Don’t you just always admire a game that attempts something new and fresh in their respective genre? Whether or not the risked venture is a success or failure, I always commend such an effort.
That brings us to Suikoden 3, an RPG from Konami that not only attempts to reinvent the wheel; it attempts to reinvent the hovecap, the axle, the engine, the airbag…the whole damn car! And, while I commend the effort, it’s a textbook example of the phrase “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Suikoden 3 starts out with two nations – the Zexen Confederations and the Grassland Tribes – ready to call an armistice after a grueling war. Unfortunately, one nation attacks the other out of nowhere (no one can agree on who attacked first), and all-out war erupts again. As this conflict unfolds, you see it from the perspective of three characters: Hugo, the son of one of the Karaya Clan chief of the Grasslands; Chris Lightfellow, the female captain of the Zexen knights and revered war hero; and Geddoe, a mercenary working as border defense for Harmonia, a nation to the east of Zexen and the Grasslands. The heroes’ stories are segmented into three chapters before uniting for the second half of the game.
Suikoden 3 really kicked things off right. It was very interesting to see everyone’s first chapter setting the stage; Hugo and Chris provide the Grassland and Zexen perspective, while Geddoe has a sort of outsider’s standpoint, and through his scenario, you see inklings of what’s really going on behind the scenes.
After setting up an excellent story foundation, Suikoden 3 incomprehensibly shoves that setup aside for a completely different goal. After taking the time to establish the history of the tensions between the two nations, and make them break out into war, each of the protaganists finds a reason to abandon this main inavasion plotline in search of an enigmatic hero from half a century ago.
The story falls apart as our heroes’ stories intertwine into one, and the overlapping story surrounding the nations at war starts to become hastily handled, to the point where the game forcibly resolves a plotline in just one short, banal scene. Resolving the situation so glibly is to insult the audience’s intelligence.
What’s left after all that are a few of the weakest villains I’ve ever seen. with the exception of the main antagonist, the remaining villains have no backstory or development, making them seem like obligatory banter devices. Even then, the main antagonist’s motivation seems really contrived, and his means for doing everything are so deeply buried in weird abstract fantasy nonsense that I barely understood a damn thing after all was said and done. Speaking of ‘after it’s all said and done’, when the game ends, everyone just goes back to their normal lives. Zexen and Grassland may go to war again. Nothing has changed about Harmonia’s general tyranny. It’s like everyone just hit the pause button to deal with some evil guy, and just went back to their normal lives. Just what lesson were we expected to learn from all this?
Unfortunately, the game really drags on, and wastes a lot of your time. It takes about 20-25 hours to make it to the meeting point of the three main characters (add ten hours if you play the optional scenarios), and another twenty hours to complete the game afterwards. It never feels like anything important is happening, and I’m not convinced that the build-up to the turning point of the game was all that worth it.
This could have been easier to swallow, though, if the gameplay was really good. Sadly, while there are some original ideas thrown in, it’s crazy to think that there was a group of play-testers who played this game and said “Oh yeah, this is good!” In some respects, Suikoden 3 is your average turn-based RPG. You control six characters, and you tell them to fight, cast magic spells, or use items. Magic is used by equipping ‘Runes’, which allow you to cast a specific set of spells, of which can be cast set number of times based on your character’s level.
There is one huge way in which Suikoden 3 differs from your run-of-the-mill turn-based RPG, though: while you keep a party of six people, you only control three at a time. The way it works is that you have three pairs of characters. These characters pool their runes and items, meaning that you can only cast a spell/use an item with one character in a pair per turn. This is outrageously frustrating, as you can’t use all six party members effectively; Any time you choose an action with one character, their partner’s action is left to chance.
When you select an action for a pair, the other character is operated by AI. There are six different sets of AI, and each character has a specific one. The game never tells you which AI each character has; you just have to figure it out for yourself. Even if you DO figure out your favorite characters’ strategy, there’s not much you can do to work around your out-of-control partners’ nutty decisions.
Lastly, this can cause chaos with area-of-effect (AoE) spells, since many offensive AoE spells target both enemies and allies. So many things that are beyond your control can go wrong because of this: A partner with crazy AI will run into the fray and get hit. If you don’t cast an AoE spell on your very first turn, your allies will have already engaged the enemy, and it will no longer be safe to cast the spell. If the enemy you targeted moves in before the spell is cast, your entire party is going to feel the pain. This design choice renders almost half of the offensive magic spells inept. It’s ridiculous!
Other than that, there are just a few minor annoyances. There is a fully-functional 3D camera in Suikoden 3, but the game operates the camera angle all by itself. This is annoying when the game has you walking towards the camera for no good reason. My best guess is that they’re trying to show you the most beautiful shot of the scenery (the game definitely has an excellent flair for the cinematic), but I don’t think that should come at the cost of not being able to see where I’m walking. The game also has some really wacky difficulty spikes, largely due to the fact that in the second half of the game, you’re prohibited from using some of the main characters (i.e the strongest ones). You then have to break out your second string of dudes, and hope you can beat the really hard bosses with a mish-mash of prepared and unprepared party members.
Suikoden 3 is an interesting game in the history of the RPG in that it tries so many new things. The idea of playing from multiple perspectives had been done before, but it was intriguing to see the writers pit the protagonists against each other. The partner system may or may not have been a new thing, but it was definitely not well-explored in the time of its release. Still, Square-Enix refined the concept in its recent RPG, The Last Remnant.
However, the places where it falters the worst are the places where it attempts to innovate the most. While I appreciate the attempt at breaking new ground, sometimes, you have to leave well-enough alone. Pick one innovation and focus on it. Nowadays, we’ve seen Konami successfully tweak the Castlevania series to near-perfection, so I’m sure they’re capable of doing it. I would love to see what they could do if they ever revisited the conceptual ideas of Suikoden 3. Unfortunately, as it stands, I would only recommend this game to big fans of the Suikoden series…of which I am definitely not.