Inside Pulse 12

Review: Suikoden Tierkreis (Nintendo DS)

Suikoden Tierkreis
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Genre: RPG
Release Date: 3/17/09

Popular opinion seems to rank Suikoden II as the epitome of the series, followed by or tied with V, then III or I somewhere in the middle, and IV and Tactics lingering sadly on the bottom. Naturally, this tier varies depending on your personal preferences. Three years after the release of V, a new addition to the Suikoden series makes its debut on the DS. While it’s not Suikoden VI, having a portable Suikoden to play on the go (well, besides the PSN release of I) does sound pretty good. What’s this? It’s a spinoff, with little relevance to the previous Suikodens? And there’s been massive changes in gameplay, some of which resemble the ones in IV and Tactics, the ones that tend to be the most widely panned of the series? Hm…that does not bode well.

So is this latest iteration a worthy addition to the series, or does it deserve to be cast into the nearest large body of water in an act of final retribution? Let’s find out.

The story drops you in medias res, with a bunch of allies lying dead on the ground and the last remaining four left standing wounded and obviously worse for wear, while their opponent looms over them looking as though he didn’t even break a sweat. Bad guy gloats that the future is predetermined and fighting any more is futile, good guys retort he has no right to judge whether their battle has meaning.

The final four charge, everything goes white, and…

…you’re prompted to enter a name for your hero. Man, talk about anticlimactic.

Before anyone moans about spoilers, this is all in the first few minutes of the game.

Naturally, that scene recurs in different forms and plays a large role in the story. The whole game is essentially spent fighting against the Order of the One True Way, a group that believes that the future is already predetermined, so there’s no point in trying to alter it. They’re after the Chronicles, which gives them the ability to merge other worlds with this one and bestows “Marks of the Stars” upon the Starbearers. They also are not shy about using force and military might to convert people who don’t want to be converted.

There’s far less political intrigue than there was in the previous games, so if that’s something you were looking forward to, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Granted, you do get caught up in a political entanglement for part of the game, but it doesn’t get delved into too deeply, and it gets “resolved” rather abruptly. While some attempts at injecting gray areas are made, it’s mostly a black and white “good versus bad” conflict that’s predominantly present in so many RPGs in one form or another. While it’s done decently here, it’s is a letdown compared to the rest of the series.

There’s also typos and some textual oddities that, while not numerous, makes the game feel less polished. For instance, when your party flees from a battle, the message “It escaped safely” appears. It? Who’s it? I didn’t realize this was a game of tag.

Suikoden’s always been known for the varied casts of characters that manage to be distinguishable with their own nuances and quirks, even if they see little to no screen time in the main plot. While there’s some attempts to flesh out the minor characters, most of the characters still feel rather two-dimensional. Part of the lack of development stems from the absence of any real medium for such, like a detective character and their investigations and the hero’s comment box. Some quests do try to explore some characters’ origins, but they mostly just give one small summary or one little scene and that’s it. The hero in this game lacks any real growth or development, which is not a good thing considering he’s the main character. Even after some events that should have majorly affected him, he still acts the same way as he did before, and at the end of the game he’s the same person he was at the beginning.

They did include a few small references to previous games, such as Orange Company and Unicorn Company, the description of an item being from, “a faraway island nation”, and an “Empire of the North Star”. This game also deals heavily with the Infinity, so it could be argued that the world in this game and the worlds in the other games are connected, considering some recurring characters in the series are hinted to be from parallel worlds. Other than that, there’s little connection to previous games, so if this is your first Suikoden, you won’t be lost, although if you have played any of the other games, you’ll be able to pick up on little references like the aforementioned.

The environments are rendered in 2-D while the character models are all chibi-styled 3-D. The 2-D is done quite nicely, with a good amount of detail, right down to little movements such as water in a river, light shining through crevices, or dust falling from an old and crumbling ceiling. The 3-D is functional, and likely pushes the DS’s capabilities, but I never really was a big fan of the chibi-styled character renderings, like the ones found in the DS versions of Final Fantasy III and IV. The enemy models do look fairly good, though.

