Konami's Suikoden was not only one of the first Playstation RPGs to travel across the Pacific to American shores, it was one of the finest accomplishments of its genre at the time of its US release. Although it broke little new ground, Suikoden was quickly embraced by many RPG fans everywhere for its well-executed gameplay and its large cast of playable characters. To this day, it retains a loyal following.
Three years after the release of Suikoden, its sequel has finally arrived on American shores. Fans of the original will be thrilled to know that Suikoden II retains nearly all of the elements that made its predecessor so enjoyable and even makes minor improvements to many facets of the original.
In Suikoden II, you play as a teenaged boy (no default name) who serves in the Unicorn Brigade, a celebrated youth division of the Highland Empire's military. As the game begins, the Highland Empire has just signed a peace treaty with neighboring Jowston, a confederation of independent states. The Unicorn Brigade is stationed at Tenzan Pass, near the border between the two political powers. In the Unicorn Brigade camp, Suikoden II's main character shares a tent with his childhood best friend Jowy, another teen serving in the youth division.
Late one night, our protagonist is awakened by Jowy, who alerts him to a sneak attack by the Jowston army on the Unicorn Brigade camp. As it becomes obvious that the Unicorn Brigade is getting completely slaughtered, the two boys immediately scout the area to find an escape route. However, Jowy senses that the obvious way out contains an ambush, so the two return to camp to try to find another way.
Upon their return to camp, Jowy and our hero find Rowd, their commanding officer, talking to a man they recognize as Luca Blight, the Highland Empire's prince. Overhearing the conversation between the two men, the youths discover that Jowston wasn't responsible for the attack at all. Prince Blight and Rowd orchestrated the entire massacre themselves in order to have an excuse to declare war on Jowston.
In a moment of utter foolishness, our heroes confront Rowd to see if the treachery is indeed a reality. Rowd responds by ordering his soldiers to attack, sending the two boys running for their lives. However, the protagonists don't get too far before their retreat is halted by the edge of a cliff. Knowing that certain death awaits them not far behind, Jowy and our hero jump off the cliff, down into the water far below.
As the main character awakens alone on the shore of a river, he is discovered by a man named Viktor. Jowy is nowhere to be found. Our hero is taken back to Viktor's residence, a Jowston mercenary fort that Viktor and another man named Flik run. The main character is designated as a prisoner, but he is given a lot of freedom to roam around.
After running a series of errands for Viktor and Flik, our hero returns to his sleeping quarters. That night, Jowy breaks in, freeing our protagonist and allowing the two of them to escape back to the Highland Empire. However, upon returning to the Empire, the two boys find themselves branded as traitors responsible for the Tenzan Pass massacre. They are quickly captured and sentenced to execution.
On the their execution day, however, just as the death blow is about to fall for our heroes, Viktor and Flik burst into the Highland prison, freeing the two youths. With no other choice, the two flee back to Jowston.
As time passes, the main character learns of Prince Blight's sinister intentions, and he finds himself increasingly involved in a war against his homeland. He must make many difficult decisions, and through them he begins to discover the leader within himself.
Suikoden II is nearly identical to its predecessor in terms of its gameplay. Once again, the main character must gather the 108 Stars of Destiny in order to defeat the evil empire, so Suikoden II features a large cast much like its predecessor did. Battles are turn-based, and characters can cast spells through runes. Combination attacks return, and, like the original, Suikoden II features castle building, weapon forging, and large-scale strategy battles. Data from the first Suikoden can be loaded into Suikoden II as the game begins, giving you an opportunity to access some hidden characters as well as influence the statistics of returning characters.
Although Suikoden II doesn't make any major departures from its predecessor's gameplay, it does generally present a more refined gaming experience than the first Suikoden. The gameplay execution is a bit crisper in Suikoden II in just about all of the gameplay elements. The difficulty balance has been improved; the first Suikoden was extremely easy to blow through, but the second actually presents some moments of challenge. Length, one of Suikoden's prime weaknesses, has also been dealt with. Suikoden II is approximately twice as long as the original.
Several other improvements are present in Suikoden II. The magic system has been improved. Most characters can now equip more than one rune at a time, which increases their versatility in battle. The number of optional mini-games has also been significantly increased, so gamers will have more opportunities to distract themselves if they so choose.
Although Suikoden II's gameplay is mostly improved over that of its prequel, it does make some significant regressions in a couple of areas. In the first Suikoden, any character could use any item that he or she carried in battles. In Suikoden II, items are now pooled. However, in battle, characters can only use items that are equipped. Because items can only be equipped in accessory slots, only 3 items can be carried into battle at a time. In addition, carrying items into battle obviously precludes the use of an accessory in that particular slot. It's understandable that this change in item use adds strategy to the game, but, as a result of the new item constraints, this reviewer found items to be nearly useless in battle.
