Hey Suikoden fans! Ever wonder what a Suikoden-themed roguelike might look like? Given that Konami has virtually abandoned the franchise
, Azure Dreams is about as close as you'll ever get.
In as much as my cursory comparison of the credits of the two games indicates, they didn't really share much in the way of staff. However, they did come out of Konami in the same era. The lack of shared staff would make sense, as the Suikoden team probably turned right around to work on Suikoden II, which came out only two years after the first game (and one year after Azure Dreams). Azure Dreams definitely looks like it was at least influenced by the aesthetics of the Suikoden world, however.
In terms of mechanics and gameplay, the big influence is from outside of Konami - the Fushigi no Dungeon series (Torneko and Shiren) from Enix / Armor Project. Azure Dreams borrows that structure as a base, but adds a bunch of new wrinkles to it.
The one that is most ballyhooed is the "monster training." This sometimes gives people the impression this is more of a Monster Rancher or Pokemon-type game, but that isn't correct - it's very much a roguelike at its core. "Monster training" just means that you can have up to two monster buddies by your side as you move through the dungeon (and more stashed in your inventory). While you lose all your personal levels when you exit, the monsters retain their level and experience, so grinding up a team that can carry you through the dungeon is the central focus of the game.
The other two unique elements are town building, and a bit of a dating sim. As you haul loot out of the dungeon, you can apply some of it to build new businesses in town. Ultimately, these serve little practical purpose, however. There are various girls about town you can woo in Harvest Moon style in between your dungeon runs, though there's ultimately no practical benefit to that either - all this stuff is a "just for fun" element secondary to the main objective of getting to the top of the dungeon.
You start off with dancing baby GIF from the 90s asking you for your name in a condescending manner ... fortunately that's the first and last time you see this freak. After that, we get a little exposition. You're a kid in a desert town called Monsibaya, there's this inexplicable giant tower in the middle that monster hunters regularly enter to get treasure. Your dad was a top monster hunter, but disappeared during one of his tower expeditions. So, naturally, you're going in to find out what happened. And also acquire plenty of ph4t l3wts along the way.
The tower is comprised of 40 levels in total. About every five levels, you get a new tile set and new monsters are introduced (usually with new music too). Since you can level up your monsters, the difficulty jags between the five-level sets are pretty rough. The main way out is using a Wind Crystal, which teleports you out safely complete with all your accumulated money and loot (though your main character still resets to level 1 upon re-entering). You initially have to find a Wind Crystal as you roam the floors, though they spawn pretty frequently, and eventually you'll get a surplus and can just bring one in with you if you choose.
As briefly mentioned earlier, the lynchpin of the game is monster leveling and fusion. The fusion mechanic is basically copied from Dragon Warrior Monsters (http://www.platoscavern.com/dragon-warrior-monsters-review), except the higher-level monster automatically retains their species - they basically just absorb an ability from the other monster, and may change to their elemental affiliation. It's fairly simple and straightforward, but you still probably want to read a guide as some elements are not explained in-game, like that you can only increase MP by feeding the monster certain items found in the dungeon when it is full.
Speaking of not telling you important stuff in-game, there's some of that outside of monster fusion too. Like, 15 hours into the game, I still didn't know that you could hold O + X to throw items, and previously useless-seeming items had all sorts of neat effects when used that way.
Just in terms of the nuts-and-bolts mechanics, this is a pretty enjoyable roguelike. It's extremely reminiscent of the SNES Fushigi no Dungeon games, so if you liked those, it's a safe bet you'll like this as well. My main issue with it was the focus on grinding. With only 40 floors, and huge jumps in monster strength every five or so, the game isn't designed the way other roguelikes are, where the right combination of luck and skill can potentially make any run a successful one. Instead, the idea is to grind your pet monsters on the lower floors repeatedly until they're strong enough to escort you up to the next set. So it's a little more repetitive than the usual roguelike.
There also isn't much in the way of strategy. You do have to juggle a limited 24-slot inventory, but since the focus is so heavily on your escort monsters, the best bet is to load up with healing / MP restoration items for them plus maybe some items to counter the worst status effects (like Chaos) and some of the more powerful attacking items. The only real "outside the box" strategy I came up with is having a shield of each elemental type on hand to switch between for different enemies, as those give you a huge defensive boost when applied properly. You can bring up to four items into the dungeon, but there's not much point in varying them on most runs - the weapon and shield you are leveling, at least one extra companion monster (your "main" familiar eats up one slot automatically), and maybe an MP restoration or warp item.
The town stuff can be kinda entertaining for its own sake, but it's all superficial. Nothing that happens there helps you in the dungeon in any way. Most of the buildings don't do anything, save maybe adding a money-making minigame (like the casino or racetrack). The purpose of most is to make another animu lady available for you to woo. Which is mostly a process of just visiting them repeatedly and not saying stupid things (though you can smooth that over by buying them gifts too). Once you make the girl go ga-ga for you, she joins your harem and may randomly appear to wake you up in the morning with smooches.
Azure Dreams is a pretty solid roguelike, but between the grind focus, the anticlimactic ending, and the superficial town elements, it all just felt kinda unsatisfying in the end. You don't even really need to bother fusing monsters; I just leveled the starting familiar and one guy I got from the higher levels to the late 20s, along with working up a +20 sword and shield, and that was good enough to get to the end. Elevators to new floors seem to spawn close to where you start fairly often, so once you have an inventory of good items, you can kinda just fluke your way to the top. Also, you just need to get to level 40; once there the final battle is totally scripted and can't be lost.