Game Reviews: Suikoden (1996)

Very few games mean as much to me as Suikoden. While a lot of RPGs before this one influenced a number of things, Suikoden might be one of the finest role-playing game series I’ve ever played.

Which might be an oddity as Suikoden, the original game, is not actually all that great. It forms a very nice foundation for a system that would reach it’s ultimate form in the next game, but Suikoden alone, by itself, is actually not that great of an RPG. In fact, I would go on record to say that it’s, at times, terrible. The pacing is all over the place and it gets ridiculously hard in areas that don’t call for it. In some areas, I would be destroying my enemies left and right, typically in a single blow, and then the very next, I’m struggling not to be destroyed myself. It leads to a very inconsistent pacing of the game, where I’m never sure if I’m doing well, overpowered, or underpowered. Sometimes, I even felt like I must have sequence broken to a much higher level area than I should be in only to find out I’m right where the game wanted me to be.

The game uses a classless system, which is very different for an RPG. Typically, characters fall into very clear archetypes, like fighters, rogues, mages, healers, and the like, but Suikoden 2 doesn’t do that. Sure, you have your characters who’re better fighters than they are mages and vice versa, but you could use anyone as you like in Suikoden, with a few exceptions.

This is because it’s not what class you are, it’s what rune you have equipped that changes what you can do. And the runes can be extremely varied and powerful. This, however, does not mean you can take, say, a character using a massive claymore and turn them into a healer. Characters’ magical ability is limited by their number of spell charges they have. These charges, which have levels one through four, are affected by the character’s Magic stat, so the lower it is, the less charges they have. For example, a melee character may have a mere 4 level 1 charges while a more magically gifted character may have something like 9 level 1, 8 level 2, 6 level 3, and 4 level 4 (9/8/6/4 is what it would look like while the melee character would have 4/0/0/0). In this situation, it’s foolish to give the magical runes to the melee character, give it to the better mage.

This does not, however, mean the melee doesn’t get a rune. Just as there are magical runes, there’s physical runes too. They can do anything from raising a character’s speed by double, giving a special attack that lets them hit all enemies for 50% damage, hit one enemy for double damage, or raising their critical hit ratio by multiplying it by 1.5x. There’s many runes to play with and it can lead to some devastating combinations.

Which leads us to the characters. You can recruit 108 characters to your cause in the game, typically involving a war between nations or, in Suikoden’s case, leading a rebellion against the corrupt empire the game takes place in. Your main character, who you name but whose canon name is Tir McDohl (I will refer to him as Tir), is one of these 108 and must lead the rest to victory. Not all of them can battle, however, so you don’t have to worry about juggling that many inventories, but the vast majority of them can fight, which might be Suikoden’s biggest weakness.

The cast is large; too large. But very few characters feel like actual characters. Only a select few get any real development and, even then, when their story is over, they rarely get involved anymore in the story.

Which leads to a lot of characters feeling like clones of each other. You don’t so much get new weapons as you sharpen and improve each character’s existing weapons, so weapons fall into classes and, thus, start to feel very samey. Like all the elves you recruit are archers. Other than their stat growth, there’s no differences between any of them. Some are better archers and some are better at magic, but they’re all essentially the same. And when you max out their weapons, they all have the same attack power, though they might not hit for the same damage, since their strength stats will differ between them.

Which leads to another issue. Some characters are just straight up better versions of other characters. Take Ronnie Bell, an amazon of a woman who is a bare fist fighter, much like a character you’ve had for most of the game, Pahn. Ronnie Bell, however, has higher stats than Pahn, higher health, and a better rune. Her rune, the Hate Rune, which is permanently attached to her, inflicts triple damage to any one enemy. Pahn’s rune, which is also permanently attached, is the Boar Rune, which deals double damage, but he also becomes unbalanced after using it, so he can’t attack on his next turn. Ronnie is, simply put, Pahn but better. Oh, and since both characters use Gauntlets, they both get the same attack power when their weapons are maxed out, but Ronnie’s strength is higher, so she’s still doing more damage. The only weakness I think Ronnie has is her magic stat is weaker than Pahn’s, but they’re both melee monks, so even Pahn’s magic is abysmal. Even if it wasn’t, you can’t take off his Boar Rune to give him magic, so it doesn’t matter anyways.

Which leads me into another problem. Characters have permanent items. Items you cannot unequip from them. Which doesn’t sound too bad, until one of your characters has a dinky Guard Robe on that barely raises his defense by 10 while the rest of your party is using much better armor increasing their defense by 30 or so points and their speed by a further 10 points. Suddenly, that 10 defense armor is looking really bad when you can’t remove it, especially when said character is your glass cannon mage with less than half the health of everyone else. Where even your other mages have double his health! Having one or even two less slots to upgrade becomes a nightmare the further you get into the game.

