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The GoodFor the most part, Suikoden III retains what made its predecessor such an involving game: wealth of characters participating in a rich story dedicated to political conflicts.
Unlike the previous games in the series, this third installment introduces the so-called "Trinity Sight": the first three chapters (out of five) are consequently viewed from the perspectives of the three main characters. The execution of this concept leaves a lot to be desired - you must complete all those nine chapters (three for each character) to access the common fourth and fifth chapters. But at least the game tries to break away from the tradition of imposing a single main character on the player. There is even an optional point of view - Thomas' story, full three chapters you can choose to play or ignore. This was something I've rarely encountered in a Japanese RPG (including this game's predecessors): hours of material which the player could experience or ignore at will.
Suikoden III brings some interesting gameplay ideas to the table. Together with traditional leveling-up, your characters also gain skill points, which can be later distributed to increase a character's skill at your own wish. Those skills include Accuracy, Repel, Damage, Magic Resistance, Armor Protect, and many others. For example, a character with a high Continuous Attack skill will be able to attack more than one time per turn; a character with a lot of skill points invested in Heavy Damage skill will be able to perform more critical hits.
The magic system is closer to Western RPGs: instead of unlimited amount of spells which consume mana points, a character can cast only several spells until he (or she) rests in an inn. Spell chanting takes a long time, if a corresponding magic skill is at a low level. Many powerful spells hit an area, which means they would also hit your own party members. There are lots of different kinds of magic, as well as plenty of various equipment.
There are some optional locations and bosses, and a fair amount of items you can gather. There are a few battles you can lose and still be able to continue the game. Respawning "treasure bosses", very powerful monsters who guard treasure chests, can be fought according to the player's wish at any time.
As before, the idea of gradually building your own castle, recruiting people, and constructing smaller parties from 108 available characters works wonders and makes the game much deeper and more addictive than it is usually the case with games of this genre.
Following the tone of the first two games, the story of Suikoden III tries as much as possible to stay away from "defeat the big bad guy, save the world" cliches, concentrating instead of real world-like political issues. It tells about a conflict between two large countries, which eventually escalates into an even more sinister affair. Most characters are interesting and believable - which is no easy feat, considering their quantity. At the very least, they are colorful and amusing. The enigmatic main villain is also pretty convincing, and there is a nice plot twist associated with him.
The BadLike many other RPGs of its time, Suikoden III throws the world map out of the window, resorting instead to dot-by-dot traveling. I don't think I need to elaborate why this is a horrible idea: it's easy to see how immersion is ruined when traveling from place to place is performed by clicking on an icon. There is quite a lot of backtracking in the game, which can become exceedingly tedious, especially because there is no way to teleport to another location until very late in the game, and because the map structure is very linear - important locations are connected through large areas such as mountain paths and forests, so if you must go back, you'll have to go through the same area again.
To make matters even worse, those locations are really badly designed. The series was never known for its dungeon design, but Suikoden III breaks all records: its hostile areas look like they were made by amateurs who didn't even try. They are not just horribly straightforward - many of them utilize strange quasi-2D perspectives. Not only is that inexplicable for a fully 3D game - it also destroys any physical immersion that might have been left in the game. Every dungeon is a series of bland, plain, identically looking paths, and none of them is memorable.
The towns are a bit better, but all of them are viewed from fixed angles, and some of them are quite weird, preventing you from enjoying the graphics. There is no camera rotation, and I suspect one of the reason for that was to conceal the lack of detail in many backgrounds.
Now you'll have to take all of the above and multiply it by three. Thanks to the game's Trinity Sight system, you'll have to visit the same locations and experience the same story three times. It's not just a short prologue - I'm talking about nine (!) chapters altogether, with only two more added when all your characters finally become united. It is beyond my understanding why they didn't let the player choose their own character and just stick with that. Suikoden III would have been a much better game (and with increased replay value, too) if it made only one path mandatory, and the other two optional. But I guess this kind of freedom would be too much to ask from Japanese RPG designers.
Can you imagine how harmful this design is to pacing and feeling of accomplishment? Just when you begin connecting to the characters, building up a party you like, you'll have to do it all over again with other characters - not once, but thrice. You'll get to your own castle and free party managing much later than in the previous Suikodens. Most of the game, in fact, is spent running around through the same overly familiar locations, controlling different parties you'll have to build up from scratch. This inflated, monstrous "prologue" occupies the majority of the game and never lets it soar. And of course, the game will so often arbitrarily take characters away from you or impose them on your party that the last illusion of freedom is quickly shattered.