Of course, it was Nippon Ichi that spoiled everything. Before Disgaea, La Pucelle Tactics. Phantom Brave, Makai Kingdom and the electric promise of all their sequels, the Strategy RPG was a straightforward affair. You had old-fashioned basics like a start, a middle and an end, quaint little boundaries to hold everything together like a chronological script and a game plan, charming little inclusions like some named characters to take care of and enemies for them to take care of. But then Nippon Upstart stole the rulebook, gulped down the pages and let them rearrange themselves through a winding, convoluted digestive tract before using the resultant faecal statement as nurturing manure on their brave new world. [How very colourful. Have an extra 50p. - Ed]
All games function within a genre: it's impossible to entirely break free of a frame of reference whether it's a piece of music, literature, gameplay or cross-stitch pattern. But the best games - the games that change things and widen the boundaries of gaming, influencing everyone else making and playing them - are those that screw with the genre. They invert and subvert and spit out and suck up and rebuild brick by tiny brick into a wholly different shape and structure: at once disorientatingly different and comfortingly recognisable.
That's what Nippon Ichi has done, and that, in every meaningful sense, is what Konami has chosen to shy away from with Suikoden Tactics. There is space for the conservative Strategy RPG - that which mirrors and tributes and celebrates those definitive titles of the genre's formative years: the Shining Forces, the Ogre Battles and the Final Fantasy Tactics. But, oh my gosh, if you choose to take that path, choose to ignore what the competition has done to broaden the form's horizons and warmly welcome in rafts of players that would never before have darkened a crusty grid-framed door-stop, frankly you better do so pretty darn amazingly.
That's not to say Suikoden Tactics doesn't aim for wonder. Born from a traditional RPG series that has seen its quality and popularity greatly wane in recent years following a strikingly strong, inventive start on the PSOne, this narrative and gameplay side-story is seeking to reignite the brand. This is reflected by the new approach to graphics, a curiously bland and functional leap for a cel-shaded bandwagon long departed. The game opts for an awkward mixture of waxy-effected CG backdrops and black outlines for the ugly, fundamentally unappealing cast of characters that inhabit them. As a result you're left visually confused by the graphical dissonance and peering into the screen's world feels like staring down a gloopy, hazy bad dream.
Likewise the storyline is tough to negotiate, not simply because it's long-winded but also because it's predictably barmy, charting, as it does, the tale of young boy Kyril chasing his past. Kyril's father was killed investigating a new range of dangerous weapons called Rune Cannons that turn grown men into fish monsters. That spike of interest you felt just there is as exciting as this gets. It's a B-movie plot by numbers played out by average voice actors, spouting a mediocre, staccato script, involving run of the mill scenarios, standard antagonists, limited intrigue and predictable plot twists all wrapped in sub-par presentation and pacing.
But beneath the skin and paper this is built on solid foundations. Technically it mimics Nintendo's majestic Fire Emblem series, incorporating the learned abilities, tough difficulty, character interactions, friendship affiliations and stat-tweaking interludes. It's an imitation that works pretty well, not least because the source material is so strong. The game's technicalities unfurl quickly and both newcomer and veteran will slip comfortably into its tried and tested mechanics which see chapter battles played out in grid-based locations with turn-based moves and attacks.
As per usual for a Suikoden game there are tons of recruitable characters, which can be found and slotted into whatever type of team you want to fashion. Although there aren't character classes as such, each member slots comfortably into the traditional roles of magic users, healers, archers, and fighters, each with unlockable, augmentable abilities to customise how you see fit. You can adjust your characters' skills as well. After each battle you're allocated skill points, which you can use to either teach your characters new skills or level up existing ones. The skills are pretty basic but there are lots of them including increasing accuracy, critical hits etc. Weapons can be taken to a blacksmith in the town and leveled up and ability-releasing runes can be allotted to each character allowing generous customisation for the conscientious player.
The only real addition, or rather manipulation of the genre's form is the emphasis on elements. There are five elements in the game, each with an assigned color. Each character has an elemental association, and the terrain in battle can also be infused with elements. By placing a character onto an elemental location, various stat modifiers, either positive or negative depending on the elemental affiliation, will be applied. As a result you can direct your movements to play to your advantages forcing your team members onto advantageous spaces and your enemies onto troublesome ones. The affiliations are the standard eastern RPG ones: fire is weak to water, but water is weak to lightning, and so on. You can use items and spells to change the terrain element of land on the battlefield, and later in the game victory becomes quite dependent on your ability to maintain control over terrain elements.
Battles are fun and fairly compulsive but this is a game we've played many times over, usually presented better, executed more beautifully and intertwined with a far superior story. Sadly, this is no Dragon Quest 8, triumphantly cutting across Nippon Ichi's new wave movement and showboating all that is great and did work and was magnificent about the past by remaking it with glorious contemporary style. No, this is videogame beige: a bland storyline and lacklustre execution that would have been dull a decade ago. It's a conclusion that acts as a dark full stop to this tedious chapter of the Suikoden series; a chapter that follows the graceful opening, mediocre middle and bespeaks a tortuous ending that the forthcoming Suikoden V must do everything in its power to rewrite.