Oh has it really been a month? Guess I’ve been caught up with the next PSone classic I’m going to review for you. It’s called Suikoden, was released in 1996 and kickstarted a franchise, and the review starts after this semi-colon:
To be honest, my main motivation for playing Suikoden was that I wanted to play Suikoden II, regarded as one of the best RPGs ever made. I did preliminary research into whether I needed to play the original Suikoden first, and the most persuasive responses said some characters in the 2nd are first met in the original and whether you know them or not will affect your emotional connection, or something like that. Since I’ve watched The Force Awakens I totally get that. Also, Suikoden 1 has good music and is short, they said.
Suikoden is about 20-25 hours long, which I suppose is short compared to many RPGs, but has still taken me a month to… hey I don’t want to ruin the tension over whether I completed a game this time. Read on.
The reason I was so tentative about playing Suikoden was that it’s an RPG with turn-based random encounters. Turn-based random encounters is a phrase enough to make me vomit a little in my mouth. If I was to be generous to turn-based random encounter battle systems I would say they are a repetitive, strategy-lite, grindey, cookie-cutter template for any RPG developer to bolt onto their story-based game, call it a battle system and dust off their hands. Game finished, when do we ship?
I could be even more critical, but my dark secret is that in the past I have been known to enjoy games with such battle systems (in spite of not because of), but I imagine this will be a rarer occurrence now that I’m older with less patience.
And indeed, it turned out Suikoden does nothing innovative or inspiring with the template. But it did have one basic, huge saving grace: Free Will. In every battle at the bottom of the command list is the option of Free Will, which allows your team to auto-attack with their weapons without you assigning the Attack command to each one in turn. It allows you to get those simple battles with popcorn enemies out of the way quickly without being at the disadvantage of missing out on money or exp if you’d ran away. Such an automated quick command should be a default inclusion in any random encounter RPG where simple, repetitive actions are theme. This Free Will button was instrumental in making me stick with Suikoden. Free Will stopped me losing the will, heh heh heh heh heh heh heh.
GAME DEV INSIGHT!
There should be an RPG where you can make macros of your favoured attack patterns. So for example, you hit the ‘record macro’ button, and then you tell your guys what to do. E.g. soldier 1 attacks, soldier 2 attacks, soldier 3 uses fire magic, soldier 4 attacks. Then you stop the macro. Next turn, you hit the macro you’ve recorded and all your guys do the same thing you just assigned. You can record multiple macros for varying scenarios. In Suikoden, I had a character with a rune which I used every turn while the other 5 soldiers attacked. Unfortunately, Free Will couldn’t accommodate this minor deviation, even though I was repeating the same thing every turn.
As critical as the inclusion of Free Will was, it only meant the battle system was competent enough to stop me giving up, as opposed to wanting to keep playing out of enjoyment. What actually kept me playing must have been found elsewhere…
Was it in the story? The story of Suikoden could best be described as thin. There’s an empire and there’s a liberation army, and guess which side you’re on! It’s actually funny how little agency the player has, and how this is highlighted every time the player is presented with a YES/NO choice, to which the NPCs respond by saying “are you sure? think about this young master!” over and over until you select the option they’re supposed to hear. Making a choice in Suikoden is like being offered a cup of tea by Mrs Doyle. An analogy all the more obvious because there is a part of the game where you’re literally offered a cup of a tea which you can’t refuse! When Warren Spector mentioned Suikoden as an inspiration for Deus Ex because of its presenting the player with choices, I think he was trolling or being ironic.
As this is a JRPG the lack of agency didn’t bother me in the slightest and was expected, I just found it funny how clumsily it was addressed. Plotwise there are a few little twists and turns but nothing intricate. The story is not bad in any way, it’s just not riveting, just kind of there. Nor did I mind even this. It means the exposition scenes are few and don’t bog you down in reading simplistic dialogue before you can get on with that other thing you were enjoying. Now, what was that?
Okay, so I wasn’t playing this for its battle system or plot. Just what, if anything was Suikoden’s big draw? I think I know. I think the answer is Pokemon.
Pokemon’s a cool game, right? Even though it’s another random encounter repetition-em-up, we didn’t play Pokemon because of the revolutionary battle system it didn’t have; we played it because YOU ARE REQUIRED TO FIND AND CAPTURE ALL OF THE POKEMON™. Suikoden did Pokemon a few years before Pokemon, filling the game world with 108 characters that you can add to your army. Many of these will join up automatically as part of the story, but others are hidden and require some searching or completing rudimentary side quests and mini-games to get them to join up with you. There is even a Pokedex precursor in the form of a stone table with all their names and stats written in! You build a personal team from this stock of characters, which does make the battle system that bit more enjoyable, and the story occasionally requires you to rotate a few members in and out, promoting more variety in the battles.
But the single best part about having a large force has to be the castle which you convert into the headquarters of your army. Between missions you can wander this castle at your leisure, talking to the different characters you’ve recruited, playing games with them and exploring new rooms they’ve excavated to keep up with the expansion of your army. You give a name to your castle. Mine was “Shining Castle”.
Some recruits are specialists in different areas, not merely fighters. Like the librarian to whom you bring books detailing the lore of the world; books found in chests and dungeons. You sit there in his library, in silence, reading this lore. It’s the first time I found myself caring about the background to the world, sat there in serious silence. Maybe it was the first time it hit me of the attention to detail and care that went into putting this little, unnecessary but lovely thing in the game, and so I wanted to appreciate it.
Ah, the best thing is the guy who sets up a vault where you can store all the spare items you find. Standard practice for me, whenever I recruited somebody new, was to strip them of all their assets and add their items to the vault, and from there redistribute them to those that needed them: an extremely effective implementation of communism at its purest.
Some recruits are merchants or blacksmiths, and they set up their shops in your castle. Though as far as I could tell they were still making the same profit margins as when they were in the city. What about mate’s rates, you robbing bastards!?
Oh, but I absolutely must tell you about the guy who builds a communal bath in your castle! And you take your squad and have them just sit there, doing nothing. And you sit there, looking at your screen, watching them sit there. You can find antiques and paintings in the world dropped by enemies and hang them up in the bath rather than selling them. None of this has any material benefit to you in-game.
I sat in there, watching the steam, a partition segregating the male and female members of my force, and suddenly felt bad that I had just one woman on my team, and she was sitting in there alone, nobody for company.
And that’s how it happened. That’s how I played Suikoden for 25 out of 25 hours and finished the blasted thing. Because in spite of an average battle system, an average storyline, with averager writing, everyone likes collecting things. And like how it’s not good enough to just collect things, you have to put them all on show, presented neatly in a polished display case. That was Shining Castle to me: a display case for my collection.
Imagine Pokemon. Now imagine you can talk to the monsters. Oh, and the music IS good. Summary: 25/25 – getting too old for sword and sorcery, I just want to sit in a steam bath and look at a vase.