Tuesday, March 27, 2012

AGE: Suikoden III and The Relentless Grind

As part of my Almost Got 'Em series which started with Breath of Fire III, I've moved on to the other third entry in a series on the list, Suikoden III. I haven't beaten it yet, in fact I've barely started playing, but I've already put over thirty hours in. I've been doing this because there's a handy little trick in Suikoden games which lends itself to a chance to completely cap out a number of characters right at the start in the third entry. That amount of time lends itself to giving one enough a good deal of writing material, so I thought I might share.

Suikoden III reached my backlog about six years ago. I'd played through this at-times-epic entry in one of my favorite series from beginning to end, and was ready to seal the deal in the last battle of the game. It was just me and the final boss, face-to-face on the very last battlefield, my Flame Champion's unit against him, it came down to the final blow and . . .

. . . and I missed, he counter attacked, game over. I never played again.

My rebuttal.

Maybe not the best response, but it's not the first time it's happened to me. I had similar final battle outcomes in Dragon Quest II and IV, Earthbound, and Breath of Fire III. The latter three I eventually went back to and finished off, but this game fell into the DQII pile - until now.

The whale! The white whaaaaaalle

I've started this off and taken steps already to ensure that I'm nigh-unbeatable when that final fight comes around again. But it's taken me a long time to get there.

First, new and unique to Suikoden III is the Trinity Sight system. The game has three main protagonists, only one of which will rise to become the overall leader near the end of the game. While building up to that, the game lets you see major events unfold from their three different viewpoints, each one building and then revealing or compounding the mystery of what's really going on in the conflict between the federation of Zexen and the tribes of Grassland. The war can only be stopped by the Flame Champion, a hero from decades before wielding the True Fire Rune, which you will ultimately bestow upon one of the main characters. You play as Hugo, son of the Karaya Clan chief in Grassland, Chris Lightfellow, Captain of the Knights of Zexen, and Geddoe, a mercenary without any immediately apparent ties to the conflict.

While you can choose any of the three to ultimately be the real hero, the game certainly provides clues as to which way it wants you to lean.

His official last name is Flamechampionski.

The game breaks these viewpoints into chapters, so you'll often find yourself playing the same scenes you just went through, only through the eyes of someone else. For example, in their respective first chapters, Hugo and Chris bump into each other. For Hugo, seeing a Zexen knight and being casually dismissed by them is a sign of just how arrogant and condescending the "ironhead" Zexens are, especially when one of Chris's entourage warns Hugo to watch himself. For Chris, the event barely registers. She apologizes, moves on, and continues with the peace mission she's on. Same event, two very different views on it.

Suikoden III would go on to inspire Crash.

Both of these chapters are fairly short, with Geddoe's being the one that shows a lot more about what goes on behind the scenes of all the craziness which ultimately ends up going down in the first part of the game. However, as I said earlier, I've already clocked over thirty hours on this, and it's all because of one never-ending grind at the very beginning.

There's a handy little trick in all the Suikoden games involving the stat-raising stones you come by from time to time. Like a lot of other RPGs, you'll occasionally find an item which boosts one of your stats by a single point, and disappears once consumed. Suikoden has an odd conceit about it involving points where you die and start over which let you exploit the hell out of these. When your team gets wiped out, you have the option to immediately start over from your last save point - but the game is also nice enough to let you keep any levels you gained since you saved. The stat stone trick involves using a stone, running out and dying, and then starting back from right before you died, the stone still in your inventory, and using it again, over and over.

Like this, if Billy Murray got marginally stronger every day.

You can do this in Suikoden III, but at one point in the beginning of Chris's chapter one, you can do it with levels.

Towards the end of her chapter, Chris gets put in a battle that's impossible to win - kind of. This is where saving, dying, and coming back to your last save with your levels intact can game the system. The trick is that after you successfully escape the battle, you're placed in a random encounter zone where you can level up substantially. The experience starts to dry up around level 30, but you can still eke your way out to 32 or 34 with a few hours of grinding, and that's when the real challenge starts.

