The fourth game in the Suikoden series, putting it kindly, is the “black sheep.” It features more realistic graphics, nicer portraits, good voice acting, and a good translation. It takes place in a vast, thalassic island chain, which you roam on impressive Exploration Era-esque warships complete with rune-based cannon.
The sad part is that nearly everything else has jumped ship, so to speak. Though the game is quite pretty on the surface and has all the requisites to be a Suikoden game, it is highly regressive. Konami realized they had struck a “too complex” chord with its audience and took a few too many steps backward in an attempt to make things right.
Take the battle system of Suikoden 1. Remove two characters. Next, remove the row system (so all characters are in a row). Add in a poorly-explained “Flash” attack that can be used to take out every 10th set of enemies, and you have the battle system of Suikoden 4. That’s right! It’s simpler than the system of Suikoden 1, and arguably just above the complexity of Final Fantasy 1.
Load times barely cropped up in the first three games, and the first two especially ran quickly. That dreaded “loading” screen reveals its ugly head in this game, and although the loading screens are neat for about 15 seconds, the real killer is the battle-loading screen which seems unnecessarily long (3-4 seconds). Graphics in battle are not even particularly impressive; in comparison to the colorful enemies of earlier games, they look grainy and washed-out. The loading times can be an issue for those who like their games to be crisp and responsive, or who appreciated that aspect of the first game.
Speaking of crisp and responsive, many of the controls in this one really aren’t. World map travel, scrapped for Suikoden 3 and brought back for this one, has become incredibly frustrating. You have to control a boat on the open waters, which is entertaining for a little while – until you have to find the other islands (for some reason you don’t have a complete map of the island chain) and actually dock. The boat is clunky, slow, and encounters are frequent on the world map. To make matters worse, islands have an invisible wall that you continually run into unless you are incredibly precise with your aiming of the boat.
For all its bad qualities, though, Suikoden 4’s plot is decent. It takes place 150 years before Suikoden 1, so not so many characters can return. Three do, two of which are the now-ubiquitous Jeane and Viki. The only fault I find with the main plot is that it is darker and more depressing than the usual Suikoden fare, which is not always fuzzy bunnies as it is. The characters are generally pretty good – the strategist, Elenor, is an old, bitter, and sarcastic lady – pretty entertaining.
The main character doesn’t get a whole lot of development. Part of this is due to the fact that Konami switched back to a silent protagonist. The other part is because in the earlier games, the main characters responded strongly to emotional events. In this game, the hero just seems to be some sappy kid with a bad haircut who gets forced into everything by his elders.
Localization, as mentioned earlier, is actually good. The translation work has definitely made some progress over the series, and thankfully it was pretty high quality by the time voices were added for the game. The voices aren’t everywhere (just for important events), but the acting is pretty good. For a reference point, this game used the same voicing studio as Star Ocean: Till the End of Time.
Character recruitment returns, and is much more annoying than in Suikoden 3. A large amount of recruits seem to be completely random or unexplained, so you may have to bust out a FAQ to get them all. Though characterization is good for many of the main characters, the minor characters are all left by the wayside.
Suikoden 4 is a disappointment, to say the least. On its own, it might be able to stand as a “decent” or “playable” game (much better than, say, Beyond the Beyond). As part of a series which is otherwise great, though, it is rough, overly simple, and awkward to play. For those who liked the story, there is also the “Suikoden Tactics” game. As it’s not a member of the main series, it’s outside of the scope of this article.
The most recent Suikoden game released, and likely the last on the PS2, Suikoden 5 makes up for many of the missteps of Suikoden 4 without making too many new ones on its own.
My overall impression of this entry is positive — it’s miles better than the previous one – and about on the same level as the first game. I would argue it would be an excellent game if it weren’t for one crippling factor – load times.
It’s not like the game runs slowly when you’re actually playing it. In fact, it’s quite smooth most of the time. Loading for cutscenes, which are generally bunched together in groups, takes anywhere between 2 and 10 seconds. Not too bad, actually. But the real killer is the battle load-time: When you get into battles, you have a full 6-8 seconds of load-time: first an annoying “sun” animation (as the plot for the game centers around the Sun rune) and then on the battle screen it shows each character in the party getting ready for battle before you can give any commands. It looks nice, but the perspective is such that the level of detail is completely unnecessary.
It wouldn’t even be that bad if battles took a while. The battle system is back to six people, now in custom formations – from the original 2-line strategy to some cool crescent-shaped formations and even the “True Men” strategy that places everyone in front. Skills from Suikoden 3 make a low-key and much-simplified return. But neither point matters terribly; Suikoden V is a game that is just begging to be broken. A few small tweaks; a rune here, a skill there for the right character will make them one-hit kill regular enemies and even bosses. By the end of the game, my main character hit for 500 damage.
Another character hit for 2000. My most powerful magic spell, co-cast by the strongest magicians in the game, did about 1500 maximum. No bosses (excepting one near the end) survived more than two rounds after about ten hours into the game. The one optionally-winnable battle, about seven hours in, is the only difficult battle in the entire game.
Since battles are merely an annoyance due to the load times, it’s a good thing the plot is good. It takes place a couple years before Suikoden 1. The main character is a prince of the Queendom of Falena, a matriarchy. As such, he is considered useless (and called “as good as deadwood” by a nobleman in a particularly funny scene). The first ten hours form much of the background for the game’s plot, during which there is unfortunately little gameplay.
I don’t want to spoil anything, but suffice it to say that the prince is forced to flee the castle and seek protection. Though the plot is dark compared to the earlier entries, it is generally more cheery than Suikoden 4. Unlike the earlier games, the hero in this one has a (potential) love interest. Though it’s never as deeply developed as in many other RPGs, it’s an entertaining part of the plot to watch.
The characters in Suikoden 5 are great. Few are annoying, and many are entertaining. Even the minor characters get a decent amount of development, and many are memorable. Only five of them return from the previous games, of which the most significant is Georg Prime, who was a minor character in Suikoden 2. Georg has a good deal of development, and is particularly enjoyable. Likewise, the strategist for this game, Lucretia, is fun to watch. Several of her strategies are as incredible as Shu’s from the second game.
In fact, much of the inspiration for the game is clearly from the earlier games. The behind-the-back 3rd-person view has been shifted back to a top-downish view. The choice of perspective is again awkward, as the design of the models makes it so you can see very little of them when walking through towns.
Localization is great. The previous game’s work was good, but Suikoden 5’s translation is first-class. Characters come across incredibly well – from Egbert’s insane ramblings to Alhazred’s archaic and poetic forms of speech – and the voicework is nothing incredible but it is solid.
Though it does suffer some gameplay balancing issues, and the load-times can get annoying, Suikoden 5 is otherwise an entertaining game. Despite the battles being overly easy, it is still (somehow) fun to progress through the game. This entry fixes a good deal of what went wrong with Suikoden 4; here’s hoping Konami looks into making the next game run faster and be challenging. If they can manage that, the Suikoden series could recover from its recent stumbling.