Gamers like to collect stuff. And what could possibly be better than to collect characters? I mean, can blue coins talk to you? Can power cells give you advice? Can stars provide interesting (and sometimes personal) information about other stars, or give you extra manpower in battle? Can you take a steaming hot mixed bath with pieces of hearts? I think not. So, in theory, having 108 (actually, 114, but 108 are the "official" ones) characters to collect should be much more satisfying than just about any other form of collection.
But the problem is, Suikoden V
is living in the past. Far away in the past. To show you just how far in the past, let me give you a rundown of lessons for console RPGs laid down by Final Fantasy X
- yes, X, one of the oldest games for this console - that should have made a standard
for any such games in the Playstation 2 era.
Lesson one: Minimise the loading times
When you're making a game wherein the screens will change from field to battle and back so often as this, the programming -must- be done so well to ensure that there is hardly any waiting. 13 seconds of waiting for each and every battle to start is too much. The same thing applies to cut-scenes, not the least when they happen in the same room you've just walked around in, and it's all plain text and no speech. Why does it take so long just to add a few extra simple characters?
To add insult to injury, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the cutscenes that involves actual speech. And sometimes the parts with voice acting are only a few seconds long, which means the loading times are longer than the scenes themselves. One of the most damning parts is that the plot is going on in plain text, but they put in a proper cut-scene simply for the formal departing words. Did the voice actors feel tired or unable to memorise more than that one line?
And it's a sin
to make any form of waiting whatsoever happening when in the menus.
Lesson 2: Make it accessible and flowing
A surprising reminder about how to make things accessible is, curiously enough, the font. And this is perhaps the biggest sign of just how much Suikoden V is living in the past: The monospaced font, hailing from some distant past of the PS1 days. I am really curious of why they made this decision, and I\'m immensely curious why they made their menus so that many items would have partially abbreviated names such as "Thun God Armor" instead of "Thunder God\'s armour", "Pc" instead of "piece", and so on. It\'s even reminding me about the four-letter limits of a character\'s action in the first FF games. You know, the ones for NES. That 8-bit console. Haven\'t we learned something since then?
And then the menu setup itself is not at all mainstreamed, and I'm not just talking about those annoying little loading times that are so unnecessary. Take items, for instance. Usable items can sometimes be clustered in groups of 2-5 items at once, and then it looks like this: Mega Medicine5. Why on earth isn\'t there a space there? Why is the game forcing me to put them together, instead of doing so automatically? Why aren\'t items and armour (and rune orbs) separated properly? Why is it all so awkwardly backwards and confusing?
And that\'s just the item menu. The others hardly fare any better, and the game as a whole suffers much from having to put in a level of micromanagement that simply cannot be tolerated (especially when coupled with more loading times). When you\'re going to do as much character swapping, it simply must be streamlined to the point where you feel like you snap your fingers, and you\'ll have the next set of characters waiting for you.
As for combat, the Final Fantasy series hasn't used the "insert commands for all characters at once, then let them and the monsters act it out" since Final Fantasy III (J), and I\'d like to think it\'s because of a good reason: The battles simply doesn't flow very smoothly then. Though when you know everyone will just attack, you can simply use "Auto" to make everyone just attack. Unfortunately, they didn't bother working that feature properly. You're supposed to be able to put on the setting "attack the weakest" first, but "weak" here only refers to maximum HP. So if you have a group of 6 enemies that are all the same, you may well end up attacking four or five of them. If you want to kill them off in the most efficient manner, you need to give manual commands. That's just defeating the purpouse of putting in an Auto-command.
Though to be fair, once the commands are given and the action starts, at least that flows smoothly. If f.ex. character A attacks monster B, and monster A attacks character B, it's shown to happen simultanously, so that you don't always have to wait for each attack to end before the next thing happens.
Lesson 3: If you're going to have a fixed camera, at least make it dynamically fixed
Graphically, Suikoden V never gets better (and often gets worse) than "acceptable", with its simple anime-styled polygons. But every city and dungeon you're in are portrayed from one angle, and all you can do is change between three zoom levels. From far off, you can't see a single facial feature (Some of the NPCs actually reminded me of the faceless audience in Track&Field 2 for the NES...), and close up, there's no way to see where you're going if you haven't memorised the way. So, the options are tiny or useless.
But, I suppose I can understand why they wouldn't bother using different camera angles. The cities are for the most part incredibly boring to look at, with the recurring theme being stone, and lots of it. Sure, you eventually find more unique places, but the biggest city of the game is looking like the freemasons were the real rulers, and that they damn well wanted to use white stones for almost everything. Uninspired weak shit is what I call that kind of design... And as far as the dungeon and battle screen designs go, they\'re not even worth mentioning.
Alas, I'm having more lessons to share, but I'm forcing myself to stop right now, lest my review will be longer than this game (and it's a long game). I think that above all, all those things I've talked about mainly gives off a sense of indifference. That Konami was almost forced at gunpoint to make another Suikoden game.
And it's such a shame too. Because unlike, say Dragon Quest VIII (a pure RPG cliché feast), there's some actual potential going on here. Once you learn how to live with the things I've mentioned - and strangely enough, that is possible - you will enjoy it whenever you recruit a new character. Especially if you had to work out the solution. The plot is also slightly more political than usual, even if it's political in a Tolkien-esque way, nothing like the intricacies of George R.R. Martin. Though it would have helped if our hero had some proper lines, not just a whole bunch of fake "choices" popping up in most plot cutscenes, his bodyguard otherwise speaking for him.
A final word needs of course to be mentioned about the leveling system. With more than 50 characters usable in the standard battles, you might wonder how much leveling you need to do. The answer is, thankfully, very little as such. The game makes it very easy for an under-leveled character to catch up, but very, very hard (in terms of patience) to be severely overleveled. It's more important that you keep upgrading your armour (which can be swapped between characters) and weapons (which can't). This means, that if you only keep to a preferred set of characters, you\'ll hardly have to spend any time at all running around in circles for more enemies to kill. Of course, if you want full weapon upgrades on -everyone-, then you will definitely appreciate that Auto command...
What\'s more, the game isn\'t simply just about the standard turn-based battles and collecting all those characters. There are also one-on-one battles and war campaigns. One-on-one battles is like a paper-rock-scissor match, except the opponent will give you a hint of what he\'s going to choose (mostly obvious, sometimes not). That sounds dull, but it\'s actually executed so well (thanks to some sweet animations and the camera being more dynamic), I had fun with it every time it popped up. And it came along just often enough, so as to not get boring.
Moving over to the war campaigns, they too are simple, but giving you a break in the game rhythm. And the interesting thing is that while it\'s easy enough to win them, it\'s not always that easy to keep all the units alive. And if a unit leader who\'s not a mandatory plot character dies in these battles, that person actually dies for good! So if you want a truly complete game, then better pay attention so you won\'t mess up here.
After all, this game is messed up as it is, in many small, but important ways. And almost every single problem can be traced to not following some of the basic rules of game-making that should have been written in a hallowed tome in 2001. And 5 years later, anyone still not following these rules should be sacrificed on a ritual altar. I\'m sure I could write a "Console RPGs for dummies" book outlining these procedures, but for now, I can only give this game a rather mediocre C. Which is all the more a pity for a premise with such potential. I just hope someone in Konami takes a good look at the present before the next game.