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SUIKODEN 3 / Konami / Playstation 2
The best adjective that I can come up with for Suikoden 3 is "solid." It had a real hard act to follow in Suikoden II, which was one of the best console RPGs ever made; between that, the jump to a new system, and the move to 3D for the first time in the series, I think most of us expected that it was not going to be anywhere near as stellar, and were just hoping that it fell into "very good" territory.
It does, for the most part. There's a substantial list of nitpicks in the gameplay and presentation, but on the whole, this is a very good RPG. Not totally satisfying given the expectations that the prequel left us with, but far from a disappointment.
The game takes place 16 years after the events of Suikoden II, in a new land to the north of the lands of the previous two games. There's quite a few recurring characters, but the main hero core is entirely new. The game is divided into five chapters, and has three main characters whose perspective you switch between at intervals - the captain of a knight brigade in the service of a merchant nation, a young plainsman from a shamanistic tribe, and the leader of a squad of mercenaries serving the nation of Harmonia (who had a brief cameo appearance in the previous game.) They each have three initial chapters of their own that you can play in any order you choose, and whose events crisscross each other. As the game progresses, you'll also get some "bonus" optional chapters to play - two as the young master of the run-down castle that will be transformed into your army's new headquarters, one as a dog wandering around said castle, and if you recruit all 108 characters successfully, you get to re-play key events of the game from the main villain's perspective. After you've completed the three initial chapters for each character, you'll pick one to become your main character for the final two chapters.
The staples of the series are all still intact - it's mostly a traditional RPG punctuated here and there by large-scale army battles and one-on-one duels. The formula has been changed up in a lot of small ways, however. First of all, there is the move to 3D graphics - they are on the simpler and lower-budget end, comparable to a more detailed version of Ocarina of Time or Dark Cloud. This has also eliminated the traditional "overworld" - there's simply a map screen on which you move automatically between cities and dungeon locations, similar to the structure of Final Fantasy X. Battles are similar to the previous games in that you field six characters at a time, but there's a new "partner" system - characters must work in sets of two, whom you each give one generalized command to. So for example, if you have two magic users in a pair, only one can be casting a spell at one time, and the other relies on a computer AI decision on whether to attack or defend.
The battle system is the first major problem. While functional once you get used to it, and never really too much of a hindrance to derail the game, it takes more control out of your hands than it should. It basically puts a severe limit on your battle strategy, and an artificial one that makes no sense. Characters will do dumb stuff like sprint ahead of the rest of the group and get surrounded and whaled on, or choose to target a meaningless enemy while they're standing right next to a spellcaster who is about to unleash some devastating magic, and there's often just no way to tell them *not* to do these things. This system required extremely good AI to work well, and what we got was mediocre AI at best.
The senseless lack of control extends to the large-scale strategy battles as well. On the one hand, these are drastically improved - there's more of them than in previous games, and more that are actually winnable and meaningful, rather than just "defend for three turns against overwhelming enemies until plot event bails you out." On the other hand, however, they feature an even worse version of the regular combat system - you have four characters per unit, and the battles are completely AI controlled with no input from you at all other than "attack" or "run away." What usually happens is that either your squad leader or the enemies runs out stupidly into the middle of the battle, gets surrounded, and gets killed, knocking the unit out immediately. So what it comes down to is basically identifying the characters that regularly seem to get thrown into these battles in a leadership role, and making sure to level them and give them the best armor. It's not always easy, though, as sometimes your unit will decide en masse to wail on the Rock Golem while the weak magic-using enemy squad leader is standing right next to them out in the open.
These both might sound pretty bad, but fortunately, neither breaks the game. Once you get used to the quirks of the regular battles, they're managable even with the limited control, and there's a pretty good balance of challenge throughout the game. And while I was mostly disappointed by the strategy battles, it does give you an impetus to both recruit as many of the 108 stars as possible, and to outfit them as well as possible, so they can survive in spite of their dumb AI. If you explore the game world thoroughly, seek out all the hidden characters, and upgrade key characters well, you'll get through the strategy battles just fine. I like being rewarded for exploring thoroughly, so in my book, that all worked out OK.
The story is at once a selling point and a point of criticism. On the whole, it's pretty good. There's a lot of likable characters, it largely makes sense within the context of the universe, and some old characters are brought back in surprising ways that end up working out well. Towards the end, however, it sort of drifts into the generic animu Powers Of The Elements - Save The World thing that a thousand other much more mediocre RPGs have done. The thing I really liked about the first two Suikoden games is that they were "war operas" about regional conflicts in a much greater world, with regional consequences - no pulling Dark Demons of Apocalypse and other stupid plot contrivances out of anyone's butt, a refreshing break from most other JRPGs. The writing here is still a notch more mature and compelling than most of the rest of the console RPG world, but you can begin to see the series drifting in the wrong direction with this one.
The aesthetics help to carry things along. The graphics on the whole are pleasant if not cutting-edge, and some of the backgrounds are actually quite lovely and intriguing. The series continues the tradition of swapping out composers for each installment, this time with Michiru Yamane (Castlevania: SotN and many others) heading up an ensemble of a few people I've never heard of before. Strangely, I've seen the music get trashed as a weakness of the game a few times, which is bizarre because it's actually very good throughout. What I think the issue is is that it's really *quiet*, especially if you have your volume set for loud PS2 games and super-loud TV commercials, at the standard TV setting it'll kind of fade into the background most of the time.
The 108 stars are also much easier to recruit than in previous games, as there are no "time windows" where they become unavailable. There were always at least one or two in the previous games that could be missed early on and were kind of obscure to find, which was a kick in the balls to find out about 40 hours of gameplay time later. In this one, you can recruit everyone up to the onset of the final strategy battle/dungeon at the end of chapter 5. It's also very worthwhile as it's the only way to get the complete story, and the bonus chapter is brief but features better writing and more interesting characters than most of the rest of the game. Your castle also isn't jam-packed with as much stuff to do as in the previous game, but there's a decent amount, and it's a whole lot more visually appealing and easier to navigate.
... the hell?
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