We're finally into the Top 5 of our Top 25 RPG countdown! Number 5 is hardly a controversial entry: Suikoden 2, released in 1998 by Konami. If you talk to just about any RPG fan, they'll happily seat you and deliver a monologue about how great this game is.
Kat cites Suikoden 2 as the best RPG on the PlayStation, and that's no small honor. The PlayStation is a veritable RPG funk engine. Its story is epic (and I mean epic in the Dragon Quest V sense, i.e. it's genuinely deserving of the descriptor). Its cast of 108 characters is a joy to recruit, and nearly every character has a personality and a fleshed-out backstory that occasionally leads to meaty side-quests. Its villain is one of gaming's best. Its sprite-based graphics are wonderful. If you haven't done so already, check out the USgamer Fun Club entry for Suikoden 2, where we break down why Suikoden 2 still deserves to be up on its pedestal above pedestals.
The adoration of Suikoden 2 has endured for over two decades. That's one reason why it's worth examining and re-examining. Here's another reason: People still happily talk about the strength of Suikoden 2's story even though it's delivered through a terrible translation.
A cursory glance at Suikoden 2's translation won't reveal any obvious problems. It's not like Breath of Fire 2 for the SNES, which is still infamous for being half gibberish and half nonsense. The longer you play Suikoden 2, however, the more its localization problems stick in your eyes. Important characters' names are mistranslated from one text box to the next. Capitalization errors are rampant. Commas and apostrophes are misused often. Even occasional instances of untranslated Japanese slipped through the cracks and re-emerged as garbage characters in the English script (superstar translator Clyde "Tomato" Mandelin has an explanation on how and why that happens). The game blog Grinding Down published a list of what's wrong with Suikoden 2's translation, and it still misses examples like the half-dozen exclamation marks that follow every excited character's sentences!!!!!!
Suikoden 2's story is brimming with politics, war, slaughter, and scandal. It certainly has its light-hearted and funny moments, but it also has an opening scene where a children's brigade is massacred while the "soldiers" cry for their mothers. It deserves much better than punctuation that belongs in a bad comic book.
Thankfully, Suikoden 2's narrative shines through its rocky localization. Its characters are too compelling to be weighed down by crummy grammar, and its world is too intriguing to be gummed up by silly mistakes. Nobody in Suikoden 2 abuses exclamation marks like its notorious villain, Luca Blight—I recall a clear baker's dozen spills out of him in one particularly impassioned text box—and I still believe he's one of the most frightening bad guys in any JRPG. He's unspeakably vicious, he's unrepentant, and possibly worst of all, he's driven. He has a plan, a vision, and anyone who gets in his way is cut down. Moreover, unlike many video game bosses, Blight has no "final form," nor does he ever sprout angel or demon wings in grand JRPG fashion. He's simply an excellent swordsman and a talented magic user, and that's all he needs to flatten you.
But Luca Blight is just half the story in Suikoden 2 (literally; you face off against him at the game's midway point). There's a somewhat demoralizing message at the game's core: War is more about politics than simply beating "the bad guy." When Luca Blight falls, so does the male linage of the bloodthirsty Highland Kingdom. For a brief moment, you're allowed to believe that Luca's death will usher in world peace—but the war endures, as does the infighting between your leaders, as does the sting of Jowy's betrayal. After all, it's Jowy who naively believes his well-intentioned treachery will put him in a position to end all conflict. Needless to say, that overly-simple plan never comes to fruition. Why would it? It's from the mind of a shy 17-year-old who's clever and courageous in his own right but is still barely an adult. Victory only comes after more bloodshed, more heartbreak, and more political bickering.
The scope and ambition of Suikoden 2's story is especially impressive when you consider when the game arrived. Final Fantasy VII turned RPG stories down a darker path compared to the SNES era, but it did so primarily through grimy industrial settings, hopeless desert prisons, and neon-lit paths leading to houses of ill repute. By comparison, Suikoden 2's story talks to you directly, adult-to-adult. And despite its politics and its commentary about the hydra-like tendencies of war, it still lets you fill your party with archers, unicorns, werewolves, warrior dogs, swordspeople of all kinds, and a damn Kraken if you want. It strikes a perfect balance between the mundane and the fantastic—a trait that's easy to appreciate in our Game of Thrones-crazed culture.
Suikoden 2's narrative success despite its translation flaws is a credit to the game's writer and director, Yoshitaka Murayama. It's also a credit to Suikoden 2's excellent visual storytelling and unparalleled sprite work. It's mind-boggling to start up a new game and witness how many individual animations were painstakingly assembled pixel-by-pixel to tell Suikoden 2's story. The "Reminiscence" cutscene near the start of the game wordlessly illustrates the close bond between the three main characters using sprite sheets we see in that one moment, then never again.
As for a specific example of Suikoden 2's art direction triumphing over its bad translation, you won't get better than the night raid staged to take down Luca Blight. The grammar is wretched and excessive exclamation marks pepper the dialogue boxes like bullet holes, but that's all secondary to the "thud" of your army's arrows finding their mark, the scream of Luca's dying horse, and the sight of Mad Prince bristling with arrows as he taunts you and challenges you again and again.
In a beautiful, perfect world, Suikoden 2 would receive a thorough scrubbing through a modern upgrade. Konami would commission a total re-translation, it would chase after the game's myriad bugs with some tweezers (I recall stumbling on one hilarious glitch that caused Shiro's wolf-snarl to be replaced by a brassy "BONG" sound every time he lunged for an enemy) and make the game playable on the PlayStation 4. Or, dare I say it: The Switch.
Sadly, this isn't a perfect world, and it's barely a beautiful one. Make do with what you can get, and play Suikoden 2 if you haven't already. The Republic is counting on you.