Review: Suikoden IV (PS2)

CoverDeveloper: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Genre: RPG
Rating: T for Teen
Price: Try your luck

 

 

 

 

 

Do you like sailing? Do you like boats? Do you like lots of random encounters while you’re sailing on a boat? I hope so! Otherwise, this title may not be your slice of cake.
Suikoden IV had huge boots to fill following its predecessor, Suikoden III. This was actually the very first Suikoden title that I bought new off the shelf. I even went as far as to pre-order it to make sure that it was in my hands on DAY ONE! Because Suikoden III had introduced so many new mechanics and had a story that left the fan community demanding more, expectations for its successor were high, especially because 3D games were in full swing. Did Suikoden IV live up to the hype  or did it fall in the shadow of the giants that came before?

Story

Snowe leads the way with the ceremonial torch during the Kindling Ritual.

Snowe leads the way with the ceremonial torch during the Kindling Ritual.

You play as a young recruit into the Gaien knights of Razril canonically named “Lazlo.” As far as he knows, he’s an orphan that was scooped up and taken in by the commander of the knights, Glen, and raised alongside the son of a local noble by the name of Snowe Vingerhut. (Yeah…right away it’s the setup of Suikoden II.) Suikoden IV  begins during one of the final training exercises for the young recruits.  Led by Snowe, they face off against the commander in a naval battle which as a tutorial for the naval battle mechanic in addition to the standard combat within the game. Following the exercise, the trainees return to Razril, the island that houses the Knights of Gaien, to prepare for their initiation celebration. Lazlo and Snowe participate in a ceremony known as “The Kindling” and then offer some exposition into their friendship during a celebratory feast.
Commander Glen witnesses Snowe's cowardly retreat before he rushes in to provide assistance during the pirate attack.

Commander Glen witnesses Snowe’s cowardly retreat before he rushes in to provide assistance during the pirate attack.

The following day, Lazlo and Snowe are given an escort mission as their first task as official knights. (At this time, you can choose two of four companions to join your party. These two companions will join you a little later on.) A simple enough assignment takes a turn for the worse when a band of pirates routes their ship and presses an attack on the young knights and their charge. During the conflict, Snowe supposedly injures his arm and makes a hasty retreat (in a long boat…with a hurt arm…), leaving Lazlo and a shaken crew behind. Lazlo stands his ground and takes command of the ship. The hostile pirates board the knights’ ship, Lazlo stands against their captain in a one-on-one duel and pulls off an unexpected win. The pirate captain, revealed now as Brandeau, attempts to take the knights and their ship down by unleashing a true rune. Strangely, something protects Lazlo from the force of the rune. It’s at this moment that Commander Glen arrives with his reinforcements. The rune abandons Brandeau, leaving the man to evaporate into dust, and takes Glen as its new bearer.
Following the battle, Snowe is rightly reprimanded by his superiors while Lazlo is praised for his courage and performance in the heat of battle. Insult is added to injury as Lazlo and Snowe both return to the mainland where word of the battle has already reached the populace. The common folk are overheard praising Lazlo while mocking Snowe in the very same breath. Snowe, clearly upset by the talk, decides to turn in early for the night.
That night, an unknown enemy attacks Razril, and the knights are forced to the defensive. Commander Glen isolates himself and attempts to drive the attackers off using the power of the rune. Unfortunately, Lazlo was eager to check on his commander in the chaos, and after unleashing the rune on the enemy, Glen is consumed by it. The rune, having no other host available, binds itself to Lazlo. Snowe arrives just in time to witness Commander Glen’s passing and rushes to pin the blame on Lazlo, the only other person in the room. The commander’s second is quick to believe Snowe, and Lazlo is put under arrest. Unwilling to execute the commander’s foundling, Vice Commander Katrina instead sentences Lazlo to exile. He is sent adrift in a small boat and left to the mercy of the sea.
A reoccurring face to the series, Leknaat, arrives to give Lazlo the "It's gonna suck to be you" motivational speech.

A reoccurring face to the series, Leknaat, arrives to give Lazlo the “It’s gonna suck to be you” motivational speech.

Thankfully, Lazlo had not made an enemy of everyone within the knights. Two of his companions (the two you selected earlier) had stowed away on the little long boat along with a nay-kobold (cat-anthro being) merchant by the name of Chiepoo.
Pre naval battle

Time and again, Lazlo proves himself to be a leader, until finally Lino relents and allows Lazlo to take command of The Rush.

