By Kyle Grubb
All: In Review is a place meant to bring focus to both the various Stuffs that people love to indulge in and the reviewer presenting their opinions of said Stuffs. As such, I figured that the best way to begin this site was to look back and draw attention to a multitude of Stuffs that have a special place in my memory or my heart. With the recent release of this game on PSN making it more accessible than it ever was before, Suikoden II just seemed like the perfect place to begin.
The first time I ever laid eyes on Suikoden II was in, I believe, the spring of 2000. Every other weekend, my father and I would head over to my aunt’s house to watch movies. When I was younger, though, what this really meant is that my cousin Chris and I would play video games in his room while the adults enjoy the film. One such visit, I showed up to find him playing an odd little RPG that I couldn’t pronounce the name of. A few weeks later, after he had beaten it, he graced me with the opportunity to borrow it. I had never played anything quite like it.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I’d played my share of RPG’s by this time. Even back then, when I was 9 years old, I had already dived headfirst into Final Fantasy. I’d crushed Chrono Trigger and gotten all of the endings. But Suikoden II was a whole different thing. The scope, the depth, the amount of characters and the castle-building. Luca Blight. The three different types of battles. Younger me had no idea what to do with himself. It was something pretty special.
I was young. I missed some of the complexities of the story, and I wasn’t focused enough to gather all of the Stars. I struggled through what is, essentially, a fairly easy game. But I was hooked. And in all of the years that followed, that game never left my mind. I was unable to purchase it, because of its rarity, and thus the expensive cost to obtain a copy. As time went on, I never forgot the game. It always meant something to me, as one of the first times in a video game when I truly felt moved by the story of a game. It showed me that even something like an RPG, a genre I thought I fully understood, could surprise me. At that young age, Suikoden II taught me that video games could be more than toys. It was a lesson I never forgot.
Suikoden II was released in the US in 1999 by Konami on the original PlayStation. The sequel to 1996’s Suikoden, players are once against tasked with leading an outnumbered army to victory against seemingly impossible odds. Suikoden II casts you as Riou, a young man serving in the Highland Army alongside his best friend Jowy. After a series of tragedies, Riou and Jowy find themselves on the run from Highland and caught up in a war that could bring to life a powerful magic that should never be awakened. Along the way, these two young men find themselves in the possession of the Rune of Beginnings, one of the 27 True Runes. It promises great power, but a terrible fate, to those who take up its sword and shield.
For those who don’t know, the Suikoden series is famous for a few different things. The most notable of these are the 108 Stars of Destiny, a roster of 108 characters that you recruit to join your army. Many of these characters are playable as party members, though many also join you to provide storage spaces, run item shops or blacksmiths, and even teleport you. While some of these characters join throughout the story, many more require you to travel around the map and recruit them to your side. Some are as easy as a quick conversation with the right party members with you, but others are at the center of their own side quests. All of these characters gather at your own personal castle, the home base of your army. The more characters you recruit, the larger your castle becomes. You’ll want to have as many of these characters as possible, though, because the war you’re fighting won’t be so easily won without warriors and tradesmen from all walks of life.
The Suikoden series also is known for having three separate battle systems. Its main turn based battle system is a total blast. You build a party of six characters, keeping in mind their weapon types to create accommodating formations, and take on enemy groups in some of the fastest turn-based combat ever seen in an RPG. Multiple characters take actions simultaneously, and many characters can combine to together to unleash special Unite attacks. In addition, each character can be slotted with up to three runes, which range from magic spells to passive bonuses that affect the way the characters respond in battle. The second battle system is the dueling system. The weakest of the three battle systems, duels essentially boil down to a rock-paper-scissors match between your hero and another character. These are few and far between, and don’t provide anything of merit to the game overall. The last system is the army battles. You lead units composed of recruited characters across a gridded version of the world map. It’s essentially a simplified version of other turn-based strategy games, but the context of the overall story and putting together units full of all of the characters you went about recruiting really elevate these above the sum of their parts. These battles also hold the possibility of having characters killed off if their unit dies, which keeps the tension high. In addition, there are a number of mini-games that you can partake in at your castle that can be fun distractions or good ways to earn money. Many people’s favorite mini-game is the cooking contest, an Iron Chef-like battle where Riou and your castle’s chef go head-to-head against many travelling culinary masters to prove who is the best.
