Platform: Playstation 2
Turn-Based Strategy Role Playing Game: Turns by Unit
Completion Level: Finished, 85 Hours
Suikoden is a game franchise with a long and reputable history. Around the time of their fourth RPG entry, they made Suikoden Tactics. It’s a good tactics game, with quality enough for the Suikoden name. The franchise is also known for an immense number of characters per game. In this area Suikoden Tactics also keeps up. For an SRPG, it’s loaded with playable units (probably more than most people will find).
However, for whatever reason, a tier-one developer like Konami let missteps slip through quality check. If the rest of the game was not so polished, the missteps wouldn’t be so glaring. (Although our issue with the story, detailed below, is a big deal regardless.) The game sports many well-crafted components, from the opening title screen, which alternates through a series of active and visually interesting scenes, to quality art assets, fine music, and copious amounts of decent voice acting.
There are SRPG developers out there that could only dream of the budget this game had. But like movies, budget does not mean success. We commend Konami, though, for stepping outside the RPG box with one of their prized franchises and entering the SRPG world.
The setup is conventional; camera angled downward onto the square-grid battlefield. Important interface elements like unit turn order are handled well, and do not need specific mentioning. It’s a little bit like special effects, best if they are not noticed and seamlessly add to the presentation.
- Goodwill Hunting: We’ve known some goodwill systems to be completely opaque. Whether you built goodwill with compatriots or not, there was little knowable or tangible change. That’s not the case here. Goodwill facilitates special attacks between certain units. It also allows units to block (sometimes) for their goodwill partners, receiving only half damage in the process. (If only all friendships were like that.)
- Made in the (cel) Shade: The cel shaded characters work well both small (in the battle scenes) and larg (in the cut scenes). They match the portrait art; something that doesn’t always happen. The environmental art is good but not revolutionary. However the latter we believe is due more to design limitations than art talent. The town overview screens, where they painted unhindered, shows their talent.
- Honorable Mentions:
- Transferring data from Suikoden IV is a great franchise building idea with potential. (For us it was unusable and irrelevant.)
- Facing, that is the direction your character is attacked from (front, side, or back) is in full effect, and greatly influences hit percentages and damage. Any modern SRPG of this type not doing this is negligent.
- There is plenty of voice work, and aside from the main hero, the acting is good enough and adds to the game. It outweighs the hero’s voice—which should be changing/dropping any time now.
- Leveling up during battle refills characters’ points to the new level. That’s positive reinforcement.
- Swallowed Whole: A large plant enemy can swallow one an unfortunate unit whole. They take damage every turn until defeated unless the creature is destroyed first. It’s different, interesting, and reminds us of something…
- Your Move…Still: The game doesn’t use an action point system. A character can move any amount of spaces within their allotment with no effect upon the attack. (Only higher end spells need more time to launch.) About two thirds of the characters can obtain the optional skill “extra move.” It allows any move spaces left over after a unit stopped to attack to still be used. This is uncommon and greatly changes tactics, perhaps more than the designers thought. It’s not right for every game, but we like the flexibility it offers here, though who could obtain the skill seemed arbitrary.
- In Your Way, Not in Your Face: Should we give Suikoden Tactics credit for not blowing a feature? Okay. Stationary emplacements are handled refreshingly well. They force strategy, delaying or complicating advancement. That’s what they should do in most non-boss cases. Some games overpower static emplacements, so that they become dreaded rather than a welcome challenge. (This game has stationary emplacements that shoot status effects. We think that novel and fun.
- Saved to Fight Another Day: Powerful spells take quite a while, after casting, to release. Most games leave you stuck with your original aim no matter what happens after casting (like with meteor in Final Fantasy Tactics). Suikoden Tactics not only lets you change your aim at the time of release, it also lets you change your mind completely and cancel the spell without loss of the energy. It’s the first time we have seen both of those welcome features together. They allow more preventative spellcasting during combat.
- Vision(ary) Quest: Suikoden Tactics has one of the most extensive, and well done quest systems we’ve seen (if only their main story was as good, see the ‘Bad’ section for that). It brings in money and useful skill points. It offers opportunities for character recruitment. It even carries its own sub plot about competing merchants (Chiepoo & Co. vs X & Co.) It’s almost too good, because in the end we found it far more entertaining than the main story. If only some of the quest content could have been inserted into the main story…
To get the most out of the merchant wars quests, you have to stick with aiding one faction. For those who just want to do quests, it’s unlikely you would know this from the start. Why not make a system where you can do all the quests? Some look quite interesting, even if they’re for the other team. How about performing the quest and choosing who will benefit? Or re-purposing opposing faction quests.
- More Honorable Mentions:
- There’s some nice and subtle camerawork in the cut scenes. Don’t pack your bags for a movie career, but thank you for not letting it be dull.