After some aimless drifting, the little long boat is picked up by a massive war ship from the nation of Kooluk. It is later revealed that the captain of said ship is none other than Troy, a former knight gone rogue and the fabled “Child of the sea god.” He offers the castaways shelter, but the sanctuary is short-lived once Lazlo’s party is caught eavesdropping. Lazlo and his company make a hasty retreat. Troy, hardly seeing the exiles as a threat worth his time, allows them to escape.
Lazlo’s escape ultimately leaves himself and his crew stranded on a desert island with a boat that’s been wrecked beyond function. (Fun Fact: if you choose the corresponding options, you can end the game right here.) Eventually, the crew is able to repair their ship and return to the sea where they are picked up by a craft from the kingdom of Obel. Fortune, it seems, is finally taking the exiles’ side as they are welcomed into the kingdom as guests. Lino En Kuldes, the king of Obel, is quick to recognize the True Rune of Punishment as his late wife once bore the cursed rune on her own body. Finding kinship with Lazlo, Lino hires him into his service.
The peace found on Obel does not last long, and Lino, along with Lazlo and a handful of allies, are forced to retreat on the king’s personal battle ship. From this point on, the ship becomes the only homeland that Lazlo and the majority of his allies can call home as a war between the island nations is unleashed. With the True Rune of Punishment in hand, the support of the king of Obel, and a growing army of supporters (canonically called The Rush), Lazlo leads a rebellion against the nation of Kooluk in an attempt to bring peace to the Island Nations.

Spiritual Content

In the rune

Suikoden IV has one of the darkest runes in the series: The True Rune of Punishment. This rune slowly sucks the very life out of their bearer and with every use, it forces them into the purgatory held within the rune. Here, Lazlo must face the souls of the previous bearers and put them to rest. The imagery within the rune is very dark and hellish as you run through what seems like an endless tunnel of darkness with the sound of damned souls screaming. This however beautifully contrasts the innocence within Lazlo as he is able to persevere through the punishment due to those that came before him. After liberating the souls from purgatory and recruiting all 108 stars of destiny, Lazlo discovers the duality of his True Rune when it reverts to its secondary form: forgiveness.
TEDOther than the rune itself, there is a haunted pirate ship inhabited by a demonic entity. The ship itself is another reflection of a black void of despair. The other “cursed rune” of the Suikoden series, the Soul Eater Rune, makes another appearance. I won’t spoil this side quest, but it is only obtainable after the player has managed to recruit 70 Stars of Destiny. The role of the Soul Eater is not the focus of the game, nor is it mentioned outside of this side-quest, yet it does bear mentioning as the quest to obtain the bearer of the rune is a little on the dark side. While nothing gravitates towards the occult, the dark themes of Suikoden IV are strong.  
Violence
Suikoden IV doesn’t have a lot of direct violence to speak of. In combat, there are blows exchanged but there’s no blood or gore to be seen anywhere. The naval battles feature ships exchanging magical cannon fire at one another, but it’s mild. There are times when the Rune itself is unleashed and people die, but again it’s pretty mild. People evaporate, turn into dust, or fall over when meeting their end.
Language/Crude Humor
Jeane

….put some clothes on, Jeane.

The language is no worse than any given Pixar movie. Characters use the “d” word pretty loosely and there’s the occasional “bas-” thrown in, but any of the “big” words are absent. Crude humor, however, does happen here and there. The infamous Star of Destiny, Jeane, kind of brings the adult humor with her wherever she goes. She’s dressed quite immodestly and characters do take notice. There are also bath scenes once you recruit the gentleman that installs the bathtubs for you. No naughty bits are seen, but there are jokes made and some are inappropriate.
Drug/Alcohol Use
A pair of strange men who steal away onto The Divergent in order to grow mushrooms. There’s no direct mention of what the mushrooms do, but there are some implications given the odd behavior of the men growing them. Alcohol is also mentioned, but only because of the presence of taverns. One character, Elinor, is introduced as a drunkard, and she walks about holding a bottle in the scenes where you meet her. Mild, but it bears mentioning.
Positive Themes
Mercy

