The original Suikoden was an RPG loosely based on one of the four most famous classical Chinese novels, The Water Margin by Shi Naiâ€™an, which itself was based on folk tales about a group of bandits from the 12th century. The subsequent installments of Suikoden have added more depth and breadth to the Suikoden world, which now boasts various lands and empires, as well as an epic history.
Suikoden Tactics is not an official sequel to Suikoden IV â€“ Suikoden V is in development â€“ but a companion piece that grants new insights into the events of its predecessor. Having said that, Tactics functions as a game in its own right. There is no need to have played any previous Suikoden game to enjoy this, but if you did play IV then several questions will be answered within the Tactics narrative.
The story is set just after a war between the Island Nations and the Kooluk Empire. You play as Kyril, who, before the war, was traveling with his father, Walter, attempting to discover as much as possible about rune cannons. Rune cannons are mysterious weapons which appear to be turning people into fish-men. Itâ€™s not giving too much away to say that a short way into the game Walter is killed and you, as Kyril, have to continue your fatherâ€™s quest with your traveling companions.
Initial impressions of Suikoden Tactics are not too favorable, with the age old mistake of trying to tell too much story early on taking precedence. The game as a whole follows a pattern of battle, story, battle, story, but in the early hours of play the duration of story scenes overwhelms actual gameplay, making the player feel like a bystander for much of the time.
I got the impression that the story was rather weak, but on reflection, I would say that it is merely too drawn out. The early scenes in particular could do with some streamlining as it is possible that gamers will be put off by the lack of interactivity. Perhaps the initial battles are intended to be more taxing, necessitating several attempts and balancing out the game to story ratio. If this was the intention then they failed, as I breezed through them and indeed progressed some way through the game before realizing that I was only utilizing three members of my party during battles, when I could have been using six or more.
So it was that I spent a good portion of playing time watching overlong scenes that really added negligible value to the story. Many exchanges follow this pattern:
Andarc: What is it Kyril?
Kyril: Itâ€™s justâ€¦
Seneca: Go on.
Kyril: Itâ€™s nothing.
Andarc: Itâ€™s okay. You can tell us.
Kyril: Wellâ€¦no. Itâ€™s nothing.
If, like me, youâ€™re prone to not saving games when you ought to, you could find yourself enduring scenes like this for a second time with no means of skipping them. You can skip the audible speech, since voice-overs accompany the written dialogue, but unfortunately the characters on screen still stand flapping their heads about for the same duration until someone else speaks, so this doesnâ€™t speed anything up at all.
While weâ€™re on the subject of voice acting, itâ€™s just about acceptable, although most characters have fairly high-pitched squeaky voices or gravelly action hero ones. My favorite acting was for a character who appeared very briefly. His entire role was to be the savior of this boy through offering him work. Unfortunately, the line: â€œLook at those children working. Donâ€™t they look happy,â€ has never sounded so sinister â€“ the forced jollity deeply threatening.
This is starting to sound like a bad review, so weâ€™d better move on to the gameplay, which is really Suikoden Tacticsâ€™ strength. Gameplay here means fighting. You can travel around and buy things, but the various towns are merely menus with different pictures behind them. You can also perform side-quests, but these either involve selecting a party member to go and do it for you, or heading to a series of towns and reading the gossip section. No, what you are here to do is fight and fight you must. Fortunately, the battle system is well-thought out and fun.
Battles are not the randomly occurring events that they are in many RPGs. You know when you are entering into battle in Suikoden Tactics and each is something of a set-piece with a specific location and different questions asked of the player. You might have to defeat all your enemies, you might have to reach a specific location or you might have to destroy something. Be prepared though, many fights can take over half an hour or more. It all seems a bit daunting at first, but you are drip-fed information fight by fight, and in practice you are rarely overwhelmed. If you feel in need of extra practice and wish to improve your playersâ€™ statistics, there are various places you can go to fight at will throughout the game.
Fights take place on a turn-by-turn basis on a grid. This lends a board game feel to proceedings, but that is not meant as a criticism, rather that fighting requires a more thoughtful analytical approach. You wait your turn and then move your character before unleashing either a magic or cooperative attack. If you position two or more of your party members appropriately, they can act in unison and perform a unified attack with suitably magnified effects. This only applies to particular combinations of team members, for example Andarc and Seneca can perform a cooperative attack that Andarc and Kyril cannot.
Characters learn these attacks through developing â€˜goodwillâ€™ between them. To develop goodwill, characters must talk to each other during battle. This option is only occasionally available and the pay-off is that it uses up a turn that could be spent attacking an enemy. Other byproducts of goodwill are that units will protect each other, limiting damage and they will also sometimes jump in with an â€˜assistâ€™ when attacking an opponent.
The distinguishing feature of Suikoden Tacticsâ€™ gameplay is that of affinity. Every character in the game, user-controlled or enemy, has an affinity to one of five different elements. Through one method or another, squares on the battlefield can be painted with the color corresponding to an element. If that is your characterâ€™s element and you stand on that square you obtain increased power and gain health at the end of each turn. Conversely, stand on the wrong color and you will be less effective and vulnerable to attack, and you will lose health at the end of your turn.
This adds a new dimension to strategy. You will, wherever possible, want your characters to be on their own colored elements. You can cast spells to infuse the terrain yourself or you can head towards where someone has already colored it. However, you will usually want your units relatively near to one another for cooperative attacks, protection, and assists, so positioning your characters is more complex than you would expect. Add in the fact that it is preferable to attack opponents from behind or the side and that some units can only attack from adjacent squares and it all seems like an unworkable mess. Strangely, this system is actually successful, as the mere movement of a character factors into the strategic element of battle.
The only negative marks are for the delays when watching your opponents make their moves (youâ€™ll soon change the gameâ€™s speed to â€˜fastâ€™). Efforts have been made to minimize this by the fact that some enemies only materialize mid-way through a battle. Although if thereâ€™s one thing worse than too many enemies, itâ€™s extra enemies when you think youâ€™ve got a battle won. I was also a bit disappointed with a lot of the magic on offer. Gameplay is fairly sedate, so youâ€™d expect a few more fireworks on the visual front. A ludicrous maneuver or two, like â€˜knights of the roundâ€™ from Final Fantasy VII wouldnâ€™t be unwelcome. Ghostly horsemen scything through your opponent is that bit more entrancing than a glowing aura followed by some numbers indicating damage.
All in all, the new fighting system of Suikoden Tactics is a success. By going back to basics and adding a new dimension to it through the use of affinities, the gameplay has emerged as a point of strength within the game. If a touch more style had been injected as the rich Suikoden history demanded, and if a little more time had been spent on the details of the story rather than on trying to pad it out, then this would have been a worthy title. As it stands, Suikoden Tactics is a decent game, slightly sabotaged by a fair amount of waiting around.