Well, I did it. I beat Suikoden…again. I suspect this is probably my third time through as I most likely beat the game back around when my neighbor helped buy it for me from Kay Bee Toys in 1996, stumbling through it blind as Morgan, the eyeless slave swordsman from Falena, and only recruiting two-thirds of the 108 Stars of Destiny. Then a copy of PSM hit my parents’ mailbox, hinting that a certain character called Gremio could be revived before the end fight if you gathered everybody possible first. Well, I just had to try again, and so I did, successful in my endeavors, but never really returning to the troubled political strugglings of the Scarlet Moon Empire since then.
I decided to go back to Suikoden–and hopefully Suikoden II soonish–for a variety of reasons, one of which I’m still not ready to talk about. However, back when I played these games, I was not a writer. Or even an aspiring writer. I was just a goofy kid that listened to way too much ska music and rode his bike around the neighborhood after dark and liked games that seemed to last forever, mostly JRPG juggernauts, like Final Fantasy VII and Chrono Cross. Nowadays, a lot of what I play sits in my brain, swirling this way and that until I put it down here on Grinding Down, really thinking about mechanics and pacing and how effective or non-effective a transition was, etc. I often make the claim that Suikoden and its much more loved sequel are my favorite games, but I always worried that nostalgia played a big part behind that, and so it is healthy and informative to replay your old favorites every now and then, that way you can truly see if they stand the test of time.
Overall, I’d say that Suikoden is still an immensely enjoyable JRPG, if a little kooky and surprisingly easy. The first hour is very slow in terms of action and challenge, though once you get your castle headquarters and can begin traipsing from town to town looking for recruits, the pace picks up tremendously. Almost too fast. My save slot just before the end battle with Emperor Barbarossa is a nick over twenty-two hours, but please remember that at least two of those hours were spent simply grinding for a nameless urn. Once you get the castle, you kind of go from one big story event to another, with no push to take things slow and go do your own thing for a bit. I mean, you totally can, and I did, but many might not realize the importance of growing your army and just charge through every story beat. All you have to do is keep returning to Mathiu and he’ll always have some plan in the works.
Suikoden might be one of the easiest JRPGs out there. There is no difficulty setting, so it is what it is, and you can, more or less, simply press attack on every character in battle without seeing much resistance from the enemy. In truth, you don’t have many options during the turn-based combat: attack, rune (magic spells), and, depending on who is in your six-member party, unite. There are not as many unite attacks as I originally thought, and many force you to use some less than ideal characters to pull them off–no thanks, every blacksmith ever. Eventually, I ended up using “free will” a lot, especially when grinding, and there were only a few moments when things would go really poorly. So long as you are on top of healing, boss fights are straightforward. I can say that I only saw one “game over” screen, and that was during the second fight with Neclord up in his castle, and it was my fault for not having enough “heal all” spells or mega medicines. Not even Emperor Barbarossa in his true three-headed dragon form proved troublesome.
Recruiting men and women for the Liberation Army barely requires any extra legwork, not counting the two you need to grind for an item for. Most will immediately join up after you speak to them once. A few ask you to be a certain level or, such as in the case of Rubi and Kirkis, another character to be higher up before they’ll throw their bag in the fight. Occasionally, you need to bring a specific character with you to convince someone else to join. I’m looking forward to seeing if the requirements in Suikoden II are a bit more trickier. Gathering recruits is twofold: one, it is fun watching them move into the castle and claim a space for themselves, and two, it ups your army count during the larger-scaled battles, so it does have an effect on gameplay.
I ended up using the following characters as my main mission-goers: Cleo, Victor, Pahn, Valeria, Kirkis, Flik, Stallion, and Ronnie Bell, exchanging them when the situation dictated so. While there are 108 Stars of Destiny to recruit, not all of them are able to fight in the turn-based battles. Like pointless, nose-upturned Onil. Not many of the characters end up playing differently from others despite visible stat differences. They all have different weapons, but you can attach any rune you want to them, turning that martial artist into a healer or that pacifist farmer a wielder of fire spells. I made a mild attempt at trying a few peeps out that I normally ignored, but still found that they lacked personality, especially when you consider that Cleo and Victor are involved in story moments and others, like Lotte and Lester, just aren’t.
All right, here are a couple of other small Suikoden points I’d like to comment on. Just like as in Chrono Cross, you can collect new window frames, but all of them are disgusting and hard to actually look at, though I did end up at least changing the color of the transparency part of the text box to a light brown. The music, when not sampling elephant noises and strange banjo-plucking tunes for mini-games, is memorable and moving, especially that one scene at night when Odessa and Tir McDohl are having a little heart-to-heart moment. Here, have a listen. I ended up spending all my bits on sharpening weapons, rarely purchasing armor or items; you gain so many as you scour dungeons anyways, and the armor is not reflected on the character sprites, so whatever.
So yeah, Suikoden. Still a charming, enjoyable adventure of a boy who unknowingly takes up the call to fight back against an evil empire with the help of an assortment of characters of all different relationships, colors, and races. I wonder what George Lucas thinks of it. It’s perhaps a bit too easy of a game from beginning to end, making things like Costume Quest seem like a hardcore gamer’s nightmare, and the story is not as epic or deep as I remember–or grammatically correct–but it plants all the right seeds for the series to grow from, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Suikoden II plays in 2014. All I remember from it is the cooking mini-game.