Reviewed: January 6, 2005
Released: January 11, 2005
Hero Townshend, who is trapped in Apartment 302 of Gaien Heights on the peaceful island of South Razril, is the central focus of Konami's latest installment in the Suikoden Hill series, Suikoden 4: The Room. No, wait. Wrong 4. Same company, though, although it seems unlikely at first glance that the same company that published the mega-creepy Silent Hill 4 also made the new high-seas RPG, Suikoden IV. That's a big game company for you, I suppose.
In all seriousness, Suikoden IV starts by following the commencement to knighthood of a young man whom the island of Razril's governor took in as an orphan from the waves in his early childhood. At first, things are largely peaceful. But isn't that always how these things start? What follows is a surprisingly well-done RPG that probably won't get the recognition it deserves. It doesn't blaze any trails, but it does almost everything right. And of course, the 108 Stars of Destiny are back, this time rallying under the banner of someone who bears a great power - and a terrible curse. Aside from a host of minor pacing troubles, it only has one real flaw. Unfortunately, that flaw is almost a fatal one.
Suikoden IV has characters that are startlingly realistic, to begin with. No, I'm not talking about the graphics (although those can be pretty nice, too). I'm talking about the subtle characterization of the personalities in the game.
Characters in the world of Suikoden IV are just about perfect, because they are not perfect. I have never seen such a delicate touch with character design anywhere else in my entire gaming life, and I have to admit, I'm amazed. The people in this game feel human. They have very human motivations, feelings and convictions. They have dark secrets and personal failings that drive them to do the things they do. This is one of the hallmarks of a great RPG: think of Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII, or Fei Fong Wong of Xenogears fame. The characters of SUikoden IV are not, in other words, stock RPG heroes who have "problems" on paper, but who end up doing all the heroic things anyway.
Suikoden IV takes place in an archipelago of minor kingdoms called the Island Nations, kingdoms which are generally at peace until the Kooluk Army begins to invade from the north near the beginning of the game. The Kooluk are a more powerful mainland nation, and though they are generally cast in a bad light, the game handles the whole situation of military expansionism versus feudal loyalty with a deftness and complexity that is almost (dare I say it?) literary.
Early in the game, the main character's mentor, who is the leader of a garrison of knights stationed on one of the southern islands, gives a commencement speech to the newest recruits to have successfully become knights. He begins with some talk of honor and bravery, but soon brings up the only military defeat he has ever personally faced: a clash with a Kooluk military commander. His voice begins to shake a bit. His body language twists. Beneath the aura of self-righteousness, we see that here is a man with a deep personal vendetta that he is, perhaps unfairly, hoisting onto the young recruits out of personal shame.
That is just one example of dozens I could pluck from the engrossing cast of Suikoden IV. The wide view of events afforded players allows us to see that, though the kings and chiefs of the Island Nations are fighting for the just cause of self-government, the Kooluk's expansionist ambitions are also very understandable. (Things happen all across the archipelago, not just wherever the hero happens to be.) We Americans, with our history of belief in manifest destiny and collecting territorial islands, should have a particularly acute grasp of the ambiguity of the entire situation.
That isn't to say that Suikoden IV avoids clichés entirely, of course. RPG’s are games for gaming traditionalists, as a general rule, and this game is no exception. The hero of the game is silent; something that I have to admit has always annoyed me. Konami managed to give him a surprising amount of individuality considering this, but that only makes a talkative character the more obvious choice. They obviously wanted him to be a certain way - usually; there are only two choices when deciding what he should say. He can either be passionate and full of conviction, or reticent and intense. It would not have been difficult to record the voice acting for both of these paths, or write some text dialog for each one.
Another thing that will be like riding a bike for many RPG fans is learning the combat system. Now, there are three types of combat in this game, but I'm talking about the one that is by far the most common. That is the normal "party members versus monsters" battle, and there are hundreds of them throughout the course of the game. You choose a lineup of four characters, equip them with your best armor, weapons and accessories, and engage in a turn based tit-for-tat until one side emerges victorious.
