I am already playing Suikoden II.
Part of this is because the original Suikoden is a rather short RPG. But another part is because somewhere, in the middle of it, my opinion switched from, “this is a solid game, but maybe this ship has already sailed,” to: “I am completely on board this boat and am riding it through the storm.”
Once I adjusted to it, I realized that the game fell into an almost miraculous JRPG goldilocks zone where almost everything was just right. Suikoden’s craftsmanship is so assured that it doesn’t feel the need to call attention to itself; you almost don’t notice it until you realize that it’s quietly accomplishing what so many games attempt to attain with grand, stylistic flourishes. It reminded me of why I fell in love with the medium in the first place.
As mentioned in my original post, Suikoden’s premise is pretty boilerplate fantasy: you lead a rebellion against an evil empire. A magic macguffin is involved. Your father is on the side of the enemy. And, as pointed out, the salient difference is the story’s focus on the practical side of running an insurrection.
But what I now see in hindsight is how thoroughly this permeates the game’s design philosophy: everything you do is ultimately about either consolidating your power, making advances on the empire’s territory, or defending against the empire’s own attacks.
This seems kinda small, it kinda cuts to the heart of all the arguments over games increasingly emulating movies: the problem isn’t the use of cinematic technique, or cutscene length, or whatnot. But rather how so many narrative, or ‘cinematic’ games place all of their storytelling cards in the non-interactive stuff and forget that the gameplay has at least an equal role in pushing the narrative forward. This creates that weird feeling of disconnect between what you’re doing and what you’re watching (Xenogears is a big offender in this regard).
Suikoden is centered on the protagonist’s transformation from a young, inconspicuous aristocrat into a major political and military figure who ultimately brings the state to its knees. It’s about the sacrifices and evils involved in civil war, about where you draw the moral lines in combat. All of it hits home because you spend the game doing all this stuff. Although, as a linear RPG, you’re not given much wiggle room in terms of your own choices, the main character’s arc still feels like ‘yours’ because it matches the arc of the game you’ve been playing.
And that’s a beautiful thing.
Notable also is how the game is able to commit itself to this sort of story without becoming cynical about it. I’ve heard people describe Suikoden as a game less about good vs. evil than it is about opposing sides of a political conflict, but I don’t think that’s quite true. The overall tone of the game is one of swashbuckling adventure, where heroism is celebrated, and evil is a force to be reckoned with. It’d be more correct to say that Suikoden avoids the deception of painting its villains as being different in kind than the heroes: most of the major antagonists are ultimately well-intentioned people who have become agents of evil through their own moral choices, with the more conventionally ‘pure evil’ characters being restricted to supernatural beings – vampires, witches, etc.
It’s a lot more profound of a meditation on military conflict than The Phantom Pain was, and it did it with a script that could easily have fit on an SNES cartridge.
And it also manages to be fun. It never gets caught up in its own pretensions or takes itself so seriously that it forgets to entertain you. It’s kind of like how Mad Max: Fury Road had a pretty strong feminist subtext, but it never, ever, felt the need to stop being a kickass car chase movie in order to make sure you got the memo.
Mechanically, it hits the essential note: it’s an RPG that’s breezy without being mindless. It rewards you for understanding how it works, rather than for how much time you spent doing tedious, repetitive tasks. There’s almost nothing about its turn-based combat, or its D&D style magic that’s notably original or groundbreaking, but it executes it quite well.
My only complaints remain the same as in my original post: the production values are nil (although in spite of that, I do dig the game’s art style a lot), and the archaic interface can at times be vexing. It’s old enough that the developers didn’t care about some of the smaller, quality-of-life issues, e.g. hope you didn’t leave any important items on the inventory of that character who just took a vacation! These issues can be deal-breaking for people.
But what if they made a sequel that addressed my complaints while simultaneously raising the bar on all the aspects that the original did well? First impressions suggest that Suikoden II may be just that. Could it…could it really be the, “best JRPG evurr” after all these years? I may be a true believer after all.