Friday, October 5, 2012

Almost Got 'Em: Suikoden III (Got It)

We interrupt Xenogears to bring you this tale.

Suikoden III. Off the Backlog.

I have to say, I'm happier with this than I thought I was going to be.

But not happy enough.

I was fortunate enough to have left off this game pretty close to the ending, so when some free time unexpectedly popped up for me, I decided to scratch this one off my backlog for good. This meant tackling the challenge that defeated me last time; the final large-scale battle of the game. Now, for all the great work the series does with the political intrigue and personal stories which mark the writing, the flow of each entry is more or less the same. Hero suffers traumatic experience, finds one of the 27 True Runes, is drawn into a war - a seemingly hopeless war - where his inspiring presence and the help of a brilliant strategist turn the tide, defeats the enemy forces in an enormous final battle, and finally confronts the main villain, who summons a giant monster from a different True Rune. Hero kills monster, villain is vanquished, peace returns to the land.

So the nuggets of storytelling and gameplay that excite Suikoden fans are all contained in this basic framework, but since I quit after losing the last major battle all those years ago, I never got to see how the whole giant monster fight worked out.

He looks nice enough, maybe in this one they just talk it out.

After I gleefully crushed Yuber, and I am not kidding it wasn't even close, I think I took him down on accident when he attacked one of my units so suck it Yuber-who-beat-me-that-one-time, I advanced to the final dungeon. Which, to my surprise, was filled with a lot more of that storytelling and character work that draws Suikoden fans in than either of its predecessors.

So let's take a look at how, with everything finally said and done, Suikoden III stacks up to the first two.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, Suikoden III tries some new things when it comes to telling the tale this time around. For one, in previous games the Tenkai Star, the first Star of Destiny, is the hero of the story, and gathers the 108 Stars together.  In this one, they eschew that standard in favor of the Trinity Sight system, which places the Tenkai Star as the owner of the central gathering point, but otherwise a minor part of the story. Instead, things bounce back and forth between Hugo, Geddoe, and Chris.


I covered this briefly before in my previous two Suikoden III posts, so let me get more into the meaty stew of the plot this time. These three potential heroes are caught up in a conspiracy to start a war between the prosperous nation of Zexen and the loosely-confederated alliance of tribes in the vast territory known as Grasslands. Zexen and Grasslands have been at war before, but as our story begins we learn that a recent skirmish left the Lizard tribe weakened, and amiable to a cease-fire agreement. That same skirmish claimed the lives of both the Captain and Vice-Captain of the Zexen Knight, and so Chris Lightfellow, the young lieutenant and daughter of national hero Wyatt Lightfellow, assumes command in the field.

At the same time, Hugo, the son of Suikoden II-villain Lucia and scion of the Karaya tribe of Grasslands, is sent to be an emissary to the Zexen council, representing his people in consenting to the peace talks. He sets out with his best friend Lulu, and his mentor, Sergeant Joe. Together with his companion, the griffon Fubar, and a translation team without a good sense of American acronyms, they set out towards the capital of Zexen, not knowing that there are forces working behind the scenes.

And then nothing bad happens to them, ever.
Finally, Geddoe and his team of mercenaries, working for the Holy Kingdom of Harmonia as part of their border defense patrol, begins seeing hints of some larger scheme at work throughout Zexen and Grasslands, and moves his team from battle to battle chasing rumors of what could be the source of the sudden renewed conflict.

And conflict there is, as the treaty negotiations turn into a slugfest between the Lizards, the Karayans,and the Zexens, and a new war seems imminent.

If there's one spot where Suikoden III excels, at least for a little while, it's right here at the beginning of the story. All the games in the series revolve around political intrigue and the subtle machinations of some unseen puppetmaster. Suikoden didn't waste any time getting to the point; evil court magician, diabolical plan, yada yada. Suikoden II took a very direct approach, but then threw a curve ball at us halfway through the game and changed the main villain from Luca Blight, a character so evil he gets pre-approved membership offers from the Sith, to the hero's best friend Jowy, who's named Jowy.

He also lacked the evil pedigree of the Blight family.

Suikoden III decides to give this one a lot slower boil. The fact that there is a manipulating force behind the outbreak of violence is concealed for the first part of the game. When it begins becoming clear, the main antagonist stays masked at first behind a wall of cronies, and then behind a literal mask he wears throughout most of the game. It becomes clear who he is before the mask comes off, but even so it still builds to a "that guy?! I can't believe it!" moment for the player.

Unfortunately, even though the plot is well-written and engaging, what Suikoden III drops the ball on with Trinity Sight is the depth of character the previous heroes were afforded by having the entire game focus on them. Now, certainly with 108 recruitable characters, the game would have to be hundreds and hundreds of hours long to make a whole story about all of them. The previous games in the series at least tried to give a little backstory to everyone they could. The third entry focuses almost entirely on just the three main characters, despite the fact that several major plot points revolve around the supporting cast.

