Suikoden
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When Sony’s PlayStation video game console saw its release around the world in the mid-nineties, it proved to be a serious competitor to Nintendo and Sega’s own consoles. One feature that especially appealed to game developers was the system’s use of compact discs over cartridges, not to mention the greater capacity of CDs compared to cartridges, which competitor Nintendo retained for its Nintendo 64 console, and consequentially lost the support of many developers that defected to Sony to give it a more competitive game library. Among the first role-playing games released on the original PlayStation was Genso Suikoden, shortened to Suikoden for English release, very loosely based on the Chinese novel Outlaws of the Marsh, and localized nearly a year after its original Japanese release. Suikoden proves to have been one of the first great RPGs for the system.

One of the main draws to the first game is the presence of 108 characters to recruit for the player’s island fortress, and while not all of them are playable, the cast volume was at the time unprecedented for an RPG. The number of playable characters in battle was also a high for the time, with up to six playable characters able to participate in normal randomly-encountered battles. Outside combat, the player can arrange their party into a front and back row, each with three characters, which have short range, in which case they can only attack normally from the front row, and medium and long range, in which case they can attack from either row.

Upon encountering enemies, the game presents the player with an initial menu providing several options, including manually inputting commands for each character, attempting to escape from enemies (although the Run option becomes Let Go when fighting weak enemies, with this feature sparing players from wasting their time fighting weak foes), bribing the enemy with money to get them to leave, or having all characters automatically use normal attacks against the foes for a round. Individual commands for characters include attacking normally, using an equipped rune’s abilities or magic (with spells containing four different levels of points and limited uses for each level), defending, and using a combination attack with more than one character if available, depending upon chosen characters.

Characters and the enemy take turns depending upon agility, with the pace of each round of combat being generally more fluid than the average RPG, what with the frequent simultaneous execution of commands such as normal attacks, particularly if the player’s characters are attacking different enemies. Winning battles nets all characters experience, with experience earned proportionate to a character’s level that allows for faster leveling of weaker allies, money, and occasional items. There are no consumable items allowing players to revive deceased characters in the middle of battle, although outside fights, normal healing items can revive characters with zero HP, and having Sacrificial Buddhas in a character’s inventory will save them from death, breaking after doing so.

Aside from random encounters, another mode of combat is the Major Battle, in which the player’s army and the enemy army face off, with each side having several thousand troops. These fights follow a Rochambeau formula where charges beat arrow attacks, arrow attacks beat magical attacks, and magical attacks beat charges. Winning Major Battles, however, somewhat depends upon luck, as the player will have no clue as to which of the three primary commands the enemy will use; fortunately, certain allies can discern which of the commands they’ll use, providing players a good advantage in battle. If one of the player’s commands fails, there is a chance that one of the characters that participated in the failed command will die permanently, screwing the player out of a chance to see the game’s best ending.

The final mode of combat is one-on-one duels, which also follow a Rochambeau formula where normal attacks beat defense, defense beats desperate attacks, and desperate attacks beat normal attacks. In these fights, the player must determine from the opponent’s quote which command they’ll execute, with the need to match quotes to specific commands being the key to victory. Ultimately, the three modes of combat serve Suikoden well, although recruiting specific characters sometimes requires a guide (with specific characters necessary, for instance, to forge weapons to their most powerful levels), and the Major Battles largely depend upon luck. Fortunately, the different combat modes prevent the gameplay from becoming dull.

Control is decent, with easy menus and shopping, although inventory space for each character is limited; while this does add to the battle system’s effectiveness by limiting the number of items characters can carry into battle, it creates the problem of needing to dispose of items to open treasure chests, though mercifully, players can dump excess items in the storage facility at their headquarters. Moreover, Suikoden would have benefitted from a more liberal save system, with save points in many cases not being present before bosses, although luckily, if the player dies and “retries,” levels gained since the last save are retained, although treasure chests and the amount of money they had at the last save are reset. Ultimately, interaction is good, but could have been better at times.

While Suikoden was not the first RPG to focus on a rebellion against an empire (with Final Fantasy II predating it by some years, albeit that title would remain in Japan until the turn of the millennium), it still weaves a decent story with some emotional moments and occasional differences if particular characters die during the game. Although the game doesn’t provide deep development for all 108 recruitable characters, a post-game epilogue summarizes what becomes of all recruited characters after the game’s events. The translation is a bit spotty at times, most notably during the story epilogue, but doesn’t detract from the game, and overall, the story is one of the game’s highlights.

Miki Higashino provides the first game’s soundtrack, with plenty of memorable tunes ranging from the foreboding “Black Forest” to the regal “Gorgeous Scarleticia,” although there are some places in the game devoid of music, and the sound effects could have been better, with dragons, for instance, sounding like elephants when they roar.

Whereas other titles of the time were experimenting with three-dimensional visuals that looked blocky and badly-textured, Suikoden for the most part sports two-dimensional visuals that look gorgeous for the most part, with the character designs largely being solid, with other a hundred different portraits for the diverse cast, along with decently-proportioned sprites. The portraits, though, show a bit of pixilation, as does the 3-D battle scenery when the camera zooms in close to attacked enemies. Still, a great-looking game.

Finally, players can breeze through the first game in as little as ten hours, though recruiting every character can take longer, with the different endings adding a bit of replay value. Ultimately, Suikoden was a great beginning to PlayStation RPGs, what with its solid combat systems, great story, memorable soundtrack, and gorgeous visuals; given its high points, it is highly unsurprising that the game received several sequels. It does have some interface issues not to mention a few problems with the translation, but players would do well to play this warm-up for other solid PSone RPGs such as the revered Final Fantasy VII.

The Good:
+Solid battle systems with tons of characters to recruit.
+Great story with alternate endings.
+Beautiful music and graphics.

The Bad:
-Guide is necessary to find all characters.
-Limited inventory space.
-Spotty localization.

The Bottom Line:
A great start for the series.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation
Game Mechanics: 8/10
Controls: 7/10
Story: 9/10
Music/Sound: 8/10
Graphics: 8/10
Localization: 6/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Moderate
Playing Time: 10-20 Hours

Overall: 8/10

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