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RELEASE DATE (NA): November 1, 1996 GENRE: RPG
// review by SoyBomb

A hundred and eight... and still going strong.

At first glance, Suikoden looks like every other RPG of its time, and to a certain extent, it's true. The battle system looks more or less like that of Final Fantasy or Breath of Fire, with the latter's isometric perspective fully at play. You wander around on a world map from place to place, fight a bunch of either kooky monsters or aggravated soldiers, scoop up the loot from treasure chests, buy tasty medicines and shiny new armor at the local shops, upgrade your weapons via the blacksmith, and earn valuable "levelin'-up" experience while doing so. For the majority of the game, it IS comparable to any other turn-based RPG of its time.

So what, if anything, makes Suikoden so much different than another RPG? Was it destined to be "just another game in the crowd"? It takes a little while, but eventually you discover what makes Suikoden so unique.

The most obvious aspect is its extreme level of party customization. Typical RPGs give you a steady party to work with, live with, breathe with, and strengthen to maximum capacity. Chrono Trigger let you swap characters in and out as desired between a party of six or seven; Final Fantasy VI offered a similar mechanic with up to twelve characters available. Suikoden ups the ante... to up to 108 potential characters to join your troupe! Granted, a few of them have to stay at headquarters for administrative purposes (someone needs to file those draconian tax returns), but that still leaves dozens and dozens of potential brawlmates. Suikoden's "108 Stars of Destiny", as it actively refers to all the possible allies you can have, is based on Shui Hu Zhuan, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature, in which a band of 108 fugitives band together to form a rebellion army, just as the 108 Stars of Destiny do in this game to create a plotline. By going around the world (and occasionally fulfilling specific conditions), you'll meet up with new individuals you can recruit. Having more allies is not only great for when you're out and about, though; it also has additional benefits that add to Suikoden's personality.

With having 108 recruitable characters comes a large quantity of backstories, and that's where Suikoden stumbles a bit. For a game that can be completed in under 25 hours, there isn't much room for extensive character development throughout. A few choice individuals hog the majority of the spotlight, leaving the rest to simply exist with histories that will either be of no interest or not be adequately explained in the first place. The game stuffs them all into your headquarters, an abandoned (or at least cleaned out through bloodshed) castle you get to name yourself, so you do have the option to chat with each one individually, but even that doesn't give you much information.

Another unique feature is what the game calls "major battles". No, I don't mean boss battles. Apparently they're not important enough to be declared "major". (Isn't a fight against a giant clam whose inner flesh forms a venus that pummels powerful lightning upon your party not MAJOR enough?) Major battles pit the Imperial Army (the Empire) against your merry band of rebellious misfits in what is a violent version of rock-paper-scissors. Each side has an overall life meter — your army's overall health can be increased by recruiting more members — and whosever reaches zero first is the defeatee. Yes, I'm just inventing words now.

During each turn, you select whether to Charge (a direct attack), Bow (fire arrows at the opposition), or use Magic, all in hopes that the Imperial Army doesn't choose something that effectively counters your decision. Having (or not having) specific party members in your army increases (or decreases) the potency of your attacks. Non-fighting characters may provide other services. I particularly enjoy when the Merchants offer to sneak over to the other side and convince members of the Empire to join you. Sometimes it's quite successful, other times not, but either way, it's a neat featurette. The only downfall to this mechanic is that on rare occasions, a member of your army can be permanently killed and never used again in battle. (Luckily, the one character that DID die for me was one I would have never used.)

There's a big world out there. Go use your sword in it.

Suikoden also seems infatuated with runes. These little mysterious gems can be attached not to weapons, but to people! They're like tattoos but easily removable and don't have misspellings of anyone's ex-girlfriend's name on them. Depending on which rune has been attached, a party member can perform a limited number of special moves based on that rune's elemental properties. Hmmm, now that I think about it, that's just the equivalent of magic spells in every other game! ...but you can swap them if you like. So... there's that.

Aside from an animated introduction, Suikoden sticks to the tried-and-true 2D graphic style of RPGs of the past. The characters are pretty big, however, and reflect actual human size characteristics. Sprite work is nicely done; each character can be clearly identified just by looking at their in-game sprite. I will say that some of the characters' portraits are downright hideous, as if the artist gargled paint and spat it out on a piece of paper, then scanned it in digitally. The special effects seem a little corny on the PlayStation since Chrono Trigger on the SNES offered more or less the same ones, but when you also consider that they were in simultaneous development (by two different companies, no less), it's not quite as unimpressive. Meanwhile, the music is sometimes notable, using the new CD format to its advantage to output some heartwarming and/or energizing tunes. Sound effects are rather limited and could easily have come out of an older console five years earlier. While I'm on the topic of presentation value, it's also a shame that the translation suffers from spelling and grammatical errors here and there. Proofread, man, proofread!

As far as accessibility goes, Suikoden's fairly tame. The difficulty is relatively low; there weren't any places where I found myself overwhelmed by any particular moments, provided a little leveling up is done here and there. The major battles can be a tad frustrating, if only because of their random nature. Games can be reloaded, though...

Even though Suikoden possesses many of the tropes of a typical RPG, it also has many features than helps distinguish it from the glut of games out there. I expected Suikoden to be generic but ended up remaining hooked on it the entire time, which can't be said for some other RPGs that make me feel like I'm just slogging through to finish the darn thing. If it's a classic-style RPG you're looking for with a good amount of customization that isn't actually overwhelming (like many modern games), Suikoden is your ticket to happiness.

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