"I'll just be moving the entire story forward, no need to focus on me."

You'd think moving from a Breath of Fire-esque silent protagonist to three main characters rife with dialogue would be better for their development, but that's not the case here. Dividing the story into three parts (six parts if you include Thomas's chapters, the bonus chapter after the game, and the eagerly anticipated run-around-as-a-dog chapter everybody was clamoring for in the first two games) meant each character got only a third of the time devoted to them they would have otherwise. As a result, there are a lot of places where the story feels rushed or stunted that could clearly benefit from extended dialogue.

I wouldn't call the Trinity Sight system a failure - seeing the same events unfold from different points of view to slowly piece together the mystery of what happened was a strong storytelling tactic. The trade-off for a well-told story, however, was that the characters moving it along became secondary to reaching each new revelation. In both of the previous two games, a character dies (I should put that in quotations - you'll understand if you play them) and it's a big deal. There are powerful, emotional moments. Everybody pours out sympathy and grief. The story stops for a moment to let you absorb the death of a beloved companion. In Suikoden III, two characters die, and both are then practically never spoken of again. In fact, their entire purpose in the story was being inserted simply so that they could die later. The impact is just not there.

"Just toss them somewhere, they'll fall in a hole eventually."

Despite that, the story is still very enjoyable, as long as you're not looking for any deep character moments. There's another major letdown for me, though, in the form of the castle where you gather everybody together. Man, I can't tell you how stoked I was when I saw the castle for the first time. In the first two games, the characters all finding some massive fixer-upper to launch their righteous crusade out of is a major turning point of the story. The original game takes an uninspired lump of clay and rock in the middle of a barren island and turns it into a sprawling fortress. In Suikoden II, a ghost town is revitalized into an actual city, with all the things cities have, like a shopping district, a restaurant, public baths, and crazed murderers.

He really adds to the local color.

Not only that, but until enough people move in to justify expansion, people very realistically just kind of hang out wherever there's room for them. As the population grows, shops are erected, people get their own rooms, a barracks and a training dojo are built - all these things come about as a result of the influx of extra characters. In Suikoden III, as soon as a character with a specialized space shows up, that area appears in the castle. Here's where my excitement began to wane. See, when you arrive at Budehuc, the place has all the appeal of your first apartment, only no one's even pretending to be interested in fixing the gaping holes in the walls and ceiling caused by a ship crashing into it.

My belief immediately had been that we'd get to see the castle be repaired, and the trash-strewn, rubble-filled halls replaced by strong towers, guardhouses, and, based on the presence of one character, an entire theater. What happens instead is that people just fill the area around the castle with happy new cottages while leaving the main building a safety inspector's greatest nightmare. The "theater" that gets built also turns out to be a single, barely-off-the-ground stage at the end of a bar. Essentially you can put your characters in an open mic night, which is exactly as thrilling as it sounds.

                                                            Photo by Simon Scott
Nothing says "role playing game" like a poorly-tuned acoustic guitar.

I guess that's my greatest criticism of Suikoden III. It's a game that is by no means bad, but in so many ways could have been the best entry in the series. The customizable skills option lends new depth to combat, the 3D environments are lively and vibrant, and the story for the first time directly addressing the 27 True Runes and their influence on humanity rather than having them be a convenient plot device opens up a glimpse of the amazing story we had yet to come. It's an ode to wasted potential, showing incredible promise but just falling apart again and again as you get further into it.

It's known as Lohaning.

In the end, this is still a very good game, above average to say the least. A 3 1/2 star follow-up to the 5-star game that preceded it and the 4-star game that started the series is just a letdown after the anticipation built up by Suikoden II. It just leaves you wanting more in all the important areas, which is even more tragic since this turned out to be the real final entry in the series.

Spoiler ahead, for those who are adverse to spoiling -

The final battle against Luc and the subsequent bonus chapter where you play through the game's major events from his point of view were, however, quite satisfying. Suikoden II could've benefited from a similar idea from Jowy's perspective, and there's not a whole lot that could be improved upon in Suikoden II. The reveal that the entire ordeal had been masterminded by Albert Silverberg so that he could impress a neighboring kingdom was just further icing on the cake. The ending was just masterful, maybe the most well-done outside of II's "best ending." The twists and turns the story took paid off in a huge way, and I remember audibly yelling "what?! What! No way!" several times as the last layers of intrigue were peeled away.

All in all? Well worth playing, especially if you're new to the Suikoden world. If you've played the first two, this will be a disappointment if you go in with high expectations. My recommendation would be to enjoy the quirky characters of Thomas's castle, don't expect too much from the three main characters, and just enjoy the story as it unfolds.

Oh, and Geddoe. You can totally enjoy Geddoe.

Some people need character development, some are self-explanatory.

That's two games now off the Almost Got 'Em list, with Xenogears in the works. We're moving right along, and you can expect some more good ol' fashioned Backlogging coming again next Friday.

Until then, keep playing.

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