Believe the hyperbole (and the incredibly high secondhand prices over a decade after the original release) - Suikoden 2 really is one of the best console RPGs ever created. It retains the same basic framework as it's prequel, but improves on nearly every problem (and even minor niggle) that that game had. There are still a few gameplay issues, along with story and translation flaws, but they really seem petty when stacked up next to all that the game does well.
Bucking the console RPG trend of detached sequels, Suikoden 2 stays consistent to the universe established in the first game - it takes place only three years after Suikoden, in the Highlands to the north of the Toran Republic (the region in which the first game took place). You play as a young orphan raised by a martial arts master along with your sister, and upon the master's death, you and your best childhood friend join the Highland Army to make a living as members of a special Youth Brigade (sort of the JROTC of the Suikoden world, I guess). A war between Highland and the neighboring City-States of Jowston seems to be wrapping up, and a peace treaty is on the horizon, but a treacherous midnight slaughter of the Youth Brigade arranged by the corrupt Captain Rowd and the bloodthirsty Prince of Highland's personal guard creates an incentive to keep the war going. As the only two survivors of this massacre, you and your friend Jowy witness the awful truth about the attack and escape to Jowston territory.
Even with all the fantastic elements such as magical runes and vampires, the focus on regional conflicts between kingdoms in the Suikoden series makes the games seem more realistic and makes the world feel more fleshed-out and tangible than competing series, such as Final Fantasy, which inevitably have characters ranging over the entirety of a very small world in order to defeat some ancient evil from another dimension or what have you. Many characters from the first game return either as playables or just as NPCs somewhere out in the world; importing save data from the end of Suikoden causes the playable returning characters to start out with a statistical advantage, and also changes cutscenes and interactions between characters in this game. You see this sort of thing every now and then in PC gaming, in games such as Quest for Glory and Might and Magic, but I'm pretty sure this was the first console RPG series to make data transfer between games possible, and the game world is a bit richer for it.
Like the first game, the story is more or less a military opera of the sort you usually see in Japanese strategy-RPGs. Unlike the first game, it is much more well-written and compelling, with genuine emotional impact and complex personalities dominating the narrative. The chief villain of the game, Luca Blight, is a delightful overpowered madman on the order of Kefka of FFVI, and his ruthless massacre of villages full of civilians and constant agression against the City-States gives the game an urgency and sense of tension that was almost completely absent with Suikoden's incompetent, lacksadaisical Scarlet Moon Empire. The Hero is still mute except for dialogue decisions, but the constant presence of his talkative big sister acts as an outlet for expression of his feelings and mental state, and it all works out really well - better than in many games where the main character has a much more strongly established identity.
Buoying the story is the aesthetic experience. Suikoden's art was functional, and pleasant at times, but really looked like it was developed for the SNES and then just tossed onto the Playstation with the addition of a few polygonal spell effects here and there. Suikoden 2 really takes advantage of the system horsepower to create a lush and beautiful 2D world. The game's idiosyncratic blend of European, Chinese, Japanese and even Arabic medieval influences is further brought out here and is one of the most understated yet pleasing and compelling things about the Suikoden universe (to this point, anyway - I haven't played the 3D ones at the time of this writing). As the music gave the aesthetic nod to the Water Margin origins of the previous game, the art does with this one. The music actually goes in a more Japanesey direction with this installment, and this is the one major point of criticism I have seen reoccuring on forums and such. First of all, Redbook Audio is not used as it was in the previous game, except for a small handful of songs such as the introduction cinema, ending and the music played during the army battles. The game features many more pieces of music than the predecessor did, however, and the compositional quality is by and large just as good. Criticism seems to be centered on the town themes, which tend to use a lot of traditional Japanese sounds and instruments that can be very hard on Western ears - repetitive clapping, bell shaking and whistles. Honestly, I found a few town themes annoying, but most were pleasant and even quite pretty at times. The only major musical gripe I had with the game was the theme played at your castle from the second upgrade onward - it is easily the most annoying song in the game, yet you have to hear it more than any other as you spend so much time running about the castle to do stuff. The fact that it supplants a really lovely and mellow guitar piece that plays when your castle is in the beginning stages makes it all the more frustrating.
As with Suikoden, there are three separate battle systems, though you spend most of your time fighting typical console RPG random battles. These are virtually identical to the first game, which is fine, as that combat engine was zippy and functional. It looks a little better here, though, and the ability to equip three runes (instead of one) to each character expands the battle possibilites a bit. One-on-one duels are also identical to the previous game; they are much easier here, there is not really a challenging one through the whole game unfortunately, and they are also pretty rarely used.
The one area of combat that has been substantially changed is the tactical army battles. Instead of simplistic rock-paper-scissors, you now have something akin to Fire Emblem and Shining Force, though on a much smaller and simpler scale. At first blush, this appears to be a great change. However, as you play through the game, you find that every single battle of this nature simply involves you defending and keeping characters from getting killed for a few turns until some plot event causes you to either automatically win or lose. In fact, you don't actually get unleashed to fight and win a whole battle until the very last one of the game, and that one is so lopsided in your favor you basically have to be trying to lose. This was probably the most disappointing aspect of the game to me - the potential was there for great improvement, but they squandered it by emphasizing the narrative too much over the gameplay in these sequences.
Even more so than it's predecessor, this game was designed for obsessive-compulsives; you once again have the 108 characters to collect, but the castle you raise features a slew of new mini-games to play and fetch-quests to go on. One of the major side-quests involves a restaurant which opens up in your castle. You find various recipes around the land which can be used to make special foods for healing effects, but you also can engage in periodic "cooking duels" as part of a subplot involving your army chef and his surprisingly shady past. Food for these meals is obtained from your garden and ranch, which you supply personally with animals and seeds; you can also play Whack-A-Mole to help the gardener out. There are so many new optional things in the castle, I completed the game without even noticing two of them - apparently there's a fishing and a rope-climbing mini-game somewhere in there that I never even stumbled across. The place is labrynthine indeed, so much so that it is very annoying at first while you learn where everything is.
As with Suikoden, about 15 or so of your characters vastly outclass all the others, but there's also more of a compelling purpose to collecting the 108 stars here than there was in the previous game - it unlocks a much happier ending. There are actually four possible endings to the game, one coming if you decide to abandon your duty and run away with your sister at a certain point - a surprisingly long, involved, flexible and emotionally torturing sequence that many other designers would have left as an idle idea due to it's complexity. That Konami implemented such an option is indicative of the level of craftsmanship present in the game.
A number of small things could have stood improvement - this is not a perfect game - but as it is, it is extremely good, and will keep you happily occupied for a very long time.
* (Genso) Suikoden II soundtrack - download, MP3
* Gameplay Video