I concluded my review of Suikoden II stating that “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.” Well, the rubber meets the road now that I’ve completed Suikoden III.
Without question, Suikoden III is a more ambitious game than its predecessors. Familiar themes of sovereignty, resistance, and brotherhood were explored amongst the backdrop of war, although this time through a novel multi-perspective approach. Achieved via the Trinity Sight System, I was given agency in determining how the storyline unfolded. Now, save for one moment around two-thirds through where I chose which of the three primary protagonists would be the “hero,” I didn’t have any impact on the events of the game, I merely controlled the order I wanted to experience them. In practice, this turned out to be a glorified chapter select menu.
Each of the primary protagonists had a trio of chapters unto themselves before their combined forces united against a common foe. There wasn’t a correct order to choose to get to that point, although following some confusion and difficulty early on, I learned there were better paths than others. I had completed the first chapter of Hugo’s storyline – he was the teenage son of a Grasslands clan chief, people historically on the receiving end of military aggression from large nations – and instead of transitioning to another character, I jumped right into his second chapter. Well, when this chapter concluded, even the game suggested I ought to slow things down a bit. And so I jumped into Chris’ storyline.
Following the death of a comrade, she had been thrust atop the chain of command for the mighty military arm of the mercantile Zexen Federation. She and her brothers-in-arms were noble warriors, but still beholden to the desires of the country’s politicians. Those in charge deemed it prudent to negotiate a peace treaty with the Grasslands, but corruption and misunderstandings escalated that event into a declaration of war. As the official envoy of his clan, Hugo was naturally on the other side of this situation and saw things in stark contrast to Chris. Understandably, their paths crossed a couple times in these foundational moments, and having to witness those scenes multiple times highlighted an inherent annoyance with this style of narrative progression.
There was additional context and previously unseen scenes added when these shared encounters occurred, but it often felt like the “new” content was immaterial. It’s not accurate to say these shared encounters padded out the game, but having to experience the same events multiple times over the course of a sixty hour JRPG didn’t leave me with warm fuzzies. It was reinvigorating, then, when I began Geddoe’s storyline. The leader of a mercenary unit from a neighboring country, Geddoe was the strong silent type with a mysterious past. As he and his lively band of mercenaries entered the fold from afar, crossed paths were somewhat delayed
Uncovering Geddoe’s mysterious past was a nugget entertaining enough to keep me interested in seeing things from his point of view, whereas there was a classic underdog impetus behind Hugo’s exploits. And with the Zexens positioned as antagonists of sorts, but Chris and her company trying to root out nefarious elements, her storyline had intrinsic sympathies yet the actions of her and her soldiers was often difficult to identify with. Not to mention the odd horniness they openly displayed towards her. While the multiple perspective story telling foreshadowed a lofty storyline, in the end it felt like a trio of by the numbers tales. There was another, however…
In addition to the three primary protagonists, there was also Thomas. This young man was meek, inexperienced, and unexpectedly given the responsibilities of managing a rundown, nearly deserted castle. Determined to recruit proprietors and make his castle town a hub of commerce, its operations eventually became a political football. In contrast to the others, Thomas’ storyline was brief, yet provided me the most entertainment. The castle management portions have always been light in the Suikoden games, and there’s no change here, but watching the folks I recruited liven up a place and make it a one-stop shop for my needs hasn’t grown old. It didn’t hurt that this was the first 3D installment.
Further exemplifying the ambition of this entry was the fact that it was the first in 3D, and on a new platform no less! This wasn’t the first PlayStation 2 game that Konami’s Tokyo branch developed, but following installments in their Pro Evolution Soccer and Tokimeki Memorial franchises, it was arguably the most impressive. Towns, dungeons, open fields, all were proportionately realistic and explored from a behind the back camera angle. A vibrant palette brought the game’s world and anime inspired character models to life in a manner clearly favoring a cartoonish, video game style over realism. This game looks like any number of other JRPGs from this era of consoles, but it’s a resplendent visual style I have such nostalgic fondness for.
