Suikoden V Sialeeds

To me the most interesting character in Suikoden V is easily Sialeeds. She is in many ways a unique figure in a game with a cast deliberately designed to evoke the past. For one thing, she is the aunt of the protagonist. I can’t say I recall any other JRPG characters with that sort of family relationship with the protagonist. She comes along with the player for much of the first half or so of the game, as an integral part of the hero’s team. She is the one with the knowledge of the political situation and the country’s history that has been kept from the younger characters, like the Prince and Lyon, and unknown to newcomer Georg.

Sialeeds is also just a vibrant character, with an interesting design that says a lot about her. Like the fact that she dyes her hair. Many members of the royal family have silver hair (the Prince, Arshtat, Haswar, though notably not Lymsleia who takes after her father); Sialeeds does as well, though she dyes hers blond as an outward indicator of her estrangement from the royal line. She clearly cares deeply about her family, but in order to keep the peace she has deliberately allowed herself to be sidelined. That makes her an interesting companion for the Prince, who as a male is not in line for the throne and suffers from a similar irrelevance.

Sialeeds puts up this disinterested front. She sleeps late and takes a back seat on all diplomatic missions she goes on with the Prince. She is the fun aunt, but even early on there is an undercurrent of sadness there. Arshtat is clearly losing it, and there is nothing she can do. She has been completely and deliberately removed from any place of power.

That brings in her tragic backstory; really the tragedy of the entire Royal Family of Falena’s story. As the game eventually reveals, the generation before the present one in the game was marked by infighting among the various branches of the royal family. Queen Arshtat and Sialeeds’ mother was the younger sister and their cousin Haswar’s mother the older. Using ties to noble families, including the Barows and Godwins, and the assassins at Nether Gate, Arshtat’s mother schemed her way onto the throne. She left much destruction in her path, including Marscal Godwin’s wife. Arshtat, Sialeeds and Haswar were determined to not let history repeat, so when Arshtat took the throne, Haswar became the Oracle at Lunas, which meant that she would not be able to marry and have kids, so there would be no competing bloodline. Sialeeds broke off her engagement to Gizel Godwin, determining not to marry and create a possible rival royal line. By all indications, Sialeeds and Gizel were happily engaged, but Sialeeds sacrificed her happiness to try to keep peace.

So when civil war breaks out again, Sialeeds is understandably distraught. It also makes her eventual betrayal so surprising; though after the shock of the first time it makes more and more sense. The player knows how she feels about the politics and the nobility of Falena. If the Prince had managed to win when he did, the underlying problem would not have been fixed. Perhaps the Prince and new Queen could have fully defeated the Godwins, but they might have made peace and the plotting would begin all again. Sialeeds joins wanting to force this conflict to its final resolution. To her, Falena needed to be freed from the Barows and the Godwins so the country could move on. Her despair is disappointing and the betrayal shocking, but it is not hard to see her reasoning.

That makes her not unlike Jowy from Suikoden II, who prolongs the war after Luca Blight is defeated out of the belief that as long as both Highland and Jowston existed, there would be war between them. Unlike Jowy, though, there is no way to save Sialeeds in Suikoden V. She will die. Heroically, yes, but also tragically. There aren’t many characters in the series that get permanent deaths like this, outside of the opening hours of the games. At least not among characters that spent a good deal of time as a player character. The shocking death is usually the inciting incident, whether it is Odessa Silverberg in Suikoden 1 or Annabelle in Suikoden 2 or Lulu in Suikoden 3. Suikoden 1 does have the death of the protagonist’s father at about the same point in the game, and while it is tragic, he is mostly an absent figure in the game. The same goes for Suikoden 3’s Jimba. There are sometimes consequences when a player messes up, like with Pahn or Ridley in the first two games. Sialeeds death is inevitable, unavoidable and sadly permanent.

