After spending a few weeks stomping through the longer-than-we-remembered-it-being Suikoden I, we now move along to the real point of this mad affair: Suikoden II.
Long regarded as a true PlayStation classic, and long avoided by normal humans because the aftermarket price on its special combination of low production run and high desirability spiked through the roof ages ago, Suikoden II is now available for play on PlayStation Network. And that's awesome. For most of Team USG — and, we suspect, most of you — Suikoden II is a completely fresh and new experience.
USgamer Club is meant to be a community-driven opportunity to discuss games between the staff and readers of the site. So please play along, and let's talk about it!
Suikoden II doesn't waste much time getting started. Within the first hour, the protagonists are betrayed by their comrades, imprisoned, and inducted into a mercenary army. Hardly any time is spent trying to establish sympathy for the Highland Kingdom—the faction the protagonists represent at the start of the game. The Highlanders are presented as being obviously rotten almost from the start.
Suikoden II isn't a huge visual upgrade from the first game, but there are definitely some differences. The sprites seem clearer and better animated, for one thing. There's an amusing moment early on where Nanami is shaking the hero, and his head is bobbing back and forth in a manner reminiscent of an anime. The actual attacks look better, too. It's pretty subtle, but it's definitely an upgrade.
In terms of structure, Suikoden II offers more freedom while doing a better job of explaining its basics. Elements like the battlefield combat have been tutorialized, and the inventory is easier to navigate thanks to potions and the like being consolidated into one window among other things. There are less in the way of Point A to Point B quests. Not long after getting out of jail, you are more or less left to your own devices, leaving you to recruit a bunch of characters for your party while exploring a bit of the world. In that way, Suikoden II is even better about cutting to the chase than its predecessor, which wasn't exactly slow.
I like Suikoden, but Suikoden II already feels like a much more refined experience. Color me impressed.
Ah, I get it now. I liked Suikoden, but I didn't quite get what all the fuss was about. You have to play Suikoden in order to get to Suikoden II. This is a much better experience than the first title. I feel like there's more focus here and a desire to get you to the game's meat a bit quicker than before. Konami also got better at using the relative power of the PlayStation; the sprites look a bit cleaner and the animation is more varied, like Kat pointed out.
I'm still not actually fighting my way through most of the game, as the difficulty hasn't changed all that much, but I no longer find that to be a problem. That's just the way Suikoden rolls. If anything, I'm treating it more like an open-world game and trying to collect all the characters. The 108 Stars of Destiny is one of the stronger parts of the entire Suikoden series and Suikoden II sports a more enjoyable core cast than the first game did. Definitely prefer Nanami, Jowy, and Millie to McDohl's starting clique and there's a lot of party switching in the first part of the game.
Also, Viktor and Flik appear in the game rather early, which dates it as shortly after the first Suikoden. Is that normal for the series? Does every Suikoden game float around the same period of time?
Yeah, that was kind of Suikoden's thing — there was a fairly contiguous overarching narrative that connected each game, and every adventure took place in its own slice of the world. Instead of rehashing the same plot beats and areas over and over again, and rather than indulging in a Final Fantasy-like hard reset of the world every time, Suikoden was more like a global myth told through wars revolving around the True Runes. Pretty cool approach, especially when (as you'll see later) the stories intertwine a bit.
Supposedly, and this was probably just a rumor, the Suikoden series was meant to be 10 chapters in total, and either Leknaat or Luc were meant to be the person pulling the strings behind the whole thing. That's probably apocryphal, but the series' original visionary left after around the time of Suikoden III, so it doesn't matter anyway. It's a shame video games have so many moving parts, because there are always people who envision some sort of grand, Tolkien/Martin-esque world saga, but the scale and expenses and corporatism of games always shut them down.
Let's talk about Luca Blight for a second. I've heard people call him the most evil JRPG villain ever, but I figured no one could top Final Fantasy VI's Kefka, whose exploits include poisoning a castle's water supply, conducting terrifying experiments on the protagonist, and destroying the world for kicks.
But in the first couple hours of Suikoden II, we see Luca raze multiple villages, kill multiple innocents, and threaten the adorable little girl Pilika, who has already been traumatized by the loss of her parents (also killed by Luca). Between murders, he yells, "My sword thirsts for blood!" Even the Joker would probably think Luca is going a bit overboard.
So I put this question to all of you: What do you think of Luca Blight thus far?
I don't know. Luca feels comically evil, like I'm seeing a G.I. Joe villain with a vicious streak. He is a guy who knows what he wants — to crush the world under his boot heel — and knows what he has to do to get it. The scene with him utterly destroying the village, coming just after you've seen his handiwork once, does a decent job of setting the tone. The "pig" scene does a ton to establish him as completely reprehensible; there's no sympathy or misunderstandings to be had here. (Pohl, I'd say you were too beautiful for this world, but you weren't.)
Luca seems a bit scenery-chewy here at the beginning of the tale, but believe it or not it actually works. He seems so out-of-place in the otherwise subdued, grounded, morally ambiguous world of Suikoden that it really sets him apart and makes the grand battle with him later in the game believably over-the-top. And it also causes everything that follows that battle to have tremendous impact, because you quickly discover that even absent a raving madman to instigate war, the mechanisms of conflict continue ticking away for less hateful (and therefore more difficult to suppress) reasons.
