Suikoden V: 108 samurai. Or knights, ninjas, riflemen, whatever.

, | Game diaries

From a gameplay perspective, saying there are 108 characters in a Suikoden game really means there are 60 to 80 benchwarmers once you subtract non-combat, non-support characters who are just there to serve as shopkeepers and other RPG jobs for your army. Some have common jobs like innkeeper. Some have uncommon jobs like elevator bellman, gardener, or the orchestra conductor who’s the music playback menu in disguise. Some such as series vet Jeanne do double duty as party member and vendor. Though Jeanne was already doing double duty as rune vendor and sex object. Story wise though, every character contributes at least a bit part. There are quite a few characters with subplots and character arcs. Everyone else at least has unique dialog and portraits, making this one of the few RPGs where the merchant peons have personality. The merchants that are part of your army, that is.

After the jump, why I love the beavers

The benchwarmers redeem their gameplay value somewhat during the army battles. Over the course of the story you have to fight several battles in a simple but fun RTS sequence. The units are fixed, but recruits will grant passive or limited use abilities when assigned to another unit. There are three land unit types: archers, infantry, and cavalry, and of course there’s a rock paper scissors relationship between them. And then there are three naval unit types with the same deal. The only hard part is each unit has to be moved individually, with no pause function. This makes the battles that have the enemy coming at you frustrating, and the ones where they sit around waiting merely a chore. When two units meet, the game cuts to a quick close up of the action. The defeated unit takes heavier casualties and is forced to flee in a random direction away from the engagement. Once a unit loses all its men, it’s gone forever.

Can you use nunchucks in Skyrim? Not without a crappy mod installed, you can't!

Consequently, the most useful character ability by a million miles is the restore magic which ‘heals’ a unit, or more like ‘resurrects’, because it brings back dead members, restoring a unit that’s been worn down by attrition towards its original strength. Most of the time all I have to do is take a fresh unit and ram it into a unit it’s strong against repeatedly until they’re dead , then repeat. A unit will always be routed by a unit it’s weak against, so Suikoden V would make for an amusing multiplayer RTS. With restore I can get incredible mileage out of one unit and use it to decimate three or four enemy units. Things only get complicated when there’s a traffic jam of enemy units, meaning I can’t attack a weak unit without coming dangerously close to a unit that’s strong against me. Then I might have to actually make a two- or three-pronged attack, or use my favorite tactic of attacking a weak unit then backpedaling while another unit type moves in to attack a unit it’s strong against. It helps that enemy cavalry likes to run ahead of the pack, so my archers can slaughter the would-be vanguard before withdrawing behind infantry and cavalry.

The cavalry thought they were hot shit. Then they took an arrow in the knee.

Suikoden V has the gall to stage many simultaneous naval and land battles, with the enemy rapidly closing on both fronts, so I can’t just park the navy or foot soldiers while I fight one battle at a time. Naval battles get a lot easier once I get dragon cavalry, who are amphibious units, and beavers, who are the most fearsome of all. They’re both slow in water, and beavers are slow on land, but they’re strong against all ships. Best of all, the beavers have the special ‘gnaw’ ability, where they circle a ship like sharks and then chew into it around the waterline. I am not making this shit up. For some reason they’re strong against ships even when you run out of ‘gnaws’ and have to attack normally. Sadly, during the closeup of their boarding action you don’t see them tail slapping and gnawing sailors.

The army during a reconnaissance in force near Stormfist. I don't know what that means, I just like saying "reconnaissance in force".

The other respite from standard JRPG combat comes from duels, another series standard. It’s another rock paper scissors deal where — get this — you ‘duel’ another character. You select attack, defend, or special move, while your opponent does the same. And each option defeats one option, but is also defeated by another option, blah blah blah. To prevent this from being a total crap shoot, every opponent has a tell where they loudly hint their next move with dialogue like “Let’s see how you handle this, punk!”. The lines for a pending attack sound like they’re just toying with you, whereas special move lines tend to sound like they’ve just finished inputting the button presses for a Mortal Kombat fatality. If you both attack, a meter appears and you have to button mash to overpower the enemy.