Each character can be equipped before battle with Runes, mystical symbols that grant magic powers to the user. During battle, spells can be cast if a Rune is equipped. Otherwise, each character can attack, defend, or use an item. The Speed stat, plus a random variable, determines the order of each round, so that the battles are a mix of enemy and ally attacks, rather than all allies followed by all enemies. This is nice, but hardly original.
Still, the combat system isn't completely flat. There's an option to "Rush" all enemies, once a gauge has been filled (each battle won fills the gauge about a fifth of the way). The Rush attack is a free action that channels the power of all four fighters into the main character, who is healed and then blasts out a wave of energy that deals heavy damage to all enemies. Not only is this useful in a bind, it also looks cool. And since it's free (the enemies don't get a turn after it is performed), there's no reason not to use it even during a boss fight.
The other interesting thing is the "Potch" option. Potch is the term for money in Suikoden IV. What choosing Potch does is end the current battle automatically with a 100% success rate - for a price. Sometimes, enemies will only ask for a few Potch. Other times, they may drain your wallet considerably. And since this is a game that deals in thousands, not millions, losing four thousand Potch just to get away is a low blow indeed. Of course, there's a regular escape option as well, but it won't always work. I did actually use the Potch command several times, and I'm glad Konami included it in the game.
Unfortunately, the main reason I'm glad about being able to "Potch" isn't because there were many times when I felt outclassed (though there were a couple). Rather, it's because the random battles are far too frequent, especially when at sea. The average time between battles was, I'd guess, about four seconds - long enough to hear a single bar of music before dropping back into battle. This was totally unnecessary, especially since it already takes several minutes to sail between locations on the world map. After a time, sailing around becomes completely monotonous because of the sheer number of piddly battles you have to fight. I was quite relieved when I finally acquired a faster means of transport late in the game.
This brings me to another point: the seafaring stuff in general. Controlling the ships in the game could have been a simple and easy task. It wouldn't even have been hard to give it the sailing "feel" that games for other systems, like Sid Meier's Pirates! on the PC, have successfully captured. Instead, I found the ship controls to be more of a hindrance to gameplay than an enjoyment.
Because the game doesn't want you to go to certain parts of the world too early into the game, there are times when your ship will mysteriously bounce off of an invisible border out in the middle of nowhere. It would have been painfully simple to have a character just say "no, we need to go the other way" and redirect the ship automatically. Instead, they did... this. It took me a few hours to figure out why my ship would suddenly start sailing in the opposite direction without the slightest explanation. Since a huge portion of the game is spent at sea, this is a major inconvenience rather than just a minor annoyance.
Ship-to-ship combat is rare, but you knew it had to happen, with so much of the game taking place on the waves. The basic idea is a simplified version of the tactical combat seen in games like Bahamut Lagoon and Disgaea: Hour of Darkness. These engagements at sea are enjoyable, but it quickly becomes obvious that the only thing that really matters is recruiting Stars of Destiny that add range to your ship's Rune Cannon. If your opponent can't fire back because you're out of range, he can be sunk with ease. This is a power trip at first, but ultimately it's a design flaw, and what makes the "strategic" battles about as cerebral as shooting road kill.
Other than that, the main thing to worry about is the elemental attributes assigned to your ship's Cannon. Some elements trump others, and two shells of the same element cancel each other out. Since there's a chance to reassign elements at the beginning of each battle, it's usually a simple matter to pick out a set of elements that will always give you the advantage.
The third, and simplest, type of fight is the Duel. Duels are an exercise in reading into dialog to anticipate your opponent's next move, and little else. They are not so much "boss fights" as they are another way to advance the game's story. In this context, they are fun, but there's little else to write about them.
Suikoden IV is one of those frustrating games that gets a lot of the details right, but many of them wrong as well. Luckily, it remembers the big picture, and it's not too hard to overlook the game's small failings in light of the sweeping epic it creates. The characters are fascinating, and it's wonderful to finally play an RPG where past connections and vendettas are hinted at through dialog, rather than played out in hammed-up flashbacks. The various modes of combat are nothing new, but they rarely become monotonous - though a more forgiving random battle frequency would have helped.