Suikoden II's biggest gameplay flaw, however, is in its large-scale strategy battles. Suikoden II attempts to improve on the original's army attacks by shifting to a game engine not unlike that of NCS/Masaya's Langrisser or Sega's earlier Shining Force games. Unlike the aforementioned stellar strategy RPGs, though, Suikoden II executes atrociously in its strategy battles. Most units can move a maximum of 2 units a turn (some can only move 1), making the pace of the battles drag horrendously. The results of combat between units are wildly variable, thereby pretty much throwing strategy out the window. And finally, you don't even have to win the majority of the large-scale battles in the game. All you have to do is hang around for a while (which is not hard to do as long as you don't do anything incredibly stupid) and the enemy will retreat. This reviewer often wonders why battles this poorly done were even included in the game. I mean, the large scale strategy battles in the original Suikoden were nothing more than a glorified game of rock-paper-scissors, but they were incredibly enjoyable compared to this tripe.
Overall, Suikoden II also improves on the already responsive control of the original. Characters can still only move in 4 directions, but a dash button allows them to move quickly at will (without wasting a slot for a rune, too). The menus are well organized much like those of Suikoden, and navigation through them is even more responsive than that of the original. The only regression in control that Suikoden II makes from its predecessor is that character placement has to be fairly precise in order for you to examine items or talk to people. This often makes these activities more tedious than they need to be.
Graphically, Suikoden II continues in the same vein as its prequel. The beautiful 2D backgrounds and hand-drawn sprites are back, and they even look slightly more detailed and colorful than before. In addition, characters animate a bit more smoothly than in the first Suikoden, both in the area maps and in battles. In the battles, the enemies are similarly improved as well, in both their appearance and their animation.
Suikoden II makes its largest graphical leaps over its predecessor in its spell effects. While the first Suikoden's spell effects were serviceable, the second's magic attacks border on spectacular. While they're still not quite in the same echelon as those of Square's Final Fantasy VII or VIII or Sega's Shining Force III, they come closer than just about any others that come to mind.
Another significant improvement that Suikoden II bears is its character art. The washed-out watercolor character portraits of the first Suikoden have been replaced with a more traditional anime art style. Although the traditional anime style breaks little new ground artistically, it's very pleasing aesthetically and much more consistent in quality than the watercolors.
Soundwise, Suikoden II matches up to the high quality of its prequel. The first Suikoden holds the edge in terms of music sound quality; most of the tunes in Suikoden II are PCM-generated rather than streamed. However, the PCM quality is relatively high, so the disparity isn't large. Compositionally, Miki Higashino's second Suikoden soundtrack is the slightly better of the two. Suikoden II's score holds nearly the same impressive variety of the first; however, the melodies are slightly more cohesive this time around.
The sound effects are also a bit stronger in the second Suikoden, from the clang of weapons to the explosive aural assault of the stronger spells in the game. Like its predecessor, Suikoden II has no voice acting.
As strong as Suikoden II is all around, it does fall flat in one major department. Suikoden II's storyline leaves a lot to be desired. With a cast of over a hundred characters, character development is obviously going to take a backseat in order to move the plot along at a reasonable pace. However, even the major characters are rounded out poorly. They also have a tendency to behave very inconsistently, so it's tough to get a bead on characters' general personalities, too.
In addition, the event-based portions of Suikoden II's storyline take a backseat to those of the first Suikoden. Despite a promising beginning, the storyline often fails to inspire. Several events, such as the return of Neclord, are blatantly contrived, and the potentially emotional events generally hold little clout in tearjerking.
The worst part of the storyline, however, is the insultingly awful translation. The first Suikoden's translation was far from stellar, but it at least maintained a modicum of coherence throughout its length. Suikoden II's translation, on the other hand, gives that of Square's Final Fantasy Tactics a serious run for its money as the worst that the 32-bit era has yet seen. Spelling and grammatical errors are everywhere, and as far as name translations go, it almost seems as if the translation team here has no experience with English language use. The dialogue is terrible, too. Dialogue flow is pretty much nonexistent; characters' responses to each other match up poorly and rarely even make any kind of sense at all.
Despite a critically flawed storyline department, Suikoden II offers enough positive familiar elements from the original to merit a recommendation, especially to fans of the original. Let's hope, though, that if there's a third Suikoden, Konami spends a little bit more time on certain facets of the game.