If you could glean anything from my Kickstarter pledge history, it’s that I’m fond of video games. A closer inspection would reveal a narrower common thread: I’m especially fond of Japanese video games! Following a string of high profile campaigns in 2012, the crowdfunding site saw its legitimacy grow in the industry. In the years since, a number of well known Japanese designers have turned to it to revitalize the types of games they once made, such as Keiji Inafune with Mighty No. 9, or Koji Igarashi with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. The latter is still on my backlog, and from all accounts is a worthy successor the Castlevania series while Mighty No. 9… well, the less said about it, the better. In a similar vein, Yu Suzuki was able to bring Shenmue III to fruition, which I loved! And that’s probably the most important aspect of these campaigns in particular: they’re reviving something beloved, that’s been absent for one reason or another. Well, as of August 29, 2020, there’s one more project can be added to that list: Eiyuden Chronicle: Hundred Heroes.
Spearheaded by Rabbit & Bear Studios, a Japanese developer presided over by Yoshitaka Murayama, the creator of the revered Suikoden series of RPGs, Eiyuden Chronicle clearly serves as a spiritual successor to that long dormant series. Unique amongst Japanese RPGs for their large cast of recruitable allies, expansive bases of operations, and mix of large and small scale warfare, the Suikoden games incorporated many gameplay systems, often with great success. The second game is especially treasured, frequently cited as one of the greatest RPGs of all time, although the series eventually fell victim to less enthusiastic reception, slumping sales, and perhaps this says it all, arguable mismanagement by Konami. Yep, Suikoden is yet another Konami IP that has fallen to the wayside as their business interests have shifted. But it wasn’t always so.
The original Suikoden debuted on the PlayStation in Japan on December 15, 1995, a little more than a year after the console’s release. It arrived in North America on December 28, 1996, and a few months later in Europe. It was one of the first RPGs on the platform, launching just after Sony’s Beyond the Beyond (developed by Camelot Software Planning) but well before Square’s megaton Final Fantasy VII. That title ushered in a new age of Japanese RPGs; one focused on extravagant FMV cutscenes, highly detailed pre-rendered backgrounds, and of course, the use of 3D polygonal graphics. Suikoden featured… none of this; visually, it had more in common with the Super Nintendo RPGs that came before. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The developers at Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo crafted a massive number of large, great looking sprites, utilized a combat system featuring upwards of twelve participants, and managed to do it all with a solid frame rate.
As so many do, this JRPG put me in the role of a resistance leader fighting against insurmountable odds. My character’s father was one of the Five Great Generals of the Scarlet Moon Empire. Less than a decade earlier, their troops won the Succession War, which saw Barbarossa Rugner claim the throne. He ruled in such a way that the respect and admiration of his countrymen was well-earned, but more recently… well, he didn’t seem to be himself. In short order, my avatar and his close-knit group of comrades learned that the court magician, Windy, was not who she claimed to be. She was powerful, yet craved more, and had manipulated leadership to her purposes. She sought the Soul Eater, one of the 27 True Runes, objects which contained godlike powers. With it in her possession, she’d have unmatched power, and could once and for all smite those responsible for the destruction of her village and people.
Despite the familial connection to the Empire, my avatar and his friends couldn’t deny that the rebels seemed to be the true force for good in their country. They joined the small band of insurgents, the so-called Liberation Army, and under the leadership of my character, bolstered their number and became a legitimate threat to the Empire. While the overarching narrative framing is commonplace within the genre, Suikoden set itself apart with its scale. As the commander of the rebellion and star of the show, I recruited all manner of folks to the cause. The game followed a typical town-dungeon-town format, but in between story beats I focused on revisiting settlements and recruiting named characters from all walks of life, like pirates, chefs, and shop owners. Taking inspiration from the 14th century Chinese novel Water Margin, there were 108 Stars of Destiny to recruit. Once recruited, these folks populated the Liberation Army’s mountain base and made it a one-stop shop for everything I could need. The majority of them could also accompany me in battle.
Unlike most JRPGs, which feature a battle party of three or four allies, I could fight with up six in this game. Their battle formation consisted of two rows of three, and I arranged them based on their weapon range: short, medium, or long. A larger party meant for more button inputs when planning out a turn, but the combat system wasn’t especially complex. Battles were old-fashioned turn-based affairs, where order was strictly based on a character’s speed stat. Besides genre standards like attacking, defending, and using an item, characters could also use special abilities if they were equipped with a rune. Runes granted all sorts of perks, from the use of elemental attacks and healing spells to passive abilities like being able to run in villages and dungeons or increasing the chance of landing a critical hit. Additionally, if specific characters were paired up in battle, a powerful unite attack could be performed. These were among the strongest actions that could be used in battle, and it was fun to experiment with the dozens of party members I recruited.
Finding and recruiting the 108 Stars of Destiny gave me similar vibes to catching them all in a Pokémon game. Both are simple in premise, but a little tougher in practice. In the case of this game, it wasn’t always as simple asking someone to join the cause. Oftentimes, I had to convince them join; sometimes it was a show of force, other times it was merely having a friend of theirs tag along. The base grew as I recruited more, and it was always a treat to scour the multiple floors in search of the new blood. One of the recruits offered teleportation to any previously visited location, while another gave my character an item that teleported back to the base; this system of quick travel was invaluable to my experience. So too, was the gambling minigame another recruit offered. Big money was won and lost easily, and I reset dozens of times in chase of a hot streak. With these proceeds, I outfitted the troops with defensive gear and sharpened their weapons.
Over the course of my thirty-seven hour playthrough, the Liberation Army met the Empire in about a dozen large-scale clashes. These major battles pitted thousands of troops against each other, and played out like a match of rock, paper, scissors. As commander, I issued one of three general orders: a charging infantry attack, a ranged bow and arrow attack, or a ranged magic attack. Each of these was strong against one, and weak against the other. Further complementing this combat system were a few tertiary commands, like having spies infiltrate the enemy to learn their next command. These battles further played up the scale of conflict better than many other RPGs, but were somewhat rudimentary and stakes free. I only ever lost one major battle, and it was my first. I learned quickly following that defeat, and my recruiting efforts paid off: I could do poorly for a few turns and still win based on my soldier count.
On the narrative front, I didn’t find Suikoden especially compelling. It was a familiar story of rebellion with an impressively large cast, but most character development was limited to a handful of players, not unlike most JRPGs. Despite the fact that most only received a handful of paragraphs fleshing out their personalities, the 108 Stars of Destiny were the highlight of the game for me. It was rewarding to meet potential recruits, document what they required to join the Liberation Army, and then fulfill their request hours later. And watching the base expand and fill out with merchants, folks offering services, and many more was just plain cool. Gameplay, e.g. exploration and combat, was solid but like the narrative, not spectacular. I never hit a wall where it seemed like I needed to grind for hours, for which I’m grateful, but there were some challenging fights where I actually needed to strategize; that included major battles, which were neat and played up the scale of conflict, but pretty simple.
All in all, Suikoden laid a solid foundation, and I’m still just as eager to continue on with the series as when I started. Here’s hoping the eventual release of Eiyuden Chronicle: Hundred Heroes reaches the same level of success, or more!