Some important plot events are rendered in animated cutscenes. The cutscenes look and animate decently, and they’re drawn in typical anime style. But the scenes look somewhat compressed in some places and seem seeped in a whitish haze, which is a little distracting. They’re short clips, so these things likely won’t be too much of a bother.

There’s a decided lack of variety in generic character portraits. You could walk around a town and talk to several people with the same exact face, almost like there was a worldwide Attack of the Clones at some point in time. In addition, some of the character designs seem somewhat uninspired. Whenever I see Marica, I can’t help but think Penelo from Final Fantasy XII, while Buchse looks like he’d be right at home in Naruto. I prefer the art style found in II and V and would’ve liked to see something along those lines in this game.

Another area lacking variety is the unite attack animations, as certain different combinations of characters will have the same exact one. Granted, DS carts do have limited space for storing things like that, but it’s still repetitive to watch the same animation over and over across different character groups. Their saving grace is that they go by quickly and do a lot of damage (albeit some have side effects). Some of them are amusing to watch, though, such as the “Odd Girls” attack.

Sometimes when the camera zooms in on your characters attacking, the damage counter gets cut off, so you can’t see how much damage you’re doing. While this does not represent a large handicap, it’s somewhat irksome, as I tend to like knowing how much pain I’m inflicting on my enemies, partly as a gauge to see how much longer I have to fight and partly to see how effective my attacks actually are.

Suikoden is known for its amazing musical scores, and while it’s not the strongest in the series, this is no exception. The soundtrack contains tunes Suikoden fans should recognize. I’d linger in some areas/screens, such as the deployment and Sotah’s database screens and Mt. Svatgoh, just to listen to the music. The boss music for certain battles sounds appropriately epic, and the remix of the regular battle theme is catchy. It’s a shame it’s accompanied by subpar voice acting.

The voices are incredibly tinny for some odd reason. This tinniness persisted even when I used headphones, so it wasn’t just my DS’s speakers. The voice acting ranges from passable to making you wish for a chalkboard to scratch your nails across so that you could erase the voices from your eardrums. The voice actors in this game don’t sound as though they know how to inflect properly, and they deliver lines in near monotone. Sometimes there’d be weird pauses where there shouldn’t be any, particularly during cutscenes (perhaps in an attempt to match mouth movements?), but a lot of the time it sounds like they’re rushing through their lines.

The worst offender would be your protagonist, which is especially bad since you hear him talking the most, given that he’s the main character and leader of the stars, so he’s always in the party. Every Suikoden protagonist except the ones in III, Tactics, and Suikogaiden were all silent. You’ll soon find yourself wishing this one was among them. He does slow down a bit later in the game (either that, or your ears just adjust to his pace), but his inflection doesn’t get much better, and he loves to repeat variations of his favorite phrase (“We won’t know until we try!”) so much that by the end of the game you’ll groan everything you hear it.

Sometimes the spoken dialogue doesn’t match up with the text on screen. While they do essentially say the same thing, it’s still a glaring inconsistency. In addition, character name pronunciations sound inconsistent with the way they’re spelled, such as “Macoute” sounding like “Macouto”, “Kureyah” like “Claire”, “Rizwan” like “Lizlon”, “Diulf” like “Dolph”, “Hotupa” like “Hotspa”, and so on.

The gameplay has been considerably altered from established Suikoden mechanics. Characters no longer wield a set weapon that gets built up at a blacksmith. Rather, there are now three weapon types: slash (swords, axes, throwing daggers/knives), strike (clubs, hammers, boomerangs, fists), and pierce (spears, bows, claws, guns). Some enemies are more vulnerable to certain types of weapons, which is indicated by a little icon under their names (a crescent for slash, a star for strike, and an upward triangle-like shape for pierce). If the icon has an X through it, it means they take less damage from that type of weapon. While in theory this should give you more customizability, some weapons are exclusive to one character, and not everyone can equip every type of weapon, which sort of defeats the purpose of allowing everyone to equip different types of weapons. Some characters can duel wield weapons, which gives them more attack power in exchange for defense.

