We look back on the niche JRPG series’s final installment.
There are certain difficulties, or at least unique concerns, when it comes to playing videogames that are a decade (or even decades) old. How well do certain graphics styles and renderings hold up over time? Are there types of gameplay we’ve grown less tolerable of over time? Despite the potential for disappointment, it’s worth noting that videogames can also remain sources of enjoyment years after their initial release. In “How’s It Hold Up?” we look back on videogames from decades past, and reflect on what they have to offer players today.
Last year I reflected back on the first installment of my favorite videogame series of all time: Suikoden. Though somewhat niche, the series has an extremely devoted fandom that has remained enamored with all of its lore and characters even though the last core release, Suikoden V, came out way back in 2006. It’s this final installment that I’ll be discussing, as I recently finished my third playthrough of it.
Suikoden V is a strong candidate for my favorite videogame of all time. This is largely because it features all the series’s trademark features, systems, and themes, many of which are at their most polished and enjoyable. The characters and writing are easily the best Suikoden has to offer, as are the skill leveling system, detective investigations, and combat (both man-to-man and army battles). Beyond that, Suikoden V is a game about war that does a better job analyzing the causes and consequences of said war than almost any other piece of media.
From a story standpoint, the game subverts expectations for both the series and wider fantasy genre as a whole. It is the only Suikoden game besides the original to focus on a civil war rather tham conflict between nations. The country itself, the Queendom of Falena, has rich lore and political structures. As its name suggests, Falena is a matriarchy, where supreme power is passed down through women of royal blood as opposed to men. Though technically a monarchy, Falena also has a Senate, and the queen must balance the (often selfish) desires of the country’s nobility with what she thinks is best for Falena.
The main character in Suikoden V is the current queen’s son, whom the player gets to name but who I’ll simply refer to as the Prince for clarity’s sake. Besides being in the unique position of being royalty but not eligible for the throne, the Prince also stands out due to his appearance. His design is shockingly androgynous for an action-RPG protagonist, and he takes after his mother much more than he does his father. His costumes in the game also subvert gender conventions in dress, to include his primary outfit which leaves much of his upper back uncovered. Add to this his long hair and soft features and you get an action hero who is allowed to subvert a surprising amount of social mores regarding masculinity.
As previously mentioned, the lore in this game is great. Details about Falena’s history are revealed steadily throughout, oftentimes via the main story but also through collectible items (a variety of “Old Books” can be found in chests) and a recruitable detective character. The detective, Oboro, can be hired to investigate all the other recruitable characters in the game, three times each. These investigations turn up tidbits about the characters’ histories, many of which aren’t found in the main story. Some of these tidbits even allude to countries and events from the prior four Suikoden games, which is both a fun nod to longtime fans and a way of making the series’s world feel more interconnected.
The characters in Suikoden V are one of its biggest draws. As per usual, a significant portion of game-time is devoted to finding the 108 Stars of Destiny, the central members of the Prince’s army. Over sixty of these characters are available to use in standard combat, while others play important roles in larger skirmishes or provide pivotal services at your castle. Having so many characters to recruit, and who all serve distinct purposes, both fleshes the world out to a staggering degree and provides the player with an incredible amount of choice in regards to what characters to use throughout. Though there are a handful of Stars of Destiny who are neither likable nor contribute much, they are the smallest such handful in the entire series. No other Suikoden fleshes out so many of its characters or to such a thorough degree. It’s also worth noting that the majority of the characters’ designs are great, conveying information about their backgrounds and interests while still looking just plain cool.
Besides the Prince, there are a number of other lovable main characters here. His relationships with Lyon, his bodyguard, and Georg, a member of the Queen’s Knights, are both poignant. Georg in particular is a fascinating character who plays a pivotal role in the plot. His involvement in specific events is presented in a mysterious way, as the player is left without important context for his actions for a significant period of time. The speed with which Suikoden V paces out its reveals is near perfect, and there are a series of hint scenes that become all the more affecting through hindsight.
Thankfully, the villains in this game are every bit as well-written. There are a number of politically powerful families with Senate seats and who frequently try to marry their way into the royal family. The members of the most powerful of such houses, the House of Godwin, are the central antagonists. The House of Godwins are racists whose tactics are painfully familiar, as they seek out the extermination of groups they deem inferior (such as dwarves and beavers, who are sentient and capable of speech in Suikoden’s world). They are also imperialists who want to expand Falena’s powers overseas, and who only partner with foreigners when it’s in their best interests. The Godwins’ domestic goals are disgustingly reminiscent of real life, as they talk about creating “a Falena for Falenans.” Boy, does that sort of xenophobic proclamation ring a bell…
Suikoden V isn’t just a wonderfully written game, it has enjoyable combat systems as well. The majority of combat is done through a turn-based system using six-member battle parties, allowing the player to try out a variety of characters at once. Both physical and magical combat play a significant role in these battles, and the variety in types of weapons and runes (the source of the series’s magic) is impressive. There is also a fairly nice diversity to the types of monsters found in random encounters, and most of their designs are quite charming.
The other two types of combat in the game are also enjoyable. There are one-on-one duels that work like games of rock-paper-scissors, where the player tries to guess enemies’ next actions based on their dialogue. Some of the animation in these duels is occasionally clunky, but all in all they make for a nice break from the usual combat. The army battles, meanwhile, are just plain awesome. The player commands both land and navy troops simultaneously, and you can customize each troop’s roster in order to utilize a variety of unique special abilities. There’s a lot going on, but the system is still user-friendly and easy to get the hang of. No other Suikoden game has ever delivered such complex yet streamlined and enjoyable army battles as this one does.
Another major aspect of any Suikoden‘s gameplay is its minigames. There are a variety of neat options available to players just wanting to pass time at their castle. One such option is a tile-matching game similar to Mahjong, and which has adjustable difficulty levels. Another standout feature is dragon-horse racing, in which the player competes in races while mounted upon the titular fantasy beasts. There are other minigames that pale when compared to these in terms of originality, but which are nonetheless sure to strike some players’ fancy. For example, if you like gambling or Checkers then you may like the minigames for those as well.
No discussion of a Suikoden game is ever complete without a discussion of its music. The score here is stellar, with an impressive number of pieces that convey all manner of moods. Virtually every city in the game has its own unique theme music, which goes a long way toward enhancing each location’s unique culture and atmosphere. There are also some familiar themes from past games that return in ways that feel nostalgic without seeming forced; the tempos and melodies never come across as clumsily chosen or ill-fitting.
Graphically, Suikoden V is a testament to just how powerful of a machine the PlayStation 2 was. Each town in Falena has its own unique architecture, most of which are very pleasing to look at. The capital city, Sol-Falena, is especially impressive. The royal palace’s floors are a stark white that shows characters’ reflections, which look surprisingly good given the game’s age. My main qualm with the game’s visuals is just that not all of the magic spells look all that interesting. A lot of high level magic looks badass, but some of the standard low-level spells are disappointingly generic. This isn’t a big deal, though, as the rest of the combat is more than engaging enough to make up for it.
All in all, Suikoden V is a masterpiece of a story and of a game. So many beloved facets of the fantasy genre are woven into it, and it’s political commentary is well-crafted as it is unabashed. The characters and battle mechanics are both the best the series has to offer, and its soundtrack and graphics further enhance the experience. The game works both on its own and as a singular chapter in the larger series, as it fleshes out Falena’s lore and links it to that of countries in prior installments. My qualms with this game are few and far between, and they do very little to tarnish the game’s tremendous enjoyability. I foresee myself continuing to replay this game every few years, as each new playthrough allows me to hone in on and appreciate new facets of it I had forgotten or overlooked before.