For all of her carefree attitude, her story is a tragic one, with the only silver lining that her plan apparently succeeded. She purposefully limited her life to try to keep the conflicts of the past from rising up again. Those conflicts came anyway, resulting the death of her sister. She deliberately betrayed everyone she loved to join people she hated just so that they could put a stop to the countries troubles once and for all and while she succeeded, it cost her her life.

Between her attitude and her role in the story, Sialeeds is not only the most interesting character in Suikoden V, but among my favorite characters from the PS2 generation of JRPGs.

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Suikoden V Past Ties

Suikoden V is a game with one very clear goal: to be as much like Suikoden II as possible. That is evident in every fiber of the game. It is a pretty big change from the previous PS2 Suikoden games. Suikoden III came out in the wake of Final Fantasy X and is an ambitious game that bites off a little more than it can chew and is just a little out of sync with the times. Still, it feels like game trying to push the genre forward in a way that the 16-bit throwback PS1 games didn’t. Suikoden IV feels like a game trying to keep up with the big boys of the genre, but manages to sand off a lot of what made the series unique. (I used to hate Suikoden IV, but while I still consider it the weakest mainline entry in the series, I’ve softened on it lately) Suikoden V, despite its charms, feels a bit like the series giving up and grasping at ties to the series most popular entry in an attempt to recapture its fans.

I don’t know if Suikoden V was truly low budget or if it only feels that way. I assume it didn’t have close to Final Fantasy money tossed around during development. It is riddled with bugs and inconveniences. But it also feels cheap because its odd camera angle. Suikoden V’s camera is static and position as close as they could get it to the 2D games. While the character models are fine, the how zoomed out everything is makes it feel really small. You can zoom the camera in, but it doesn’t change the angle, so it mostly just cuts off the player’s view. Everything about the game’s presentation screams reminders of Suikoden II. As a fan of that game, it is comforting, but it does little to account for the difference between 2D and 3D games. It just feels very low budget. The game also goes back to the six person party, but eschew’s the pairs system from Suikoden III, and most of that game’s skill system.

One of the strangest ways that Suikoden V echoes Suikoden II is that it has alternate Stars of Destiny. Among its 108 Stars, Suikoden II had a couple that were mutually exclusive. At one point the player has the option of picking one of two returning characters from the first game to be the representative of the Toran Republic, country where first game took place, the one you don’t choose never joins your army. There are also a trio of monsters to recruit, though only two of them get to be stars of destiny. As far as I recall, none of the other games do this. Except Suikoden V; it has a pair of mutually exclusive stars. Except having them be so doesn’t really make any sense. The two mutually exclusive stars are Eresh, a tiny mysterious wizard with ties to series mainstay Jeane and whole extra dungeon (extra section of dungeon) to flesh out her (?) story and Euram Barows, a secondary antagonist who plays a big role in the story from the start. Eresh is a side character with marginally more to do than the bulk of the lesser stars. Her and her connection to Jeane are some of the more interesting incidental parts of the game. Her dungeon, the big hole, is left completely unexplained if you do not recruit Eresh. Having her be an optional recruit, when there are so many lesser characters, is an odd choice. Making Euram an optional character does make sense, though his being optional kind of leave his arc potentially unresolved. Euram is a worthless little shit throughout the game, starting as an ineffectual ally before switching to an ineffectual nemesis. He starts the game in a position of power and loses everything, mostly through his own incompetence, but unless you make him the last recruit to your army, his story line just kind of disappears. His plots to discredit the protagonist have all failed, his father has been killed and his sister has disowned their family. Him joining up brings it all full circle, he has learned from his experiences and is ready to help fix things, if he doesn’t join he is just gone. I like that the game gives the player the choice whether to let Euram have his redemption or not, but the fact that adding his useless behind to the army means going without Eresh makes it a lopsided choice. It is a choice I believe the game would be better off without.

