Suikoden IV

While Konami’s Suikoden III got decent reception when it saw its release in Japan and North America, some lamented that it felt somewhat out of place in the franchise, given its unique approach to storytelling. The creator of the series left development on the third game towards its end, leaving the development team on its own to produce a follow-up, Suikoden IV, which somewhat returns the series to its roots, and though it’s had its share of critics and polarization of the franchise fanbase, it’s by no means a bad game.

The first mode of battle encountered in the fourth entry is ship battles, where the player sets up each of their vessels with rune cannon firers that specialize in different elements, captains that have innate effects on their respective vessels such as increased defense, and up to four fighters per vessel that participate in standard battles against fighters aboard enemy ships. Player and enemy ships, once the player is satisfied with their ships’ setup, exchange turns moving across the battlefield, and when they draw near, they can fire rune cannon ammunition at one another, with a roshambo system where, for instance, lightning cancels out and breaks through water ammunition to strike the opposing ship, although earth cannonfire breaks through lightning ammo.

The element system provides good strategy to ship battles, although in the final battle, it’s actually somewhat easier, especially if the player has leveled up a few four-member character parties and gotten combo attacks for each, particularly those combination skills that strike all enemies, to bring down enemy ships by participating in battles against their fighters, where only the attack, combination attack, and defense commands are available, and the battle ends when one side’s fighters are all dead, in which case it’s slightly possible to lose certain recruited Stars of Destiny permanently. Ultimately, the change in major battles in the fourth installment is definitely for the better, given the aforementioned strategy.

The next mode of combat encountered is group battles, where the player leads a party of four characters (down from six in previous games, although since Suikoden III had a “buddy system” where the player inputted three commands for six characters, the player actually has one more command per round of combat), led by the protagonist, against enemies the player encounters in special areas of towns, on the overworld, or in one of the very, very few dungeons. Initial commands include going on to input specific orders for each character, attempting to escape (an option that becomes “Release” when the party’s levels are high enough), bribing the enemy away with Potch, or changing to one of two alternate parties of four characters if on the overworld.

Commands for each character include attacking normally, defending to reduce damage, using an equipped rune’s abilities (with magic runes having four different levels of MP), using an item, or using a combination attack with another character, with these abilities unlocked when characters that can use them fight together for ten battles. A combination attack’s effectiveness will increase up to two levels, each respectively gained with twenty battles with combo-using characters. Winning fights nets all participants who are still alive experience proportionate to their level, money, and occasional items. Battles are generally fast, although it can be hard to find new combo attacks without a guide, the last boss can be daunting, and while the encounter rate is a little high at times, the player is ultimately able to skip fights with weak enemies, and ultimately, group battles help the game more than hurt.

The final mode of battle is duel battles, where the player must match enemy dialogue with enemy actions, with each side’s actions including attacking normally, using a special attack, or defending. As in previous Suikoden games, normal attacks work against enemy defense, special attacks against normal attacks, and defense against special attacks. New to the fourth game is the ability, once per duel battle, to use one of the commands at “full power,” where the executed command’s effectiveness increases. There really isn’t much room for improvement with regards to the duel battles, and overall, all three modes of combat definitely help the fourth game, despite what flaws may exist.

Interaction is decent, with the fourth game ditching prior entries’ limits on inventory space, the player now able to have up to ninety-nine of each item, and Viki’s teleportation magic allowing the players to revisit previous areas, although overworld travel via ship is somewhat sluggish, and the game often leaves players clueless on how to advance the main storyline. There are also a few points of no return, including one at the end, not to mention occasional long periods without save opportunities, and in the end, the controls definitely leave plentiful room for improvement.

Plot-wise, Suikoden IV takes place a century and a half before the first game, occurring in the island nations south of the Scarlet Moon Empire and its southern neighbor, the Kooluk Empire, which serves as the primary institutional antagonist. The protagonist is a silent knight of Razril, whom his superiors banish upon his acquisition of one of the twenty-seven True Runes, the Rune of Punishment, which gradually devours the life of its user. The Rune is easily the star of the show, with occasional glimpses of its backstory, and as in previous titles, completing the game gives epilogues for all acquired Stars of Destiny. Granted, the poor direction on how to advance at points is a mark off the narrative, and the game doesn’t explicitly state things such as the hero’s relationship to other characters.

The translation is mostly adequate, although there are rare howlers such as “It released” whenever the player releases a weak enemy party in combat, and there are a few instances of redundant dialogue. Even so, however, the story and localization help the fourth game more than hurt.

The soundtrack is one of the game’s high points, with notable tracks including that which plays during the epilogues for the acquired Stars of Destiny not to mention a remix of the series’ theme during the closing credits, this particular theme strangely absent from the third installment; there are, however, some areas without music like in the third game. The fourth entry is also the first to feature voice acting, which is good for the most part. All in all, a decent-sounding game.

The fourth game also changes visual styles from the third game to a more realistic style that looks nice for the most part in spite of some occasional bland textures on the scenery and the game making compromises in battle to increase their speed such as characters seeming to teleport back to their initial positions in spite of not being magical (although this is understandable for magician characters), but otherwise, the graphics are one of the game’s high points like the soundtrack.

Finally, the fourth game is shorter than the third, taking as little as fifteen hours to complete or up to around thirty if the player wishes to acquire all 108 Stars of Destiny, with a New Game+ adding to the title’s replayability. In conclusion, Suikoden IV, despite the various criticisms levied against it, is a solid title that hits most of the right notes with regards to its battle systems, story, aurals, and visuals, although there are certainly things leaving room for improvement such as the soporific overworld sailing and poor direction on how to advance. Given its position as the first installment of the franchise chronologically, furthermore, it’s actually a decent starting point for newcomers to the series.

The Good:
+Solid battle systems.
+Decent narrative.
+Good soundtrack and voicework.
+Nice visuals.
+Great replay value.

The Bad:
-High random encounter rate.
-Endgame battles can be difficult.
-Sluggish overworld sailing.
-Sometimes poor direction on how to advance.
-Many points without music.

The Bottom Line:
Not as bad as some have said, but still probably the weakest entry of the main series.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 2
Game Mechanics: 7/10
Controls: 6/10
Story: 7/10
Music/Sound: 8/10
Graphics: 8/10
Localization: 7/10
Lasting Appeal: 9/10
Difficulty: Hard
Playing Time: 15-30 Hours

Overall: 7.5/10

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