So tempted…

Suikoden IV is the poster child in the series for the sad truth that bad things really do happen to good people. Lazlo is an innocent who has  done nothing wrong his entire life. He’s served his country faithfully, he was a devoted friend, and he performed as a steadfast soldier. He proved himself to have strength of character when he refused to retreat from an imposing enemy. He demonstrates compassion when he remains by Snowe’s side, even when the young noble deserves the retribution he receives for his cowardice. Through the course of the game, Lazlo shows that he doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body. By all rights, he’s genuinely one of the nicest characters in the entire game. (That is, if you play him according to the canon storyline. You can choose to play him to the contrary but it leads to bad endings and the inability to collect all 108 Stars of Destiny.)
Just like in the story of Job, misfortune and tragedy comes in waves. Good things happen to bad people (like in the case of Snowe), and bad things happen to good people. It’s just a harsh stroke of reality that the game handles very well. Lazlo however, remains steadfast in his good nature and continues y to persevere the trials that face him. He shows grace and mercy to those that deserve it the least. He suffers a rune that rejects him until it had no other option for a bearer, likely due to the fact that he was not deserving of the punishment that it carries with it. As Lazlo suffers the effects of the rune, he manages to free the guilty souls from the rune’s purgatory and protect his friends using the rune’s power.
A perfect Suikoden IV playthrough can only be achieved by showing forgiveness for those who deserve it the least ( :coughSnowecough:), and by extending grace to traitors, criminals, and thieves,the rune reverts into its other half, Forgiveness. While I do believe that a little more heart could have been put into the story, especially in regards to Lazlo himself, I think that overall the positive message of Suikoden IV was handled very well. It’s mature, deep, and the stakes are very high, making the mercy and grace allowed by the protagonist all the more powerful.

Gameplay

MapSuikoden IV does away with Suikoden III‘s horrible point and click exploration between specific locations. They have been mercifully tossed out and replaced with something more true to the series. You have a literal sea to sail on and explore, several islands to check out, and a lot of terrain to take in. That said, the islands themselves don’t have a lot to them. There are characters to recruit and sometimes you can gather items or find treasures, but overall they’re kind of boring. The ocean exploration is a little more open, but rarely did I take advantage of it. For one, the encounter rate on the sea is insane. In sailing games like The Legend of Zelda: Windwaker, you could tape your control stick down, go into the kitchen, make a sandwich, and come back to enjoy your game. In Suikoden IV, you’ll likely encounter enemies within a minute’s time of sailing. This, I feel, was added to pad out game time and force grinding to the levels necessary to take on some of the bosses that are encountered later on in the game.
Sailing itself takes some time to get used to. The massive battleship cannot turn quickly (understandably, but it’s irritating none the less), and the distance between islands is vast at times. On top of that, if you want to dock your ship at an island, you have to locate the port and sail in just right. Sailing into the wrong location will turn your ship all the way around and you’ll have to try again. Thankfully, if you are sailing to a specific location, you can pull up the map, select the island that you wish to sail to, and the ship’s course will automatically be set. All you have to do is mow through encounter after encounter of jellyfish men and various other forms of fantasy sea life and you’ll be there in no time!
I'M ON A BOATShip bashing aside, there are some perks to having a fantasy mobile home as your means of transportation. Later on in the game you can recruit a fisherman. I highly recommend that you drop your fishing nets every time you launch and check them frequently as several key things occur as a result. For one, you fish up a lot of nice goodies that you can use to sell or outright equip to your party. Secondly, there is a mermaid that you can recruit after you snare her in your nets. (No one said this voyage was dolphin safe!) Thirdly, you can find an outfit for your final recruit if you are lucky enough. I suggest doing this because without his outfit…he looks like he should be arguing with a volleyball and it’s hard to take him seriously.
Your ship is also your stronghold for the game. As you recruit more of the 108 stars, you gain an additional two ships. You can’t travel between the two, but it’s useful in naval battles, it allows you to have another combat crew, and it looks pretty awesome to be sailing with two other ships behind your warship. The main battleship (canonically named The Divergent), is your base. You can stop at any point in your sailing adventure and rest, play mini-games, visit shops, and socialize with the crew. It’s a very nice touch and it does take some of the edge off of having to live 3/4 of the game on the open sea.
Through the course of the game, after you officially take command of The Rush, you are able to upgrade and customize the appearance of your main battle ship. On top of that, as you recruit more characters, you are able to arrange the crew in charge of up to three ships along with assigning different elemental rune cannons. The components of the ship’s customization are obtained in a multitude of ways. When you drop your net to drag is as you sail, you can often pick up ocean rune pieces which allow you upgrade your shooting distance, mobility, and armor. Upgrading your ships can take a long time to do, especially because it involves sailing and finding pieces randomly, but it pays off, in later naval battles. Having a longer shooting range allows you to strike an enemy ship from a greater distance, which is nice against larger, more formidable foes. The mobility allows you to move your ships more squares per turn along the combat grid (which I will address in a moment). This allows you to get out of the range of incoming rune cannons or position yourself to strike more effectively. Armor allows your ship to take more punishment when it does enter into combat.
Naval battleEvery ship comes equipped with rune cannons. Rune cannons are essentially guns that fire elementally charged cannon balls at one another. Fire beats wind, wind beats lightning, lightning beats water, and water beats fire, so having an arsenal of diverse elements is essential for securing victory. You can see what ships bear what elements on the battle grid and position your fleet accordingly. If you and your opponent fire the same element (for example, earth and earth), the cannon fire will nullify itself and neither ship will take damage. If you and your opponent fire neutral elements (like water and wind), the canons will fly past one another and both ships will take damage. If you fire an element that has an advantage (like fire against a wind), the element with the advantage will blow the enemy’s attack away and damage their ship, leaving your ship unscathed. The same goes for when you are on the unfortunate end of an elemental damage, only your ship takes all the damage while your opponent sails off without a scratch. Ships can only fire when they’re broadside to an enemy, so it’s wise to position yourself accordingly while your enemy faces you head-on. This prevents them from countering right away and they must instead position their ship for an attack, using up valuable moves on the grid.
If two ships position themselves side-by-side, then the fighters can board the enemy ship and engage them in that fashion. The boarded combat is just like the standard random encounters, so building strong fighter teams is just as essential as having strong rune cannons. Characters that you recruit come with both rune cannon capabilities and fighting abilities so the more characters you recruit, the more options you have in combat.
Exploration on land is pretty standard. You take control of Lazlo and walk (or…shuffle) through towns, islands, caves, and various other locations within the game. Most towns will have a character here and there that you can recruit, but the character models are dull, so they don’t stand out as much as they did in previous games. It does pay off to talk to everyone you see. Firstly, to see if they are one of the 108 stars of destiny—these characters will always have unique character art when you enter a dialogue with them beside their dialogue box—and secondly to see if they’ll hand over an item. Some characters will give you trade goods, old books, and other items. Some of them can be used in side quests, recruiting, or just to add to your collection.
True to the Suikoden formula, Suikoden IV also has a variety of land-based combat styles. The military battles were replaced entirely with naval battles but that leaves the standard combat system and the one-on-one dueling styles.

