Reviewed: November 18, 2005
Released: November 8, 2005
There are two basic flavors of tactical/strategy RPG out on the market. The first variety is the “Break the System” game. If you’ve ever played Disgaea, Phantom Brave, La Pucelle: Tactics, or Makai Kingdom, you will be familiar with this style of game. In these games, you have the option to just play normally through the game, which you can breeze through in 20 – 30 hours; however, most of the fun from these RPG's comes from focusing on two or three characters and leveling and customizing them to the point where you can single-handedly liquefy the most powerful foes in the game. These games play at a quick pace, and your goal is simply to strike with all your heavy-hitters as quickly as possible.
The second flavor is much slower, and focuses more on solid strategy and careful planning than brute force. Victory in these games depends on having the right units in the right places at the right times. A slight change in strategy could mean the difference between narrow defeat and total victory. Final Fantasy Tactics, FF Tactics Advance, and Tactics Ogre all fall into this style of strategy RPG.
Suikoden Tactics falls squarely within this second tradition, with well-crafted gameplay and a beautiful setting that will keep you playing for hours. It solves some of the problems that Final Fantasy Tactics had, and requires players to think strategically by rewarding them with benefits for teamwork. If you love strategy RPG’s, odds are you will love Suikoden Tactics.
Suikoden Tactics is a spin-off of 2004’s Suikoden IV (and part of the Suikoden series of RPG’s). If you’ve never played a Suikoden game before, I will give you a crash course in the series. Suikoden is the name of an ancient Chinese novel about 108 bandit-heroes (named the Stars of Destiny). The Suikoden game franchise is not directly related to Suikoden the book. Instead, it takes the concept of 108 heroes and places them in a fantasy RPG setting (usually involving a struggle against a corrupt villainous Empire).
In Suikoden Tactics, you cannot actually collect 108 characters (in the main series, you can collect 108 characters in each game). However, Suikoden Tactics does an excellent job of translating the Suikoden series’ game mechanics to a strategy RPG system.
Suikoden Tactics follows a young hero named Kyril and his companions as they investigate the mysterious disappearance of powerful magical weapons called “Rune Cannons.” It opens with past events, in which Kyril’s father Walter is transformed into a horrifying monster by one of these Cannons. To be honest, the story in Suikoden Tactics is not terribly compelling, and if you need a well-crafted story to be satisfied with an RPG, then you may want to look elsewhere. If you’re looking for a solid, engaging game that requires you to make good tactical decisions and think ahead, and the story can take a back seat to your enjoyment of a good challenge, then you will probably have a good time with this game.
Think of Suikoden Tactics (or most other strategy RPGs, for that matter) as a complicated form of chess. You are provided with several different types of characters, each with different movement rates, attack styles, and strengths and weaknesses. Your goals sometimes differ; you may be required to eliminate all enemies, or eliminate one key enemy (while others attack you), or get a character to a certain square alive. However, to win, you must use your characters together wisely to compliment each other’s strengths and diminish each other’s weaknesses (compare this with games like Phantom Brave or Makai Kingdom, where you can easily develop one super-unit which can take on entire armies without suffering a scratch).
The character advancement in Suikoden Tactics is clearly geared to deemphasize the importance of leveling up, and require players to play smartly no matter their level. In other words, the way in which experience points are awarded is designed to bring players up quickly to the level of enemies, but not to allow players to advance much farther than the level of their toughest foes.
For fighting enemies one level above the character’s current level, that character will receive about 100 points for a hit and 400 points for a kill (the character will receive a small amount of XP even for a miss). Each level requires 1000 points. For fighting enemies of the same level or lower, characters receive only a fraction of this experience, so that one would have to kill about 20 equally matched enemies in order to level up. In effect, this makes Suikoden Tactics a game of strategy more than numbers.