- The first test of SRPG music is to not be grating in the long battle segments. Suikoden Tactics passed. There are sufficient tracks, and the music is good (although not great).
- Each little cell shaded character has individual animations. When you consider the number of characters and the number of animations, it’s no small feat. And the quality is good.
- Units on the battle map make word bubble comments. It humanizes them as they thank a comrade for shielding or healing them, and it’s entertaining when they express displeasure.
The Good & The Bad Conveniently Together in One Point:
- Let’s (not) Make Some Magic: The magic system is not explained, not intuitive, and not wholly satisfying. The spells lack flexibility, most being single space or many space, but few the classic five-space (target square and four around it). Many high-end spells are uninteresting, not useful, or circumstantially too hard to pull off. The rune system is needlessly complicated and adds less fun than such complication warrants. It encourages overuse of the same spell again and again. We’re tempted to put this in the ‘Bad’ section, but it’s a technically sound system, whose visuals are pretty good.
- “Run For Color!” Like it or not, modifying the terrain (through item or magic) to match the affinity of your units is instrumental in playing the game well. It’s also not explained well, and has to be learned through experience. The mechanic isn’t onerous, nor exceptionally fun. This game forces you to spend a significant amount of time using it, so it really needs to be better. That sounds simple, but why introduce a game dominating mechanic if it isn’t great?
- Grind or Quest: If through strategic wizardry you continue to make it through story battles, without quest battles, sooner or later you’ll come upon one in which you’re clearly outclassed and no amount of tactical skill will see you through. This happened to us, and we began to quest battle, and in the end became too powerful. We’re not fans of excessive, necessary grinding, unless for raising up newly recruited characters. But we think if you use the quest system aggressively from the start, little or no grinding will be necessary.
- Semi-Honorable Mentions:
- An in-game tutorial is standard fare these days. This one is decent, but some of the game’s unique mechanics are left unclear for far too long.
- Did you really name one of your characters ‘Snowe Vingerhut?’ Just askin’…
- Switching out an active unit for one in your reserves sounds good, but circumstances make it rarely used. Units mostly fall in battle before recall.
- SRPGs need more maps with changing/dynamic features. Suikoden Tactics has one map with regularly moving boats upon which characters could ride. Nice, but not enough.
- Let’s Team Up! (occasionally): For selected pairs of characters with an elevated friend status, special attacks are possible. They require specific positioning to activate. It rightly offsets their power, but we found the mechanic mostly underused, although one pair (Katrina & Jeane) have a high-powered and easy to activate special which we used often. Specials that belong to the lead character’s are either hard to use or underpowered, but that’s better than a grossly overpowered system skewing gameplay.
- Throw a Large Party: Eight or more units can be deployed at once. Enough to double up on some character classes. However making a battle exciting and worth the complication of all those units is challenging. A challenge not met enough in Suikoden Tactics.
- Yay, Dragons… Right? Dragons, advertised in the opening movie, are not in the game proper, but only available at the end of a long trek of optional dungeons. And to experience all the dragon content, you have to battle through this difficult set of dungeons multiple times. Dragons exist for each element in the game, making five. That’s five side trips 90% of the players won’t make. Why waste some of the most interesting battle content of this game in such a optional, easy-to-miss way?
- Stats Here & There: Upgrading is unnecessarily onerous. Character skills, weapon level, rune skills, orbs and slots, various armor elements, etc., all compete for your upgrading attention and time. Most require visiting different places. It feels like one destination too many. Your unit may be powered up in one area only to find the blacksmith was forgotten and weapons needed another upgrade. Too much time is spent navigating menus considering how many characters must be maintained.
- More Semi-Honorable Mentions:
- Do you like status effects like charm and blind? We do, and found the status effect repertoire and usage lacking here.
- Do you like silly status effects like ‘bucket’ and ‘balloon?’ We found them underwhelming substitutes.
- The sudden appearance of full-sized, humanoid cats. Some will like it, others not so much. It’s an adjustment.
- Perhaps our favorite character, Chiepoo, is one of those cats. He’s a non-playable merchant. Uh… what does that say about this game’s cast and story?
- Mount Up… (or not): Units can mount a large kangaroo type animal, or a giant owl, but we found it of little use. It nullifies the terrain color match-up boost and skills of all sorts become limited. With little benefit aside from extra movement or being able to cross gaps, it seems like a wasted mechanic. We suppose if mounting was too good, we would do it for every character, and the game would be very different.
We almost lost our spunky, spear-wielding warrior, Rachel, by putting her in harms way because of the temptation afforded by use of an owl.
Too big for a bullet point: So Much Character!
One of the key elements marking the Suikoden franchise is a huge number of playable characters. That mechanic from the regular RPGs is carried into this SRPG. However, the introductions vary greatly. At one point, after a story battle, they practically throw a whole squad that you. “Hey, we found these random guys along the way, and they want to fight with us.” Other times you have to go on quests, successfully performing them in order to recruit.