 

Combat

Combat has, unfortunately, been nerfed slightly from previous games. Instead of having parties of six, formations, rows, and ranges, you instead have a party of only four characters that stand in single file and attack. This aspect has removed a lot of the strategy from the Suikoden combat and it has also left the parties a little more restrictive. Before, you could have a healer, a magic user, and a combo pair while two more characters would attack on auto to create an effective fighting force. In IV, you have to juggle your time a more effectively. You can have a healer, a magic user, and a combo pair, but that’s all you get. In this aspect, combat is a little disappointing.

 

CombosCombos have been expanded upon in Suikoden IV. Like in previous games, certain pairs of characters unlock attacks that they execute together to do additional damage. For example, Lazlo and the pirate Kika can unlock a double sword attack that deals twice as much damage as the characters would have done individually. What’s unique about IV‘s combos is that they can level up as you use them. Combs are a great way to mow down random encounters, and grab potch (the currency of the game) so using them a lot isn’t exactly a chore. It’s always a good idea to get your combos leveled up a bit before going into boss battles, especially because combos can be used repeatedly  through the course of battle to rack up damage. Unfortunately, this ties up two characters and leaves only two to heal and buff the party. As a side note, combos add interesting visuals to the combat, so it adds some spice to the repetitive battles. If a combo pair performs well in the battle, the screen will pan to them and they’ll have a little celebration. One pair, for example, will exchange a high five. It’s cute, and it’s fun to see who does what, so it’s well worth it just for that aspect.

