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Developer: Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo
Publisher: Konami (1999, PlayStation)
Konami's Suikoden series focuses on the tragedies of war. This in and of itself is not particularly distinguishing amongst video game plots -- many tactical RPGs, like Nintendo's Fire Emblem and Quest's Tactics Ogre, feature similar tales of political intrigue and backstabbing, evil empires and scrappy rebellions.
Suikoden, however, is usually ahead of the curve, giving a more personal concentration on the people behind the fighting. The series' big draw is the ability to recruit up to 108 characters, each unique with their own style, personality, and role. Not all of them are fighters -- some simply exist to be drafted into your hero's burgeoning castle, allowing you to assemble a loyal community from the ground up.
Amongst the five main entries of the series, most fans will point to Suikoden II as being the strongest. (The unfairly derided Suikoden III is just as strong in the storytelling department, although it's brought down by its moronic battle system.) Suikoden II focuses on two young men -- the unnamed Hero and his friend Jowy -- who inadvertently end up on separate sides of an escalating war.
The two, formerly best friends, end up separately working through the ranks, eventually emerging as the leaders of each faction. It's a compelling take on the "brothers fighting brothers" archetype, a theme which isn't explored nearly enough in video game literature.
One of the most crushing moments occurs you lead a critical assault on your old friend's empire -- the viewpoint cuts to Jowy, bidding his wife to escape and start a new life, hoping that she find safety from your brutal warriors.
Like any well-told war tale, it keeps from becoming a story of good versus evil, and humanizes the faces behind the destruction. There are certainly evil characters, the most prominent being the sadistic Luca Blight, who must be faced in multi-stage battle consisting of dozens of fighters, but even he is just a small cog in the enemy forces. The best ending -- provided you manage to find all of the hidden characters -- is one of the most appropriately touching finales in all of video gaming. Just make sure to check the FAQs and else you'll be stuck with a terribly depressing send-off.
In short, the Suikoden games triumph primarily because they contain far more mature story-telling than your average video game. It's strange, that they slightly stumble when it has to fit the mold of an RPG.
Your party members will need to hike through fields and dungeons, fighting woodland creatures and other silly monsters that feel thematically removed from the main themes of the game.
The battle system allows for six characters at a time, but beyond Chrono Trigger-style attacks that allow you to combine the abilities of certain party members for special attacks, there's not much depth to it.
On occasion, tactical board game-style battles will pop up, although they often seem more driven by story events than any actual strategy. It's no wonder that Konami created the Japan-only Suikogaiden games, visual novels that focused entirely on story.
Ultimately, these issues don't matter, as the enthralling tales and intriguing game world -- primarily influenced by Chinese folklore and European medieval tales, but drawing from several other influences -- help justify the triple digit figures that Suikoden II fetches in the aftermarket. If you can't afford it, Suikoden V, despite constant and obnoxious load times, is the next best thing, even though the story isn't quite as involving.