For all the effort put into these characters, including art assets and animation, giving them a decent launch should be a priority. Also it’s easy to miss recruitment opportunities, and miss out on good game content. Our play experience yielded a plethora of one-handed sword wielders, but we wanted a spear wielder. Our party was too one-dimensional, and only later in the game did we finally recruit a couple spear wielders.
Considering how attached we can become to randomly generated recruited characters, as in Tactics Ogre: Knight of the Lodis, we expected a higher percentage of likable “personalities” in Suikoden Tactics’ large stable of handcrafted characters. The problem for many is their lack of opportunity to show personality, since a proper introduction is missing. We don’t expect them all to be likable, because it’s a different strokes for different folks kind of thing, but we want more interaction to determine who is our cup of tea.
- Stop With the Beam Ins! This isn’t Star Trek. A cheap way to increase difficulty is to beam in enemy units after the battle has progressed. This method isn’t inherently bad, but doing it well is the trick, one rarely achieved by Suikoden Tactics. Additionally, over-reliance on the mechanic is a sign of design weakness. It’s frustrating having one of your wounded, retreated-to-the-rear characters ambushed because a whole squad of enemy troops magically appears from nowhere. It might be different if new units came out of a door, or other predictable location. Beam ins encourage slow, unnecessarily conservative play. Other issues like death (see below) exacerbate this issue.
- Fat Writing: Anyone with experience writing game dialogue (like us) knows one requirement is to make it short and to the point without unnecessary words/button presses. The Suikoden Tactics development team overlooked this. Cut scene conversations—unable to be skipped—are filled with short responses that take up time, patience, add nothing, and require button presses. Things like “Huh?’ “Yeah but…” and many other short responses of no real value should be edited. Additionally, some of the writing is just boring, aside from our story notes (see below).
- Missions that require you to keep in AI characters alive, especially if they act stupidly, are really not that fun.
- Missions that require destruction of all enemy units, except for a particularly powerful one blasting through your ranks, are… challenging? Yes. Fun? No. Frustrating? Yes.
- Overall accessibility of Suikoden Tactics can be better, starting with in-game item descriptions.
- Hanging with the A-Team (can cause immediate death): Characters introduced too late, or for whatever reason at a lower level, are hard to bring up to speed. Almost any battle entered later in the game is far too dangerous for newbies. It’s hard to protect them considering how the damage system works (see below), and how one hit can take even advanced characters out of the game. It’s too difficult to use interesting late-game characters.
- I Cannot See My Units Because of the Pillars You Always Place at the Start: You would think because these pillars show up at the beginning of every battle, that the developers would find a way to make them translucent when they block the view of your units. They didn’t. Additionally, battlefield terrain can also block your units. The camera doesn’t always help either, because it can only move 45° increments. Is there any excuse for this on PlayStation 2? By a heavy hitter like Konami?
- 3D, Yet Still Flat: Height differences make no tactical difference, except for a check to see if you can attack or not. There’s no hitting power or hit percentage advantage to high ground. Not for archers, axe wielders, or anyone. That brought so much fun in Matsuno family games like Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together. Almost everything in Suikoden Tactics is flat. We’ve seen games on a 2D platform like the GameBoy Advance feature more ‘3D action.’
- Bigger Maps Are Not Necessarily Better: The developers try to compensate for uninteresting map design by making the maps bigger, and beaming in squads of new adversaries along the way. That doesn’t make it more fun, it just made it longer. You end up spending more time moving units forward, (remember, your squads were eight units or larger) advancing them not to attack, but just to get them in range. Or worse, to some arbitrary exit far away.
- More Dishonorable Mentions:
- The lead is introduced as a boy, and sounds like a boy. Years go by and our hero becomes a young man, but still sounds kind of like a boy…
- Thanks for beaming two of my units in behind enemy lines, and then beaming in more enemy units to keep me from rescuing them. Real fun, that mission. *sarcasm*
- Treasure chests are worth little. Significant risk to your characters leading to—lackluster reward.
- Why is This Goat Girl Tagging Along? Yohn is the horned girl/humanoid who seems important, and is even on the European game cover. She tags along the entire game, and does very little but show up in cut scenes and disappear during battle. It’s weird. She literally only does a few things the entire game (none of which are fighting). Yet she’s the most significant part of the ending. We call that justifying after-the-fact, and it does little for enjoyment during the game, when it’s supposed to be enjoyed.
Too big for a bullet point: The Tyranny of Critical Hits and One-Hit Kills
A game is easier to manage when a unit gets one attack per turn. This system should be modified only after great thought and testing. Additionally, one-attack kills that are not specials do little to advance the cause of fun. Critical hits and other damage irregularities, in Suikoden Tactics’ already unforgiving system, are the cause of fun-sucking imbalance. It’s not a game where characters are whittled down over time. Further exacerbating this point is a skill most characters could learn called “battle lust.” It allows for up to three attacks per turn.