While the game doesn’t pick up on any of the big mysteries left simmering after the first three games, mostly dealing with the Harmonia and Pesmerga and Yuber, it does bring in some characters mostly because they were included in II. The big one is Georg Prime, who in both games is a serious badass. Basically the whole story of this game springs out of one detective investigation of Georg from II, which alludes to his history in Falena, which is one of the few mentions of the country before this game. V also returns Killey and Lorelai, a pair interested in the Sindar ruins. This is Lorelai’s third appearance in the series, but Killey had previously only appeared in II. The two of them are investigating the Sindar, a mysterious ancient race that is connected to the True Runes that end up important in most games in the series. While V offers no more answers than any game in the series, it at least gives a few clues.

At the point I am at in the game right now—I just saved the ravaged town of Lordlake and finally my army has a castle for its headquarters—it is clear that the pacing of events also echoes Suikoden II very closely. This is harder to define, but the rhythm of new area to story sequence to dungeon to army battle feels very familiar. This is where the game shines, I might like the protracted opening even if no one else does, but once the game gets past that and kicks into high gear it is one of the most enjoyable games on the PS2.

I still have a lot I want to write about with Suikoden V. The character Sialeeds, the story in general, some of my favorite minor characters. I feel like as soon as I publish this I am going to remember a lot of the stuff that connects this game specifically to Suikoden II and curse myself for not including it, but I’ll find a place to put it in.

Suikoden V: Opening

I am replaying Suikoden V; it seems impossible to me that this game is more than a decade old. I’ve recently been looking back on the PS2 era very fondly as I find myself increasingly out of sync with modern video games. It seems more and more that the games I like are on the margins of the gaming landscape and are slowly but surely disappearing. This feels odd to say with games I love, like Breath of the Wild and Monster Hunter World selling tons of copies, but those are more the exception than the rule. Over the last decade or so my interests have slowly but surely faded from prominence. Alternatively, maybe the stuff I liked was never really that popular. The Suikoden series, and Suikoden V in particular, are perfect examples of that. I consider Suikoden II to be on of the greatest games ever made, and while it is well regarded, it was always rare enough that many people haven’t even heard of it, let alone played it. The series seemed on the verge of breaking out in the PS2 era, but by the time Suikoden V was released in 2006 the PS3 was coming fast and a backwards looking game like it was almost perfectly designed to be ignored by the zeitgeist. Which it was; the game is more of a footnote for the series and the genre than anything else and I have long found that to be a great injustice.

Suikoden V is an awkward game that doesn’t get a lot of love. It tries to turn back to what people loved about Suikoden II after the largely disliked fourth entry in the series, but managed to feel cheap, untested, and unfinished. Still, there is a lot about the game that I genuinely love. I plan to write a lot about it; I have at least three posts planned as I work my way leisurely through the game and am likely to expand that to five or so. This post is going to be about probably the most maligned part of the game; its long, slow opening. Suikoden V does start slowly; depending on how one counts it, the game doesn’t really start for about 5 hours. On this playthrough it took me nearly 7 hours to get past the coup that serves as the game’s inciting incident. However, I think that becomes one of the game’s strengths as it goes along.

I have never been an opponent of games with slow openings. I will get into arguments with people who judge Zelda’s based on how long the games takes to give the player a sword. (Skyward Sword is mad underrated) Especially in the context of story heavy JRPGs, I think games that take few hours to set the table for a 70 hour game are usually using the player’s time wisely. I will point to the Persona series for games that do this well. A lot of Persona 4 happens before the player gets to the dungeon crawling. I don’t think any game does it much better than Suikoden V though. Yes, it takes more than half a dozen hours before the game puts the player in control of the usual Suikoden stuff like planning big battles and recruiting the members for the army. But those first few hours are not without their fair share of interesting gameplay and all of the story and character stuff it sets up makes the rest of the game all the more interesting.

There are essentially three parts to Suikoden V’s opening; a trip to survey the demolished town of Lordlake, the Sacred Games to choose the princess’s spouse and the trip to the sacred springs for a pre-marriage ritual. Each of these impart important knowledge on the player. The first shows how powerful the protagonist’s mother, Queen Arshtat, is with her Sun Rune. It shows the power she wields, or how that power wields her. It also lets the player know that something is wrong. Then there are the Sacred games, which more fully flesh out the political situation in the Queendom of Falena. It shows how the systems are corrupt and backwards, as well as how effective the eventual villains, the Godwins, are at manipulating things. Then there is the trip to the baths that is more character focused. It shows how much many people around the royal family have sacrificed to effect even a small change on the status quo, a change that is currently on the verge of disappearing. And after that, the game kicks into high gear.