The duels in the Playstation 2 Suikodens may be the only improvement over the last Playstation 1 Suikoden,, which was part II. On the PS1 the developers reused the 2D sprites and animations for both combatants, and zoomed in real close to make them look especially crappy. The PS2 games have 3D models, so they can show some slick looking martial arts. Everything else in Suikoden V is 2D gameplay rendered in 3D, last and least of which is the party combat.

The random battles in the PS1 games are praised for being lightning quick, which is another way of saying the dull parts go by quicker. It’s like when the Ultima games realized their combat sucked, and made part VII realtime so you could hit the tab key and wait for it to be over in 5 seconds (120 seconds if you played on a 386). The Suikoden games even have an ‘auto’ option, so you don’t have to give individual orders. Unfortunately, in the PS2 games, loading times have gone up by a factor of two, making things more monotonous. The random battles aren’t so bad when you first start. They just get old quickly. That’s why I use the champion and fortune orbs to skip as much of them as possible and get to the moderately more entertaining boss battles.

Beating bosses just takes good preparation in most RPGs. You certainly have a lot of choices in forming and outfitting your party in a Suikoden game, but they don’t matter because there’s a setup that works like a charm every game. All you have to do is stick one or two magic characters (they’ll have a high magic attack and appropriate back story) with a trusty thunder rune or a rare orb like the pale gate (only select magic users can use these) in the back, stick some good fighters in the front, then put a water or flowing rune on one or two hybrid characters who are decent all-rounders at hitting and casting.

For this outing I tend to place Jeanne and Zerase in the back (all mage characters wear crap armor and attack for chump change damage), then bring along two heavy armor wearing bruisers to stand in front. The prince and Lyon/Miakis always take up two slots, which is why the developers make sure they’re top drawer. The main character always gets a special magic attack from his plot rune, and the prince also has another slot free for a thunder rune, which means I’ve got three characters who can nuke bosses with powerful magic. Lyon/Miakis are hybrid characters like the prince, so she can carry a flowing rune (plus the champion and fortune orbs!) and heal the whole party when they get low on hit points. Healing magic is a waste of good magicians like Jeanne, because it uses up charges that can be used for big money magic attacks. Besides, Lyon/Miakis has a high enough magic attribute to top everyone off, and she can just whack away when no one needs healing.

Back row magicians Zerase and Jeane are the Yin and Yang of personal attire

The fighters are around to take care of random encounter enemies who aren’t worth a single spell charge, absorb damage, and finish off bosses if the magic attacks aren’t enough. Suikoden bosses can be blown away in ten turns if you’ve prepped right. Fewer with my overpowered party. It’s fun to demolish the bosses, but battles are so pedestrian I’m convinced Suikoden would be better if it played more like an action RPG; maybe some kind of cross between Dynasty Warriors and Street Fighter. Not that they’ll ever have the chance. The series was never that big to begin with, and Konami seems to have given up on it.

Another way to improve Suikoden would be to let me put a damn apostrophe in the name of my army. After the first battle, the game lets you name your army. Whatever name you pick, characters will refer to the good guy army henceforth as “The {ARMY_NAME} Army.” They give you enough spaces to enter “Irish Republican”, but no one thought to include the apostrophe symbol. Since the “The” will be always be concatenated before the name I input, I can’t use my first choice of “Satan’s”. Instead I use “Lord Lucifer’s”. Or “Lord Lucifer-s”, because they did include a hyphen. Looking back, I should have gone with “The {Antichrist} Army”, since it’s alliterative and doesn’t need the possessive form.

A little later on, I’ll get to name the castle that houses my army of the damned.

Up next: the bathhouse at the Sodom ‘n Gamorrah castle
Click here for the previous Suikoden V entry.

Sapper Gopher is a private pilot, he operates out of the Gemini Sector. He flies a heavily modified Tauras.