The return of the classic series has met with satisfactory popularity and considerable acclaim. Can the third installment in Konami's stellar RPG series retain the quality of the previous titles?
By Ben S. Dutka
The original Suikoden, released back in 1996, was one of the first role-playing games to grace the shiny new PlayStation, and along with Sony's Wild Arms, was an excellent beginning to a long reign of RPG supremacy on the system. A much-anticipated sequel to Suikoden was released three years later and it was every bit as good as the first, while also doubling the length and adding new depth.
You're looking at a game that is relatively simple to understand but it still loaded with a ton of depth and a nice diversity of gameplay.
Graphics and visual eye-candy has never been the focal point of the Suikoden games, as Konami delivered solid graphical performances but were content to bring out the wonderful story and character development instead. And in so doing, they could enrich the overall experience. Indeed, it seems they are following tradition here. While Suikoden III is once again a good display of graphical prowess, it is nothing that will cause you to drop your jaw in awe.
The towns and characters are nicely designed, with no major imperfections to be found. Everything seems to be painted with a sort of pastel brush, and while the colors at first seem pale, they spring to life in battle, and in various thriving towns. A rousing anime introductory movie greets you after popping in the disc, and most will be satisfied with the gameplay graphics as well. To be perfectly honest, you don't need much more visual appeal to make a game like Suikoden III entertaining.
I have always put Konami at the top of the list when it comes to sound in video games. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night has one of the finest soundtracks in history, and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty deserved awards for the sound effects. Suikoden III isn't much different, as a very high level of quality sound is plainly evident throughout the game. From town themes to battle effects, the sound is always engaging and rarely boring. The world of Suikoden III is thankfully bathed in rich and captivating sound.
After playing through the first set of chapters with one of the three main heroes, I came to the following conclusion: every last one of those terrible rumors in the previews was completely incorrect. The battle speed isn't slower; if anything, it's faster. The battle system itself remains traditional, although it does sport some minor changes. I consider this to be "evolving." And finally, although it's in 3D, it is crystal clear that you are playing a Suikoden title. Lack of resemblance? Not for Suikoden veterans.
You begin at the Trinity Site, where you can choose which of the three main heroes you would like to start with. You may pick Hugo, a Barbarian (Karayan) prince, Geddoe, a mysterious leader of a Harmonian defense unit, or Chris, the Captain of the Zexen Knights and also considered to be the "White Hero" or the "Silver Maiden." Each character has three chapters, and once those are complete, Chapter 4 opens, and you may choose who you wish to play that chapter with.
The beauty of the game lies in the fact that you are not bound to a particular line. In other words, you not only choose whomever you wish, but you can switch off in between chapters. For example, you can play Chapter 1 for each of the three characters, or you can play straight through Chapter 3 with one hero before moving on to another. You see a little more of the story with each new character you select, and each new chapter you play through. Part of the fun is watching the events unfold through different sets of eyes.
The 108 Stars of Destiny are back, although you can't use quite as many in battle as you could in previous Suikoden titles. But as usual, some are extremely difficult to get, while others automatically join as part of the story. Each character uses Lake Castle (also known as Budehuc in the game) in their story, and for each member you recruit, that member carries over to other characters' stories. For example, if you recruit Dominick while playing Geddoe's story, you won't have to recruit him again when playing with Hugo.
The battle system remains turn-based, which is definitely a good thing, but it also features a few new enhancements and changes. You were always able to have six party members, and that much hasn't changed. However, in Suikoden III, they are separated into three sets of pairs, and you act accordingly. You give one command for the pair, and they execute the action. If you want to cast a Lightning Rune spell with one, you cannot choose another action for your partner (he/she will automatically attack). The same goes for items; you may only give an item to yourself or to your partner.
This makes for much more strategic fighting, and also requires you to keep a close eye on your pairs throughout a battle. You generally want to keep magic users in the back row, but bear in mind that two magic users paired up will halve the available spells. Remember, only one command per pair, so if you have a Fire Rune on one partner and an Earth Rune on the other, you can't choose two spells to use; just one.
So this was an interesting change of pace, and this particular Suikoden veteran didn't mind it in the least. I liked the new style of fighting simply because it forced you to plan the battles and the formation of your party ahead of time. And in addition to these random turn-based battles, the return of the one-on-one duel will allow fans to reminisce a bit. These duels come about every so often, and you have three moves: Attack, Defend, or Deathblow. The key to victory lies in interpreting the statements made by your foe. For instance, if he/she says, "Come on, let's see what you've got", chances are, he'll be defending. If he says something like, "My deadly blade will strike you down!", it's likely that a Deathblow is coming. Just as a quick tip- it's basically a never good idea to chance a Deathblow unless you're absolutely sure your opponent is going to Attack.
The large-scale battles featuring your entire army have disappeared, but they've been replaced by another kind of strategy battle that is most reminiscent of Dynasty Tactics. I do miss the huge all-out battles from the original Suikoden, but they were admittedly not incredibly deep or difficult, and this new style of strategic warfare is much more complex. I will not delve into details here, but it may be wise to pay attention during the brief tutorial you get during Chris' first such battle.
Character skills are learned, enhanced, and even forgotten by going to teachers of the arts throughout the game. Tutors will teach you new magic skills and make you more proficient in the ones you already have, while battle art instructors will do the same for your physical-based skills. Skill points are earned during combat, and they can be used to upgrade these skills. You need to pay close attention to these, as they greatly impact how your party performs on the field. A rank of only "E" or "D" in Wind Magic not only decreases the number of spells you have, but also how long it takes to cast them. And that is only one example...
You're looking at a game that is relatively simple to understand but it still loaded with a ton of depth and a nice diversity of gameplay. From recruiting to battling all kinds of enemies in three different ways (the aforementioned random battle, duel, and strategy battle/war), you will always have something to do and somewhere to go. The map opens up new areas the further you progress, and some of them are completely optional. Suikoden III gives you plenty of bang for your buck, even if you don't plan on doing anything extra. Even then, it will take you in excess of 40 hours to beat the game.
This is classic Suikoden, and a better presentation is hard to imagine for such a game. The anime background is only slight, and as always, the focus lies in the story and character development. It's one of those games that will keep you coming back for more so you can find out what happens next, and to also recruit that next bothersome character. With the excellent story that is found here, I am actually amazed that all three Suikoden titles have presented us with some of the most memorable stories in the RPG world.
Overall, Suikoden III is a beautifully designed game with a gigantic amount of appeal. If Konami can successfully develop a fourth Suikoden title that is just as stellar, I'd say that they are making a strong run at rivaling the Final Fantasy series as the best role-playing experience available. Both Suikoden and Suikoden II have a special place in my heart for role-playing bliss, and while both acts are extremely tough to follow, Suikoden III comes through in fine fashion. This is, without a doubt, one of the best RPGs currently available.