Few long-dead series command as massive of a cult following as Suikoden. As a huge genre fan who’s been playing the hell out of JRPGs since the mid-’90s, people are often surprised to learn that I’d never touched any series entries before playing Suikoden this June. Frankly, I’ve been trepidatious for years — everyone around me has been singing the praises of these games for decades, but what if I were disappointed? I hate feeling disappointment, almost as much as I hate the idea of telling everybody who raved about Suikoden to methat it just didn’t click with me.
A fortuitously scheduled Retro Encounter game journal compelled me to push through my fears. And boy, I’m glad it did, since disappointment is a far cry from how playing Suikoden left me. Gripes about some questionable design decisions aside, Suikoden is the start of something strong: an ambitious political drama that treats you to an abundance of memorable moments, innovative ideas, and trademark features that I wish more modern RPGs would take a cue from.
Suikoden’s story doesn’t kick off with much originality, but it’ll keep you tuned in for the game’s 20-hour runtime. You’re a soldier and son of one of your country’s prominent generals. After dad departs home to deal with rebels in the north, you get caught up in a conflict between your friend, Ted, and the emperor’s nefarious court magician, Windy, who’s been hunting Ted for centuries to steal a magical rune he bears. To keep the rune out of Windy’s hands, Ted gives it to you just before you skip town. You soon find yourself siding with the rebels and at odds with your father as you embark on a quest to bring down Windy, the Empire, and all the evil lurking within it.
The narrative isn’t afraid to pull punches as it unfolds. A few characters bite the bullet in surprisingly gruesome or dark ways I didn’t see coming from a title whose early plot struck me as light-hearted, and their departures are unexpectedly gut-wrenching. A major late-game betrayal — and how you end up handling it — also surprised me and left me questioning the motives of many in my crew. Still, like many JRPGs of its generation, Suikoden’s story is a little too simple for its own good: conflicts and obstacles resolve a bit too cleanly and move too quickly, some plot points are superficial, and you learn little about almost everyone you meet.
Unlike most JRPGs of its time, however, Suikoden presents you with a remarkable number of dialogue choices. Most are just there for your amusement, but some determine the fate of individual characters and whether they join your crew. Translation issues sometimes make it unclear what impact choices will have, but I appreciated most decisions Suikoden offered me — they helped keep me engaged and gave me a slight sense of ownership over the fate of some of my crew.
One of the game’s trademark features is its recruitable character mechanic. One hundred and eight recruitable characters await you here. Many are usable in combat and open the door to different strategies, while others populate your home base as merchants, inn keeps, cooks, smiths, and more. If you recruit all 108, you earn a special ending, and your save data unlocks bonuses in Suikoden II — two occasional RPG features that always leave me feeling rewarded for my time spent.
Suikoden’s character recruitment mechanic was innovative in 1995, and it remains a treat today: gaining the allegiance of enemies, acquaintances, and strangers and watching them contribute to your cause is satisfying and always left me feeling like I was progressing. Except when the game forces you to use certain characters, you’re free to plug people into your party as you like, leaving you with an energizing sense of freedom. My only gripe is that the requirements to recruit some folks are downright obscure or too subject to chance (think painful gambling minigames that may lead you to rip your hair out).
Suikoden is also known for its one-on-one duels and campaign battles. Duels see you battle individual foes with a rock-paper-scissors mechanic guided by your opponent’s dialogue choices. Presumably thanks to translation issues, dialogue choices are often inconsistent with the nature of your opponent’s move. And if you haven’t kept the dueling character equipped with the latest armor or upgraded weapons, they can be surprisingly squishy, often losing duels in a handful of hits. Later series titles supposedly improve on this mechanic, but Suikoden’s duels underwhelmed and frustrated me.
As an old-school strategy fan, campaign battles were more to my liking. These larger-scale encounters pit the characters you’ve recruited against groups of enemies. These also resolve based on a rock-paper-scissors mechanic, but they offer more predictability: you can use some of your forces to preview your enemy’s next move. The strength of a broader group of characters also determines the outcome of these fights, so you don’t need to worry about an abrupt trip to the game over screen because you neglected to level up any specific person.
Suikoden also introduces a rune system that became a series staple. Equipping runes found on foes and in shops empowers your characters with magic or special abilities usable in battle. You can discover a few dozen runes and swap most of them among your characters as you please, giving you a refreshing sense of control over the cast’s combat style. The rune system’s closest analog is Final Fantasy VII‘s beloved materia mechanic. But unlike materia, Suikoden confusingly limits each character to one rune. This prevented me from experimenting with rune combos as much as I would’ve liked to, but I got a kick out of the customization options it does support.
Sadly, a hellishly obtuse inventory system dampens the fun of swapping runes among party members and much else besides. You constantly come across runes and loot during your journey, but each character has only nine item slots, and the equipment you wear occupies most of them. Manging my limited inventory became a routine source of pain for me, since I regularly found myself mid-dungeon with zero space for the dozen or so goodies I came across. I spent a significant amount of time passing items between characters and trekking to shops to sell items I could live without. This was always irritating, and it’s tough to overlook since plenty of other RPGs from the mid-‘90s boast more functional inventory systems.
Runes aside, combat in Suikoden is pretty run-of-the-mill. Battles are turn-based and pit your cast of up to six against enemies you randomly encounter in dungeons and the overworld. Everyone has a range that dictates how far their attacks can travel. Short-range characters need to be in the front row of your party to damage enemies, and they’re limited to striking your foes’ front row, while medium and long-range characters can occupy your back row and hit any enemy. Depending on your party composition, you may be able to unleash special Unite attacks — moves involving multiple party members combining their powers to unleash an especially potent attack, akin to dual and triple techs from Chrono Trigger.
Unfortunately, a comically lax difficulty mars much of the joy of combat here. You can brute force your way through all but the most challenging encounters, and most bosses require little to no strategy. On the one hand, it’s nice not to have to grind, but on the other, the extreme ease of battle renders some combat mechanics optional and much of your time fighting pretty mindless.
The low difficulty also doesn’t incentivize you to experiment with different characters you’ve recruited, because you can clear encounters easily with just about anybody. This makes it too tempting to default to the same four to six characters throughout the game and neglect nearly all others. Some key story beats require you to use predetermined characters, but Suikoden’s failure to encourage you to tinker with most of your recruits feels like a poor design choice that may leave you forgetting about them altogether.
I’d forgive you for assuming Suikoden was a late-generation SNES title. It depicts just about everything other than spell effects and battle backgrounds in 2D, animations are choppy, and dungeon designs are far from easy on the eyes. Still, the visuals carry a certain charm. Area maps, character portraits, and much else appear hand-drawn, though many of those portraits resemble bizarre designs that were dated when Suikoden was first released. The soundtrack deserves more praise, even though it includes no voice acting. Tracks are diverse and excel at exuding the emotions of moments they accompany, and some, like town themes, are memorable even by today’s standards.
Suikoden is clearly something special. Sure, it misfires with its inventory management, mindlessly easy combat, and sometimes-superficial story, but it succeeds at so much more. Many ambitious ideas Konami introduced here — particularly the recruitable character, castle-building, and campaign battle mechanics — have aged gracefully, and the narrative’s memorable twists and incorporation of player choice overshadow its flaws. To anyone who hasn’t yet dived into this series: please do yourself a favor and rectify that immediately (we have a handy primer!), because if the first entry is any indication, the rapturous hype that has followed it for decades is very, very warranted.