The Rune magic system has been replaced with a standard MP system that the vast majority of RPGs implement. Instead of equipping runes and assembling rune pieces to create more powerful ones, you now choose four different skills and spells for each character from a list of spells and skills – called “marks” in the game – that they receive with each chronicle your company manages to retrieve. This system feels like another flimsy attempt at inputting more customizability, as you can only pick from a limited list of marks rather than, say, put a Killer Rune on all your physical fighters or have one magic user use a Flowing Rune and the other use a Rage Rune.

Despite the fact that there are six slots in the formation screen, you can only have a maximum of four characters in your party at a time, plus one support character. I miss the variety of possible formations and accompanying stat boosts in V. Here, you can only place the characters in one of the three frontline slots or one of the three back row slots. Configuring marks (or anything else, really) can take a while, not only due to the sheer number of characters, but also due to the fact that characters are listed by the order they appear on the Tablet of Promise rather than alphabetically, meaning it take a little longer to find the character you’re looking for. Overall, the battle system feels rather diluted.

There are also no duels or war battles. Playing through the conflict between the participating characters/groups through the duels and war battles rather than just observing it is fun. At a couple of points you do fight a regular battle with one character against a single enemy, but it doesn’t feel the same. The closest you get to war battles is forming three-four parties then deploying them, which is hardly an adequate substitute, considering that you barely control the other parties except for one battle and maybe a little walking to trigger an event.

The quest and season systems should be familiar to those who played Suikoden Tactics. Throughout the game, you advance the story through completing story quests. On the one hand, you’re less likely to get lost even if you put the game down for a while because you can just look at a list of your current quests to get yourself back on track. On the other hand, it can begin to feel as though you’re just embarking on a bunch of fetch quests rather than actually doing anything productive. The season system consists of a cycle of Sprout, Bud, and Flower season, each of which lasts 30 days. You advance them by walking around on the world map, which involves you picking a location and watching your character walk to it. Different places take a different amount of days to reach. You eventually get the ability to go through gateways from your base to some places without advancing a day (or days, depending on how far the destination is). One thing that somewhat tweaked me was the fact that you get someone who seems like they’d play the same role Viki does in terms of transportation. Nope. Even at the end of the game, you can only warp to a few places.

The trading game is now essentially mandatory since enemies no longer drop money, but instead drop trade goods and sometimes other items. Granted, this can make you a pretty penny if you adhere to the “buy low, sell high” principle and especially if you time your selling to coincide with rumors that certain items are skyrocketing in price. It’s still kind of annoying to have it forced on you, though. Later in the game, you can also earn money through quests (and, naturally, though selling off old equipment), but the bulk of your money will come from trading since a lot of quests can’t be repeated or don’t offer that much in Potch rewards. Keeping equipment for all your characters, or at least the ones you use, gets rather expensive, making trading even more necessary.

Once you’ve beaten the game, there’s little reason to go through it again. There’s no New Game+, so you’d have to go through all the grinding and running around trading for money all over again should you replay it. The difficulty is such that a replay wouldn’t be too onerous, but it would still prove somewhat tedious. The closest you get to multiple endings in this game is a bad ending that you can get before you enter the final dungeon and an additional scene in the good ending if you recruit all 108 stars, but other than than there’s little variation. I’d recommend keeping a save file in the right place just before the point you can get the bad ending, watching it, then reloading the file and continuing on. None of this is really worth playing the entire game over for, though the bad ending does shed some light on the nature of one of the endgame antagonists.

The game feels almost ridiculously easy. I don’t think I ever had to revive anyone unless I was leveling up low leveled characters and got hit by multiple group attacks or when I was fighting the final boss. Whenever a character levels up, their HP and MP are completely restored. While this is especially nice to have in long dungeons and means you burn through less items and MP, it also makes the game a virtual cakewalk – at least, until you reach the point where you’re not gaining as many levels. The experience system is actually balanced, as low level characters get more experience per battle than higher leveled ones, which makes building up new recruits less of a pain. At the same time, it also prevents excessive powerleveling, unless you’re really patient and have lots of time on your hands.