There are numerous side quests, including everything from the old Suikoden standard of recruiting the 108 Stars of Destiny, to silly things like dice games or collecting vases to decorate your own hot springs-style bath with. And there's even an island economy within which goods can be traded for a hefty profit (though it's not fiscally wise to try it until a faster way of transportation is acquired, since prices change constantly).
On the flip side, this is a game that doesn't really break any new ground. It's got storytelling finesse, but that only makes some of the bulky systems all the more awkward by comparison. There's no way to instantly, or automatically, switch equipment between characters. After the first few hours of gameplay, there tend to be too few save points. On top of that, the obnoxious invisible sea boundaries are beyond artificial in a game which seems to be striving for a sense of realism. In the end, its gameplay is solid, but Suikoden IV never quite breaks through into greatness. But then again, the gameplay isn't what almost killed it for me. Read on....
Some of the best RPG’s I've ever played have some of the most lackluster graphics packages I've ever seen - La Pucelle Tactics and Star Ocean: The Second Story are good examples. If there is one genre in which the graphics are almost moot, it's role-playing.
On the other hand, that doesn't mean that nice graphics hurt. And while Suikoden IV doesn't really stand out, its graphics are actually nice overall. The best thing about the game's visual package is its character design. The 108 Stars of Destiny are as varied as any group of characters I've seen in a video game to date. Some of them are ugly, some of them are not. Some of them are old, and others are really just kids. There are mermaids and ninjas and knights, plus plenty of run-of-the-mill peasant, laborer and artisan types.
Thanks to the crisp, anime-inspired 3D models, it's easy to tell characters apart. Putting characters' names at the top of their dialog boxes is nearly unnecessary, so clear and varied are their designs. And the designs are interesting as well - full of details and splashes of individuality that are obviously the work of a master designer. Junko Kawano, we salute you.
The rest of the game follows this lead, with slightly simplified models that trade the roughness of realism for added flourish in the details. The result is an RPG that looks like a storybook at times, which I thought was cool.
Certainly the high point of Suikoden IV's graphics package is the special effects. I've never seen such eye-poppingly realistic fire and explosions in a non-Square Enix RPG before. Energy waves look like they should, and even wind is used well as an occasional real-time effect that blows characters' hair about their heads.
Oddly, despite the obvious care that went into crafting this game's effects, the battle system really skimps on them. It's disappointing when shoddy camera work literally keeps you from seeing half of the special attacks in the game. On top of that, there was only one spell - one - that really made my eyes pop (and that one isn't available until near the end of the game). In fact, most of the basic elemental spells were yawningly dull, even the ones with cool names like "The Shredding" and "Silent Lake".
Also, the lack of pre-rendered cinematics in Suikoden IV strikes me as odd. I'm not really complaining, because this game did a very nice job with all of the in-game cutscenes, and after the first hour, I wasn't worrying about the issue at all. However, the opening movie is a weird mix of pre-rendered CG and film-washed game scenes, which lets me know that at least some of the larger events could have been pre-rendered to very nice effect - but weren't. This is mostly annoying because of the one thing the in-game graphics never, ever, ever get right: the ocean. The "water" looks flat and sickly, and the high seas wave effects (when there are any) are last-gen, to be kind. I would have liked some cinematic cutscenes mostly just because it would have been nice to see the ocean of this game as it was intended to be seen, with crystal spray and foaming whitecaps aplenty.
As some of you may have inferred from my comment about a certain character's voice beginning to shake when he gets emotional, Suikoden IV has knockout voice acting. Out of all the RPG’s I've played, this game has far and away the best overall cast of voice actors and actresses. Not even games like Final Fantasy X can touch this level of overall quality.
The depth this game's characters are granted by voice acting is amazing. Normal dialog takes on all kinds of extra meaning, and subtle changes in tone and cadence convey a wider range of emotions than text alone ever could. The awkward moments are so rare that I was only able to count four or five throughout the entire game. That isn't to say that some of the voices aren't a bit on the hammy side, but they fit in those instances. And that's my basic point: all of the voices fit with their characters. They seem like they really belong to the characters, rather than the people voicing them.
