Retropsection+: Suikoden, Part One

RETROSPECTION+: SUIKODEN, PART ONE

            I’m taking a bit of a different approach to Retrospection for the next couple weeks.  Up until now, the feature has been about looking back on games that I’ve played extensively in the past and seeing how those experiences can be imported into the present.  This time, however, I’m going to take a look at a classic game that I missed the first time around, and seeing how it holds up to fresh eyes and with no nostalgia or much prior knowledge.  Given that this is a long game this time, I’m going to be posting at least two updates of my ongoing impressions as I make it closer to the game’s finale.

So for this first iteration of Retrospection+, I’m looking at 1995’s Playstation JRPG classic Suikoden.  Suikoden as a game and a series is largely famous for the incredible feat of containing 108 recruitable characters, the “Stars of Destiny,” and for utilizing a wider scale battle system alongside some strategic battle scenarios that occur sporadically throughout the game.

The first game in the series is something of an interesting middle child between the SNES and PSX golden ages of JRPG dominance.  Before I’d done some research on the game’s release, I was ready to place this next to the PSX Final Fantasy games and things like Breath of Fire IV and Chrono Cross in the timeline of PSX JRPG history, but on actually reviewing it, it’s much more tied to the late generation 16-bit JRPG’s like Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, and Lufia II than I would have expected.  Given that it was released in 1995 alongside those titles, it’s no surprise that it seems to be more part of that generation than of the one with which its hardware is typically associated.

The most obvious example of this is the way the game is laid out visually.  The environments, characters, and backgrounds are all almost entirely sprite based, not rendered in 3D.  The only real 3D I’ve encountered so far in the game is the battle screens, where the terrain and backgrounds are 3D renders.  Sprites still lived on for a long time in the PSX era, mind you; the PSX Breath of Fire games and games like Xenogears were notable for using 2D sprites overlaid onto 3D rendered backgrounds.  Suikoden, however, sits in a more SNES looking 2D plane, which makes it feel more nostalgic for that set of games than the PSX to me.

The soundtrack, though, harkens to a more modern era.  The actual compositions are very well done and fitting for the wide variety of environments, but the real advantage shows in the CD quality of the sound vs. the SNES’s more chiptuney tracks.  The format’s audio superiority is extremely evident in the soundtrack, and it really shines through as exemplary for its time as a result.

Something that really strikes me about Suikodens famous 108 stars is the amount of characters you recruit that are temporary.  I would’ve expected a game with such an insane amount of recruitable characters to be shoving permanent party members down my throat at every chance, but I’ve had quite a string of temporary characters so far, and it’s surprised me when they’ve left, especially when they die.  It really keeps me guessing and I’m shocked they were able to have so much breathing room with the game’s cast.

Indeed, it’s something of a bit of narrative witchcraft that the 108 stars don’t feel forced or hamfisted into your party.  When I think of RPG’s with very large casts, I tend to think of Chrono Cross, which had some pretty big issues with the way it handled the recruitable characters in a number of instances.  Many of Chrono Cross’s 40+ recruitable party members were strange one dimensional gimmick characters with stupid accents and little contribution to the party or the story.  Suikoden, however, has managed to make everyone I’ve encountered so far feel meaningful and narratively unique in their own right, and it’s damned impressive.  If Suikoden can manage to really give me a cast of 108 recruitable characters that feel like real characters, it’ll be an enormous feat; I can’t think of an RPG that has 108 named characters, let alone recruitable ones  in addition to antagonists and nonrecruitable characters.

Mechanically, I’m really liking the way that the 6-person party gives me flexibility and tactical depth to the encounters.  A good implementation of turn-by-turn auto battle gives me a lot of discretion as to controlling the flow and pace of a battle, as I can decide each turn whether I want to bulrush things quickly or stop and take each turn more thoughtfully.  Customizing characters via runes is interesting, and I’m liking the level based weapon upgrading system when compared to the constant revolving door of entirely new swords my characters in these games normally go through.

I haven’t had a chance to do any tactical battles yet, so I’m curious to see how those factor into the gameplay and story on a mechanical level.  My only real gripe with the gameplay so far is the existence of random encounters, which is a facet of old RPG’s I will never stop disliking.  It punishes exploration and turns the gameplay into a chore, so I’m glad we’ve largely moved past it.  Suikoden, at least, gives you a lot of leeway to dispense with encounters quickly.

So far, I’m enjoying Suikoden a lot, and it’s very interesting to approach it as a transitionary game between the 16 and 32 bit RPG eras.  I’m only about 7 hours in so far, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the 108 stars really start to shape up and how the story will be escalating from here.  Next week, I’ll be back here to write up my continuing impressions, and if I haven’t finished the game by then, I’ll be shooting to do my final thoughts on it in part 3.

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