It’s no secret that I like Suikoden a lot. Even the bad ones. The series’ spiritual successor the Eiyuden Chronicles: Hundred Heroes got yet another trailer recently. The creators are mostly saying the right things, indicating they’re focusing on things that Suikoden did differently from most games – having a large cast, involving that cast in the story (appropriately), and a relatively realistic and political scenario.
I’m a little worried, though, because past crowdfunded games that focused too much on recapturing an existing series’ magic lost sight of being their own thing, and end up being known as inferior copies. Mighty No. 9 is probably the most notorious, but it’s definitely not alone in this. Been there, got the t-shirt, still wear it ironically (probably), but honestly haven’t played the game. Or Shenmue 3. Or Pathologic 2. But I spent money on them. That’s on me, not necessarily on the developers of those games – and I’ve learned my lesson from those experiences. The lesson isn’t “buy the t-shirt, it might be the only thing of tangible value.”
Part of the reason people back these projects is that we think of game development as “hero driven.” There’s a public face people associate with a series (e.g. Keiji Inafune for Mega Man) but they’re not necessarily the only driver – or even the main driver – in a series’ success. Much as I appreciate their influence and respect their prior work, no Suikoden veteran returning for Eiyuden Chronicles is necessary for a new game to be “Suikodenish.” Suikoden V is a perfectly good entry in the series and was made by a completely different team from the early games. Having Murayama “back” at the helm of a new series is great, but it takes a village.
There are also things that Suikoden (even the second one) didn’t do very well. Cryptic recruitment requirements come to mind immediately. Many characters received no development or were ineffectual in combat – the worst offenders were useless characters that were required party members in parts of the game, like Freed Y. But it’s all a balance – if every character is useful in combat, it will be hard to meaningfully differentiate them or make fights strategic. If all 100+ characters receive substantial side content, you’re looking at an extremely bloated game. One strength of the first two games is their relative tightness, narrative-wise – although only a few characters are fully developed, they’re extremely fast-paced games that tell a sweeping story in less than 25 hours. While Suikoden III does an excellent job of developing a larger core cast, it also takes at least 40 hours to play and even for a fan of the series, that’s a big commitment.
More recently, another “tug at the heartstrings” project was announced, a dual Kickstarter for a Wild Arms successor (Armed Fantasia) and a Shadow Hearts successor (Penny Blood). I like some of the Wild Arms games (I may have written even more on that series than on Suikoden), but given where it left off I am very skeptical that it is going to develop in a healthy fashion.
The first Wild Arms was unusual, mixing Zelda-esque puzzles, strategic battles, and a relatively mature plot. As the series progressed, its unique features were lost – by Wild Arms 4, music and guns were the only thing differentiating it from other JRPGs, and by Wild Arms 5 what little symbolism was still subtle is directly pointed out with beautiful lines like, “An ARM represents determination to change the world!” While the final console entry was good in some ways, I’m skeptical that the core team can still make a game that I will enjoy. I suspect many backing Armed Fantasia didn’t play any of the series entries that came out in this millennium, because many signs in the Kickstarter point to more “the 18 year old is the elder on the team” nonsense, full of anime tropes and a science fiction setting masquerading as wild west crossed with fantasy. I don’t think it will have anything resembling the sad, subdued tone of the original, where fundamentally lonely people band together to try (and fail frequently) to protect scattered pockets of human civilization from what amounts to an alien invasion. Thankfully, Sony seems willing to re-release the first Wild Arms on many platforms. And the creation of a Wild Arms successor in no way invalidates the original series, so although I’m not on board with the project per se, godspeed.
In the abstract, I love the idea of a Kickstarter because it’s a way to directly support the developer before the game is fully released. I find the attitude of “buy X if you want to see more games in the genre” loathsome, because frequently X is a poor example of the genre or something I don’t actually like. (Buy Class of Heroes II if you want more classic-style JRPGs! Also, Class of Heroes II is a Wizardry clone. Which, ironically, was crowdfunded, but this was part of the pitch. Thanks, Vic Ireland.) Kickstarters allow backers to target specific projects they like, and also back at a level they feel comfortable with. That, at least, is a good thing. Those who are skeptical of the idea, or don’t like the idea of spending money now with no guarantees, can wait until it is released (if it is) and likely pay the same amount or slightly more.