I also liked the sound effects of Suikoden IV. Rune shells impacting an enemy ship have a satisfyingly solid bang to them. The number of different effects in battle is huge, as well, and everything sounds cool. Fire spells are a whoosh of crackling wind, while a lightning-quick sword technique slices with a cool, layered swishing sound.
While there's nothing wrong with the music, it could have stood out a bit more than it did. I'm not scoring Suikoden IV down for this, since I personally don't have any problem with music that largely fades into the fabric of a game. However, don't expect to be swept off your feet by this game's score, only to find yourself staggering towards the Pacific Ocean hours later with a wad of money, plaintively crying out for Japan to send you the soundtrack. This actually happened to me after I finished Final Fantasy VII. In retrospect, maybe a less memorable soundtrack is actually a good thing.
Okay, I have to say at least something good here. For starters, if you like games of chance, Suikoden IV has them in spades. Dice, mahjong tiles, spinning tops, you name it - the denizens of the Island Nations are always up for proving that randomness only levels the playing field if neither opponent is a computer AI. Actually, these games are fair, and a good distraction as well, though only for about fifteen minutes a game. Of course, finding all 108 Stars of Destiny is no easy task, and probably the most entertaining optional quest this game has to offer.
A New Game Plus option makes it easy to blaze through two or three times and collect all the Stars at your leisure. And as your roster grows, so does the number of things you can waste time on, including decorating your own on-ship hot tub, hunting for buried treasure, changing the design on your ship's sails (there are only three, though, and two must be unlocked), and so on.
A few might consider this a spoiler of sorts, but in the end, the worst thing about Suikoden IV is not any of the elements of the game itself. It's the length. The game can be beaten in less than twenty hours, easily. In fact, I'd be hard pressed to make it last much longer than twenty-five. This would be forgivable in and of itself. However, the great development of the story throughout the middle of the game makes such an abrupt and cookie-cutter ending seem like a cop out. This game ends suddenly and unexpectedly, just as many of its earlier strands feel like they're starting to come together.
The feud between the main character and one of his former allies, a great sub-plot that was worth incorporating into the main story, cannot be brought to its conclusion except by actively seeking it out near the end of the game. This is made worse by the fact that, for the first twelve hours, the feud WAS a part of the main story line. After that, it suddenly became optional.
There are entire islands that never have to be visited at any point during the story, islands full of characters and side quests. Given that there are less than a dozen islands in the whole game, and that they're spread very far from each other, it is ridiculous to call this "added value". It is simply another way to frustrate players by making so much of the game so easy to miss (and so annoying to get to in the first place - see my complaint about the frequency of random battles).
When I reached the final conflict, I refused to believe that it was over until I was watching the end sequence. It was all brought to a halt with a hastiness that smacks of budget and/or time restrictions, but whatever Konami's excuse, Suikoden IV comes off feeling like half a game. It just has too many loose ends. Although a new game plus feature adds some excitement to the prospect of replaying it, for me, the first time through was too much of a letdown story-wise to want to pick it up again. I don't make this kind of accusation lightly, but there's no other way to say it. This game is frustrating, maddening and disappointing, above all, for the simple fact that it ends twenty hours too soon.
Suikoden IV fills the RPG time gap between Shadow Hearts: Covenant and Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, and Xenosaga Episode II and Ys VI: The Ark of Napishtim. It is a solid distraction, and a nice game in its own right. There are even a few moments that are really, truly, powerful, thanks to a superb storyline and some of the best damn characterizations I've ever seen, period. It's easy on the eyes, though perhaps not so much as a Square Enix game, and it has all the hallmarks of an A-list production - except one.
This game is too stinking short. It's not just that it ends in half the time most newer RPG’s do. It's that the ending feels contrived and artificial, and leaves the players wanting so much more that even a second play through can't remedy the feeling of crushing disappointment that "that's all there is." This is the first and only game I've reviewed in which the Value category is almost worth more in my final judgment than the gameplay. However, ultimately, even if the ending was a rushed mess, the rest of the game shines as a solid and actually very entertaining RPG. Who knows? Maybe someday I'll even grow out of my resentment and play through it again, just to experience the masterful storytelling and multitude of side quests. Only time will tell.