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Konami has been having trouble with some of their key franchises lately. The most recent installments of the Suikoden, Silent Hill, and non-handheld Castlevania series have been somewhat disappointing to fans. Suikoden IV is a prime example; the plot and characters were much less developed, the gameplay seemed stale, and there seemed to be no motivation whatsoever for most of the 108 stars to join the hero in his battle.
Fortunately, someone in the Konami hierarchy likes the fans AND the Suikoden series enough to create an apology for IV, and that game is Suikoden Tactics.
Suikoden Tactics (known as Rhapsodia in Japan) is in some ways a prequel, in some ways a sequel, and in some ways a gaiden to IV. You start out 7 years before the Island Liberation War chronicled in IV. The player takes on the role of Kyril, a young boy traveling with his father, Walter, a mage named Andarc, a bowman named Seneca, and a strange goat-horned woman named Yohn, as they search for Rune Cannons. After a brief meeting with some familiar (albeit much younger) faces, Walter and company track down the pirate, Steele, and after a particularly devastating battle, Walter is mutated into a horrible fish-creature by a Rune Cannon known as an Evil Eye. As the ship is blown apart, the rest of the party escapes and the story resumes 10 years later- 3 years after the Island Liberation War. Kyril, now grown up, continues his hunt for the Rune Cannons in order to destroy them.
Probably the best aspect of ST's story is that it fleshes out the world created in Suikoden IV. Not only do you get to explore the Island Nations, but the Kooluk Empire as well. Familiar characters greet you almost wherever you go, and you get to learn so much more about them. The power struggle hinted at in IV is explored in much more detail in Tactics, and the ending doesn't necessarily play out like I expected, which is refreshing.
There are downsides to the story, however. For instance, while there are one or two plot twists in the game, they are foreshadowed pretty well, so they don't come as much of a surprise. Also, the bad guys' motivation needed to be explored a bit more. You're basically told straight out why they're doing what they're doing, but it just seemed as if it should have been more nuanced, which could have been addressed by better characterization of the bad guys. Overall, though, the story is enjoyable and makes up for the lackluster offering presented by Suikoden IV.
Personally, I found absolutely nothing new or original about Suikoden Tactics' gameplay. It uses elements from a handful of different Strategy RPGs such as Final Fantasy Tactics, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, and Shining Force. Of course, this doesn't bother me much, seeing as how all three had excellent gameplay.
The game is divided up into chapters, with each upcoming battle signaling a new chapter. Battles involve you selecting the characters you wish to use (sometimes pre-determined) and moving them around an isolinear square-grid battlefield. All tiles have one of the five elemental attributes (fire, wind, earth, water, and lightning), or none. Items and spells can change the terrain affinities, helping and healing characters with the same affinity, or hindering and damaging characters with the inferior affinity. This aspect proves to be much more important to strategy than I originally believed, so use it well.
Characters each have their own methods of attack, but fall into the categories of melee, ranged, magic, or support. I found the ranged fighters to be generally less useful than the melee fighters, and mages even less so. That's not to say there isn't a place in your army for these less-useful characters - far from it. It's just that they are very specialized, and often very weak, and this is a game that favors tanks. Of course, the support characters cannot be overlooked, as they tend to be some of the most important units in the game, since they can heal your party, provide buffs, find goodies on the battlefield, and more. My healer character was my MVP, getting the best armor and equipment being at the highest level, none of which was due to her acumen as a fighter (support characters can't even attack!)
Outside of battle, there is a lot to do as well. As you travel around the world map, you will run into towns where you can buy new equipment, hone your weapons, meet new characters, equip runes, and learn all about the goings on in the area. In one town, there is even a Quest guild that allows you to take on jobs, either in person or through an emissary, to net you money, skill points, and even new characters. In addition, the Quest guild adds a good deal of length to a game that would otherwise be extremely short.
But when you're not in battle or in a town, where are you? The Caravan is the place where you get your characters ready for battle. Here you can check stats, equip items and armor, and upgrade the characters' skills. Each character has a certain number of skills he or she can learn, ranging from extra attacks to greater magical efficacy. Each skill is ranked on a scale from E (worst) to S (best) and is upgraded using skill points gained after battles.
Taken all together, the gameplay in Suikoden Tactics is enjoyable. The only problem I have is that the battles can be brutal and unforgiving. The enemies scale to keep up with your main character, and that can make it difficult for low-level characters to survive long enough to gain levels. Add to that the fact that overdamage can sometimes permanently kill a character, and you will wind up retrying battles frequently. Also, attaining S-rank status in battles is extremely difficult, but rewarding in the form of special items and equipment that you won't find elsewhere. So players looking for a challenge out of their SRPG should definitely give Suikoden Tactics a chance.
Graphically, Suikoden Tactics does a decent job, not so much for the character models (which are small, blocky, and poorly cel shaded,) but for the environments. I found myself actually marveling at some of the locations in the game, such as the bridge city Haruna and the Imperial Capitol Graska. I wouldn't say that the images are groundbreaking, but I particularly enjoyed them. Aside from that, though, there's nothing much to fascinate the player, as spell effects and unite attacks just don't look that good with such small characters.
The game's music is a completely different story altogether. While not written by series composer Miki Higashino, Norikazu Miura does an excellent job as stand in, creating some very enjoyable and memorable tunes. Among my favorites are "Pride of the Blood Brothers" and the opening theme. The compositions are simply excellent, and include some arrangements of previous Suikoden series themes, such as "Beautiful Morning." And since the game comes with a partial soundtrack, you can listen to some of the best pieces whenever you want.
Voice acting is strictly mediocre. It's not terrible, and inflection is decent, but Kyril's voice actor just doesn't cut it, and some of the VA sounds stilted and forced. Still, it by no means detracts from the atmosphere or story, so it's forgivable.
Sadly, control does not hold up as well as the other categories, and while not as much of an issue as it would be in an action RPG, the frustration level detracted somewhat from my gameplay experience. The grid is isolinear, and you can rotate it a bit using the right analog stick, but it still makes maneuvering the cursor with either left analog stick or d-pad difficult. Battle menu navigation is also not quite intuitive, and requires a bit of trial and error to figure things out.
In the end, Suikoden Tactics really doesn't do anything new with the SRPG genre, but a game doesn't have to reinvent the wheel to be fun. With great music, a more detailed world, and likeable characters, Suikoden Tactics is yet another example of that credo. I wish the game had been a bit longer, but there is a new game+ option, and I didn't manage to get everything the first time around, so there should be some good replay value in it for me. Here's thanking Konami for an excellent apology, and hoping that the series only gets better.