SUIKODEN IV / Konami / Playstation 2

Suikoden 1 and 2 captured my attention by fusing RPG and strategy-RPG while still being atypical of them in a number of ways. Suikoden 3 drifted a bit in the wrong direction, but still did enough right that I enjoyed playing it to completion (and thought it actually did the "strategy" bit significantly better than the other two games did). I couldn't make it to the finish line of Suikoden 4, though. It's the first point at which the series appeared to be really floundering without a clear vision, just grasping desperately at half-developed ideas in the hopes of staying afloat.

Appropriate, then, that it's set in Waterworld (for whatever reason).The Suikoden games have always taken place in a relatively small chunk of an otherwise unseen larger world, emphasizing regional conflicts over the usual globe-trotting JRPG antics. In this one, we shift to an approximation of the Caribbean, with the whole of the game taking place on a series of small islands surrounded by a whoooole lotta boring water. I suspect this was a case of just airlifting ideas into the Suikoden world (Wind Waker? Uncharted Waters? Skies of Arcadia?) due to a lack of any real inspiration or enthusiasm about making the game.

                           WELCOME TO HELL

That theory is reinforced by a few things. First, the simple lack of playtime once you cut all the tedious busywork and grindy random battles out -- maybe 20 hours of game, tops, with only about eight or so small islands to visit that comprise the whole of the game world other than empty ocean. Then there's the constant little callbacks to (the vastly superior) Suikoden 2, with the sprite-ified versions of your party on loading screens and the suspiciously similar battle music as if to say "Wait, don't quit yet! Remember that really great game we made that one time! Stick around and see if this gets better!"

And then there's the mostly boring plot and mostly flat, underdeveloped characters that are just there 'cause we're obligated by tradition now to have 108 of them running around. The overarching plot does have something of a rehash of Suikoden 2's "betraying best friend" structure, but it doesn't end up going quite in the same direction, mostly because the best friend is completely incompetent. Also no Luca Blight figure wrecking shit either.

Nah, instead we got a mute protag with no name and his childhood bud Snowe Fingerbutt. The two start out the game by becoming knights, but after Snowe blows his first command at sea and throws you under the bus for it, you end up getting exiled. Oh, and a True Rune makes its way to you in typical style, and all this eventually leads to having to keep the Kool Hand Luke Empire from taking over the tropical islands that are somehow full of nothing but white people and furries. Extreme gentrification I guess.

If you've heard anything about this game, you've likely heard about the sailing. Picture Wind Waker, but even longer, and absolutely nothing happens except that you get thrown into a random battle literally every four seconds or so. And you're forced to sail very frequently, as the whole of the game is bopping back and forth between all these little islands constantly. About 10 hours in or so, you can stumble across an optional character who allows you to teleport to islands you've already visited, which does cut down on it somewhat ... but that's an awful long time to wait, and it still doesn't put a complete end to it. Sadly, the giant empty boring stretches and the repetitive battles aren't ALL there is to hate about sailing! Each of the islands is surrounded by invisible shoals that stretch out to sometimes ridiculous distances, and there's only one very finicky little landing spot. And even though there's no visual indication, the whole sea map isn't actually open to you until maybe 15 hours in or so. Prior to that point, if you try to sail outside the Plot Zone you'll just be turned around automatically by inexplicable invisible walls.

But honestly, it wasn't even the sailing that drove me up a wall (at least the battles were always cake) so much as very obtuse plot progression triggers that you have to fish around for, and very difficult boss battles suddenly sprung on you out of nowhere. Feel like you're getting ridiculously overleveled when you hit level 25 already in the first five hours of gameplay while you're sailing around getting attacked every two seconds? No, that's intentional and you'll need all those levels for some brutal boss ambushes shortly. There's even one that gives you a save point in an enclosed area, merrily letting you overwrite your one save before getting jumped by a tough boss that you can't escape. Hey, if you're gonna stop by Skies of Arcadia to lift the tedious map movement and encounter rates, might as well nick the nasty ambush bosses while you're at it too! Another one I really enjoyed was being jumped by a boss at sea that can't be hit with melee weapons out of nowhere, so if you weren't tooling around with your best Rune mages you're basically forced to reset the game.

The new naval battles are also wanting for any sort of strategy. It's always only two or three ships to each side in a fairly small grid, and the only major combat element is picking which Runes to go into battle with for your cannons. But the Runes the enemy will be using are shown to you prior to outfitting your ship, making it trivial to just pick the ones that overpower and negate them (you're even given a handy chart right there on the setup screen). And even if that's too much for you, you can usually simply drop your most overleveled characters with the best equipment on a boat as a raiding party then just make a beeline for the enemy and board them. Regular combat is equally disappointing -- the odd "buddy system" of Suik 3 is gone, but there's nothing interesting in its place. Instead it's a simplified version of the original combat system, with only four characters and no rows.

Still, I kept hanging in just because it's Suikoden. I wanted to see what the base was like, what mini-games there were, maybe if the story would pick up when you get an army. About 15-20 hours in though, it becomes abundantly clear that none of this is going to improve enough to offset the tedium of moving about the game world and fighting constantly. Most of the characters never develop or get interesting, the mini-games are all garbage, the naval battles never really get any more complex than the tutorials, the story is turgid, the main villains are terribly developed and never seem like a threat or even really relevant. Honestly, after a point the game appears to be simply trying to keep you awake with fanservice, like when series staple Runemaster Jeanne appears out of nowhere with implants and basically wrapped in toilet paper.

I went reading up on the game to see if the team of previous lead developers had simply bailed out on this project and left it for the "B" squad, and was shocked to find out all but one were still at the helm for this installment. That's amazing to me, because it feels like something handed off to an amateur with vague instructions to copy a bunch of other games ... and then they managed to pull the absolute worst elements out of each of those games! The interminable sailing of Wind Waker paired with the stupid encounter rate of the Dreamcast Skies of Arcadia and the oversimplified trade of Uncharted Waters. Longtime Suikoden fans might still find enough to salvage out of this wreck, but I definitely do not recommend it to anyone else.

                        Another terrible mini-game

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