The added dimension offered new storytelling techniques, allowing for more dynamic cutscenes in contrast to the top-down, textbox driven fare of the previous games. But this dynamism wasn’t confined to limited interaction moments. As I wandered about environments, the camera would pan, tilt, and zoom accordingly to interesting effect. One particularly memorable instance occurred when I entered a cave and the camera tilted to a low-angle, causing it to seem especially cramped and imposing. Conversely, because I couldn’t control the camera, there were times I overlooked something important, notably someone I could recruit! Having been informed of a reporter working in a fort, I searched what I believed to be every inch of that – very large – outpost, only to realize I didn’t walk in a corner of the mess hall. D’oh!
On the topic of recruiting, this hallmark was once again a highlight of my playthrough. Allies loyal to the cause numbered more than one hundred, with all manner of personality and purpose. Admittedly, most were optional, bit players with sparse contributions to overarching plot and little character development. Still, a majority of them could be added to my travelling party to engage in combat, so it’d have been silly not to try and recruit them all. Meanwhile, others operated shops or offered services back at the castle. Seeing how the events of this game took place around fifteen years after the previous game, and nearby to boot, there were a fair number of familiar faces as well, both friend and foe.
Whereas the battle system remained largely unchanged in the transition to Suikoden II, it was somewhat rethought here. My party still consisted of six members, arranged into two rows of three, but positioning wasn’t too important anymore. After I selected actions for the party members, they’d move around the battlefield to execute their directions as best as possible. As an example, if I told a sword wielder to attack an enemy on the far side of the battlefield, but my ally was slow, they may instead slice up a closer foe. As there wasn’t always especially clear guidance this added some unpredictability to battles, and I got bad turns every now and then, but it didn’t diminish my outlook too much. It was an interesting adaptation considering the transition to 3D, far more believable than having the character return to orderly formation after an attack, and repeat all over again on another turn.
For a third time now, I felt compelled to grind out levels with all available party members fairly equally, which had the added bonus of experimenting with many types of fighters and special attacks. New to this entry were rune and magic skills, which turned out to be a big time sink for me. I’m a sucker for progression systems in games – who doesn’t love watching numbers go up! – so the introduction of something else to min-max, in addition to character levels, weapon levels, and defensive gear meant I spent nearly a hundred hours with what should’ve been a seventy hour game, tops.
All characters had access to a pool of generic rune and magic skills (not to mention more unique skills that certain characters knew or learned), with varying degrees of proficiency with each. A magic user likely wouldn’t be able to attain a high grade with the (physical) Damage skill for instance, so it was more prudent to accentuate their spell craft. Going along with that, most every character could equip at least one rune, magical stones that granted a variety of effects, from the use of magic spells and unique special attacks, to standard buffs, like increased critical hit percentage. In practice, assigning and improving these skills and runes gave the impression of a job system.
Until the storylines of the primary protagonists merged, and I gained access to everyone I had recruited separately as Hugo, Chris, and Geddoe, I didn’t get to experience the best of what the castle had to offer, nor did I have a lineup of characters to experiment with party composition, or even min-max. Those early chapters were confining. The company these protagonists kept was plenty good, but it didn’t feel like a Suikoden game until those components were really in play. At that point though, I spent hours walking around the castle grounds, bouncing from one proprietor to another, then grinding levels and skills, and looking for more allies out in the world. The mental task list I maintained at all times was a mile long, not unlike a session of Animal Crossing, where I’m always (and with enjoyment) completing what amounts to chores.
Despite suffering recency bias, where the last thing I experienced was the best, I’m going to hedge myself a bit in regards to Suikoden III. Its multi-perspective storytelling was novel, but no one thread had the emotional resonance as the yin and yang kinship of Riou, Jowy, and Nanami from Suikoden II. Their dynamic, along with the utter brutality of Luca Blight, admittedly will be difficult for most anything to top. On the other hand, this game’s layers of character progression offered a to-date series peak that appealed to me in a big way. I dug into those systems with a big ol’ shovel and struck gold, as evidenced by my frankly excessive hour count. And for what it’s worth, JRPGs of this era don’t have to do much more than look exactly like this game to appeal to me, either. As a sum of its parts, Suikoden II is arguably the better game, but regardless of recency bias, Suikoden III is my favorite (so far).