Suikoden 2 is the sequel to one of the first well received RPG's to appear on the Playstation. It's a sequel that is made specifically for fans of the original game. Story arcs, characters, mini-games, battle systems and music are all carried over from the original making for a walk down memory lane. You can even use your saved games from the original to open up secrets and raise character statistics.
"Betrayal, yet again"
The story in Suikoden 2 is a mixture of borrowed pieces of the original and the occasional spark of originality (if you haven't played Final Fantasy Tactics, that is). It follows the story of a young boy, the hero of the game, who lives with his adopted father and sister in the Kingdom of Highland. He and his best friend, Jowy, are members of the Youth Brigade aiding Highland in the war against the city-state of Jowston. The city-state played a small part in the victory of the Liberation Army in the original for you trivia buffs. The Youth Brigade is slaughtered during a time of peace, and the two young heroes discover that it is their own Kingdom that has ordered the slaughter in order to continue the war with the city-state. They escape in the chaos but are branded traitors and must flee from Highland. Thus begins their story of betrayal and the destiny of the 108 stars.
Suikoden 2 borrows heavily from the original in order to push the plot along and introduce characters. Many will feel a strong sense of deja vu while playing the game. While the development of the three main characters and their paths to the end of the game are fresh and thought provoking, it's a shame that they weren't able to carry that freshness throughout.
The dialogue in the game is richer than the original, with some memorable lines and sometimes entertaining townspeople. It far surpasses the original in this area but has a major Achilles heel that really drags the game down. That Achilles heel is the absolutely wretched translation. It is by far the worst translation I've come across in my many years of game playing. There are numerous misspelled words, including character name, which is an unforgivable offense. There was even one point where a main character's name was misspelled twice in the same block of text. Also, there are numerous times when the wrong person speaks a line. I can handle the misspellings and bad grammar, but something like that makes the whole game feel off kilter. This isn't entirely the fault of the localization team as the mistake must have been by the original developers, but the fact that it was ignored twice means the game was rushed through testing. Carelessness like that will keep RPG's forever a niche genre in North America.
Overall, it is still an entertaining storyline but I had trouble relating to the main character. You still have a number of dialogue choices, but only twice in the game do you have any real choice as to the path you take. Aside from that the lead is mute and he is also very young. I place him at 12 to 14 years old, and I had a hard time accepting him as a leader of anything. Instead I felt like he was just being used and manipulated by the adults around him, some of the manipulation bordering on child abuse. It comes off as a terribly tragic story, which does not make it a bad story but it isn't what I think they were going for. The word "hero" never came to mind once while I was playing, and "end of innocence" would be a good sub-heading to the game as a whole.
"I'm feeling a little less flat lately"
The graphics in Suikoden 2 are vastly improved over the original, but that isn't really saying much. The original could barely compete with 2nd generation 2D graphics on the 16 bit systems. Suikoden 2 brings the game fully into the current generation, but still feels quite dated compared to 2D games like Breath of Fire 3 and Thousand Arms.
The main character and NPC's on the screen are still rather flat but the hero has more animation to embellish his movements. Instead of just the 2 frames from the original he has at least 3 for walking and 5 to 6 for his running animation. The towns and cities are also much more detailed with some very nice artwork to represent different textures. From the hard wood floors in Muse to the cobble stoned sidewalks in your castle, they all add to the atmosphere and give each area their own flavor.
Characters in battle are larger and are turned more to the side so you can see the front of them rather than just seeing their backs in the original. The animation is also improved and each of the characters you can take into battle seems to have unique animations, whereas there seemed to be only 4 or 5 types of animations in the original. Sword fighters have unique ways of attacking from downward slices to thrusts to some that draw and sheathe their blade for each attack. All the characters animate while waiting to attack as well with clothes flapping and fighters rocking on their toes. When you see all 6 characters on screen moving it is rather impressive. The majority of the graphical improvements definitely came in the area of battles. Spell effects are also improved with some really impressive effects lighting up the screen, sometimes a little too much. I suggest playing the game with at least some lights on in the room you're playing in. Playing it in the dark (as I prefer to do) can lead to some nasty headaches as the whole screen turns from dark to bright white and back to dark again in a very short time. Playing for an extended time can really burn you out.
The game uses an interesting mix of CG FMV and hand drawn still shots to a nice effect for some of the major story sequences. The intro really impressed me with the way they mixed the two to create the illusion of a fluid sequence that was actually static for the most part. It's a much more eloquent solution than trying to create CG models that just don't look or move properly.
Another vast improvement over the original is in the character portraits. In the first game they were very muddy and pixilated leaving you wondering what the characters actually looked like. This time around they are very clean and much larger letting you clearly see just what each character looks like, and giving them something to make up for the paper thin personalities they receive in a game with 108 characters.
