Version tested: PlayStation 2
What's the most beautiful thing in the world?
Fire? Your first kiss? Or perhaps your last? A baby's morning smile? Your tears at her wedding? Truth? Her tears at your funeral? Making love after a fight? Beckham's match-winning free-kick? Yorda swinging on your fingertips?
London at sunrise or Christmas morning aged seven or Jordan or 'cellar door' or the Koh-i-Noor or peace or hope or Mona Lisa and love?
Listening to the orchestra under the silence?
Me? I think reconciliation is the most beautiful thing in the world. Something bad made good; a relationship fixed, a wrong moment in history suddenly turned right through resolution, compromise, humility, grace or forgiveness.
Suikoden V is a game all about reconciliation. Firstly, for your unnamed protagonist, the Prince of Falena, and his increasingly unstable mother, Queen Arshtat. Her name, from the ancient Persian Zoroastrian religion, has two meanings: Rectitude and Justice. One moment she's the first - a loving, moral, caring and noble Queen. The next she's the second, meting out skewed ethnic cleansing, heartlessly demanding those who look at her funny be wiped from the world's face with fire, bleach and poisonous glare.
This is the story about you and her and how she comes to be made good again and how the world she has unwittingly broken comes to be fixed.
And secondly, this is a game looking to reconcile a faltering brand back to its increasingly estranged fans. Suikoden 4 was a horrible mess of an RPG, uncompromising in its mediocrity, calculatingly bland - a far, sad and lost cry from the series' majestic debut that sees copies of the discontinued PSone title routinely change hands on eBay for double the exorbitance of a new 360 game.
This title goes back to its roots, sweeping aside recent mistakes, reclaiming strands of DNA almost lost to misguided evolution. Konami knows that this could be its last chance to make amends in the west and so we see a return of the six man squad, a re-emphasis on the collectable 108 characters (the star of destiny USP) and crucially, the enormous weight of a thinking plot and enjoyable story.
The plot circles the power struggles in the kingdom of Falena, refreshingly putting the players in the greaves of a prince rather than the usual JRPG flip-flops of an unwitting pauper-with-a-destiny(TM). You're quickly dragged into the disputes between the two leading noble families in the nation, the Godwins and the Barows, while witnessing your queen's descent into madness brought on by the Sun Rune weapon she carries around her neck. The tangles of complex interrelationships take time to be unravelled and the game's introductory prologue takes many hours. Indeed, for a while you will feel alone in the company of the game's characters, an onlooker witnessing but scarcely participating in events. Nevertheless, once through the overblown introduction the game gathers pace with pleasing alacrity whisking you from location to location as you seek to manoeuvre yourself from being a pawn into a place where you can reconcile the story's various problems.
Underneath the exterior the game continues to devolve the series' recent ill-advised changes. The battle system allows you to pick five other comrades to fight alongside you and is a hearty return to Suikoden 2's slick, well-oiled system. Combo attacks, allowing two related team members to attack together in a signature move (often in a humourous way), are pleasingly executed. Likewise, a straightforward but workable rune system allows different characters to equip new abilities (such as magic attacks, status effects etc). Also, you can align your squad into different battle formations to gain certain bonuses e.g. three-in-front, three-in-back for a small healing bonus. As a result the system has a satisfyingly wide potential for team customisation but, still, nothing as varied as Nippon Ichi's output, and similarly, while battles don't grate, they're never as adrenaline-sucking as, say, Grandia III's sword ballet.
Comfortably the weakest element of the game is the more epic army battles. Ostensibly a Romance of the Three Kingdoms attempt at grand scale warfare they are dull, base affairs in which troops move, act, and attack in real time, engaging one another whenever two opposing units meet. The outcome of each exchange is decided on the rock paper scissors system: archers top cavalry top infantry top archers but, thanks to the disastrous AI and unresponsive control of units they are frustrating and far from fun.
However, the size and scale of your army in these battles is dictated by your ability to recruit - and this is wherein much of Suikoden appeal lies. There are 108 stars of destiny - characters from all walks of Falenan life (beavers, craftsmen, warriors, magicians, detectives, even an orchestral conductor) each bound by destiny and a celestial kinship. You must seek out each of these characters and, if your answers to their questions convince them to join you, you'll see them take up residence in your fortress.
Many of them can be used in your actual team battles and all of them will contribute to the size and skill of your army in big battles. Manage to catch 'em all and you'll receive a special ending and that twinge of time-management inspired guilt. The story incorporates this collecting mechanic beautifully (unlike the last two games where it was tacked on) and building a wide, varied and colourful cast of comrades is always compelling.
So, if reconciliation is the most beautiful thing in the world then this should be the most beautiful of games right? Well, no. Battles are too frequent, loading times, while pleasingly short, are still too recurrent, and graphically the game looks tired: the blocky Lego-men look of Suikoden Tactics slightly chiselled here but still, lacking real style, flair or grace. While there are giant leaps towards putting things right this is a game that seems to be grasping for what once was rather than setting its paths straight into a bright and engaging future. That said, there is much good within Suikoden V and as a result this is a most heart-warming of homecomings.
7 / 10