One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
One of the greatest aspects of the Suikoden series has always been its communal feel. Unlike the games in the Final Fantasy series, the story of Suikoden IV eventually moves away from the main character (who’s been cursed and must save himself and the known world), and centers on the political intrigue and social divisions of an endangered world. Traitors, social upheaval, rebellion, questioning of political norms, and repression are all themes the hero and his friends will encounter as they go from knights in one of the largest armies to teaming with pirates as they lead a revolt against the empire. (I aptly named mine The Anarchists.)
However, all of that headiness is engulfed by the infuriatingly linear structure and world map. Much like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, the game is almost entirely made up of vast oceans that hide one secret island after the next. Looking for said islands could not be more unappealing as you are attacked every few seconds by the same array of enemies (including seaweed… seaweed), and the oceanic world of Suikoden 4 is far too large to explore with such annoyances.
In fact, I wound up island hopping as directed, but found myself with little to no interest in the actual exploring. And the vast emptiness of the world led me to believe the developers wanted to create an expansive environment, but balked at the effort it would take to fill it.
Fortunately, this gross laziness only partially seeped its way into character design.
The Suikoden series has always been known for its huge amount of playable characters: 108. And Suikoden IV is no different. Inevitably, however, you come to learn just how pointless it is to play with many of the characters. Though most of them offer enough variety to keep you interested in playing, a good portion of the characters are just plain inferior to others in terms of skill and balance.
Suikoden IV also breaks down typical RPG stereotypes by making men and women play a variety of roles. Instead of having the males as fighter and the females as mages, you are given male and female characters of every possible class. And while there are a few stereotypes (why anyone thinks a woman would ever wear some kind of battle-lingerie 24/7 I still have no idea), for the most part the game is progressive in this area. The only real problem is that it seems as if the character development was hurried. Often you’ll meet someone who’ll give a one sentence explanation of themselves and just as quickly join your team, but then never speak another word. While you can’t expect an in-depth backstory for each of the 108 characters, far too often things were brushed over when compared to the complexity of the previous games.
The game is also far shorter than I would have liked. The side quests can add some extra entertainment, there are some secrets that are fun to find, and adding characters to your troupe is always enjoyable, but the actual story is very short. Well, short for an RPG. Whereas it took me over 50 hours to defeat Suikoden 3, I beat Suikoden IV in about 26 hours.
Suikoden 3 was a great step in the right direction for a series that had a bright future and included many innovations that had been undeveloped or unseen in the role-playing game genre. Suikoden IV, on the other hand, added a level of mediocrity and took a step backwards. The creation of it seemed rushed, it’s far too short, and has problems typical of many other RPGs. Still, the benefit of the game to changing how we see RPGs and politicizing games cannot be ignored. The reality of the world must be reflected in the media we use to entertain ourselves. The story of one hero triumphing against all odds in video games, especially RPGs, is becoming as boring and unbelievable as the American Dream. Characters dying, communities coming together to fight for the greater good, and the toppling of empires is what I want to see in addition to escapist games. I just ask that they be good.