SUIKODEN TACTICS / Konami / Playstation 2
The two main knocks against Suikoden Tactics that I saw (before playing it) were that it simply was Not Real Suikoden, and also that it goes back to somewhat dated 1990s strategy-RPG conventions rather than doing all the hyperactive animu shit that Nippon Ichi and Sting! games and such have been doing more recently. Though I am a Suikoden Fanboi (at least of the first 3 games, haven't played the rest as of yet), I could care less about the former point, I have no problem with a franchise dabbling in other genres for a side story or two if they do a good job of it. And as far as the latter goes, the games that Tactics uses as its model - the original Shining Force games and the Final Fantasy/Ogre tactics games - are my favorite sort of SRPGs, so the "datedness" is actually kind of a selling point for me.
Suikoden Tactics doesn't get the mediocre score for either of those reasons. Rather, it gets it for some of the most awful map design I've ever seen in a SRPG, compounded by a design team that apparently had no idea how to create natural and sensible challenge and instead relied on shit tons of cheap bullshit being thrown at you constantly.
The game resembles the Shining Force games for Sega CD and Game Gear more than anything, in that everything outside of battle is handled by static menus and backdrops - moving between place to place, shopping and talking to people in towns, etc. Suikoden Tactics is not entirely linear, though; most of the world map stays open to you at all times to return to, and there's a Quest Guild that hands out side-quests and "dispatches" akin to those of the FF Tactics games, as well as a few specific areas to grind on monsters.
For the first few hours I enjoyed the game, until the constant cheapness ground me down into quitting about halfway through. The story apparently builds on that of Suikoden 4, and you can import a clear file from that game to unlock a few hidden things here. Suikoden's writing is usually a fair cut above the Animu JRPG Standard, but here it regresses more toward the mean yet was passable enough to keep me moving from battle to battle. The soundtrack is really good, and while the character models are kinda low-detail and hard to distinguish from one another, the game does have some very pretty battlefields. On the whole, the combat works well; it's your standard Shining Force/Tactics/Fire Emblem type deal, except the gimmick here is that terrain can be coated in one of the six elements through various means, and each character has an innate element that will grant them status bosts and heal them when on the corresponding element, and damage and weaken them when on the opposite. So in addition to the standard tactics, you also have to take into account enemies changing the terrain on you and respond in kind.
As mentioned before, the main problem is that the map design is some of the worst I've ever seen in a SRPG. 75% of the overall territory of most maps goes unused due to the enemy AI simply being programmed to mindlessly bum-rush you from the beginning. Since there are always a hell of a lot more of them than you, and they're usually at least a couple levels above you (if not 5), you end up forced to fall back in a defensive cluster somewhere near the beginning of the map and spend nearly all of your time there as you repel The Hordes. There's basically no advantage to using the environment or terrain in any way; evey now and again you'll hit a map with a stream to stand in, which boosts your Water-affiliated troops, but nothing ever really significant or interesting.
The lackluster design is greatly compounded by all the cheesy shit in favor of the computer during the fight - constant spawn-ins of fresh troops from out of nowhere, magic-using enemies with a spell range that is ridiculous compared to yours, a seemingly endless stock of "beads" that change terrain to whatever favors them (and there's always shit tons more of their troops on hand, so they can have advance fighters tie you up while assholes in the background keep spamming terrain changes to their favor). Maps take 30-45 minutes on average to plow through, and in several instances, without warning you are thrown into back-to-back maps without the opportunity to save and take a break.
It's a Suikoden tradition that the more ancillary characters to the plot stand a chance of being perma-killed (with no means of revival) any time their health is brought to zero. This works way better in the confines of an RPG than it does in this cheap-as-balls SRPG. Picture grinding through a tough 45-minute battle, only to be thrown without warning right into another 45-minute battle, with no chance to save or take a break in between. About halfway through the second battle, a favored ancillary character you've been building up gets killed because some bullshit mage casts some overpowered spell at them from about 2 miles away, or they happen to be standing next to a spawn point when 4 new enemies appear unexpectedly, immediately get turns, and proceed to gangrape them before you even get a chance to respond. Or the computer just hands itself two turns to your one, or has an otherwise weak enemy pull off some insane Critical Hit, both of which happen with way more frequency than they should. These are all very possible scenarios in this game. In Fire Emblem, it's not as infuriating when a character gets perma-killed, because if you really liked them you can restart the battle without having wasted a full hour or more of your life. In Suikoden Tactics you might have to grind through two battles all over again as well as sit through painfully slow, boring and unskippable cutscenes in the interim.
Grinding and over-leveling doesn't even get you out of the cheap shit. Despite having an eventual roster of like 40 or 50 characters, most of the major battles only allow you to bring in 6 to 8. And battles are keyed to the levels of your highest characters, with the enemies ranging from one level below to five or six levels above the best guy on your roster. Not that hours of grinding is an acceptable answer to difficulty imbalance to begin with, but it provides a painful-but-possible escape hatch in masochistic games that you still want to press on with for some reason. Not here.
Since this was in development at about the same time as Suikoden 4, I assume the main Suikoden team wasn't working on it, and all the mis-steps are the results of it being farmed out to some rookies to whom the concepts of "difficulty balance" and "pacing" were not covered adequately at wherever they got their game design education.
* Gameplay Video