Suikoden II lives up to the hype. Having heard its praises sung for years, I’ve long been interested in playing it, and the series as a whole. The recent announcement of a spiritual successor reignited my desire to jump in, and I found the first game quite enjoyable. Suikoden II though, is an improvement in almost every regard. Like its predecessor, the developers adapted gameplay systems and formulas common to traditional Japanese role-playing games – think turn-based battles and town-dungeon-town progression – but did so with their own twist.
Once again, the biggest draw was this game’s large cast of characters, including more than 108 recruitable allies. These so-called Stars of Destiny joined the cause in a variety of ways, from simple feats of strength to brief sidequests. Keeping track of potential recruits and successfully convincing them to join was a highlight. The majority of these folk could venture alongside the protagonists and participate in combat. Experimenting with different party compositions in the hunt for multi-character Unite Attacks was fun, but so too was simply grinding levels with the abundance of allies. I had a core group of mainstays that I used when it came time to advance the story, but when exploring, I liked to rotate in new faces and try to keep everyone about the same level.
Structurally, there weren’t any changes to the battle system. The turn-based combat was identical as it was in the first game; it was still fast-paced, and with elemental magic, featured the basic strategy considerations of weaknesses and resistances. That said, with the exception of tougher fights, like those against hulking bosses, I favored the auto-attack feature. Because I was diligent in keeping my allies leveled, well-armored, and their weapons sharp, they were resilient enough to wallop most enemies with standard attacks and not take too much damage themselves. After all, having to input commands for six people, turn after turn, could get tedious.
In comparison to the regular battles, massive army battles were completely rethought. Previously, they were little more than a prettied up game of rock, paper, scissors. And, thanks to my penchant for recruiting, they were cakewalks. This time around, these fights resembled a tactical RPG, like Fire Emblem. They were however, and this was a baffling surprise, utter garbage. The grouped units I commanded could be customized with the soldiers I’d recruited, which dictated the combined force’s offense, defense, and any special abilities. But when they clashed with enemy units, this didn’t seem to matter. Instead, the outcome was based almost solely on luck. There were, like, twenty of these army battles across my sixty hour playthrough, and the overwhelming majority of clashes ended with no change to either participating group. Frustratingly, these battles were just feats of attrition, spending turn after turn waiting for luck to be in my favor.
Not every recruit was a warrior, but that didn’t make them less important to the cause. In the ever expanding headquarters of the growing army, there was a need for all manner of occupation, like blacksmiths, farmers, and detectives. These non-combat roles offered the services that eventually made headquarters a one-stop shop for all my needs. I no longer needed to fast travel to a particular town because they had an adept blacksmith. And some of these blue-collar jobs introduced fun minigames. The chef for example, was routinely hounded by rival chefs. I’d assist him in full-course cook-offs, trying my best to appease the randomly selected panel of judges based on their personal tastes. Chinchirorin, the dice minigame that funded my army in the first game returned, but I didn’t find it to be as prosperous. Instead, I devoted much time scurrying between trading posts, tracking prices with a spreadsheet, and profiting.
The impetus for these characters to join forces wasn’t too different from what caused the Toran Liberation Army to materialize just a few years prior. The Northern Continent was once again beset by war, although this time it was the aggressive actions of the Highland Empire and their mad prince Luca Blight, rather than an internal civil war. Wanting to prove his and his country’s might, Luca lead his troops into the neighboring City-States of Jowston, razing settlement after settlement and mercilessly slaughtering all. He was a startlingly evil adversary, whose every action conveyed a lack of humanity and morality. He was one-track minded in his pursuit of power, and the subjugation of the City-States.
Surprisingly, the game didn’t conclude with his death. When he did eventually perish at the hands of the Dunan Army about forty hours into my playthrough, the Empire continued their conquest unabated. Seemingly fated to clash, a group of friends who escaped Highland and purposelessly aided the infantile resistance early on wound up on opposite sides of the war. Unsurprisingly, I controlled a silent protagonist who, like Tir in the first game, assumed a leadership role in the fledgling resistance. Intriguing though, was the development of his childhood friend and traveling partner for a significant amount of the game, Jowy, allying with the Empire, and rising to a leadership role himself. While the overarching storyline of war, of a resistance with the odds stacked against them surviving against a behemoth was standard fare, the manner in which war affected the interpersonal relationships of Riou and Jowy, and the former’s older sister Nanami, and how they labored over their supposed destinies was pretty emotional. I was really rooting for a breakthrough that allowed them to end their aggressions.
In terms of fleshing out not just the primary protagonists and antagonists, but also the secondary and tertiary characters who contributed in some way, however small, Suikoden II shined. The Stars of Destiny that I recruited, fought alongside, and spoke to while wandering headquarters were more than NPCs, they were integral parts of a resistance, and one of the best aspects of this game. Turn-based combat, though unchanged from the previous iteration, was solid, and fueled many satisfying journeys grinding experience and money. In contrast, the developers totally bungled the army battles. The prospect of tactical, grid-based battles in addition to everything else the game offered had me overjoyed, but the execution was just so frustratingly poor. Despite this blemish, Suikoden II was fantastic. It’s tale of war, viewed from macro and micro perspectives, was better executed than its predecessor, and one that I’ll inevitably judge its successors upon.