Suikoden V

As I approached the end of Suikoden V I began to feel increasingly wistful. I slowed down with playing the game, somewhat sad to end it. Mostly because I am fairly certain that this is the last time I will have the time to play through this game. My time for video games is limited and I likely will not have another 50 hours to put into what is honestly a fairly mediocre game. No matter how much I like it overall, I can’t deny the technical deficiencies that make the game something of chore to play at times. If in the future I have time to replay a game, I don’t think I am going to choose this one. Not when I could play Suikoden 2 or any number of SNES or PS1 games.

That doesn’t change my belief that Suikoden V is a very worthy game. It is. It’s plot and it general vibe I find incredibly enjoyable. I like large parts of what it does mechanically, pulling back from the mess that was Suikoden III’s battle system, but keeping a few if its twists to add to the classic formula. The addition of formations instead of just having two lines, making it easier to use the party members you want to use. The war system is a good evolution of what has been an afterthought in most of the series. The final dungeon finally does something interesting with the mass of characters that the player has recruited. That dungeon is right out of Final Fantasy VI, requiring the player to fill out three full six person parties to each tackle a different branch of the twisting maze of a dungeon. It is honestly pretty great. The game doesn’t prepare the player for anything like it. That multiple party set up happens repeatedly throughout Final Fantasy VI before culminating in the massive final dungeon. Here, the game just kind of springs it on you. Still, it is more good than bad. It just feels like an idea that could have been carried through the entire game instead of a one time expansion.

The ending of the story is kind of abrupt. The Prince and his forces have very few setbacks once he starts actually fighting. There is a final desperate gambit by the Godwins (I refuse to believe that name is a coincidence) that never seems close to working even as the Prince is forced to abandon his castle. Mostly because it turns the powerful dragon cavalry against his enemies. Otherwise, there are just so many unforced errors by the Godwins, choices that do nothing to advance their avowed cause but do help turn people against them, that the Princes victory seems inevitable.

The inevitability is part of what sent Sialeeds to the other side, as she switched sides mostly out of a desire to use the civil war as a way to do away with as many of the backstabbing nobles as possible. The fast resolution that the Prince was bringing things to would not have done solve the root problem. Of course, the game doesn’t really show that, it leaves it to interpreting one or two scenes and some incidental dialogue.

The end then comes as something of an anti-climax, with the villain finally discovering a way to use the Sun Rune without attaching it to anyone and the Prince having to stop him before he can do so. There is something off when the Prince sees visions of the people he lost along the way, his parents and his aunt most prominently, but also includes some of the villains. It strikes me as an odd touch to deliberately portray the villains as fascists then also show them smiling in heaven at the end, as though the game believes the villain’s assertions that there is little difference between them and the Prince, since they both want what is best for Falena, even though the Prince has prevented at least two genocides during the game.

One place the game unfortunately shines is in its cast and how ripe for further adventures they seem. The game almost seemed to be setting up a sequel following characters like Shula to Armes. Shula and his two aides/bodyguards are interesting characters that join very late in the proceedings. They feel like there is much more to learn about them, but they play a very small role here. I really like the cast of this game and was left wanting to see more from many of them, mostly in a good way. I’ve already written about how much I like Sialeeds, but there are plenty of other favorites. I like the family from Raftfleet; Logg, Lun and Kisara. It is kind of a sitcom family dynamic, but he can see why these characters work together. Kisara is the second command of Raftfleet, spending most of her time Raja. She is serious and respected. Her husband Logg and daughter Lun are introduced as something of joke characters. But as the game goes on you see the worth of Logg. He shows his bravery and his talents, being repeatedly relied on for dangerous missions involving boats and having a knack for getting things he is not supposed to. It is easy to see how Lun is caught in between her somewhat piratical, adventurous father and her respected mother. She wants to live up to both of her parents, and the game shows her at least partly on the way to doing so. I am also a fan of Nikea, Oboro and Dinn. I don’t think this cast overtakes the one from Suikoden II as my favorite, but there is a lot to like.

All the things I like is what makes this playthrough so bittersweet. I am fairly certain I will never play this game again. Which means I will never see the rest of the various interstitial scenes with these characters. I will never track down all the hidden things stuffed into the corners of this game. It isn’t just this game; I seriously doubt that I will have much time for a lot of time for replaying, or even playing for the first time, games I’ve played over the last ten or so years. That means those games will not have the time to cement themselves as favorites like a lot of my favorite games on early Nintendo and Sega systems have. I don’t foresee a time when I will go more than a couple of years without running through Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VI. I doubt I will ever touch many PS2 games again. But I am glad I took Suikoden V out for one last spin. It isn’t a classic. It isn’t great. It is somewhat underrated and a worthy successor to the Suikoden series one great game. I don’t harbor much hope that it will ever be accessible, but I hope a few more people give it a chance.

Advertisements

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.

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.