war can have devastating costs and consequences, as any good Suikoden game should. A compelling narrative, wonderful soundtrack, and likable characters all overcome the many flaws that the game bears and makes it an incredibly memorable entry in the Suikoden saga. And while many fans, including myself to a certain degree, may begrudge Konami for the changes they have made to the Suikoden formula and for setting the game in a whole new, possibly disposable, world, they should know that despite the changes, the game is undeniably Suikoden.