Ever since its inception back in the early days of the PlayStation, the Suikoden series has been one of the best-loved and most popular RPG series available. Needless to say, the third installment of the successful franchise was one of the most highly anticipated RPGs to be released last year. Even with all the hype, however, Suikoden III has managed to greatly exceed all of my expectations. After spending almost my entire holiday break playing it, I've awarded it a special place in my collection, right next to Xenogears and Skies of Arcadia, as one of my very favorite console RPGs. It's one of those rare games that manages to grab you and pull you into the story like nothing else, as well as providing a very compelling gameplay experience, and in my opinion, it's easily the best RPG available for PS2.
Like the previous games in the series, Suikoden III is based around recruiting an army of 108 "Stars of Destiny" and building up a castle throughout the game. However, the similarities pretty much end right there. The familiar battle system of the first two games has been rebuilt from the ground up, and a new skill system has been added to the mix. The new battle system takes some time to get used to, and can even be somewhat frustrating to manage while you're still learning it early in the game. Like the previous games, you can have up to six active members in your party. However, they are divided into three pairs, and orders cannot be given to every character. Instead, you will give orders to each pair of characters. The downside to this is if you use one of the pair to cast a spell or use an item, the other one will automatically perform a standard attack. Also, items can only be used on the character using the item or his/her partner. While this may seem annoying at first, it gives the battle a bit more strategy than the first two games. Another minor annoyance of the battle system is that the characters all seem to have a mind of their own when you tell them which enemies to attack. For instance, you may want them to attack a more dangerous enemy, but they will instead attack whichever enemy is closest to them. This can get to be very annoying during some of the more difficult encounters, but it's a minor complaint overall.
The new skill system is a very welcome addition to the series, as it finally allows for some character customization, which was pretty much nonexistent in the first two games. Each battle yields skill points for the participants. These points can be used to upgrade skills or purchase new ones. As the characters level up, they receive more skill slots to manage. The only catch to this system is that each character has a limit on how high each individual skill can potentially go. For instance, a pure fighter character will not be able to reach a high level in magic-related skills, and only an archer will be able to reach the highest level of sharpshooting skill. Although it may seem restricting to have these limits imposed, it actually works very well.
Suikoden III is the first game in the series to take the plunge into the world of 3D, and it's certainly a terrific improvement over its 2D predecessors. It makes for a much better looking game overall, and it also allows for dramatic camera angles to help tell the story. The environments of the game are simply stunning. Plains seem to stretch on for miles, mountains tower high up into the sky, and everything is wonderfully detailed. The characters are all designed and modelled nicely, although most of their animations are rather poor. The worst of these comes about when a character is running. They move in a stilted and awkward manner that never ceased being annoying throughout the entire game. This is a minor concern, however, as Suikoden III is beautiful game for the most part.
Even with everything else the game has going for it, Suikoden III wouldn't be half the game it is without its story, which is nothing less than stellar. One of the main reasons for this is the new "Trinity Sight" system, which lets the player see the same story through the eyes of three different characters in alternating chapters. This allows for several interesting twists and turns in the story, as questions raised while playing as one character will be answered while playing as another character. The plot itself is engaging from start to finish, and a departure from the typical war stories found in the first two games. I'm not going to spoil anything here, but if you've played the previous games, you will be quite surprised at a couple of the revelations that are made regarding thing that had only been hinted at thus far in the series. It also leaves plenty of room for a sequel, which would be more than welcome. Even if all other aspects of the game had been below average, Suikoden III's plot would have made it well worth playing, and that's saying quite a bit.
One aspect of Suikoden III that I was not pleased with at all were the controls. This isn't because they were unresponsive or too complicated, but the horrid camera made it very hard to accurately maneuver the character in the direction I wished him or her to go. There are even a couple of instances where a character will get caught going back and forth between two camera angles if you don't let up on the joystick and press it in the opposite direction. This can get to be incredibly irritating at times, to say the least. Also, because of the horrible camera, you'll spend most of your time navigating the world using the minimap at the top of your screen. Even then, you may get confused as to whether or not you're headed in the right direction. As annoying as this may be, however, it still isn't enough to make you throw up your arms in frustration and turn off the PS2.
From an auditory standpoint, Suikoden III excels yet again. The music is, for the most part, brilliant. The opening theme in particular sticks out to me, and in my opinion, it's one of the very best pieces of game music ever created. Many other of the tracks featured in the game are also very well-done, as well. Te soundtrack definitely fits the game and provides for an excellent listening experience regardless of whether you're playing the game or not. Sound effects are also fairly impressive, with the clashes of battle sounding like real swords banging against armor and shields. There's no voice acting to be found anywhere in the game, but that's quite forgivable in a game where there are so many characters to work with.
If it hasn't already been made perfectly clear from reading the preceeding paragraphs, I found Suikoden III to be an immensely enjoyable experience from start to finish. If you have even the slightest interest in RPGs (and I'm assuming you do if you're reading this), you should not hesitate to run (not walk) to your car, then break the speed limit as you attempt to get to your local game store as soon as you possibly can. It's not often an RPG this good gets released, so take advantage of it. Play this game, then play it again and again. It'll be worth every second you spend playing it, and when you're done, you won't soon forget about it.
© 2002 Konami