Exit Fate is a rare example of a few different things. One, a one-man no-budget freeware RPGMaker game that is actually very well-made. Two, a Suikoden clone, specifically the pre-3D games. And three, a game that begins by flashing you a bunch of warning signs that it's going to be another crummy pirated-asset and cliche-fest of a fan game, only to reward you for your patience with well-above-average writing and game mechanics that only get better as it goes on.
The guy behind it is a fascinating character as well. Known only by the handle SCF, he was apparently a Something Awful forum regular in the early-mid 2000s. He's a multi-talented Nederlander who not only designed a very nice game and managed to write better dialogue and plot than some professionals do, he did it in what I assume is his second language. He even contributed original art to the game, drawing all of the character menu/dialogue portraits and the battle sprites for both heroes and enemies.
Unfortunately, there was at least one limit to SCF's talents - he's not a composer. So, as with many RPGMaker titles, the music comes from various other console RPGs instead. For the most part it's a well-selected mix of more low-key stuff from the various Suikoden and Wild Arms games, but there are some jarring choices from big Squaresoft RPGs like the Final Fantasy games and Chrono Trigger. The worst of which hits you right off as you start the game; the inexplicable choice of the Lavos "sad theme" from Chrono Trigger as the title screen music. The game's soundtrack is just sitting in an open folder in MP3 form, though, so you're free to change it to whatever you like.
I usually roll my eyes when people suggest that you have to bear with a game for at least a couple of hours before it "gets good", but this is one of those rare cases where it's actually worth it. The outset hits you with the usual RPGMaker red flags of pirated assets and seemingly cliched writing, with the game initially looking like it's going to be a straight retelling of Suikoden 2 with maybe some Xenogears and/or Final Fantasy IV mixed in. Fortunately, it swerves on you after initially setting this expectation and becomes something that is actually pretty remarkable for the vast majority of its 40 or so hours of playtime.
The story centers on one Daniel Vinyard, army commander and Sephiroth's more agreeable brother. As with the Suikoden games that it is a clear paean to, the story is a "war opera" centered on a particular region of an otherwise unseen larger world. In this case, Daniel is a commander with the Kirgard army, who have been entrenched in a ridiculously long war with their neighbors over a disputed island that sits in between them. A la Suikoden 2, an unexpected ambush with traitorous implications sets Daniel on the run from Kirgard early in the game and into enemy territory where he will have to forge his own path and untangle these sudden mysteries he is beset with.
What I primarily like about it is that the story consistently focuses on the next military objective, and though it's a world of magic and monsters that stuff is usually relegated to optional side quests rather than the main plot. The writing also just strives to be more consistent and grounded in reality than the usual JRPG. Everyone is doing what they do because it's sound military strategy, and characters are often shockingly reasonable and pragmatic for this type of game. It's also refreshingly short on the usual stupid tropes: no cringey romantic sub-plots, no high school kids with Powars of Destiny, no magical Macguffins driving the action, no prophecies, no "I'm doing this to test myself", etc.
The perils of a religious education
And while I'm not sure I would call the battle system "deep", it definitely requires a little more planning and paying attention to your formation than average. After the first couple of hours of gameplay, you can't get away with just "attack"ing your way through everything, nor are there ever super-spells you can spam. The magic system is unique in that you start each battle with relatively little and gain more by taking turns without casting a spell, which means you need to set your mages up with some sort of useful secondary support ability. Buffs and debuffs also don't even appear until about halfway through the game, and rather than getting super-magic in the late stages the game's meta shifts from protecting mages as they cast offensive spells to protecting them as they buff and heal intelligently.
The game does have periodic Big Army Battles as well, and while they're graphically simple they actually tend to be more strategically deep than the ones in Suikoden. They reminded me quite a bit of the various Koei fantasy-strategy games of the 8-bit and 16-bit eras. You're heavily incentivized to seek out the various optional recruits due to the difficulty of many of these scenarios. Some recruits are "war commanders" and give you a whole new unit, but at the very least they can be slotted in as captains under your commanders to power the unit up with more men and various special abilities.
This being a Suikoden clone, you do (eventually) get a castle of your own to stash all your recruits in, and it eventually gets all sorts of similar side activities like a reporter who can interview your troops and the ability to play blackjack for money. Exit Fate has only 75 characters for you to find, but unlike many of the Suikoden games there are none you can miss permanently. Some are only available for a limited time initially, but they'll always show up somewhere else later in the game if you miss them during the first window. They also cannot perma-die the way they can in some of the Suikoden games. I don't believe recruiting them all affects the ending in any way, but it does unlock some post-game optional quests.
Again, it's remarkable how well-designed all of this ended up being considering the raw amount of content here. I've heard that the earlier versions of it were buggy, but the version I played was smooth from start to finish. The only real complaint I had is one endemic to the genre - grinding. Particularly, grinding for money because it's expensive as hell to manage a 75-man roster, which always ends up being a problem in the Suikoden games as well. It's easy to power-level your characters by hiding one or two weak ones amidst four or five strong ones and having them instantly jump 20 levels by fighting the most recent enemies, but you also have to upgrade their weapons and armor to keep them competent and money comes very slowly for how much all of that costs. The plot forces various characters into your party unexpectedly as it goes on; you can usually stash underleveled ones in your non-combat "entourage" slots, but there's a rude surprise toward the end of the game where you have to take on a split-party dungeon that requires you to have 24 competent and well-equipped characters to get through. If you don't know it's coming you'll probably have, like, eight at best at that point.
Said dungeon also represents the start of a pretty big difficulty spike in the back 1/4 or so of the game. It's nothing you can't grind your way around, but I was a little disappointed here as the game's first 3/4 was more about good party formation and having your army ready for the big battles than it was about tedious grindery to overcome challenges. The post-game content is actually pretty cool, but it requires fighting optional bosses that are absolute nightmares and require even more insane grindery to hang with; I opted to just watch this part on YouTube.
Nah man, I'm whoopin' that ass
I'm left unsure why SCF didn't just go full Suikoden fan game with this one, since it's clearly a tribute to the series. Though not a dealbreaker and easy to fix, the jarringly iconic Squaresoft songs are an odd choice in a game that is otherwise quite aesthetically cohesive. Hell, with the way the Suikoden games and world are structured, you could have just set this in its universe and said it's some area we've never seen before. I don't know if we'll ever get any thoughts or any more output from SCF, as like Ryu at the end of SFII he seems to have just wandered off into the wilderness to do Shoryukens under a waterfall or something. He appears to still be alive as he keeps his website hosted, but hasn't posted anything at all since 2012.
It's an impressive and well-designed effort, though, and easily worth playing for anyone who enjoyed the early Suikoden games.
* Free download (official site)
* Closest thing to a full walkthrough there is
* Fan site
* Gameplay video
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