The amount of unwinnable and “survive for 3 rounds” battles in this game is asinine. If that was a way of injecting more “difficulty” into the game, it was a completely misguided one. There are other ways of establishing that yes, the enemies are overpowered compared to the good guys at this point in time than by forcing me to either waste resources keeping everyone’s HP up and hoping it’ll end soon or watch my party get thrashed over and over.

This latest entry in the series does introduce some new gameplay elements that haven’t been seen in a Suikoden before. Not all of that is a good thing, as the game feels like a generic JRPG. While I don’t have any deep seated grievances with generic JRPGs and in fact enjoy some of them, if that’s what I wanted to play, that’s what I’d play. The weapon types system is alright, though it’s nothing extraordinary, and you can still win fights even if you go in with a weapon the enemy’s strong against. The plot feels watered down and derivative, and the focus on the Infinity and setting the game in a different world seems like a thinly disguised excuse to drift away from the canon the other games have in order to not have to deal with trying to maintain anything resembling continuity.

When I first started playing this game, I felt nostalgic for the other games, and the thought of how I’d rather play them instead lingered in the back of my mind. That dissipated as I got further in, but it was a rather peculiar feeling, as I wasn’t approaching this game expecting it to be identical to the others. Nonetheless, I did still want to play through the game to see what would happen next. My completionist tendencies compelled me to recruit all 108 stars and complete all the in-game quests, so the game kept me occupied for quite a while. Naturally, the seasons played a role in some recruitments, which added on another layer to the very specific recruitment requirements for some stars, as well as the lack of any real hints as to what and where stars would be located. Of course, you do have your pain-in-the-neck-to-recruit stars (I’m looking at you, Namna), but that’s nothing new to the series. All the running around and backtracking did break up or slow down the flow at some points, especially being warped deep in a dungeon and being forced to walk all the way back out due to the lack of anything resembling an escape talisman. Combine that with the high encounter rate and the slow walking speed (well, until you get an accessory that remedies that, but you have to sacrifice an accessory slot on a character) and you have an exercise in tedium. But despite those periods, I did still enjoy my time with the game.

The game was made with the intention of bringing in new players to the series. The game is simple enough and doesn’t require any knowledge of previous games to enjoy, so those new to the series may find this a good entry point. However, should they seek out the other games, they might be somewhat bewildered at how different they’ll seem from this game. Long-time Suikoden fans may feel put off by the overhaul in gameplay mechanics and lack of connection to the other games in the series. As a result, they may decide to not give the game a chance.

There’s quests you can complete on Wi-Fi. You can hire allies and send some of your own characters over Wi-Fi to complete quests. After you do something on Wi-Fi, you have to wait a bit before you can go back on it. The wait’s less than a minute or so, but it’s still mildly annoying if you’re trying to do multiple things at once, and I’m not sure why the developers felt the need to put that in. The good thing about these quests is that you can get some money or rare goods out of them. However, completing these quests hinges on another person hiring your character, completing the quest with them, and sending them back. This means that your character could be left in limbo or stuck in someone else’s game until they remember to give you your character back. You could always recall them if need be, but doing so means you fail the quest. Fortunately, you can get enough stuff and money on your own, especially near the end of the game, that completing these quests isn’t mandatory to finishing the game. While it does fit in with the game’s theme of different worlds being connected by gateways, the whole thing just feels superfluous and tacked on just for the sake of saying, “This game supports Wi-Fi”.

The Scores
Story: Decent
Graphics: Above Average
Sound: Very Good
Control and Gameplay: Enjoyable
Replayability: Bad
Balance: Decent
Originality: Below Average
Addictiveness: Decent
Appeal Factor: Decent
Miscellaneous: Below Average
FINAL SCORE: DECENT GAME

Short Attention Span Summary: As a standalone game, it’s not the worst game out there and is in fact a moderately good RPG. However, the battle system and plot feel diluted in comparison to the rest of the series. If you’ve been yearning for a Suikoden VI or something that feels like a traditional Suikoden, you won’t find it here. But if you’re looking for another RPG for your DS, this wouldn’t be a bad game to pick up. Just don’t expect it to feel like any of the previous Suikodens.