Cool, so this is supposed to be the worst game in the series, right? …I honestly liked Suiko 3 a lot less. Still, as long as Suikoden Tactics is alright, I think things will be looking up.
For all the ranting and raving I heard from my Suikoden fanboy friends, Suikoden 4 really isn’t such a terrible game (to be honest, I disliked Suikoden 3 much more). Still, that isn’t to say it’s great, either. Not long after I started Suikoden 4, I got this really strange feeling about the game. It has this weird characteristic that I’m not sure how to describe concisely. Would I call it ‘unremarkable’? No, because it wasn’t exactly boring. I wouldn’t call it ‘bad’, either; hardly any aspect of the gameplay really bothered me. It’s not even just “okay”, because it’s not as if the flaws that exist have difficult solutions, either. Perhaps it would be better if I just tried to explain.
For starters, there’s music. It’s written by Masahiko Kimura (Castlevania, Suikoden 3), and it’s okay. The game’s environments consist almost entirely of gray towns, gray castles, and water. The character designs are sort of unimpresive, and the entire game sort of just looks like a bland Grandia game (or, should I say, Blandia?). This isn’t too big of a deal, although many characters’ faces look like creepy, ugly dolls.
The combat is your very standard turn-based RPG. You fight, you cast magic, you have combination attacks (although, there seem to be hardly any), and items. You might be wondering if there’s anything else to it, but there isn’t.
Well, I guess that’s not entirely fair, because there’s actually three types of combat, as is par for the course with Suikoden games. Beyond your normal combat, you have duels between one person and another, which have always just amounted to paper-rock-scissors where your opponent tells you what they’re going to do next.
Lastly, there’s tactical combat, which changes in every game. In Suikoden 4, tactical combat is done in ships, with a grid-based tactics-RPG interface. Before battle, you pick a captain, which gives ships a specific bonus in mobility or HP. Then, you pick people to fire your cannons. Finally, you pick four crew members to fight on the deck. Combat is done by firing the ship’s cannons at another ship, or by boarding the ship and attacking crew members on the deck. This system had a lot of potential, but it was quelled by two things:
Each cannon always has a specific element, and each element has a weakness. Your enemies always pick the worst possible cannon combinations. For example, if your opponent picks a fire and wind cannon (and they will), you can neutralize both by just firing a wind cannon. It will negate shots from their wind cannon, and it will blow through shots from the fire cannon, allowing you can attack safely 100% of the time, with no fear of taking any damage.
When you attempt to board a ship, it’s all-or-nothing; if you win, the enemy ship surrenders, and vice versa. The only thing is, if you have four well-developed characters (or even just three, which you’ll definitely have), the option of boarding a ship to force its surrender is not risky in the slightest.
A staple gameplay feature of Suikoden series is to have a base with 108 recruitable characters. Suikoden 4, of course, carries this tradition. However, a large difference between Suikoden 4 and all the other Suikoden games is that a large number of these characters see some degree of screen time. In Suikoden 4, almost every character is recruited because they’re stranded, or in some wacky situation, and they ask to join your group. Simple as that, and you never hear a peep from them again. Normally, in Suikoden games, you meet several people at every storyline event, and they all play some sort of minor significance. Because of this, it always feels like you know your companions just a little bit. In Suikoden 4, maybe ten characters play any sort of significant role in the game, making your entire company feel like a bunch of creepy strangers.
However, there’s another thing that bothers me about the 108 characters, and that’s the fact that some of them are missable. In order to get the best ending in each Suikoden game, one must recruit every character; however, there are characters which need to be recruited within some sort of arbitrary time frame. This is obnoxious, because if you want to just play through the story and recruit the characters after reaching the end, you can’t. So, the game mechanic on which Suikoden is based breaks the story’s flow entirely.
The only other noteworthy aspect of the gameplay is the much-reviled sailing and frequent combat. In Suikoden 4, the world map is made entirely of ocean. So, you use a boat to travel to all destinations. Sailing moves pretty slowly, and you don’t see anything interesting (after all, you’re on an ocean; naturally, all you’ll be seeing is water). There are not even a lot of islands, so you’ll frequently be sailing into an endless expanse of sea. To top it off, the random encounter rate is VERY high. Sometimes, you’ll barely even sail the length of your ship before you get into another battle. As a result, it never feels like you’re getting anywhere.
To be honest, I didn’t think that the slow sailing was that bad; in fact, I’d say it’s not even that slow. I think that the only problem is the frequent combat. Sure, the game could have been helped if there were land sections of the world map (which are unfortunately replaced simply by having sections of towns where you can get into random battles…ugh). However, the simple solution is to just reduce the number of random battles.
And, finally, we get to the story. …I’m not even sure what to say, because the game never leaves you with any particular goal for too long.
You and your ‘best friend’, Snowe (the game vaguely implies it but never develops it), have just become knights at the town of Razril. After becoming knights, a bunch of crazy stuff happens, resulting in Snowe betraying the main character and the entire kingdom of Razril, and the main character gets stuck with this thing called the Rune of Punishment (Runes, by the way, are magical inscriptions on a person’s hand or head, granting them the ability to cast magic. This Rune has great destructive force, but using is slowly eats away at its user’s life force. Anyways, due to said betrayal, you have to leave Razril, and you eventually reach the kingdom of Obel, where you do more crazy stuff and get caught up in defending all the island nations where you live from an invading nation to the north.
If the above exposition seemed hurried and insubstantial, that’s just because the way it all happened was equally hasty. Everything I mentioned in the first paragraph happens incredibly quickly in game time (about two to three hours). After that, there’s a lot of meandering until the whole ‘political war’ deal plays out, and even that plays out quickly. The main character and his supporters immediately find a genius tactician, who tells them that they need to start liberating the islands for support. The hero and co. then do so, very quickly, with hardly any resistance (and now that I think about it, those islands never helped out anyways, so it was kind of superfluous in the end). They then take on the big bad guys and win the day. Just as quickly as the story begins, it ends, and after virtually no development of any part of the story.
Well, that’s not entirely true. The game does try a little bit to develop Snowe, the main character’s best friend. The problem is that Snowe is a completely moronic and unlikeable character. He does terrible deeds and wonders why nobody likes him. He acts cowardly and selfishly, yet wonders why no one respects him. He is living in his own fantasy world, no pun intended - his personality is not based in any sort of realistic way of thinking, or maybe he just has some serious social problems. For example, there is one point where he attacks the main character, and, after being captured, the hero offers to let him join the crew, and he refuses. Then, as you cast him away on a ship, he soliloquizes, “No matter how hard I try, why doesn’t anyone accept me?” I think the problem is with you, buddy.
After writing this review, I think I’ve found a good descriptor for Suikoden 4: It feels like an unused template with which to create a Suikoden game. It has 108 characters, most of them being nothing more than blank slates. It has all three gameplay modes found in a Suikoden game, but with nothing to spice it up. It has a story that encompasses a lot of ideas from earlier Suikoden games; war and politics, fleeing from the hero’s hometown to return one day as a hero, and even the best friend who betrays you. And yet, all of these elements are vapid due to how quickly they resolve after being presented.
It’s hard to give this game a recommendation to anyone. I doubt many Suikoden fans would like it, and even people who aren’t fans to the series wouldn’t find much to do with this game. It’s pretty short, the story is a hollow shell, and the gameplay is lacking any interesting facet. As bad as it sounds, though, it’s really not a terrible game; it’s just very bland, and if you’ve played RPGs for any length of time, you’ve certainly seen games that have outclassed this one in every respect. So, unless you’re looking to play it for the sake of viewing it as a historical footnote or something, might I suggest playing Suikoden 2 instead?