Where to begin? For the past 17 years I’ve heard people rave about Suikoden II as one of the best games they’ve ever played, claims that became increasingly difficult to believe as time went on. Particularly in light of the ridiculous $100+ prices the increasingly rare copies were fetching. It seemed more likely that it would be one of those good games which a lot of people played when they were young and impressionable, with the ensuing nostalgia gradually elevating it to the status of unquestionable masterpiece.
But against all odds it is indeed a masterpiece, even if it is also in some respects more flawed than its predecessor. I thought I had seen almost all you could do with the traditional JRPG formula, yet Suikoden II kept catching me off guard, taking itself in bold, unexpected directions. There were moments when I audibly gasped.
Suikoden II picks up a few years after the first game with more than a few recurring characters and continued plot threads. In spite of that, the overarching plot of the game is self-contained. And I think this is one of the best ways to handle a direct sequel: veterans have the pleasure of seeing some familiar faces as well as all the various shout-outs and references, while newcomers won’t feel left in the dark.
Like the first game, the second is all about one young man’s rise to political power through martial conflict, and in that respect there’s a certain procedural quality to it: the plot get set up, you get a castle, recruit as many people as you can, go on quests to consolidate your forces and eventually win the war.
Instead of being about an insurrection, the game is focused this time on a war of aggression by the Highland nation against the City-States of Jowston. Both nations have a long history of conflict, with one unscrupulous Highlander general by the name of Luca Blight taking advantage of the situation to carry out his own personal vendetta.
The player’s character is a Highlander who finds himself in exile along with his best friend, Jowy. Jowy is a very special character, in that the game almost treats him as a second protagonist: he has the exact same goals as the player, and the story is also about his own rise to power as he pursues those goals. The difference is one of method, with the player taking upon a much more traditional, “heroic leader” role while Jowy throws himself into Machiavellian realpolitik.
This is where Suikoden II outshines most video game stories: the evil of Luca is really just a catalyst for the real conflict of political ideology that is at the heart of the game. It’s about the conflict between well-intentioned people who nevertheless have differing loyalties and irreconcilable understandings of what the good is. The game asks the player to consider whether the protagonist, or Jowy is justified in their actions (or both? Neither?), and to think about the moral weight of crossing swords with an enemy who is, at the end of it all, just another human being. Although Luca is an absolute jerk, it becomes increasingly hard as the story progresses to be able to point out any single Emperor Palpatine-style mastermind villain who can be defeated for a happy ending.
At the same time it continues the tonal balancing act of the first game by not succumbing to the temptation of making everyone into anti-heroes and rubbing our noses in the awfulness of it all. Heroism and military daring are celebrated, even as the game pulls no punches in depicting the tragedy of war. It avoids a lot of the trends which Tom Wolfe described in his foreward to The Right Stuff:
Immediately following the First World War a certain fashion set in among writers in Europe and soon spread to their obedient colonial counterparts in the United States. War was looked upon as inherently monstrous, and those who waged it – namely, military officers – were looked upon as brutes and philistines. The tone was set by some brilliant novels; among them, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Journey to the End of the Night, and The Good Soldier Schweik. The only proper protagonist for a tale of war was an enlisted man, and he was to be presented not as a hero but as Everyman, as much a victim of war as any civilian. Any officer above the rank of second lieutenant was to be presented as a martinet or a fool, if not an outright villain, no matter whom he fought for. The old-fashioned tale of prowess and heroism was relegated to second- and third-rate forms of literature, ghost-written autobiographies and stories in pulp magazines on the order of Argosy and Bluebook.
The thought underpinning the trend is easy to understand: the use of heroic tropes in a war story risks making it into a glamorization of war, and the post-trenches, post-Hiroshima world can no longer abide by that.
But at the same time there’s also the danger of growing indifferent to the virtue being celebrated in the first place. And also, in actual practice, the stern moralizing often comes down to, “feel free to enjoy this ultraviolent war game/movie/book, but on the proviso that we make you feel slightly guilty for doing so.”
But I digress.
Suikoden II’s war story is so affecting also because the characters are just so darn likable. Even if the absurdly large cast means a lot of characters get painted broadly, it’s clear that a lot of work went into making each one stick in the mind. A lot of the emotion comes from all the small connections you make over the course of the game (and in this respect playing the first game does help, as it gives a bit of a “getting the old gang back together again” feel to some of the recruiting), which in turn serves to make the world feel real and the scope suitably large.
The game plays the same as its predecessor, which means that it’s fairly bread-and-butter turn based fare. And, like its predecessor, its appeal lies mainly in the large cast of recruitable characters and in the general zippyness of its combat, and its avoidance of a lot of JRPG pitfalls (long sessions of tedious busywork, obtuse and overcomplicated skill systems, etc.) But the interface has been given tweaked to be considerably more user friendly than it was.
Which leads me to the art design: as with the first game, it almost entirely consists of 2D sprites. This was folly by 1999 standards, but has helped keep the game looking good for the past 17 years. This is a very pretty game, with an astonishing level of detail given to the animation that you’d never see in a 16 bit title. Like Odin Sphere, it makes me think of what things could have looked like if so many AAA developers weren’t so quick to abandon sprite art.
The prettiness also continues to the music, which is amazing, and a definite improvement over the first game, which I found to have some rather bland tunes.
In a way, the game’s own dramatic deftness is symbolized by the battle music. The normal battle track is well done, standard JRPG fare. Since you’re going to be listening to it all the time, it needs to sound fresh and exciting. And it does.
Then there’s the boss fight track. But instead of being a separate composition, it’s actually a cleverly manipulated form of the normal battle track: after an initial sting, the normal battle track has a brief, “DUN DUN DUN DUN” rhythm which helps ratchet up the tension before the melody kicks in. The boss theme simply drops the melody and allows the rhythm to keep hammering away. Because you’ve already been trained to expect a quick resolution, it becomes unnerving to hear the rhythm and beat without the expected melody, giving the combat a greater sense of danger.
As mentioned, Suikoden II also has its flaws. The general M.O. for the team was to be bigger and badder than the first game in almost every way. In most respects this pays off, but there are also some instances where it backfired.
Part of the charm of the original was its leanness: it didn’t waste any time and always just cut right to the chase. Suikoden II, by contrast, has some typical JRPG bloat. The plot sometimes dawdles, the dungeons sometimes feel a bit same-y and repetitive, etc. The pacing is still on the whole quite good; it’s just less economical this time around.
Also, although I failed to mention it in my previous posts, one of the innovations of the Suikoden franchise was the inclusion of large, army battles in addition to the usual RPG combat. These play out at key moments in the story and help reinforce the scope of the conflict. In the first game, they were short affairs that operated under a basic rock-paper-scissors mechanic.
In the second game, however, they play out like a mini, grid-based tactical RPG in its own right. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with this, except that it’s not fully realized: these battles are much, much longer, but there isn’t enough complexity or depth to them for you to truly feel engaged. As a result, they can get tedious when they drag on.
Lastly, the North American localization is pretty terrible, being rife with awkward, borderline nonsensical lines of dialogue, as well as amateur levels of typos. The original also had these same problems, but that was 1995. By 1999, Konami already had Metal Gear Solid under their belt, so I feel a lot less forgiving to the shoddy work.
Nevertheless these gripes are pretty minor considering that the rest of the package is one of the best JRPGs I’ve ever played. And it’s one that I feel I’ve only scratched the surface of: I missed almost half of the cast on this playthrough, missed an entire, game-spanning quest that you apparently get if you have a perfect save file from the first game, missed a whole Iron Chef style minigame and subplot…..
And then there are the remaining three Suikoden games.