I'm not sure which is the more unpleasant part of being a game reviewer: having to play games that you know will be awful (e.g. Aquaman: Battle for Atlantis) or finding yourself playing a game that you were really looking forward to and finding out it isn't very good. If I had to choose, the latter scenario is probably more bothersome. When I know a game is gonna be terrible, I just put my nose to the grindstone and soldier through, content in the knowledge that I can write a scathing review of it wherein I get to spout off a few funny lines about how bad everything is. In the second case, I'm more like a punch-drunk boxer—dazed at each new way the game lets me down. Even worse is the dread I feel knowing that I'll have to be the guy giving something I expected to be good a less-than-great score. Factor the sheer disappointment into the equation, and it's easy to see how a potentially good game being bad lingers with the critic a whole lot longer than the standard awful game.
All of which brings me to Suikoden IV. Since the series inception on the original PlayStation, Konami's role-playing game (RPG) franchise has been revered by genre fans who wanted something a little different than the mainstream titles cluttering the shelves. "Let the fanboys and casual gamers have their Final Fantasy," the dedicated Suikoden fan would say, secure in the knowledge that he was playing a game every bit as good, but one that had maybe just a little more heart and soul than Square's flagship series. Suikoden was an underdog in the RPG world, still using sprites and 2D backgrounds when everyone else had moved on to polygons and pre-rendered environments. Like the ubiquitous underdog hero so common in the genre, it was hard not to root for the series to succeed, particularly since the gameplay was so good.
The series hit a highpoint with Suikoden II, one of the unmitigated classics of the PSX era, and even made a relatively seamless transition to 3D with Suikoden III on the PS2. So, what went wrong with Suikoden IV? How did a formula that's worked for three games suddenly fail? Let's perform a little post mortem examination and see just where Konami dropped the ball.
The game's most obvious failing is in its very design. While previous Suikoden games have been relatively short by RPG standards, they've always managed to tell epic tales. In a lot of ways, this was a plus—the older games always told grand stories without the narrative fat that's become so common in the genre. Suikoden IV attempts to continue this tradition; it doesn't have any narrative fat, but that's generally because it doesn't have much of a narrative at all. Earlier titles in the series gradually ramped up in terms of action, but Suikoden IV is content to spend the entirety of the game languishing in second gear. It presents moments where it seems like things are going to rev up and finally go somewhere, but they never do. Because of this, the game never really achieves a sense of urgency.
The new story takes place in a land that could have been inspired by Kevin Costner's Waterworld. It's a world of vast oceans with the occasional island breaking up the monotony of the sea. Naturally, players will be using boats to get around on the ocean. Not since The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker have I played a game where the sailing was so tedious. Suikoden IV actually manages to trump Zelda in this category (no small feat, mind you) by featuring a ship that moves so slowly that Pangea could reform in the time it takes players to sail from one side of the world to the other. Compounding the problem is the game's random encounter rate, which dictates that players must fight a group of enemies roughly once every five seconds. Trying to get the ship from one location to another can take an eternity—the ship is slow, and players will be stopping every few seconds to fight a group of enemies. But wait! It gets even better! The game doesn't actually give you a world map. Instead, players "uncover" locations by sailing around and exploring to find them. Neat idea, but since it takes an hour to sail five feet, this leads to more aggravation than fun. And, let's be honest—if I wanted to be an ocean explorer in search of new lands, I'd have changed my name to Vasco-friggin'-de-Gama. Things do get a little easier later when players acquire a character who can warp the boat to any spot they've been to previously, but sailing will still be required at certain times—and it's never fun.
So, the high random encounter rate and the slow sailing speed got me wondering: why did Konami do this? The answer, which becomes pretty obvious as players work through the game, is this: there's really not much to do in Suikoden IV. I spent 40 hours beating the game, and that was including all the sailing, tracking down 106 of the 108 stars of destiny, doing some serious gambling, and leveling my characters up way higher than I needed to. If one just played the game straight, getting only the characters they earned through story events, Suikoden IV could arguably be beaten in 15 hours—and it would only take that long because of the sailing and frequent random battles. In this regard, the game is almost a throwback to the days of 8-bit RPGs wherein battling was the bulk of the gameplay and the story was generally an afterthought.
