There I was, sixteen years old and my first real paycheck in hand. Of course I was going to spend the whole thing on video games, because why not? That’s when I saw Suikoden II on the shelf. I didn’t play the original but had heard good things. Plus, the game was only thirty bucks! I brought it home and was met with instant disappointment. The game was… well weird.
It sat on a shelf for a few years when my brother finally tried it out. The slow start that stopped me from playing further gave way to an epic and grand quest. Suikoden II quickly became one of my favorite role playing games of all time. Today I’m here to tell you about it.
Suikoden II is a direct follow up to the story of the original, but it’s removed just enough that even newcomers can get into it. You play as a young boy named Riou who, with his sister Nanami and best friend Jowy live in the war ravished country of Highland in this fantasy medieval world. Their lives are turned upside down when their squad on the Highland Army Youth Brigade is ambushed by the enemy army from the City States of Jowston. They discover this to be a mere ploy by Highland so that they can invade.
Riou and Jowy escape and find themselves face to face with an ancient magic in the form of a true rune. It splits in half and gives them both its power. Riou joins, and eventually leads a band of rebels against Highland to put an end to the war.
The story may seem cliche and well traveled but it’s extremely rich in history and lore. The world of Suikoden is interlocked and this is but one mere self contained portion of the bigger story. Suikoden II excels because it plays upon this; introducing us to characters and plot points that were important in both the last one and future games as well. Suikoden II is a political and militaristic story but with the trappings of fantasy. It’s an absolutely incredible story that’ll make you laugh and cry. It even has multiple endings.
Suikoden II is a fairly traditional role playing game. You travel a world map containing cities, dungeons, and eventually your own rebel base. Battles occur at random and take place on a separate three dimensional battlefield. You input commands for each of your party members and then trade blows with the enemies. When victorious in combat you’re awarded experience points which make your party stronger and money that can be used to sharpen weapons and buy items. It’s pretty basic stuff but there’s more to it than meets the eye.
First of all there are a whopping 108 characters that join you along the way. Most are met with revelations in the story but many are hidden and require specific pre-requisites to join. You can try to find them all on your own but because many can be missed I highly recommend following a guide online. Not all but most can be used in your party and have different stats and abilities some of which are completely exclusive to them. Taking things a step further many have special combine attacks that can only be used in conjunction with another specific party member. Most of the time you’re given free choice with who you want to use, and given the huge party size of six there are a lot of options.
In addition to the traditional battles you’ll occasionally participate in one-on-one fights in the story. These are played like a game of rock, paper scissors wherein one attack is good against another. Enemies usually give a quick dialogue blurb before each round which gives you a hint as to what they’ll do. These are fun but sometimes feel more like games of chance.
Then there are army battles. These skirmishes play out like a strategy RPG wherein you move units across a grid map. There are different types of units such as foot soldiers, cavalry, archers and mages. When a unit encounters the enemy you’re whisked to a separate screen depicting a miniature real-time battle where the enemy army and yours attack each other head on. When you lose half your men the unit gets a sword through it, and when they lose them all the unit is removed from the battle. Usually they have specific criteria to win such as defeating an enemy, reaching a position, or simply lasting a set number of turns. They could have made an entire game based off of these army battles and I would have been okay with it. They’re an absolute treat.
One of the most interesting aspects of this game is the base building mechanic. What begins as a humble and raggedy abode eventually transforms into a grand palace as you recruit more characters and advance the story. There aren’t really any customization options to be found but it does feel like your army is becoming stronger the more this base is built up. You can eventually recruit a blacksmith who will do the sharpening of you weapons as well as a rune salesman, and item merchant. These transform your base into a town which is helpful because you’ll be spending a lot of time there. It’s actually interesting to just wander around and interact with the characters to learn more about the world’s lore.
Suikoden II uses a pretty interesting graphical style. Outside of battle the action is entirely two dimensional with everything drawn from sprites. In towns it looks amazing with loads of detail and lots of animation on absolutely everything. The world map features tiny characters and a camera that’s way zoomed out. The scenery is sparse and there’s not a lot of detail here. The vast view does help establish the size of the world. The continent is quite expansive and it adds to the air of adventure. Standard battles are the only instances of the game that use 3D graphics. The backgrounds are fully polygonal while the characters are sprites once again. This is a pretty common tactic from this era but here it looks incredible.
The soundtrack here is among the best in any RPG this side of Nobuo Uematsu. It leans more heavily toward its Asian roots (the story is based off of the classic Chinese tale Water Margin after all) and it sounds absolutely wonderful. There’s a lot of pleasant instrumentation with heavy use of flutes and guitars. Each piece of music is full of detail and had a lot of love and care go into it. Absolutely the only issue I have here is that the battle theme is kind of weird and doesn’t necessarily fit. It’s pleasant to listen to so it’s hard to complain too much about it.
Suikoden II is easily the best RPG of the 32-bit generation. Considering that was the time frame in which Final Fantasy VII and Panzer Dragoon Saga were released that’s saying a lot. It’s a bit humble but the huge and overarching story (complete with one of the most sad moments in any video game ever) is incredible. It also helps that the battle system is fun, and there’s a big diversity in gameplay styles. It all comes together to make this an absolutely legendary game. I still can’t believe I paid just $29.99 for it!