In the end, though, the story is what elevates Suikoden II above much of its peers. It’s a story of the importance of both friendship and family. It’s a story of how the mistakes of the past can still haunt the future. It’s a story of ideologies. More than any of that, it’s a story of heroism, and the sacrifices that a hero must endure. Riou, a silent protagonist, still drips with character. His relationships with both Jowy and his sister Nanami are complicated and fully fleshed out, and all three characters have compelling stories that unfold throughout the adventure. Many other members of the cast are standout, from Shu, your pragmatic and brilliant strategist, to Fitcher, a civil servant who makes up for his cowardice with a quick mind and loyal heart. Also, many characters from the original Suikoden make their return, with some, such as fan favorites Flik and Viktor, having very prominent roles. Last, and certainly not least, is Luca Blight, one of video gaming’s great antagonists. From his hard eyes to his black soul, his twisted smile is something you’re sure to remember for quite some time. While the story does occasionally trudge into the familiar, it tends to defy expectations more times than not. The obvious flaw that may impact your appreciation of the story is the English localization, which is spotty in various parts of the game. Though you’ll rarely struggle to understand the intention behind the writing, you’re sure to find yourself questioning how such errors made their way into the finished version of the game. In the end, any player will be gripped until the very moment the credits begin to roll, and the fates of your friends and family lay decided. You’ll have to earn your happy ending in Suikoden II, but it’s more than worth it.
In terms of visuals, Suikoden II exists in an odd limbo. While countless games at the turn of the century were pushing for 3D visuals, Konami decided to hold strong to a sprite-based, 2D style for both Suikoden I & II. While looked down on this decision back then, a person would be hard pressed to argue with the results now. While many of the PlayStation’s games now look extremely dated, Suikoden II’s art style still holds up to this day. Though the lower resolution is visible, the player is sure to dismiss this quickly and enjoy the colorful animations and interesting character design. In compliment, the audio for Suikoden II is also great. Many of the tracks are catchy, and some of the more emotional songs will pull at your heart as the drama unfolds before you. Still, few are going to stay with you long after you set down the controller. The presentation is flashy and stylized, which works to compliment some of the darker and more mature themes the game presents. Most games wish that they aged as well as this one.
A big question about this game is whether or not a person should play the original Suikoden before tackling the sequel. Really, it’s a matter of personal preference. It is possible to import a save from the original game. The original is an inferior game, though still good. Looking at Suikoden II, the original is very transparent about its true nature: a trial run. Almost all of Suikoden I’s flaws are corrected for its sequel. That being said, quite a few characters from the original game return in this one, and many continue their stories. If you leveled these characters beyond a certain point, their stats, starting levels, and equipment can all be affected by a carried-over save. The game also edits the dialogue, providing additional context and depth to some of the events as they relate the first game. The first game is quite short, and can easily be completed in about 20 hours, so it wouldn’t require a huge time commitment to make it through. The biggest reason to play the original and import your save, though, is the ability to recruit an additional party member in Suikoden II. This character is a fun addition to the roster, and easily one of the strongest characters in the game. That being said, the original Suikoden is not necessary to understand the plot, though I would recommend you play it. You can pick it up for only 5 bucks on PSN.
Suikoden II was one of the first video games I played that didn’t seem to talk down to me. Sure, the story could be goofy and the characters were eccentric, but it sought to tell a very sincere and emotional story. You care about Riou, Jowy, and Nanami, and are rooting for their happy ending as the game progresses. The gameplay is fast paced and varied, the visuals hold up remarkably, and the soundtrack has a number of memorable tunes. I always get wrapped up in collecting all 108 Stars and improving my castle, which provides a solid sense of growth and will have you beaming with pride at everything you’d built. While the English translation is mediocre at best, you’re almost sure to look past the errors and marvel at the adventure unfolding before you. Suikoden II is truly an adventure, a strong and interesting take on the hero’s journey that will have more twists, turns, hilarious moments, and gut-wrenching heartbreak than you would expect from a game over 15 years old. With multiple ending based on various criteria and how determined you are at achieving 100% completion, there’s more than enough reason to play through the game multiple times. Games would be blessed to age as well as this PlayStation classic, and any fan of JRPGs or a good story would be sure to regret passing up on this amazing tale. It was a staple of my childhood, and helped open my eyes to the potential video games had when it came to exploring deeper themes and more complex stories. Even without a pair of nostalgia goggles, though, a new player will find an immensely enjoyable experience full of fun characters, an impressive story, and engaging gameplay. It’s pretty hard to recommend a game any higher.