Set one hundred years before the events told in the game Suikoden the fourth game in the series attempts to recapture the brilliance of the first games, sadly it fails due to a number of irritating factors.
I don't usually get this out of the way until a bit later on in a review but I really am spoiling for a fight regarding this game. I was a long time fan of the series, I adored the first two games and quite liked the third but this one seems to be a step backwards.
You are cast in the role of a young Knight that falls afoul of a dangerous magical rune; you must uncover the mystery and so on. It's nothing new story wise and this kind of fantasy is starting to get on my nerves - yes - I have become a bit jaded in that respect.
Suikoden IV's new story doesn't grab one as well as the other games did, the whole thing feels cobbled together and any love I might have had for it vanished under the messy control and battle system - especially the sea going battles and travel but we'll come to that a bit later on.
Good storytelling is the mark of any great RPG and this new instalment has at least got this much going for it, the cast of characters is quite varied and boasts some nice heroes based on the 108 Stars of Destiny.
Your character is now cast as the centre of attention and this new game removes the Trinity Sight system from Suikoden III which is a real shame since I liked the idea of three separate divergent storylines. Oh well, our hero gains the Rune of Punishment and must quest to solve the puzzle and so on.
You eventually gain control of a ship and this vessel will expand as you gain more characters to your cause, which is kind of like the castles of old but is spoilt mostly because of the awful sea travel system.
I have to get this off my chest right now and you might have noticed that my review lacks the usual headings that I like to use, why? Because to be honest I couldn't actually bring myself to write them after playing this game, it made me want to cry and that's quite upsetting since I adore the series.
Back to the sea travel system: Suikoden IV should have had a really good ocean based travel system, but it has a sluggish and often boring system that is a chore to use and has as much speed as a snail super-glued to the floor.
When you finally make it near an island (after random battle after battle which show up too frequently throughout the whole game) the island will often throw you back towards the open sea where you have to mess around turning the sluggish ship again, dropping you into another two or three battles.
This had me wanting to throw my controller through the TV screen and play Barbie Horse Adventures on the PC (Ed: You do that anyways right?)
The battles on the land are just as frequent and after a while they become quite boring, the special effects are nice the first time but really are only a superficial layer over the whole thing.
The battles also now only allow four characters and not six, losing the extra two characters does impact the party ability and it shows since the programmers have not really hampered their monsters in any way, it just doesn't feel as satisfying as it did before.
I am also really tiring of the random encounters of all these modern RPGs, the Japanese RPG is to be blamed for these and they're a blessing and a curse. In Suikoden IV they are more of a curse since your character runs fairly slowly, their rate is through the roof and on sea it becomes insane at times.
You'll level up quite quickly but any joy from that will be marred by having to engage in another pointless XP laden battle.
Thankfully the programmers didn't change the way the battles work and they're the usual turn based style, characters can use items, perform attacks and combo up with their partners to increase attack power and damage. Magic comes from the runes and can do the usual support, healing and offensive options.
The battles are usually over pretty quickly but I found myself pondering a skip option after about the tenth in a few minutes of play. They really need to work on the random encounter frequency and I feel this is one of the reasons the game was spoilt for me.
As for the actual meat and potatoes of the game, the models and graphics, they're not as advertised. Yes they're nice and all that but the actual 2d portraits are excellent and show the anime/Manga influences of the game. The 3d models and textures are to be blunt, plain and uninspiring.
The backdrops and scenery do little to inspire the feeling that this should be a fantasy swashbuckling romp, full of dramatic scenes and tall magnificent castles and instead create a washed out limp-wristed view of the Suikoden world. It lacks the vibrant touches of other games and the outdoor locales like jungles and beaches just seem to have been thrown in to add a smidgeon of colour, it doesn't really work since the palettes used are bland.
There are animation problems with the characters and sometimes their facial expressions and animations don't quite do the job, they seem a little off and detract from the seriousness of the narrative and dialogue. Some of the battle animations are pretty solid but there seems to be very little imagination compared to Suikoden's other competitors and considering this is supposed to be the first time we've seen the Suikoden series make it to Europe I would have expected something better.
The sounds and music in the game also do little to inspire, a game like this should have a sweeping dramatic score and yet it feels as though the player's being lulled to sleep at times. The score tends to vanish against the ambient and background sounds, which is a shame because it's not bad - it just doesn't convey the whole 'dramatic' game feel.
The voice cast do an adequate job and are mostly the saving grace apart from a couple of less-experienced cast members, this can be overlooked as mostly the cast actually pulls off the dialogue - and there's quite a lot of it to speak. Having done voice work I can say it's not the easiest thing in the world to do.
There's a lot of play in the game however and even though I didn't quite like it compared to the others, fans of the series with a lot more stamina and those people that love to collect and find every hidden treasure will probably find great pleasure in finding all the 108 Stars and adding them to their ship.
The massive map will take a long time to uncover especially with the very long travel times and should add a little more playability to the game. I would only really suggest you get the game if you're a die-hard RPG fan, can play anything and love the series as many people do. Otherwise I would really recommend you give this one a miss and let it sink port-side, praying that the next game repairs the damage done by this one.
It saddens me to have to have to say that but there you go. I always promised that regardless of hype and favouritism I would deliver a review honestly - some people have accused me in the past of being bought-out by the Publisher and so. If that's the case then I should have written a glowing review of this game since I love Konami and their games, but I don't work like that. If I think something is wrong then I tell it how it is, and to me there's a lot wrong with this game.
Let us hope that Suikoden V is the game to earn the Editor's Choice Award.