(PlayStation 2 Review) Suikoden V

Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Genre: Role-Playing Game
Players: 1
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Jayson Napolitano

Overall: 8.5 = Excellent

(Originally published on May 5, 2006)

It is hard to believe that Suikoden IV was released stateside only a year ago, but what’s not surprising is that Konami would want to bury that failure with a quick and successful follow-up. Suikoden V, the third installment of the series to hit the PlayStation 2, is exactly that.

Suikoden V takes place in the Queendom of Falena six years prior to the events of the first game in the series. Falena, supported by a network of rivers and governed by a line of queens whose husbands are selected through gladiatorial contests, is on the verge of civil war due to increasingly volatile political infighting between the nation’s two most powerful noble factions. The object of this conflict is the powerful Sun Rune, one of the 27 true runes in the Suikoden universe, from which great power and all magic is derived. Queen Arshtat and the Falenan royal family are in charge of keeping the rune, but the opposing noble factions wish to use it for different purposes: some want to use it to subjugate neighboring nations while others wish it to serve as a deterrent in order to maintain peace. Players assume the role of the royal prince of Falena, who must garner the support of the nation to bring peace to the Queendom, despite having no claim to the throne. As with all titles in the series, V is filled with a number of exciting plot twists, even if the storytelling in this installment is occasionally overly dramatic or clichéd.

This latest entry boasts the largest cast of characters to date. Series fans may notice some familiar faces, most notably Georg Prime, one of the famous Queen’s Knights of Falena, the elite bodyguards who are in charge of protecting the royal family. Georg was first seen in Suikoden II (which takes place 12 years after this title); his presence may tip players off to some key plot points in V, if they took the time to learn about his history while playing SII. Lyon, the prince’s personal bodyguard, Georg, and a host of other memorable characters, new and returning, must aid the prince in assembling an army to end the political strife plaguing Falena.

SV remains true to series tradition, as you once again acquire a castle and attempt to recruit up to 108 characters, collectively known as the Stars of Destiny. While not all 108 characters are playable in battle, recruiting them is usually beneficial as they open new areas and mini-games within the castle. The number of characters recruited by the end of the game determines which of four endings the player sees, more or less necessitating the consultation of a strategy guide as collecting every character during the first playthrough is nearly impossible. Fortunately, Konami added a much-needed New Game+ feature, which gives players the opportunity to recruit more characters the second time through without having to worry as much about their character’s level and maintaining their equipment.

In another fortunate turn, SV abandons many of the gameplay changes made in IV in favor of a synthesis of elements from SII and SIII. In battle, traditional two-row, six-person formations are back for the first time since SII, only now the system allows for different formations: players can create a single line of six characters, boosting attack attributes while decreasing defense, or adopt a “sorcery formation” by placing a few tanks in the front lines with magic users in the back, among about a dozen other choices. This adds a new and much-welcomed element of strategy to the usually mundane random encounters. There’s also a new skill system similar to SIII wherein characters receive points after encounters which can be used to increase combat or magic skills for an extra edge in battle. Characters have a standard set of skills including attack, accuracy, magic, and magic defense, each of which starts at Rank E and can be increased through Rank A–with a possible S Rank reserved for a character’s specialty. The skill system is a great tool for character customization, and it makes discovering optional party and character compositions that much more engaging.

In combat, players are given the opportunity to fight, flee, cast magic, perform cooperative attacks, or use items. There is a large variety of enemies to defeat on both the world map and in dungeons, and Konami has also added mini-bosses to many areas of the game to keep players on their toes. Defeating these mini-bosses usually yields rare items and hordes of money and experience. However, because of the insane power of some of the magic in the game, both random encounters and boss battles are a little on the easy side. Magic becomes available through the use of runes, which grant characters the use of certain spells or bonuses in battle. For example, a water rune gives characters the ability to heal their allies, while the counter rune gives a character an increased chance to strike back against a foe. Characters can equip up to three runes at once and unleash devastating combos by combining magic from different types. Unfortunately, the random encounter rate is much too high and the load times for entering and escaping battles too lengthy, making for a terrible and taxing combination.

Thankfully, those flaws don’t seep into the one-on-one duels and full-scale army battles, both of which are series staples that are as fun and entertaining as ever. Duels retain the rock-paper-scissors formula, with players choosing to defend, attack, or launch a special attack while computer-controlled opponents taunt players and hint at their next move. Losing a duel can lead to one of many “bad” endings, which are sometimes worth seeing, although they can cut the game short. Full-scale army battles also resemble those featured in SII. Players control infantry, cavalry, and archer units in real time, moving them against enemy forces to capture or defend towns in the Prince’s quest to unite Falena. Some battles take place on land and others on water. There is a lot of strategy involved, and many of the battles prove to be challenging as the enemy army almost always outnumbers the player’s. Units often have special abilities, including rune magic and healing abilities, which add another dimension to the battles. For example, players can use the fire-summoning rage rune to engulf the enemy infantry trying to advance on their vulnerable archers. These epic battles remain one of the defining gameplay elements in the Suikoden series.

When players are not in battle, they can explore Falena’s many locales. Towns and dungeons are littered with treasure, some of which is hidden from view and may be found by luck or by constantly pressing the X button while exploring. An unwieldy menu screen sometimes makes exploration a chore, however: to use a healing item on a character, players must open the menu, navigate to items, select party items, then the healing item, then a character to use it on, and finally verify that using the item is okay (for which the cursor is defaulted to respond “No”). Towns serve as shopping centers where players can purchase new equipment and runes for their characters or sharpen their weapons at the blacksmith, but as more characters are recruited, most of these tasks can be done at the Prince’s castle. Once the Prince establishes his base of operation, many recruits add new gameplay features such as farming, cooking, fishing, and a number of mini-games. There is a lot to do between main story events, and characters around the castle often have new things to say after each main event. Players should find themselves spending many hours taking advantage of what many of the castle residents have to say, along with taking part in the numerous mini-games. With that said, most players will probably finish the game within 40 hours if they manage to stay away from the engrossing side activities.

In comparison to previous games in the series, SV looks fantastic. The water effects are realistic, and the details found on the world map are impressive. Towns are expansive and highly varied, yielding elements distinctive to their specific surroundings. The mountains near the border town of Sable and the water-operated windmills in the port town of Estrise are much-appreciated details that add to the beauty of Falena. The many cut scenes are crisp and fluid and the spell effects in battle are vastly improved over previous titles. The character animation is more fluid than before, and more emotion is conveyed through detailed facial expressions and hand gestures. The character design is also fantastic, with a large cast of unique and memorable characters, most notable of which are the members of the royal family of Falena, such as Queen Arshtat, King Ferid, Lady Sialeedes, and the Prince, each of whom has his or her own unique style and mannerisms.

The music is also much improved over SIV. Arrangements of series themes and the return of familiar sound effects incite a feeling of nostalgia. The new music is dramatic, epic, and tense when appropriate. The voice acting is spectacular, as each character has their distinct (and rarely annoying) voice, and especially for the royal family in particular, as each character speaks in the calm yet authoritative tone expected of the ruling family of Falena. Not since Suikoden II has there been such a fine collection of music, and the acting is worlds beyond some of the annoying voices found in Suikoden IV, which was riddled with whiners and dull monotones. An improvement all around.

Suikoden V is exactly what was needed to bring the series back into good standing after its disappointing predecessor. While the random encounter rate may be a bit high and the load times a pain, the compelling story, varied battle modes, and amazing cast of characters make Suikoden V a great game. As always, this title raises more questions about the Suikoden universe than it answers, and I look forward to the next installment with renewed enthusiasm.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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