Suikoden has a legacy stretching back to the early days of the Sony PlayStation, when the whole world was waiting with bated breath on the mighty force that was Final Fantasy VII. In lieu of Square (now Square-Enix) reaching that watershed for RPGs, Suikoden was caught up in the waves and garnered a cult following which has grown substantially to this day.
Suikoden II is widely regarded as the best of the series, with both its primary successors paling by comparison. Neither felt like a worthy scion of Konami's franchise, and rightfully so. Though not poor games by any measure, the series came to a mediocre low with the fourth instalment, and many wondered if Konami had lost the magic of the second for good.
We turn now to an old saying. Sometimes, just sometimes, good things really do come to those who wait.
Suikoden V ushers in a new chapter of Suikoden history, preceding the first and second games. In the Queendom of Falena, distant to the struggles of the forthcoming Toran Republic, the tale of a prince, his royal family, and their people begins.
The game centers around the Prince of Falena, whose mother queen Arshtat wields the fearsome Sun Rune and governs with supreme authority. The queendom has had a poor history of many quarrelsome matriarchs, and Arshtat is beloved for being far more compassionate and level-headed than her predecessors. But not all is well. Originally, the queendom had three runes which were credited with the propserity of the realm. These were the runes of Dawn, Twilight, and the mighty Sun. It was in the Sun palace that the rune of its namesake was kept, high in the sacred sealed room. But during a rebellion, Arshtat had the rune inscribed upon her body and brought the full of its power within herself.
We turn now to a second old saying: Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
The queen has become unstable, and while her children and attendants worry for her, political scheming between the Godwin and the Barows families runs rampant. The Godwins hunger for power and expansion of the realm, while the Barows would prefer more security and wealth within the kingdom. Suffice to say, this has done nothing to aid the queen's sanity. It just so happens that atop all this, it is due time that the next princess choose the man to be her husband, by tournament.
Thus our new hero's journey begins, and all manner of responsibility falls upon his shoulders. In the queendom, men do not succeed the throne. Those who marry the crown princess become commanders of the Queen's Knights, living in the lap of luxury beside the monarch. One of the young prince's new tasks is to inspect the candidates for the hand of his younger sister, the princess Lymsleia. That is to say, it isn't his official duty, but everyone wants him to do it anyway. As luck would have it, both feuding families, the Godwins and Barows, are entering competitors in the tournament. It is by this way that the young prince becomes so heavily involved with his nation's problems, and must forge his own path if he is to stay afloat.
Thankfully, he won't have to go it alone. This is the tale of 108 Stars of Destiny, chosen souls whose purpose it is to right the great wrongs and set nations aright in the sea of fate. Our prince, the new Tenkai star, must gather them together, though he knows not yet the task before him.
Each Suikoden has featured returning characters, and it just so happens that this time around, fans of the second game will see an old favourite from the get-go: Georg Prime. Called to serve Falena by the current commander-in-chief Ferid, Georg becomes fast friends with the prince and his retinue. Amongst them are the prince's loyal bodyguard Lyon, his aunt Sialeeds, and of course his adoring little sister Lymsleia, whom everyone calls Lym for short.
The importance of the prince's family is stressed early on in the game, and helps build appreciation for the emotions of the major cast. This is highly reminiscent of Suikoden II, where the relationship between the hero, Nanami, Jowy, and eventually Pilika helped the player relate to the pathos of the characters. Here the relationship is both by blood and oath, and it's easy to get a handle on right from the start. By the fifth hour, I myself was nearly in tears over Lym's personal struggles, as well as the trials of the hero, and the story had only just truly begun.
The driving force behind an RPG has to be its characters, and Suikoden V delivers in spades. If a character is meant to be loveable, impressive, or irritating, it comes right on across, down to the music. Fans of the series will take note of recurring themes such as the haughty narcissists, whose flowery, opulent speech and accompanying melody will grate on the ears in an endearingly familiar way. Of course, 'groups' return, wherein many small cliques form within the larger framework of heroes. The opening hints at this already, and throughout the game's progress you'll find large chunks of your recruits come in pairs, trios, and packs, all willing to lend a hand for the greater cause. The group at the town of Raftfleet is an early example, where a distinct culture is apparent down to the hairstyles the women wear. Sure enough, an entire family of adventurers from Raftfleet are Star of Destiny hopefuls, just waiting for the hero to collect.
This brings up something unique to Suikoden V. As in previous games, the ultimate goal is to collect all 108 stars, without missing a one. Additionally, certain characters may lock off access to others, as they replace them on the list of the 108. Finally, several characters who join are non-stars, and may or may not leave at certain junctures. Thus there are more than 108 recruitable characters, giving players more of an incentive to replay the game.
To facilitate this, a New Game+ feature is available, reminiscent of the SNES classic Chrono Trigger. This allows you a faster play through the game while going back and choosing different paths and recruits. There are also 11 different endings to obtain, a sure draw for those thirsty for alternate outcomes. Certainly some endings are better than others, and a few of the finales are premature (and thereby mostly unfortunate).
