The World of Asian RPGs
Suikoden series, created by Konami, started its existence much later than the great franchises of Japanese RPGs. Nevertheless, its four installments (not including related games) have gained a loyal fanbase and recognition from many fans of the genre. Suikoden owes its name and was inspired by a classic 14th century Chinese novel "Shuihuzhuan", known in English as "Water Margin" or "Outlaws of the Marsh". All Suikoden games are set in the same medieval fantasy world with unique culture, races, and social and political structure. The games deal primarily with political conflicts and share many common themes and gameplay elements, such as the ability to build your own base and to recruit as many as 108 characters to populate it and to participate in battles. In each game there were also various strategy battles and one-on-one duels, and they share an interesting magic system based on limited casting instead of the traditional usage of mana points. The remarkable unity of the Suikoden universe and the serious themes of its games, which deliberately reduces supernatural and mythological elements in favor of realistic relationships between countries and characters made its games a unique experience within the genre of Japanese RPGs. Being based on a Chinese novel, Suikoden is in fact more Chinese in spirit, tending to objective depictions of society and political struggle without neglecting personal stories of the heroes.
The first Suikoden introduced all the innovative aspects of the series. As a young leader of a rebellion movement against a corrupted empire, you had your own castle in the game, which you could customize in many ways by finding and recruiting characters all over the world. The amount of characters who could participate in active battles was larger than in any other Asian RPG before or after, excluding only its own sequels. With nearly endless possibilities of party-building, "Suikoden" stood out already from the point of view of gameplay. The army battles were rather simple, but served as a good diversion. The characterization was exceptional, especially considering the sheer amount of different characters. The story revolved around such topics as loyalty and father-son relationship, and paid a lot of attention to political problems.
Suikoden II was conceived in the same vein as its predecessor, and had a very similar gameplay system (replacing the simplistic army battles from the first game with real strategic combat), but it raised story and content to a new level. The traditional, simplified plot about evil empire and good rebels gave way to a complex political drama that evolved as a background for a tale about friendship, betrayal, love, and lust for power. The story had several layers and dealt with political, social, and psychological problems, giving all these aspects equal attention. The characterization in "Suikoden II" was even more deep than in the first game, embracing a huge variety of personalities and their relationships on various levels. As always, supernatural content played a strictly secondary role, and the level of realism was unprecedented. All that made "Suikoden II" one of the richest and most finely crafted Japanese RPGs in history.
In Suikoden III, many innovations found their ways into the series, the most important and interesting one being the trinity sight system. The game was divided into chapters and had three different protagonists. You had to play through each protagonist's three chapters in any order before being able to continue. There were also three optional chapters dedicated to another important character. The novelty of this system was in the fact that two of the three protagonists were each other's enemies, and you could experience the same events from different points of view. The story line was again complex and finely thought-out, with the characterization entering a new dimension thanks to the trinity sight system. Even though many fans disliked the battle system, which allowed you to enter specific commands only for three members of your usual six-people party, "Suikoden III" was rightfully considered a very powerful contribution to the series.
Suikoden IV was heavily criticized by fans of the series. It introduced a totally new feature to the series, replacing traveling on foot with ship navigation, and the main object of the criticisms was the supposedly slow speed of the ships. Many players didn't have the patience to sail freely over the world map, discovering new islands, hunting for treasure, and searching for characters to recruit. Despite the criticisms, "Suikoden IV" was every bit as creative as its predecessors, delivering a suspenseful, emotional story of friendship, loyalty, and sacrifice, depicting political and personal relationships with the same degree of realism, and replacing the army battles from before with interesting ship combat. It also had optional first-person view and freely rotatable camera, features which are very rare to find in Asian RPGs.
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