There was a time, not long ago in fact, that Konami was a well-known and venerated video game developer. The company was originally founded in 1969, and it was instrumental in releasing some of the most well-known games of the 80s such as Frogger, Gradius, Double Dribble, and Contra. That notoriety for creating great games, not the least of which included Castlevania, Metal Gear, and Silent Hill, continued until Konami became a holding company in 2006. Since then, their video game output has dwindled to just a handful every year, the majority of which are either remastered ports of old games or low-quality, high-return mobile games. This one, the fifth and final of the core series, released at the pinnacle of the company’s success, feels like a swansong for the once great Konami.
Suikoden was one of the company’s series that usually flew under the radar but was also top-tier in quality. While each entry’s narrative stands apart from the other, the overarching story revolves around the 27 True Runes–sources of tremendous power–and the civil wars caused by the struggle to command them. The objective in each game is to gather the 108 Stars of Destiny, forming an army lead by the silent protagonist to defeat the main antagonist in his attempt to rule over the nation. This premise is inspired by Water Margin, a classical Chinese novel attributed to Shi Nai’an. A few characters hop in and out of some of the games which helps to flesh out the world for people who follow the series.
The plot of the Suikoden V isn’t too different from what the series was already known for, but there are a few interesting twists and turns. You control the Prince of the Queendom of Falena. His mother, Queen Arshtat, rules via somewhat bipolar methods. While she is the main figurehead the nation looks up to, the Senate creates the laws of the land and is controlled by two opposing families–the Godwins and the Barowses. It becomes obvious the Queen is troubled by how the families have a stranglehold on her power, but she can rest with the knowledge that only she can wield the Sun Rune, a powerful True Rune. Soon, as she is the heir to the throne, Princess Lymsleia will have to take a husband which is chosen by the Sacred Games. This is where things start to go off the rails.
The story is definitely one of the high points of the game and is the main reason I kept playing. It usually kept me guessing at what would happen next, even though I saw one of the major plot twists from a mile away. Though I would have liked to have had more scenes and action from Lymsleia’s point of view, I found her character progression fascinating. I found it notable that, while the main character is male, this is a nation where females are typically the ones in power. In general, women are depicted as strong, caring leaders while the men who are trying to wrest power from them are arrogant and indifferent to the suffering caused. This is also the only Suikoden game in which the player never gets to control a True Rune, which adds an interesting dynamic to the series.
The game features a number of gameplay mechanics that should be familiar to people who’ve played these games before. 6-character parties make a return after their absence in Suikoden IV. The traversable-by-foot overworld map and the overhead view in towns have both been revived after their omission since Suikoden II. Skills from Suikoden III also have been added though they are less useful now than they were then. 1-on-1 duels and army battles, series mainstays, are also prevalent here. In fact, even the music, dungeon design, and enemy design all seem to be inspired by those from the first Suikoden. Voice acting returns as well from Suikoden IV and, at least during cutscenes, is still quite strong. In essence, this game looks and plays like a “best of” compilation of series gameplay mechanics. This was likely a conscious decision after the blowback from the huge departures made in the fourth entry.
One of the few new additions to the series in this entry is the style used for army battles. As far as I can remember (and correct me if I’m wrong) this is the first time real-time strategy has been implemented. I’m not going to lie; this was quite an adjustment coming from the classic turn-based style of yesteryear. At first, it seemed like these battles were out of control with soldiers everywhere. Luckily, I did eventually figure out how to fight these battles effectively and they became much easier. In fact, they were quite exhilarating. The only problem was, even with how proficient I became, sometimes I frantically had to move the cursor from one side of the map to the other because any battle would reset the camera’s position. Being able to simply switch between characters using the shoulder buttons would have solved that problem. This was a minor issue though.
My biggest problem with this game is that it is so. Fricking. Long. It’s one of the many reasons I haven’t written a game review in a long time. Just completing the main story will take the better part of 50 hours, but if you want to see the best ending, it will be around 70. A good portion of that is due to the excessive random encounter rate. Cutscenes also aren’t skippable which is odd given that this game was released in 2006 when the ability to skip was likely standard. Load times are especially outrageous and add a significant amount to playtime as you will get a load notification between almost every map, room, town, battle, etc. The cute low-res walking graphic is a very small consolation when you are frequently waiting up to 7 seconds traveling through dungeons, fighting monsters every few steps.
But enough about how long the game was (it was seriously long though). Some of the gameplay mechanics were also irritating. Whoever constructed the main menu should have been fired because it was not designed properly at all. For example, when you want to equip something, standard RPG procedures dictate that the game show you everything a particular character has equipped with empty spaces in the areas of the body where there’s nothing. You simply move the cursor to the area you want to equip something, select it, and it shows you what you have available in inventory to attach. Instead, when you select Equip in Suikoden V, it shows you all the items that are available to equip in inventory without being able to see what your characters already have on them. I could go on about these backassward designs, but be assured that this mentality carries through to many other areas such as rune placement, inventory management, and party formation.
As I pointed out above, skills made a return in this game. Unfortunately, they have very limited usage this time around as each character can only select two skills to use, and for many characters, the second skill slot is taken by an unremovable specialty skill. Stat-altering skills don’t become that useful until much later in the game when you gain access to epic skills which raise more than one stat. Even then, stats are so much higher by that point that raising them by 10 or 20 won’t have much of an effect in battle. Because SP (skill points) is so difficult to come by, you would have to grind for hours (see: long game) to make any headway toward the most useful skills for each character. Thus, skills are largely ineffective.
Another useless addition to gameplay is new to the series in this entry: formations. In the first 3 games, 6-character parties were always organized into 2 rows and 3 columns. This game says “To Hell with that noise!” and gives you the option of different formations which increase attack, defense, or some other stat. In theory, this was refreshing and led me to change my formation now and then depending on the situation…at first. In practice, I began noticing my medium-range fighters, the range that classically could attack enemies from either the front or back row, started missing all the time in these new formations. Without confusing you more than I already have, using alternate formations requires a lot more adjustment with regard to character range and placement than it should. As a result, my party spent most of the game in the classic 2×3 formation to ensure fighters could hit their marks.
There has been some speculation that Suikoden V was released before it was ready which would explain a lot of the issues I had. Perhaps the menus would have been cleaned up if development took longer. Perhaps the more cinematic cutscenes would have been replaced with FMV. It speaks to the quality of the game that I still felt drawn to finish it despite its flaws. The story is great, the graphics are adequate, the music is nostalgic and superb, and the battles are thrilling.
It’s unfortunate that we may never get closure on what Konami had in mind for the Suikoden series. Only 18 True Runes were ever revealed. Characters like Viki, Jeane, and Leknaat still remain mysterious with questionable motives. I always figured they were leading up to a final crossover game in which the bearers of the True Runes would team up and destroy some gargantuan, otherworldly power. Alas, that will probably never happen. However, the games that were released are still fun even if the full scope was never realized. If you still have a PS2 laying around (this is the only mainline Suikoden game still not released on PSN) I recommend playing Suikoden V.