The only thing that stops the dust is the rain. It’s a sweet reprieve, but there is no middle ground. The land is either as dry as the Betty Ford clinic, or as wet as the ocean floor. Everything can be seen from the ridge overlooking Armadillo as John Marston gently bounces along atop...
Genres come and go, but RPGs will never die. Why? Because they’re steeped in story telling, and writers are the cheapest dates in the video game industry. Konami knows this and their latest RPG, Suikoden V, is proof. Aside from its story, this game is completely unremarkable. It features inconsistent graphics, long loading times, and grating design flaws, but because its characters are compelling, its dialog interesting, and its plot juicy, Suikoden V is still worth your time, if not your money.
This surprisingly engrossing tale takes place in the Queendom of Falena, whose power stems from the Sun Rune, a powerful artifact charged with the energy of that hot rock in the sky. You play the hyper-androgynous Prince as he tries to save the Queendom from revolt, betrayal, and of course, abuse of overwhelming magical power. There’s some quality stuff here, it just takes time to develop.
RPGs are known for long intros, from Final Fantasy to Kingdom Hearts, but Suikoden V’s trumps them all with an intro of ages that lasts at least eight hours no matter how fast you scroll the text. It involves a great deal of exposition and running around, but eventually pays off by setting a compelling and mysterious stage. From there, the story takes many interesting twists and turns, rarely falling back on the tropes and clichs so common to the genre.
While Suikoden V takes a lot of time to explain its realm’s various plots and intrigues, it never explains how to play - there’s no tutorial whatsoever. This won’t be a problem for series vets, because most of the conventions from past games apply, but the going can be a lot slower for initiates.
Behind the cumbersome advancement, a grab bag of good and bad play mechanics run the show. There’s nothing groundbreaking about a turn-based, menu driven battle system anymore, but at least Suikoden V’s is trim and quick. Returning to the six member parties of the past, you’ll be able to choose from a number of formations that grant statistical bonuses and special attacks. You can also have four characters in an “entourageí¢â‚¬? who can be swapped in and out of your battle party on the fly. On the other hand, if you want to put new players into your entourage, you’ll have to travel to a town and swap them in.
With dozens of playable characters, up to ten of which can participate in a given battle, there are certainly a lot of possibilities. There are also a ton of random encounters. You can auto-battle your way through most of the easier fights, but we wish we could have avoided some of them in the first place.
We’re equally dismayed by the return of the series’ painful Rune Orb system. Everyone’s magic and special attacks require you to equip orbs that correspond to elements and modifiers (Flame, Earth, Berserk, Shield, etc.). When you begin the game, each character can equip one orb, and each orb contains one spell with a limited number of charges. As you progress, the orbs will gain up to four levels of power. At orb level two, for example, you will have access to two spells (one per level) with several charges for the first level spell, and only a couple for the second. When you use spell charges in a battle, the only way to replenish them is to go back to town. See? This is why some people might need a tutorial.
There are tons of these orbs to swap in and out, making for a decent level of customization, but getting to an ideal setup can be needlessly frustrating. If you want to equip a new orb, you must (again) run all the way back to town and get it equipped by a vendor for a price. Suikoden V is slow paced in the first place, and having to quit what you’re doing and run back to town if you want to recharge your spells, switch your orbs, or swap characters really slows your progress.
As do the numerous loading screens. In and out of every battle, cut scene, building, and town, expect at least five to seven seconds of loading. Granted, the environments are fairly big and detailed, but these breaks occur often enough to distract you from what you’re doing.
We know it sounds like Suikoden V just oozes along, but the game isn’t so slow all the way through. The plot moves quickly and keeps things fresh with regular developments, the treks back to town are eventually negated by a headquarters you can teleport to, and a couple mini-games break up the regularly scheduled turn-based battles.
One of these has you lead forces against an enemy army in a RTS-lite mini-game. The battles, whether on land or at sea, follow a simple rock, paper, scissors mechanic and once you’ve won one, you’ve won them all. The same goes for the new Duel system. In duels, you face off against a single opponent in another rock-paper-scissors fight, predicting your opponent’s next move by reading hints in their dialog. Neither game provides much challenge, but they do break things up a little.
Suikoden V’s graphics come from both ends of the spectrum, and only from those ends. Army battles and in-engine cut scenes look blocky and raw, but the CGI cut scenes are beautiful and detailed. Towns look great, but dungeons are horrid, bland, maze-like nightmares. In battles, the detailed models and flashy spell effects really clash with the bland backdrops. Oh, and everyone still walks like they’re made of wood, or at least have a piece of it stuck somewhere.
Aurally, however, things are top-notch. Nice orchestral music underscores the entire game, and the voice acting is superb, conveying each character’s unique personality without sounding entirely campy. That’s some serious praise, considering the horrid voice-over and shoddy localization that plagues most RPGs.
Suikoden V isn’t flashy like Final Fantasy, edgy like Shadow Hearts, or refined like Dragon Quest VIII, but it holds its own with one of the best tales of the bunch. Long loading screens and some bad design decisions make this game a tougher sale than it should be, but a great story and excellent voice acting make for an easy rental. Check it out.