However, despite the alternate routes open to oneself, some things never change. Hardly a spoiler, Viki returns to the series, as does Jeane. Both of these characters have appeared in every Suikoden, akin to Final Fantasy's Cids and Chocobos. Viki is a girl gifted in the art of teleportation. Unfortunately her mental elevator doesn't go all the way to the top floor, and she can sometimes make mistakes as to where your party ends up. It's especially bad if she sneezes. Nonetheless, she's mostly reliable and has served in each game as a speedy transport option to the various locales available.
Jeane, on the other hand, is the standard runemistress. Runes are the source of magical power in the Suikoden universe. They are marks engraved upon the hands of warriors and magicians, allowing them to make use of offensive, defensive, and supportive spells corresponding to the rune's primary property. For instance, the fire rune is largely an offensive symbol, while water is used primarily for healing. Runes grow throughout the game as well, granting new spells as the characters level along with them. Jeane is the standard character to whom the hero's party will often pay a visit to have a new rune attached, removed, or dissolved into scrolls, which have a limited number of uses (but are often available where a rune might not be). It's of course, an added bonus that she's quite the looker.
Runes play an instrumental part in battles and can be attached in one of three places on a character's body. Not all characters can get runes attached to all three places however, and some only after a certain level has been achieved.
The battles themselves play out in a fairly traditional fashion, basing turns on the character's relative speed. A maximum of six to a party are allowed, with multiple formations across three rows making for a wide variety of offensive and defensive tactics. In addition to attacking, defending, and rune casting, players can also bribe their enemies, or choose to auto-attack if no real strategy is required. Auto-attack is perhaps one of Suikoden's best features, and always welcome to expedite the level grind.
My one gripe with the battles is that there's a slight load time after them. It's not long, only a few seconds, but it has a meter displaying an icon of the hero running. I'd honestly prefer no icon, just give me a black wipe back to the overworld. The icon makes you feel like things drag on longer, and it takes some getting used to before you realize that isn't the case. Certainly not a deal-breaker however.
Battles themselves are extremely fast for being turn-based. Characters move fluidly and speedily in their attacks, and spells, while impressive, don't make you wait long. One of the series' trademarks has been the relative ease with which battle is executed, and it's certainly well-implemented here.
Of note are changes to the war and duel systems of the game. The war system has been an integral part of Suikoden V, ever since its very first instalment. In this fifth title, troop movement is rendered in real time as packs of archers, cavalry, and infantry gallop across the land to fight one another. The system is fairly simple in theory and makes use of a rock-paper-scissors format. Cavalry beat infantry, infantry beat archers, archers beat cavalry.
Things change a bit when it comes to navel warfare, of which there is plenty. There, archery ships beat rams, rams beat combat ships, and combat ships -- you guessed it -- beat archery ships. It's a fairly straightforward system, but your troops make all the difference. Various characters can be put in command to augment the flow of battle. Some back up their units with spells, others add attack and defense bonuses. Still others allow you to recover troops with healing spells.
At first, battles are fought either on land or in the water, but eventually the two merge and players will have to learn to swap between their two forces quickly, lest they taste defeat.
Duels are another perennial Suikoden feature. They take place between two characters, usually the hero and whomever he's trying to best. The duels haven't changed much, though they are far more expressive than in the past. There's also a time limit on choices, making the action a little more intense. Three commands are available during duels: Attack, Special, and Defend. Pressing the corresponding button will initiate the response, but it can't be taken back. As with all Suikodens, I found it helps if you pay attention to what your opponent is saying. They often give you a hint of how you should react. Some fights are harder than others though, especially when all the opponent does is growl and mumble.
Enemies, locals, townsfolk, and races are all highly diverse in the game. Suikoden V sports some of the most interesting towns I've seen in an RPG. Some, like Lucan, are built into sheer cliffs and hills, clinging to the rockface as though the nests of eagles upon the mounds. Others, like Raftfleet, shine on the face of rivers, a network of boats chained together by rope and wood. Cultures come with the towns too, and Konami has done a superb job of rendering the various traditions and customs each city adheres to. Some, like the 'artiste' village of Haud, however, should probably be cleansed with fire. But at least it's intentionally affronting.
Much of the dialogue in game is rendered with vocals, and thankfully the dubbing is excellent. It is honestly some of the best voicework I've heard in a translated RPG yet, and many cartoon and anime fans should be able to hear some of their favourite dub actors showing their true talents throughout the story's course. It's one field Konami certainly put some coin into, and it shows.
The music is also well rendered, as should be expected of the series. I only found the battle theme to be lacking a bit of punch, but I've grown used to it, making it a non-issue. Especially wonderful are town themes such as the rhythm of Raftfleet, and recurring pieces such as "Relaxation" which is a standard from previous games. Suikoden has a history of delivering excellent in-game compositions, and this fifth instalment certainly delivers.
I have very little to complain about with Suikoden V, and much to praise and herald. The game is sure to be a classic with many Suikoden fans, especially those like myself who felt disappointment with how III and IV turned out. The game is perhaps not the best looking on the market, but it does its job well and makes up for any visual fault with its compelling story and endearing characters. Gorgeous portraits with multiple moods for many of the cast members accompany the well-rendered dialogue, and the music is just the finishing touch which helps pull it all together.
Konami has redeemed Suikoden in the eyes of this fan, and I hope it will as well for you many others. To anyone who has just come into this series, take heart, it's at a good time. Suikoden II may have been the pinnacle of its day, but this is an all new height worthy of its name.