These hours of set up are necessary to make the game work. If the game doesn’t give the player the opportunity to see the protagonist’s family and how they relate, then the loss of that family would have no sting. It is vital that players see how the Prince interacts with his sister the heir, with his mother and father, with the various members of the Queen’s Guards, including his ever present bodyguard Lyon. You meet the womanizing Kyle, the playful Miakis, the cold Zahhak and the nakedly ambitious Alenia. The core cast really makes it all work. There is the protagonist the Prince. He is always joined by Lyon, his young bodyguard who is soon revealed to have a mysterious past that Ferid, the Queen’s husband and father of the protagonist, saved her from. Then there is newcomer and all around badass Georg Prime, who’s amazing skills and lack of familiarity with the country each serve a purpose. And lastly is the Prince’s aunt, Sialeeds, who alternates between carefree playfulness and sardonic bitterness. Knowing what Sialeeds (more on her in a later post) has given up makes events that happen 30 or so hours down the line feel all the more tragic and inevitable.

It is not like the player is not playing the game at the time. Yes, the game gives the player no control over the party or any real access to the word map, but there are three or so dungeons in those first few hours and the protagonist should end it around level 20. It also introduces players to close to a quarter of the game’s extensive cast. (This is Suikoden, with its 108 Stars of Destiny) What makes it feel not a lot like really playing is that this is the largest portion of the game that gives the player access to Georg, one of the stars of the game and a brokenly badass fighter. He is unfairly good in combat, and seeing him make short work of every enemy you come across does a lot to sell him as the ultimate badass that he is, but it also means the fights don’t have a lot punch, as he can make short work of anything.

The game could have artlessly told the player these things; that is essentially how Suikoden I operated. That game got by on brevity; it can be completed in little more than a dozen hours. Suikoden V is attempting (I would say succeeding) in telling a story with more depth and nuance. It achieves that depth by slowly introducing the player to the world and the important characters in the drama to come. I can see how it could be off putting for new players, but anyone who sticks with the game through it is in for a treat.

The Quest 5: The Final Frontier

I was not sure that I was doing an update of The Quest this week, as I had made little progress, but two nights ago, I became so fed up with backtracking in Castlevania that I disgustedly put it back on the shelf. Ten minutes later Growlanser III joined, though for no specific reason, I just didn’t feel like playing it anymore right now. That left two slots for me to add games to my immediate playing schedule.

The first I added was Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. Fresh off seeing the fantastic Thor movie (review coming) I was hankering for some superhero smashing. Unfortunately, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance has now been added to the distressing list of games my PS2 just will not play. While this is disappointing, it is not as bad as some others are because my brother has the game for the PS3. I can just play it on that system later. So Marvel: Ultimate Alliance has been removed from the list.

I’ve also pulled Killer 7 and Star Ocean 3 from the shelf. I have not played Killer 7 enough to even begin to form an opinion on it, but so for I have enjoyed most of the other games from Grasshopper Manufacture and Suda 51, so I have high hopes. As for Star Ocean 3, I have played nearly halfway through that game over the last 4 or 5 years, but I have yet to really get the battle system. It looks like the Tales games, but it plays differently and it has just not clicked for me yet. I have managed to make it as far as I have on sheer determination and because I’m not stupid. If the rest of the game was more worth my time, I probably spent enough time to figure the game out, but the story is somewhat terrible and I hate the crafting. One more chance is all it gets.

I am still playing Tsugunai: Atonement. I have finally figured out how to enjoy that game. A couple times a week I play one of the games “missions.” Even if I am still enjoying playing at that point, I shut the game off. Tsugunai grates quickly, but has enough good ideas to be enjoyable in small chunks. It does mean that beating it will probably be a long time coming.

