Suikoden IV Reader Review
Having released the first two Suikoden games in Europe for the original PlayStation, Konami, for whatever reason, opted to deprive the territory of the excellent third instalment for PS2, thereby earning them a place alongside Namco (who look increasingly unlikely to localise Xenosaga) as this generation's villains in the eyes of European RPG fans. The news that Suikoden IV would see the light of day in Europe was well received and Konami were loved once more. But of course, since I'm an impatient sod (and was hopeful of a Suikoden III save transfer feature that never materialised) this review is of the US import version.
The game begins on the island nation of Razril, with the player assuming the persona of a young knight on the cusp of graduation. To start with the hero and his fellow knights are handed dull menial tasks such as fetching/delivering documents between islands, giving you a first taste of the tedious seafaring and horrendous random encounter rate that plagues Suikoden IV. But before long the inevitable regional conflict breaks out and our recent graduates are thrust into an epic adventure.
Only it really isn't particularly epic. Suikoden IV is a short game (20-30 hours for the main quest) compared to most RPGs and its predecessor, which isn't necessarily a negative. However, the time isn't used effectively and most characters are left woefully underdeveloped, despite some promising introductions. The same can be said for the lightweight plot, which is slow to get moving, never hits the highest highs and leaves you largely in the dark as to the true motives of the enemy for way too long.
One visual difference between Suikoden IV and the previous game is introduction of a 360-degree rotatable camera. Some will welcome this addition but I have to question its necessity. More disappointing were the bland textures that render the environments sterile and soulless, with some towns coming off worse than others but none being particularly memorable. Thankfully the character designs, cut-scenes and slick animation redeem the visuals somewhat. The music must have been so nondescript that I find myself unable to comment, but the English voice acting (a first for the series) is almost uniformly excellent.
With the battle system Konami went back to basics, dropping the skill system from III that allowed almost endless customisation and reducing the number of fighters from six to four. The stingy rations of magic means that most battles will be fought with basic attacks only, although certain combinations of characters will result in combo attacks becoming available. It's also very easy; there are few bosses throughout the game and routine battles are just that – I'd estimate that ninety per cent of them were fought and won by using the handy "auto" command. Making a return are one-on-one duels and introduced are vaguely strategic turn-based ship battles that work with a rock/paper/scissors system, but they aren't especially interesting or challenging. Both represent a welcome reprisal from endless turn-based fighting, however.
One thing that strikes me is how small the play area actually is; remove the vast stretches of dull, monster-infested ocean and you're left with a handful of small, uninspiring islands. Exploration is repeatedly curtailed by random battles that pop up with infuriating frequency (though some pain is eased by the swift, easy nature of the battles). To compound the problem it's very possible to sail straight past a tiny island because your ability to see in the distance is severely reduced by fogging. The map is revealed sparingly as your boat travels across the sea and unhelpfully only ever displays destinations you have already visited. And since most events occur in towns or in the field there are practically no dungeons to explore. I see this in a positive light however, since negotiating archetypical fantasy labyrinths while being interrupted by battles every five seconds is not my idea of fun.
But Suikoden has one last – and typically brilliant - trick up its sleeve. Recruitment of the 108 stars is the series' trademark and much fun is had scouring the islands seeking these characters out. Some are easy to convince, some will have prerequisites and some will require you to have a particular character in your party before they will agree to join you. Once recruited they will make their way to your ever-more populated base and it's a joy to behold to see it flourish from near-deserted to bustling. Before long you won't even need to leave your base; plenty of mini-games, shops, a training room and more will gradually become available. And you could easily lose hours trading items between towns and become the Del Boy of the seas!
Suikoden IV is an enjoyable game and definitely has some of that Suikoden magic, but it's hampered by its simplicity, some questionable features and uninspiring design. It will make a suitable JRPG experience for a novice gamer but ultimately I expected more.
5 / 10