Right from the start, Suikoden II feels more of an epic tale than the first. Initially, I was wondering whether I'd done something wrong. There I was, stuck in a jail - albeit with the nicest jailer imaginable - doing mundane stuff like cleaning oil off floors. But then the storyline began to open up, and things started to get very interesting.
I like the way the game leads you through its early stages - it's much more immediate and compelling than the first Suikoden, where I failed to pick up the right trail and spent a lot of time wondering what I should be doing. Here it feels like you're much more on rails initially - at least, until you find your feet. Once you start moving beyond the introductory jail chapter into the game proper, it becomes far more open and challenging. Fortunately, the game is well designed enough to invisibly guide you along. Pathways to places and the general map layout help avoid too much wandering in the wilderness, and the game does a pretty good job of pointing you in the right direction without feeling like it's nannying you.
You bounce back and forth in the beginning of this game, as Suikoden II tries to give you a better feel of the characters you'll encounter and the world they inhabit. You jump from the army, to the mercenary outpost, to the village, to your hometown, back to the outpost, to another village, etc. It's not the entire world, but you get a pretty expansive view of the region and its internal conflict rather quickly. Then Suikoden II goes, "That's what is going on. Go fix it!" and lets you free.
One thing I'm relieved about is that Suikoden II seems much easier to play than its predecessor. Suikoden was my introduction to this kind of JRPG, and its lack of tutorials makes it a difficult game to get into when you don't know the intricacies of combat, the benefits of formations, and who should be using which items and when. I'm pretty sure I'll end up reading through strategy guides once I start making headway into the game proper, but generally speaking, Suikoden II is a better designed game and is more welcoming to n00bs like me. I actually have a little more confidence approaching this game compared to feeling completely clueless with Suikoden.
The only thing I'm struggling with at the moment is my own impatience. Being an action game person, the slowness of trudging around from place to place, and the somewhat repetitive nature of the combat does sometimes make the proceedings somewhat teeth grinding. But it is what it is, and that's the nature of this kind of game. Sometimes playing something different is good for the soul. At least, that's what I keep telling myself.
Unfortunately I won't be able to play along with the team (though I would very much like to), so I'll probably just be chiming in from the perspective of dusty memory and enjoying the game vicariously through everyone else's discoveries. Hopefully I haven't spoiled too much already!
When we decided to play the first Suikoden for USgamer Club, I didn't think I'd walk away with such a bad taste in my mouth—I finished it once in the late '90s and remembered the experience as insubstantial, but fun. So it legitimately surprised me when this supposedly breezy RPG ended up turning into such a slog. I don't think it's a bad game or anything, but Suikoden's many attempts to streamline a slow-paced genre only serve to exaggerate all the stuff they left untouched. It's a game brimming over with what former LucasFilm Games' developer Hal Barwood called "shoe leather moments:" essentially, making players go through the motions of walking from point A to point B without exposing them to anything of interest along the way. And that happens a lot if your heart's set on collecting all 108 stars.
Of course, it feels incredibly empowering to enlist troops that add super beneficial features to your growing army, though some elements that should have been there from the beginning feel like a slap in the face when Suikoden finally gives them to you. It's incredibly easy to completely miss the little guy who adds an infinitely helpful mini-map to your screen, for instance, and the woman who lets you warp from town to town pops up roughly a dozen hours after she would have been an extremely welcome addition. Suikoden is widely praised for its brevity, but after this latest run-though, it really strikes me as a 25-hour RPG that should have clocked in at about half that. And there's a general amateurishness about the whole production—not helped at all by the terrible localization—that makes it feel like a work-in-progress or a prototype—definitely not up to the standard Konami had set for themselves in the 16-bit era.
And, not to keep piling on, but that inventory system... Dear Lord, I wanted to weep each and every time my party of six was due for an upgrade.
Before you start firing off those angry comments, know that the introduction to Suikoden 2 (my first time playing it, mind you) restored my faith completely. I have no idea why Konami waited so long to deliver a sequel, but those four years were very beneficial for the series. To me, Suikoden 2 feels incredibly informed by the many (many) RPGs that came and went since the series' inception. It's not trying to ape the epic, multi-disc, RPGs that absolutely thrived during this era, but its developers clearly had plenty of experience with 32-bit iterations of the genre and knew what not to do. Rather than focusing on CGI cutscenes and showy, pre-rendered backgrounds, Suikoden 2 falls back on well-rendered sprite art just at the time it seemed destined to disappear entirely. In retrospect, I wish I would have went for this instead of Final Fantasy VIII back in 1999; while I enjoy the latter, I think my love of Suikoden 2 definitely would have been more immediate. (It took me a while to figure out just what FFVIII was trying to do.)
So yeah, I don't have too much more to add since the other USgamer editors kinda said what needed to be said about these early parts of Suikoden 2. Needless to say, I'm definitely enthused about reaching the end and finally experiencing an RPG people haven't been able to stop talking about for the last 15 years.
For next time: We'll reconvene in two weeks for an update. For this installment, your cutting-off point will be the point at which you come into possession of your very own castle. Yes, that's a thing in Suikoden. Take possession of your new home and compare names in the comments. (It's "Greyskul." Always.)