From now on, I will only update on mission to finish with all my Ps2 games if I have something to cross of the list, as I did this week with M:UA.

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The Quest 4: The Quest for Peace

I beat no games this week. I made progress on three, but there is not crossing something off the list this week. Tsugunai continues to be tolerable, but after 15 of the 34 quests, I feel I’ve seen just about everything this game has to offer. While the basics of the battle system is good, the fact that you never control more than one character makes it too simple. Growlanser III compliments it’s fun battle system by going out of its way to drain the fun out of it. When it shines through the crap it is great, but there is too much crap. Too much anime bullshit, Too much uneven difficulty and too much ridiculous battle restrictions.

I also started Casltevania: Lament of Innocence. It is the 2D handheld games perfectly transitioned to 3D. Unfortunately, as much as I like those Castlevania games, this is not a good thing. Since the castle is segmented, the fun of exploring it is curtailed. And 3D space makes the backtracking and constant combat a tedious chore. Still, the game is marginally enjoyable. The mediocre reviews it got on release were accurate. My current map completion percentage is about 55%, so I should definitely finish it up by next week.

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The Quest

I am tired of playing my PS2.  My PS2 has certainly seen better days.  It no longer plays DVDs, it has trouble with some games despite their pristine conditions.  It won’t recognize the lid is closed unless there are several games sitting on top of the system.  The system in definitely on its last legs.  As much as I love the old guy, I am ready to move on.  Honestly, for much of the last 2 years I have been done with it.  I have played my Wii and DS and recently my brother’s PS3.  But that PS2 stayed hooked up right next to others, waiting for me to finally come and finish off my PS2 library.  Well, that time is now.

Here is the list of PS2 games that I own but haven‘t beaten:

  1. Unlimited Saga
  2. Mark of the Kri
  3. Okage: The Shadow King
  4. ChoroQ
  5. Phantom Brave
  6. Chaos Legion
  7. Forever Kingdom
  8. Silent Hill 2
  9. Darkwatch
  10. Gungrave
  11. Shining Force Neo
  12. Genji
  13. Maximo
  14. Marvel Ultimate Alliance
  15. Front Mission 4
  16. Grim Grimoire
  17. Killer 7
  18. Star Ocean 3
  19. SMT Devil Summoner 2
  20. Shining Tears
  21. Growlanser 3
  22. Drakengard 2
  23. Castlevania:  Lament of Innocence
  24. Gun
  25. Tsugunai: Atonement
  26. Wild Arms 3
  27. SMT: Nocturne
  28. Rogue Galaxy
  29. Steambot Chronicles
  30. Bully
  31. The Thing
  32. Eve of  Extinction

32 games.  My goal is to beat or just remove every game on the list.  I intend to beat most of them, but I am sure there are some on the list I will never be able to.  I’m not just going to exclude games so that I can say I cleared the list, but neither am I going to spend a lot of time playing a game that I hate.

It is quite a list, but I can already thin it.  I beat Bully and Steambot Chronicles in the last week or so, so that removes them from the list.  And there are a couple to simply remove.  I have tried on at least 4 separate occasions to play Unlimited Saga, and every time quit frustrated.  It may be a worthwhile game once you get the hang of it, but I have wasted enough time on it already.  It is off.  And Phantom Brave, while a perfectly fine game is off as well.  I am removing Phantom Brave because I already played almost 2 thirds the way through it only to lose my save.  The day may come that I decide to replay Phantom Brave, but I did not like it well enough to play it through again.  So that is 4 games off the list, with 28 left to go.

I hope to have this list finished before the end of summer.  While there are quite a few RPGs on that list, I have played most of them extensively, so that is not an outrageous goal.   Right now I am playing Gun, a decent western GTA clone and Tsugunai: Atonement, an RPG from early in the PS2’s life from Atlus that is, through the first hour, completely mediocre.  Here I go.