Unfortunately, even most of the main storyline rarely rises above the level of "busy work." The 108 Stars of Destiny (108 characters the main character can recruit to be in his party) return, and tracking them down takes up a lot of time. I'm not really sure why anyone even bothers tracking them all down, because the game never forces players to use them. None of them are ever developed in any meaningful way (in fact, it almost seems like a step backward in this outing—the stars of destiny seemed to have more personality in the older games) and players can buff up eight characters and cruise through the game without ever using anyone else.
That's right, I said eight characters. Unlike previous outings, Suikoden IV only allows players to have four characters in their party at one time. All three previous games allowed for six characters, so one has to wonder, why the sudden decrease? About the only real positive is that the tandem attack system from Suikoden III has been scrapped in favor of a more traditional combat interface. The series standard duels return in this installment, and they're still fun (if way too easy—it might be time to scrap the whole "rock, paper, scissors" system of these fights), and the game also features some naval battles that are a nice break from the regular monotony.
The other enhancement is the inclusion of voice acting, which is decent, for the most part (though Rita and Chiepoo do tend to get a little annoying). Yet, even here, Konami once again drops the ball by featuring a mute protagonist. Yep, the main character of the game never actually speaks a word. Not only does he have the worst bowl-cut in the history of videogames, he's also incapable of speaking, yet can somehow lead an army to victory. It's all so…1995.
Graphics are pretty bland overall. Suikoden has never been about being the prettiest game on the market, but even by those standards, this title is a letdown. Since most of the game takes place on the sea, you'd think someone would have worked extra hard to create some realistic looking water. Unfortunately, such is not the case. Add in a bland color palette (even when there is color in the game, it tends to look washed out for some reason), and the fact that the game's hero is so hideous-looking, and the whole thing starts to make your eyes hurt.
Mini-games return yet again and run the gamut from a mahjong clone, to dice, to spinning tops, to catching mice, to guessing whether a coin will turn up heads or tails. These are some decent time wasters (and again, they add to the title's overall length), but it's hard to imagine anyone coming back to play them regularly (with the exception of the mahjong-esque Ritapon—despite the fact that I swear she cheats).
The final problem, which may well be the most damning of all, is this: the game just lacks balance. Early on, players will level up at seemingly every turn. Then, from around level 30 to 50, it's a grind akin to an MMORPG. Of course, later in the game players can insert a level one character into their party and get him or her to level 50 in about five battles, but from 50 onward, it's all but impossible to level by fighting enemies. Instead players must train on their ship. What makes all of this worse (including the aforementioned encounter rate) is that players are constantly forced into battle with enemies who are too low to even pose a challenge. The game has a "release" feature for these fights, which allows the player to let the enemies go; but why even make them sit through two loading screens? Why not just make it so that the enemies who are low enough to be released not even bother attacking?
Since the random encounters are more tedious than anything—thanks to the miniscule difficulty level—it's a pretty big shock when the penultimate boss is so much harder than anything else in the game. Players will cruise through most of Suikoden IV with any party they choose. yet beating the second to last boss requires a certain type of party equipped in a specific way. Failure to plan for this means lots of frustration. It's probably possible to beat this guy with any combination, but it would require some extreme leveling to make a lot of the combinations viable. And if the player hasn't equipped the right runes, the fight can last a very long time…
Ultimately, I take no joy from writing this review. I've been a Suikoden fan since the first game's release and have found each of the previous three games to be charming despite their limitations in comparison to other games in the genre. This makes Suikoden IV an even more profound disappointment; to see a series falter so badly after years of doing everything right is distressing. One can only hope that Konami returns to the drawing board before undertaking a fifth installment in the series.