Since we’re on the subject, let’s talk combat. You can bring a party of six people total with you and characters are broken down into three different ranges. Short range people can only attack from the front row and can only hit the enemy’s front row and long range characters can attack from any row and hit all enemy rows. But the less used one is the medium range characters, who can attack from either row as well, but can only target the front enemy row. So when you build your party, keep these ranges in mind so you keep your short range characters in the front and all other ranges in the back.

During battle, you have a few options. You can either attack, provided the character is in the proper row of your formation, defend, use your rune, if it has a usable power, use an item, though only if that character has a consumable in their inventory, and use unite attacks. Unite attacks are attacks that require certain characters in your party. For example, an early one you get is Talisman Attack using Pahn and Gremio, which deals double their combined damage to one enemy. Not all unite attacks are created equal, however. Some will unbalance one or even all participants and, without a guide, you cannot tell what the unites will do until you use them.

What truly makes Suikoden stand out is the Major Battles. These are large scale combats that involve your entire army going up against the might of the enemy, where thousands of soldiers put their lives on the line. Suikoden’s Major Battles are fairly simple. There’s a rock, paper, scissors choice system where you pick whether you use a Charge Attack, Bow Attack, or Magic Attack, with another menu for miscellaneous actions that don’t cost your turn. The simple version is Charge beats Bow, Bow beats Magic, and Magic beats Charge. You can also use additional abilities like Merchants (Chance to turn some of the enemy to your side), Strategists (Raises the power of your next Charge Attack), and Thieves, who will attempt to infiltrate the enemy to tell you what their next plan is, but they can fail or just steal money for you. Eventually, you will get an upgrade for Thieves that makes them always succeed.

That said, the system is poorly explained and some things just defy the system. Like in one of the first Major Battles, you will sometimes see the enemy use “Kwanda’s Attack”. This counts as a Charge Attack. And in another later Major Battle, you will see “Milich’s Attack”. This one counts as a Magic Attack. There, I just saved you a game over or two. You’re welcome.

However, as much as I complain, the Major Battles are a welcome distraction and makes it truly feel like this game isn’t just you and your party against the world, but a tale of two massive armies’ battle for the future of the Scarlet Moon Empire. You lead your army to victory, albeit in a very detached sense with menu choices. Thankfully, future games would work to make these Major Battles feel more alive and more brutal.

Speaking of alive and brutal, there’s one more aspect to Major Battles to watch out for. You can permanently lose people in them. If you commit to an attack and get a message that a character died, they are lost forever. And if you want the best ending, you need to reach the end of the game with all 108 recruits alive.

Another frequent annoyance in Suikoden is that your party is often forced upon you. There will often be times where you’re supposed to go on a mission and people will force themselves into your party, forcing you to use them. This is no big deal if you’ve been using them a lot, like Viktor, Flik, or Gremio, but when the game suddenly forces those characters you’ve never used on you, it will drive you batty. Because, often, this new character will have a massively underpowered weapon and terrible equipment. Just for example, my most recent forced recruit had no helmet, a karate uniform (very low armor for where I was), boots, and medicine. Boots is an accessory that gives +3 defense. +3. That’s an accessory from the beginning of the game. On a character I got two areas away from the finale.

Characters can use two accessories each and the best I could buy was something like +15 defense per slot. +14 and a +10 Speed boost if the character was female. He could also use a shield and didn’t have one. I had to buy him new armor for every slot, sell his medicine and get him mega medicine (Medicine heals for 100, Mega Medicine heals for 500. My characters all had over 500 HP, so 100 healing wasn’t going to cut it), and sharpen his weapon, costing me hundreds of thousands of bits (the game’s currency). And I was forced to use this guy. Thankfully, level is easily caught up, as leveling is quite easy.

Every character needs a mere 1000 EXP (experience) to level up for an increase in stats. However, the experience they get gets lower the closer they get to the level of their opponents. This means that a level 40 fighting a level 40 gets some experience but a level 30 fighting a level 40 will get a massive amount of experience, often enough to level up multiple times in one fight. This means getting characters caught up in level is much easier since they get experience so long as they survive the fight. So just shove them in the back and bring your best characters to curbstomp your enemies until they’re caught up enough to hold their own.

The biggest issue I have is that, for a completionist like myself, Suikoden is a long-winded task. And I’m not just talking about getting rare drops. I mean that because there’s so many characters, 78 playable in all, completing the game 100%, with everyone having the best weapons and armor, is impossible. You can get close, but you cannot actually do it. This is because, as you play the game, you will recruit a series of blacksmiths. These characters will upgrade and sharpen your weapons of anyone currently in your party. The problem is that each blacksmith can only handle up to a certain weapon level, with the best of them, Mace, able to sharpen up to level 16, the highest possible in the game.

Why is this impossible? Because Mace is a character you can use in combat. And when a character is in your party, they aren’t in your castle. And for whatever reason, Mace is recruited with a level 15 weapon. Mace is the only blacksmith in the game who can sharpen to level 16. This means you can sharpen every single character in the game to level 16 weapons but Mace. A perfect file is literally impossible without a gameshark or action replay.