Fortunately, the game has enough complexity in its rules to make the strategy challenging. It’s important to pay attention not only to the position and height of your characters relative to your enemies, but also the position of your own characters relative to each other. If you take opportunities for your characters to talk to each other on the battlefield, their “good will” toward each other will increase; this leads to benefits such as characters protecting each other and joining together in attack combos, and can even lead to special joint attacks. These attacks take a while to set up, but if you set them up properly, they are powerful enough to turn the tide of the battle.
On the other hand, if you try to use your units as mavericks and allow them to get separated from each other, they can easily become overwhelmed by mobs of enemies, leading to crushing defeat. How you structure your strategy, therefore, can have a profound effect on the outcome of the battle, even if you have several characters who are levels above your enemies.
Every Japanese RPG must have a “system” gimmick these days, it seems, and Suikoden Tactics is no exception. Each unit has an elemental alignment, and depending on spells or items used, squares on the battlefield grid also take on elemental alignments. If a character is on a square that aligns with its own element, that character’s stats will increase considerably and it will heal somewhat; conversely, an opposing elemental square will weaken that character. Rather than being an afterthought (like the “Faith” and “Brave” system in FF Tactics), the elemental system adds an interesting dimension to the gameplay and will reward good players for smart planning.
There are no random encounters in Suikoden Tactics as you move from one island to the next (in a simple point to point map reminiscent of Final Fantasy Tactics), but then again there is little need for powering up. There are training dungeons where players can obtain extra money, skill points (used to upgrade special abilities for characters), and generally play around if they want extra challenges), but they are not necessary.
You can buy better armor and upgrade your weapons in towns, and you should do this whenever you can, but money is not so scarce that you will need to fight dozens of battles to afford improvements. As a result, Suikoden provides as much or as little battle action as you would like, and you don’t need to devote entire weekends to get full enjoyment out of the game.
There are also several mini-quests in the game, in a system that seems to be lifted directly out of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance from the Game Boy Advance. At the “Quest Guild,” you are offered several different mini-missions depending on your advancement, what locations are open, and how many other quests you have completed. You pay a small fee to register, and will be rewarded a contractual amount of money and skill points if you succeed.
Missions range from simple fetch quests, “dispatch” missions in which you take one character out of your party for a few days to take care of the mission, and full-on battle missions. Many of these missions seem tacked on and pointless, and the quest system doesn’t really add much to the game. It doesn’t detract much, either, but Konami could have really spiced the game up with some interesting side-quests.
Suikoden Tactics’ visuals are a mixed bag. On the one hand, you have designs for the battlefields, which are spectacularly rendered and provide a lot of atmosphere to the game. Also, attractive portraits of each character and watercolors of each location you visit enhance the epic feel of your adventure.
The camera angle on the battlefield can be smoothly and seamlessly changed with the right analog stick. However, the character units on battlefields and in cutscenes are represented by rather blocky cel-shaded polygon models, which don’t look good at all. Lines often don’t show up very well on the characters, meaning that you may not be able to see their faces, or even details like the fact that they have two legs, at different distances and angles.
The character models put a damper on what would otherwise be a drop-dead gorgeous presentation, by giving it a decidedly Final Fantasy VII look (square arms and all).
The music in Suikoden Tactics blends well with the game, and is pleasant enough that I found myself humming a theme from the game to myself one morning. Several themes from the other Suikoden games are included, which gives the game a feeling of continuity with the main series. The voice acting in key scenes is average – nothing too offensive or awful, but nothing really good either.
For $39.99 you can take home a satisfying strategy RPG that will provide you dozens of hours of challenge and entertainment. If you loved Final Fantasy Tactics and you’ve been longing for a similar game to come and fill that niche, then Suikoden Tactics is a must-buy for you. Even if you are strictly a NIS-style power-gamer, you will probably find a lot to like about this game.
Suikoden Tactics is a challenging game that is easy for players to pick up and difficult for them to master. Rather than just cashing in on a successful franchise name, it makes a wonderful addition to the Suikoden series and stands well on its own as a fun game into which players can invest as much or as little time as they want.