For the next twenty hours, this is your life.

Once you're at a high enough level, get yourself killed. You start back from the last save point, still at your new high level. Spend all the skill points you earned to beef up your characters (you get to keep those, too) and then go and start the cutscene to get to the battle again. This time, just send out Chris and Borus to massacre everybody. If you defeat every single enemy unit, your whole team gains two levels.

Then go out and die, start back from the save point, and repeat. Over and over and over, until you hit level 99.

I should point out that this is a pretty special accomplishment. There's a way to get most of your characters to Level 99 in Suikoden IV, but it involves spending a lot more time on Suikoden IV than most people want to.

The only good part is knowing most of the characters died hundreds of years ago.

There's also a way to do it in Suikoden II, but only under a very specific set of circumstances, and only at the very end of the game with only a few characters. You see, as you level up in Suikoden games, the amount of experience each enemy yields drops precipitously. As a result, it's very rare to get any one character above level 65, and far more common to have your strongest team be in the 60-62 range by the end. So getting a full party at level 99 at the very start - that's something to shoot for.

It's also going to play a big part in making sure that when I get to the last fight again, there won't be any mistakes this time.

So I spent a long, long time repeating that battle with Chris. I also spent two or three hours constantly resetting the game with Hugo, since another exploit in the game lets you cheat at the lottery.

Full disclosure, about 50% of playing this game is cheating.

There are two things I realized after spending so many hours stuck in this repetitive task. The first is that everybody Chris hangs out with is a total douchebag. The so-called Six Knights of Zexen consist of herself, Leo, Percival, Borus, Salome, and Roland, along with their squire, Louis.

Leo is just a classic brainless jock with a giant axe, nearly-shaved head, porn 'stache, and a pair of totally-not-compensating spiked shoulder pads on his armor that none of the other knights find necessary.

Percival and Borus are both your average frat boys. They probably only got into the knights because of their rich dads. Borus in particular comes off as an old-money xenophobic blueblood given a sword and unlimited license to use it on brown people. Percival's got a similar affectation, only in his case the sword is his penis.

I don't even know where to start with Salome. Look at that Davy Jones haircut. And he's wearing a coat and scarf over his armor. A scarf! Not to mention; when they needed a diversion to help their soldiers escape a tight spot, who came up with the idea "hey, let's attack these civilians and burn their village down?" This guy.

"I was oppressing indigenous peoples before it was cool."

Finally, Roland. He's an Elf living amongst humans. Douche by definition.

Doesn't even try to hide it.

Need more proof? When Chris and her army are surrounded by Grasslanders and have to make a daring escape, you come to a cutscene right after you make a clean break of it. What's the first thing we see?

Louis, the young squire, running after everybody on foot, after they all took off on horseback and left this 12-year-old in the middle of a hostile army.

"At least it was a break from the constant beatings."

Come to think of it, Chris isn't such a great person herself.

She got those clothes from a sweatshop.

The second thing I learned comes down to this sentence;

"Brr, the wind picked up."

I replayed the same battle and went through the same cutscene leading up to it over twenty times before this line clicked with me. Moments before Chris and her soldiers are attacked, Louis remarks on the wind. Within minutes, a horde of lizardmen show up out of nowhere and attack. Later, when setting fire to a Karayan village to cover their escape, Chris shows up after the flames have been started and remarks that they're spreading quickly and wonders if it's because of the wind.

"Couldn't possibly be because of my squad of knights setting the fires."

For whatever reason, in one of the almost 3 dozen times I played through this cutscene, I realized then that this was your first clue as to the identity of the main villain. It was some very subtle, very well-done writing and a nice piece of foreshadowing. I'm going to be on the lookout now for other little Easter eggs like that hidden in the dialogue.

That's it for now. I intend to write two more posts on Suikoden III before I'm done, one about this game in particular and another about the series in general. Rest assured, before much longer this one is coming off the Backlog, and Dragon Quest II will have one more empty seat at its table.

Until next time, keep playing.

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