But why should you do this, you might ask? Why would you bother upgrading people? Why not just stick to your main six and the occasional character they drop in?

Suikoden 2 is why. Suikoden, in addition to everything outlined above, is a series that allows one to import their save data from previous games to the next in line. So you could, in fact, import your Suikoden endgame data into Suikoden 2. I will go ahead and give the benefits below. By importing Suikoden endgame data into Suikoden 2, you will get;

  • A level boost on all returning characters. No character will join at the level you left them at in Suikoden. They will also only get the level boost if they were at least level 60. The bonus gets even higher if they reached level 70, 80, 90, and 99. I will not list the bonuses as they differ between characters. These characters are:
    • Clive
    • Flik
    • Futch
    • Hix
    • Humphrey
    • Kasumi*
    • Lorelai
    • Luc
    • McDohl**
    • Meg
    • Pesmerga***
    • Sheena
    • Stallion
    • Tengaar
    • Valeria*
    • Viktor
  • Their weapon level will also be boosted. Depending on the character, their weapon levels differ, but they get boosts from getting their weapon level in Suikoden to 12, 14, and 16. Anything below 12 will begin with their lowest weapon levels.
  • Equipment will carry over for three characters. McDohl, Humphrey, and Pesmerga. McDohl will carry over any head and armor items he can wear, minus the Half Helmet, which will be turned into a Pointed Hat in Suikoden 2. Humphrey and Pesmerga can carry over the Windspun Armor, though only Humphrey can do so without cheating. Pesmerga, in Suikoden 1, has a forced equipment of Dragon Armor, so he cannot actually wear the Windspun Armor without a cheating device. Yes, this means Pesmerga cannot actually carry over anything, but the code is in the game, so if you want to cheat in some Windspun Armor, there you go.
  • Runes were programmed into the transfer process but, for some reason, it doesn’t work. The intention was for the Fire, Water, Wind, Lightning, Earth, Double-Beat, Killer, Counter, Spark, Phero, and Hazy runes to carry over, with higher runes turning into their lower equivalants (Flowing becomes Water, Rage becomes Fire, etc). However, due to an error in the code, runes do not carry over at all.

*You must choose one of these two to join you, Kasumi or Valeria, in Suikoden 2. You can only have one of them.
**McDohl can only be “recruited” if you import Suikoden data. If you play Suikoden 2 without importing data, McDohl will not be obtainable. Moreover, every time you want to use him, you must travel to his home in Gregminster to talk to him and he’ll join your party. He will never be in your castle and cannot be recruited from there. If you are on a mission where you cannot travel to Gregminster, you cannot use McDohl for that mission.
***Pesmerga is recruited in Suikoden 2 with a special formula, using the Hero’s level +5 to determine his starting level. Depending on what level he reaches in Suikoden, his starting level from the Suikoden data might actually be lower than the level he’d join using the formula of Hero+5. In this case, he will join at whatever level is higher. (So if his level via Suikoden import would be 65 but you recruit him when your Hero is level 80, he will join at level 85, not 65).

This feature was meant to continue on, but would be discontinued with Suikoden 4. This means only Suikoden 2 and Suikoden 3 feature the data transfer. Suikoden 3’s data transfer is also much less involved that Suikoden 2’s, getting you only three characters boosted and a few scripts for plays, and some scenes being altered. For example, any mention of the ‘Toran Republic’ will be changed based on the name you used in Suikoden (If you transferred up from Suikoden) and any mention of the Suikoden 2 ‘Dunan’ will become whatever you named your castle in Suikoden 2. If the heroes are referred to by name, it will use whatever name you used in the respective game. A cool example in Suikoden 2 is when you goto Gregminster, there’s a statue of Tir in the castle. If you inspect it with Suikoden data imported, it will say ‘Tir McDohl’ (Tir will, of course, be replaced with whatever name you used). If you did not import data, it will only say ‘McDohl’ with no first name and everyone will refer to him as ‘McDohl’.

On a funny note, if you import data from Suikoden to Suikoden 2, McDohl will be named ‘McDohl’ in combat… sort of. Any capital letters in his name, however, will start replacing letters in that name, so ‘Tir McDohl’ would be ‘TcDohl’. But if you named him ‘TIR’, it would become ‘TIRohl’. It looks very strange! At least any six letter, all capital names will look fine… if you don’t mind a character named, say, ‘JOSEPH’ in your party…

In the end, Suikoden is a good game, though sometimes needlessly difficult. However, while I can recommend it to general audiences who want to see how the series began, I would only beat it if you plan to transfer data from Suikoden to Suikoden 2. If you want to get started with Suikoden, Suikoden 2 is a much better starting point. Someday, I’ll tell you why.

Recommended – General Public – If you’re just looking to play the best of Suikoden, play Suikoden 2 instead, though Suikoden is still an entertaining game!
Highly Recommended – If you plan to play the series, transfer that data up!

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