That may sound fun, but it affects everything. Do you inflate hit points so that the tremendous damage of three attacks can be borne? Do you reduce the amount of damage each attack does? Unfortunately, Suikoden tactics did neither. Often the pattern was: a unit takes a single attack; if unit survives, heal it. Rinse and repeat. There was little wiggle room, and no encounters where a unit takes hits over a number of turns in a dramatic stand for his compatriots. Under the wrong (and sadly too common) circumstances a unit could be subject to damage that in no way could be borne.
One more wrench in this crazy works is a counter-attack that enemy pugilists use called “cross counter.” One FAQ described the amount of damage it could do as “horrifying.” So true. Out of nowhere, even your strongest character can be felled by this mysterious, overpowered counter. This attack necessitates extraordinary counter measures. The alternative is irregular, potentially “horrifying” frustration at unit loss. Of course grinding to overpower your units reduces irregularities, but also increases boredom. (However, there is no totally escaping the dreaded “cross-counter.”)
Too big for a bullet point: Maybe You’re Dead, Maybe You’re Not
Most of our analyses touch upon the subject of unit death. It’s one of the most important factors in an SRPG. We think the Matsuno family of games handles it best with Phoenix Downs or expensive and rare resurrection spheres. No death and no consequences is not the way to handle it, nor is irrevocable death without the ability to ablate its effects. Yet somehow, a worse alternative is found by Suikoden Tactics: Irregular Irrevocable Death. That’s right, some characters can be killed while others just withdraw to fight another day.
That’s unfair, but comprehensible. However it doesn’t end there. A character that can be killed may sometimes withdraw anyway. In fact, we had one character withdraw and die in two plays of the same battle! Whatever rhyme or reason there is to this crazy, inconsistent system, it’s opaque, annoying, and not fruitful to game enjoyment. It truly undermines the investment the developers want you to put in their game. Are you supposed to care about the characters and try to keep them alive or are they un-killable?
The inconsistency makes it harder to plan, and in the end we ended up restarting a few times. That generally runs against our grain, as we like to fight it for keeps each time, and make sure everyone goes home. And if we do lose a character, we want it to be a heroic, worthy sacrifice.
Too big for a bullet point: What’s The Story?
Story is more than a beginning and an end. Perhaps it was hubris that led the developers to only include these two points, completely skipping the middle. What is there instead? The first ten hours of the game are filled with two little kids hitting fur balls. After they’re done they disappear into irrelevancy. Then we move on to a multi-battle, pirate subplot involving characters from other Suikoden games. It burns our time on cut scenes regarding their specific stories, which go nowhere in this game. Thanks for nothing except misleading us about the plot.
Plot is not advanced by continuous mysteries. You don’t have to be a game developer to know that it’s just increasingly annoying, unanswered questions. And the main bad guy, Iskas… constantly harassing you from the unassailable sidelines. Constantly getting his way at every turn no matter how well you battle. Constantly one step ahead, sadly turning everyone into fish people with no comeuppance until the end. And when it does occur it seems lacking.
At thirty-six hours into the game, we told someone watching part of our play-through that we were nearing the end. Their response was, “What? But the plot’s hardly advanced.” We know, and it never does advance. It’s just explained in the somewhat strange, definitely Japanese ending. It’s three hours of plot jam-packed into thirty to sixty hours of playtime, depending on your questing. We talked about hubris amongst the story writers. Are we supposed to accept this (lack of) plot just because it’s Suikoden?
Despite its faults, we finished Suikoden Tactics after 85 long hours. That’s largely a testament to the quality of the game, our preference for the genre, and the strength of the quest system. However, it’s a sad commentary on any RPG when the questing is far more interesting than the main plot. We wonder if they knew the story was weak. It certainly didn’t stop them from making a long, quality ending which covers the final details of many characters. Less appreciated is that it’s a little strange, somewhat nebulous, and in the end, a bit of a downer.
Suikoden Tactics is a long experience, but not an overly tactical one. It’s more about management than outwitting your opponents and seizing the high ground. There are no extended encounters between units. Someone lost and someone won and you moved on.
On a personal note, this game has been on our docket for years, and we have long looked forward to playing it. A coworker originally found it back in the day, which started us on a quest to locate our own copy. We would like to know what that coworker thought, if they eventually played it. Hey “J,” let us know!
For those of you interested in playing this game, we suggest you go in knowing some of the key strengths and weaknesses so that you can maximize your playing experience. We trust that reading this analysis provides you with guidance. This game has a lot to offer, some good, and some not so much. If you focus on the positive notes, which is a good attitude for life, you’ll enjoy your experience more.
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