Suikoden is a turn-based RPG developed by Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo and published by Konami. Releasing initially on December 15, 1995 in Japan for the Playstation, it was the company’s earliest attempt at tackling the JRPG genre. Releasing at a time when Squaresoft practically had a monopoly on JRPGs, Suikoden struggled to break into the market in a meaningful way.
Suikoden tells the tale of Tir Mcdohl, a young palace guard who has come into possession of one of the 27 True Runes, Soul Eater. After discovering the plot of Barbarossa, leader of the Scarlet Moon Empire, he escapes his hometown to search for the 108 Stars of Destiny. These Stars form their own army, the Liberation Army, setting into motion a revolution to overthrow the Empire and start a new country.
The story of Suikoden draws influence from a classic Chinese novel, Shui Hu Zhuan (Water Margin). The novel is about 108 outlaws who gather to form an army to protect their homeland. The concept of the “Stars of Destiny” is also from the same novel. Out of the 108, 36 are considered Heavenly Spirits while the remaining 72 are Earthly Warriors. The most important is the Tenkai Star. This represents the characters who act as a focus for the other 107 Stars and is always the main protagonist (except in Suikoden 3). The Tenkai Star is also a reference to Water Margin, as the band of outlaws had their own brave leader, Song Jiang.
Suikoden uses a traditional turn-based combat system. Players select commands for each characters at the start of each turn and these are carried out according to a speed stat. Unlike most RPGs, Suikoden lets players form a party of six. This seems like a large number at first, but with over 60 playable characters to choose from, there is no issue in selecting five in addition to Tir. The party of six is divided into two rows, allowing ranged characters to safely attack from afar. Certain characters can only attack from the front row, and they generally have higher defense to compensate.
Aside from basic attacks, characters can be equipped with Runes, less powerful incarnations of the True Runes. The large variety of these Runes is a great addition to the game. Many Runes have outside-of-combat effects such as faster walking or turning off low level random encounters. However all characters only have a single Rune slot so a lot of outside-of-combat Runes might not be worth the effort.
Runes use the old MP system where each spell is assigned a certain number of uses. While each Rune comes with 4 spells, they are unlocked depending on the character’s magic stat. The only exception to this is Tir’s Soul Eater which unlocks a new spell after specific story events. Aside from the magic stat, character’s also have an affinity for certain Rune types which allows them to do more damage. For example, an early game mage, Luc, has a very strong affinity with Wind. He also has a very high magic stat which gives him access to high level spells early in the game. The only way to restore a Rune’s MP is to rest at inn.
Battles come in the form of random encounters, as was the norm at the time. As you explore the numerous locales ranging from caves and mountains to prisons and castles, enemies will often pop up to halt your progress. The encounter rate isn’t too high, but it will get infuriating, especially when navigating through a maze. If you want to collect all of the treasure in each area, be prepared to fight a lot of enemies.
It’s not all action though. There are plenty of towns and villages to visit. It’s the standard fare here, a shop, an inn, some houses and a bunch of NPCs to talk to. A nice touch is the dialogue of the townspeople. They often change depending on the current circumstance of the ongoing war. Seeing people actually react to what’s happening around them is refreshing to see in an older game. The towns are where the bulk of the 108 Stars are hanging around so it is very important to explore them thoroughly.
There are two more gameplay styles featured in Suikoden. The first are the major battles, also known as army battles. These are large scale conflicts between the Liberation Army and the Imperial Army at various stages of the story. Admittedly, they aren’t as epic as they sound, mainly due to being carried out in the form of a game of rock-paper-scissors. Infantry beats archers, archers beat mages and mages beat infantry. Other than the three offensive options, you have some support commands such as the ninjas which predict what the opponent will do next or strategists to boost attack strength. Each of the 108 Stars are assigned as commanders to one of the options. If they take serious damage during their turn, they may permanently die, ruining a perfect save file.
The second of this set are the duels. These are generally one-on-one battles between Tir and one of the Imperial generals. Duels also take a rock-paper-scissors format. Normal attack breaks through defend, desperate attack overpowers normal attacks, and defend counters desperate attacks. Before each turn, the opponent will say some dialogue that is actually a hint as to which command they will pick. These are obvious at first but get progressively more difficult to figure out. Some of the later enemies have lots of different dialogue so memorizing patterns is almost impossible. While they may be simple, duels are enjoyable and can create epic story moments.
One of the best features of any Suikoden game is the castle. Early on during the revolution, Tir and his friends find an abandoned castle which they re-model into the headquarters for the Liberation Army. This is where all of the 108 Stars will gather and hang around between battles. The castle has almost everything you could ever need. Having an item store, blacksmith and storage all in one place is extremely useful. Talking with the various characters that have joined the cause is a treat as they often reflect past battles and experiences. As you recruit more people, the castle is renovated and the music changes to reflect that. In some of the later ports such as the Sega Saturn, Tir even has a pet cat which players can feed and take care of.
Although Suikoden was praised immensely during its initial release, recent reviews have critiqued the game for its poor aging. While its sequel, Suikoden 2 is regarded as the high point of the franchise, Suikoden is worth playing as many of the characters show up in the later games with larger roles to play. While it may not have revolutionised or innovated the genre, there are plenty of fresh ideas here to set it apart from your average JRPG.