SUIKODEN V / Konami / PlayStation 2
So when it comes to the Suikoden series, you've got Suikoden 2 way up there on a pedestal as one of the Best RPGs Of All Time, and I don't think anyone ever really expected it to be equaled or surpassed. With the rest of the games you just hope that they adequately hit all the notes the series is known for: the 108 characters and pile of hidden secrets to find, more of a political and locally-focused story than the usual JRPG, solid combat system with lots of combo attacks and rune magic, dramatic strategy battles and duels, great soundtrack and interesting multi-cultural hodgepodge game world.

Setting the aberrant Suikoden IV aside, the mainline series always managed to deliver in just about all of these areas. I ended up giving the others the same 4/5 that Suikoden V gets, and it's really down to personal taste as to which you think is the second-best game in the series as each has its own set of strengths and weaknesses. I would submit that Suikoden V would be the clear favorite for that title, however, if Konami had simply committed the resources to finishing the damn game.

They obviously wanted to spend as little as possible on this, likely a direct result of the critical panning of Suikoden IV. The design team deserves a lot of credit for being determined to restore the good name of the series (even if they had to do it with scraps), however, and it's their passion for the project plus wise allocation of resources that makes it all work despite obviously being cobbled together and unpolished at times.

Boss Budgeting

By "wise allocation of resources" I mean that they clearly directed the budget to the stuff that matters to Suikoden fans, and let the less important stuff lapse. For example, dungeons in this game tend to be bland, boring, basic mazes with long stretches of copy-pasted uninteresting hallways. But dungeons aren't really something that fans come to the series for, they've always been more afterthought and filler here than anything else, so that's a smart place to scrimp.

Then you've got your towns. Towns are important to the game because the Suikoden world's unique culture is a big part of the overall charm, and we get to see new aspects with each new entry in the series as we hop around from continent to continent. You'll see some more generic castles and ports here that are clearly using empty filler space just to look bigger, but the key city and village locations tend to be detailed and charming, sometimes outright great-looking.

You can see it in character models, too. NPCs in towns are definitely behind the curve for a 2006 release, and with the fixed isometric camera perspective sometimes look like they just came from the set of Fallout 1 or 2. The actual playable characters look nice and have detailed animations in battle, however, as do many of even the common monsters. And the cutscenes actually look like they got some money and polish, with some nicely done motion-captured character models.

The other critical areas were likewise paid careful attention to. The soundtrack is very nice, the duel mode is the best-looking and most interesting of the series (using the detailed cutscene models), and most importantly the story and characters are strong.

A Perfectly Cromulent Plot

So as far as story goes, we saw the first three games take place in chronological order with maybe a decade or two between each. Then entry #4 threw everything for a loop by going back in time 100 years to Furries of the Caribbean. #5 comes back to the timeframe of the original games, taking place not long before the events of Suikoden 2, but in series tradition we're on an entirely new continent called Falena.

This time out, the big True Rune that everyone is tussling over is the Sun Rune, which has the power to nuke large chunks of the continent in the wrong hands, but also ensures fertile crop growing and general prosperity. You play as a prince, but Falena is a matriarchy so royals with dingalings basically just laze about and don't do jack. Your mom the queen is being driven slowly insane by the Sun Rune, however, and already nuked one town for some sort of non-compliance with her Authoritah, and this creates an opening for one of Falena's noble houses to stage a violent coup. Driven out of your home, you spend the rest of the game doing the usual Suikoden thing, putting together the Rebel Ragtag Army to squash the evildoers.

In keeping with the series' focus more on warring kingdoms/houses in one particular land (and all the human drama that goes with that) rather than all-consuming evil that requires trotting the whole globe to battle, the story centers heavily on political maneuverings and backstabbings/shady dealings throughout. I don't mean to suggest it's anything like Game of Thrones -- all the usual punches are pulled that you would expect in any given mainstream Animu, no beloved main character heads on pikes here -- but man, it's about as close as you'll see any conventional JRPG get. Though it's centered on the common canard of Ragtag Rebels vs Evil Empire, it's never really too predictable or heavy-handed, and characters are roundly well-done and interesting. Even the more throwaway characters get enough development to have a coherent personality and story, and surprisingly (given the budget issues) there's lots of added flavor to round them out more if you pursue all the optional stuff like sidequests, bath conversations, reading the newspaper articles and library tomes, chatting with your doods after major plot events, the staple Suggestion Box, etc.

Sour Strategy

As mentioned, the devs really put their effort into the areas Suikoden fans expect the series to be strong in. The one major misstep here was the strategy battles. Whereas every previous game had some variant of a turn-based system, Suikoden V introduces a quasi-RTS system where all the units are moving about independently and at once, and you have to issue orders to each one individually in the midst of the action. This was probably a victim of budget issues too, but whatever the reason, it just doesn't work. Maps end up either being mind-numbingly dull as the computer just sits and waits on you to gradually bait out and surround their units, or hair-pullingly frustrating when they're all charging you at once and you're trying to manage two or three fronts simultaneously giving individual orders to every unit. There's two huge problems that ruin this whole RTS concept:

* There's an odd resemblance to Ogre Battle in that when a unit is defeated, they get auto-kicked backwards a distance, or at least that's the theory; what actually happens is that instead of going backwards, they just go in some random direction, which sometimes gives enemy units a free pass right through your defensive lines! I actually lost one battle because some enemy I just thrashed got bounced directly into the city gates I was supposed to be defending, even though that was in the opposite direction they should have wound up going.

* When your units make contact with the enemy, the map auto-jerks you to them to witness the battle, then leaves you there afterwards. That's a big problem when you're fighting on two different fronts that are way across the map from each other, as you can't pause the action as you scroll from one area to another, and scrolling across the map is pretty slow. The one time I lost a unit in the whole game was because of this; I was about to replenish a land unit with a healing spell, unbeknownst to me some asshole boat all the way across the map snuck up on one of my boats and I got auto-jerked all the way over to that confrontation, and before I could scroll back some other enemy unit charged my damaged land unit and destroyed them. Fortunately, it was full of plot-necessary characters, so they were shielded from perma-death; in keeping with series tradition that is still a possibility for the optional characters, however, and your hopes of seeing the best ending are iced along with the death of any of your 108 stars.

Passion Wins The Day

So the game is a little janky and ugly at times, just enough so to keep a conversation going about whether it's really superior to Suikoden 1 / 3. None of its shortcomings really detract all that much from the core of Suikodeny goodness, however. The strategy battles aren't great, but like 90% of them are at least easy to get through, making them more of a small periodic interruption than something that ruins the game. And who really cares that the NPCs look like shit.

With a completely new director at the helm, a team of mostly newbies and a garbage budget, by all rights Suikoden V should have tanked as hard as Suikoden IV did. Instead, it's a strong contender for the second-best game in the series, and that's completely because the development team appears to have put Mega Man 2 levels of love into it and really wanted it to be a worthy entry / send-off for the franchise.
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