Lost at sea.
When we think Square, we think Final Fantasy. When we think Enix, we think Dragon Warrior. And when we think Konami, we definitely think Metal Gear, but thanks to its cult success, we might, if only for a second, think Suikoden, too.
While the series hasn't quite earned its way into the Playa's Club of long running and fairly consistent RPGs, the first two set up a good foundation and the third one had a decisively superb story.
Suikoden IV, sadly, effectively undoes all that and pretty much pulls the entire series into the muck. Ideally, an RPG should try to hook you within the first hour. In Suikoden IV, you won't get attached to anything until several hours into the game and only after running countless errands and going through redundant gameplay routines. The only thing getting the hook will be your patience.
Every hook also needs a barb, and in most RPGs that role is filled by the story. Sadly, "friendship turned into hatred" and other themes in Suikoden IV lack resonance or emotion after being filtered through tepid writing and voice-acting. The story comes off as melodramatic and irritating and will do little to sustain your interest.
Still, they certainly try. Your character is about to become an honored knight of the Island Nation of Gaien, but fate strikes when a cursed rune chooses him to be its host and he's banished out to sea for a crime he didn't commit. During his journeys, he will explore the various island nations and meet compatriots who will fight by his side. There are also pirates, cat-people, and mermaids, oh my.
After witnessing a war through three different perspectives in Suikoden 3, following just one hero is a bit disappointing. The Trinity Sight system, with all its interlacing threads, characters and drama, was a great story-telling device that we hoped would return in Suikoden IV. Its absence would only be the first of our disappointments.
Inexplicably, your character has this eternally angry and disconcerted look on his face, like he smells something stinky. You will too after you've encountered the three different kinds of battles, none of which are particularly fun.
One type involves the standard, random encounters that have been in RPGs since, well, ever. As if random encounters weren't generic enough, the fights themselves are straight out of the early '90s. You choose between a few familiar options: Fight, Item, Defend, Rune Stones (the game's magic), and Combination Fight (more than one character fighting in a group attack). Combination Fight was interesting in Suikoden 3 because you could have up to six people in your party, and among them there were usually quite a few useful combos. The party cap has been reduced to four in Suikoden IV, greatly diminishing the possibilities of this formerly fascinating feature.
Another flavor is the One on One duel, which uses a rock-paper-scissors form of checks and balances with an emphasis on random and unpredictable results. Fortunately, these battles are over quickly and are only used for key sequences in the game.
The last kind of combat is a little more tactical, but still not all it could be. Part of the time, you control a ship sailing about a large grid while enemy ships take turns making a beeline toward you. To ward off their attacks, you must blast them with different elemental cannons. These elements have a balancing effect on one another, so setting up favorable cannon-fire combos is part of the strategy. While this can be interesting from a strategic point of view, it's terribly bland since you're just looking at a giant grid with tiny ship markers. It's like Battleship, except you can't throw handfuls of plastic markers at your opponent when you get bored. And you will get bored.
Instead of building a fortress like in other Suikoden games, here your characters build the aforementioned boat that they'll use to travel around the various islands. This isn't nearly as pleasant as it sounds, however, due to your boat's horribly slow velocity and the ridiculous frequency of sea-based random encounters. Travel is so slow and annoying in Suikoden IV that you're more likely to turn off your PS2 than arrive at an intended location.
Plus, attempting to find a port and properly dock can cause severe distress. Bump into the island, and you'll be automatically turned away, most likely in the wrong direction. Try to correct it on the overhead map and right when you are sailing again, BAM! another random battle. You'll scream, you'll cry, you'll ask for a refund.
When you finally do land, you can marvel at the blas" cities and environments. It seems like most of the work was put into making water look nice, since everything else looks dull. The characters have some neat design elements, but aren't nearly emotive enough during dramatic episodes. And of course, the game's numerous, lengthy loading screens look fantastic. They actually come with these little character sprites that at first seem pretty innocuous, but you will come to hate them. Utterly. Considering the underwhelming visuals, Suikoden IV sure needs to load a lot of damned data.
The audio doesn't fare much better. Aside from a handful of scattered melodies that fit the game's mood, you'll be treated to a range of bad to decent voice-acting.
In the end, Suikoden IV is an uninspired, unnecessary chapter in the Suikoden series. The game's greatest failing is its incredible mediocrity. For sea-faring gusto and tales of derring-do, you are better off with the similarly themed Skies of Arcadia. Suikoden IV just doesn't live up to the high watermark set by its past, although it's pretty good at keeping watermarks off a table if you set your drink on it.