"Play it again Konami"
One thing that Konami has always excelled at in any genre of game they make is the musical score for a game. The score to the original game was a masterpiece in my ears combining numerous instruments and voice in a very high quality package. Suikoden 2 carries on that tradition in very fine fashion, though not as completely perfect as the original. There wasn't one song in the original that bothered me, but there are a few in the sequel that I can't listen to for more than 5 seconds. There are also a number of songs that are repeated for more than one town, and the battle music is a bit too punchy to make it enjoyable to listen to for the whole game unlike the original's battle theme. Despite these problems with the sequel's soundtrack it still contains some of the most beautiful pieces of music I've ever heard. I could listen to the theme for the town of Coronet all day long and never get sick of it. I almost hated to leave the town the first time because it was such a beautifully peaceful theme. The opening theme is also worth listening to every time you boot up the game. Many tunes also carry over from the original, slightly re-mixed and still as wonderful as ever.
Sound effects are also as high quality as the original, with wonderful ambient sounds for towns near water, in forests or in caves. Every game developer can take a lesson from Konami in how to use music and sound to create a wonderful and encompassing atmosphere.
"One at a time, no shoving, everyone gets a turn"
Suikoden 2 carries over the exact same turn based system from the original with a few improvements to make the game more balanced and tougher to beat. You can take up to six characters into battle with you with battles coming up randomly as you walk along the world map or in dungeons. The system is very self-explanatory with the same auto-battle option carried over from the original making everything go faster. Battles are over rather quickly and don't appear too often making for one of the least tedious turn based battle systems ever. When you are much higher in levels than your opponent you have the option to "let go", which is a guaranteed run command allowing you to skip any pointless battles.
There aren't many changes from the original system, but the few that were made are significant. You can now equip up to three magic runes on one character as opposed to one in the original. Equipping runes allows a character to use magic, and there are 4 levels of spells to cast. Only the most proficient in magic will be able to use all 4 levels. Each level of magic has a set number of spell points available, each spell point representing one cast of a spell. You have to remember that each spell point for a specific level carries over to each rune you have equipped, so if you cast a level 2 fire spell you will lose a level 2 spell point for each rune equipped. This system forces you to balance not only the runes you equip, but also how you distribute your spell points.
United attacks also return from the original, but cannot be abused the same way. Combination attacks that hit one enemy will do double or triple damage as they did in the original, but combos that hit all the enemies are much weaker and can't be used to wipe out entire groups of enemies in one shot anymore.
There are more secrets and sub-quests to be found this time around, and the game takes much longer to finish this time. It is also much harder to find all 108 characters; so much so that one of the characters you recruit can be paid to find out how to recruit the others. Dungeons are as straightforward and uninspired as the original, with a few insultingly simple puzzles to solve now and then.
One truly great improvement is the inclusion of the ability to run right from the get go rather than always having to equip a holy rune on one party member. Anyone that has played the original will know how wonderful this little addition is.
There are a bunch of new mini-games to play throughout your castle, but none can be abused the way the dice game was in the original to make tons of money. The cooking mini-game is quite fun, but most of the others are rather bland and feel like a waste of time to play them. There is also the inclusion of a trading system in the game. A number of towns have trading posts with a selection of items you can buy and then sell at other trading posts or in shops. If you have the patience, you can make quite a bit of money this way and influence the prices of some items.
The only area in the game that is actually worse than the original is the large-scale army battles. In the original they were basically a rock, paper, scissors type of system that was very simple and short. It was almost a throwaway feature in the original, but at least it was unobtrusive in the overall scheme of things. This time around they use a turn-based system similar to Shining Force, and it is one of the most unbalanced and mindless pieces of game play I've ever come across. Units are made up of 3 main characters, each with unique attack and defense statistics as well as special skills. Each unit has an offensive and defensive number, which you compare to enemy units to decide upon the unit you should attack. Certain units can move multiple spaces, use arrows, or cast spells depending on who is in the unit. All of this on the surface could make for a very entertaining strategic battle system. The problem is that none of the statistics or unit strengths and weaknesses seem to matter. The result of two units clashing seems to be random and there are times when a unit that has high offense and defense can be wiped out by a unit that has no business even attacking. It is frustrating as hell, and the battles take so long that you end up pulling out your hair. The objectives of the battles are not clear, and though some can't be won no matter what you do you can still end up losing a character in them. The entire game falls apart during these sequences and the final battle you fight is so easy to win it is laughable, yet you might never figure that out because it isn't clear what you're supposed to do to win.
Control in the game was another major disappointment in that it is exactly the same as the first with the exception of being able to run all the time. Analog control, while not necessary, would be a nice touch. I've grown so used to analog that playing this game really seemed like a chore and my thumb was not happy with me. Luckily I remembered I had an older controller with a raised d-pad to take some of the pressure off. Even worse than no analog though is only having four directions. Really, this is not something that should be in a game at this point in time. If you have dungeons with diagonal passageways then you should have the ability to move your character diagonally without resorting to sliding along the scenery. This probably ticked me off more than anything in the game did, as it is simply laziness on the part of the designers to not include it.
"A fun ride, but..."
If you enjoyed the first Suikoden, you'll enjoy this one. You'll certainly have as much fun and it is just as addictive as the original in trying to hunt down all the characters. Seeing what has happened to characters from the original is also a selling point, as well as the addictive and comfortable battle system. While in no way is Suikoden 2 a stellar game or a major technological achievement, it is very fun to play and most RPG fanatics will enjoy the ride.