Suikoden, as a series, is technically beyond the scope of this blog. However, it’s an interesting game to discuss. The game’s based off of a series of books called Water Margin (also known as Outlaws of the Marsh and All Men are Brothers.) This Chinese novel series is an early novel, so it reads more like a combination of folk tales about various heroes rather than a smoothly flowing narrative. Suikoden’s ties to the series are fairly vauge. While you get people based off of characters in the novels, it’s not a literal retelling of events.
Why is the game interesting? I think one of the more interesting plot devices in the game is the huge cast. Each game has 108 Stars of Destiny. While you usually need a guide to find all of them, you do get some interesting results from keeping them all alive and in your party. For example, there’s random bits of backstory or unexplained world building. A character in the first Suikoden, for example, reveals he has a teleportation ability. It’s never used in the plot, or examined in more detail. There’s Yuber and Persmerga who are basically two immortal enigmas locked in conflict. At the end of the game in Suikoden, you tend to get a summation of each star and what happened to them. For many of them, they die young.
I’m going to avoid the recent DS game and the side games, mostly because they’re either too recent or not from the main series. While they are interesting, I think focusing mostly on the PS1 to PS2 era console games shows plot threads and differences more clearly.
The first Suikoden came out in 1995 in Japan and a year later in the US. It’s mostly a fairly conventional RPG. The battle system is a fairly typical turn based one, with the only change being that healing items will still trigger after all monsters are dead if you’ve started to use them prior to killing the monsters. Many features in this game area echoed in later games. The main plot of the game is the question, “Is fate inevitable?” Since there’s a great deal of forced choices in the game, it may feel that way, however, in the end, the hero does escape. There are massive battles, which involves a bit of luck to avoid killing your Stars of Destiny (it’s a rock paper scissors type of system.) One on one duels are basically the same system (pick strong attack, weak attack, or guard) in response to various battle cries. There’s also minigames. You gather people to return to your base (in this case, a castle for your outlaws near a marsh,) and you can play those minigames in the castle.
Suikoden II came out in 1998, and a year later in the US. It’s generally considered to be one of the best of the series. In the series, magic comes from Runes, and a True Rune enables you to be incredibly powerful. The villian of Suikoden II is a bearer of True Rune, and is truly horrifying. Your hero has a True Rune that is only powerful when combined with another. In the best ending, he succeeds in doing this, and is able to regain his friends as well as defeat the villian.
Suikoden III is the first PS2 game in the series, and came out in the US and Japan in 2002. It has several heroes, which allows you to see the plot from several points of view. Eventually, you pick a hero to have the True Fire rune. The main villian in the series is another True rune bearer. Unfortunately, many people dislike Suikoden III. The magic system and the battle system was criticized a lot for not being very strategic or easy to use.
The main villian, a former ally from the first Suikoden, is basically trying to destroy the world so someone will kill them. A True rune, you see, makes the bearer immortal. Part of the villian’s plan is to disrupt peace talks with a magical field of anger which apparently is unnoticed by any of the participants. So, basically, you have a conflict that logically is mildly implausible and should be fixable with some conversation, a suicidal man who’s lashing out in far excess of what you’d assume he’d do, and some awkward changes to the game system. This becomes all the more frustrating when you find out that the “default” hero has better stats with the True Rune of Fire than the other options. This makes it feel like the game is trying to force a specific value judgment on the other heroes.
Suikoden IV seems to have been an attempt to backtrack a little. Instead of the multiple heroes, there is only one hero. Much like the cursed rune in the first game, the hero is given a cursed rune. Unlike the battle system in III, IV’s battle system is aimed to be a bit more like the earlier games. Unfortunately, the game is one of the worst in the series. The hero’s odd running animation is strange enough, but the main problem is when you go sailing. To get to almost everywhere in the game, you have to sail. Your boat moves fairly slowly and has a run button. The run button doesn’t really improve the travel speed. The plot of the game has issues too. One of the central conflicts in the game centers around your hero being accused of murder. Since he’s a silent hero, he never speaks up for his defense. (While I am skipping most of the side games, Suikoden Tactics was released later and it tries to fill in the plot a little more.)
Suikoden V is the last PS2 iteration of the series. It came out in 2006, and is considered to be a return to form for the series. It has team attacks – basically combinations of various characters to make special attacks. It also has dueling. Dueling is a one on one battle, usually with some kind of prediction system as you try to guess how the opponent will fight. The main plot was again focused on how True Runes affected people in the world.