Dual

Finally, the duels. Dueling is a staple in Suikoden and they offer some tension as they are often climactic moments in the main story. Duels involve Lazlo and another character, and you have a rock-paper-scissors mechanic in attacking, defending, and using a special attack. When your opponent attacks, you should use your special. When your opponent uses their special, you should defend. When your opponent defends, you should attack. You get cues as to what your opponent will do by dialogue exchanged. There are multiple guides available online, and I have used them as some of the dialogue cues are vague and story progression depends on successful duels. There are even characters that you cannot obtain unless you defeat them in duels. The duels are interesting to watch, and the characters you duel give some more exposition just through them, so they’re enjoyable.

Presentation

You prick

Get used to blank stares, they’re a major part of this game’s cut scenes.

Suikoden IV came out at a time when 3D graphics were expected. Tand games were becoming visual masterpieces. Sharing the same release year as titles like Drakengard, Far Cry, and Fable, expectations were high. Suikoden III was the very first game in the franchise to come out in 3D and for the most part, it was an impressive introduction. While the style is still a hit or miss for fans, visually, Suikoden IV is not bad. The environments are beautiful, the character models are decent, and the cut scenes are impressive. Where the graphics fall short is sadly in the expressions department. Compared to Suikoden III, here they show absolutely no emotions on their faces for most cut scenes and what expressions we do get are kind of hard to look at. It may seem like a minor thing, but in the previous Suikoden, a lot of the story was made stronger just in the body language and the expressions of the characters. Lastly, Suikoden IV, the characters’ body movements are uncomfortable and clunky at times. Lazlo’s running animation in particular is hard to take seriously.
Fish faceThe lack of emotion is the most obvious on the main character, Lazlo. He literally has one expression. Seeing Hugo fall on his knees and emotionally shatter in Suikoden III brought me into his struggle and genuinely created a connection to the character and his conflict. With Lazlo, he always looks intensely irritated, even as someone dies in his arms. He has a permanent “duck face” and for emotional scenes, it really kills the mood. It’s just fine to have a silent hero as the lead character, but to strip away his emotions is unforgivable. Lazlo had the potential to be one of the greatest tragic heroes in the franchise, if not in the RPG realm, but the choices made in visual presentation of him sucked the soul out of him and the game as a whole suffers for it.
The character models are interesting, but unfortunately they aren’t too colorful or diverse. As I mentioned earlier, finding recruits in previous games wasn’t too difficult because the Stars of Destiny were unique in appearance so they stand out in the crowds of commoners and NPC’s. In Suikoden IV, a lot of the stars blend in with the scenery. You won’t know they were a star unless you spoke to them or you had a guide handy. Perhaps the game was trying to be more realistic or difficult, but it’s a little sad. I honestly forget about the majority of the stars because they’re simply forgettable in both personality and appearance.
The soundtrack is a strong one. It captures the high seas adventure feel of the game, paints culture into the town and village themes, and the emotional songs add just about the only emotional depth to powerful scenes that the game offers. The song “Scenery of a Nameless Island,” for example, beautifully paints a mysterious, almost lonely, island theme to add dimension to exploration of the area in which it plays. The theme for the Rune of Punishment is a tragically beautiful song that captures the heart of the situation where the visual presentation falls short. The music did not disappoint in the slightest.

Conclusion

Atonement and forgiveness

With such heavy, powerful material to present, Suikoden IV fell just short of being great.

I know I was hard on this game, but Suikoden is a series that breaks the mold of standard RPG’s in a multitude of ways. They are masterful stories with deep, diverse characters, and stories that are both intriguing and relatable to overarching themes of humanity. Friendship, forgiveness, retribution, redemption, and sacrifice are constant themes in the series, and while Suikoden IV is not an exception to this, it fell short of presenting a story as well as the others in the series. The lack of emotion really sucked the life out of the story for me and the hours of sailing and random encounters were hard to chew through. It’s a good game, but it’s far from a great game. There are so many mechanics that were introduced that did build on the foundation the game was given, but there were more valleys than mountains in the overall game.
I personally enjoy the game, but I struggle to love it. It’s my second least favorite title in the series (the first being the predecessor to Suikoden IV, Suikoden Tactics) but it’s by no means a bad game. It just fell flat after the emotional high that I was still clinging to following the conclusion of III. I also feel that it was trying too hard to take what was great about previous titles and recycle it rather than bringing forward its own legacy
It’s worth a playthrough, especially for fans of the series, but it’s best to go in with low expectations. The story is great, but it’s not presented well. The graphics meet the standards of the day, but the characters are emotionally dead on the surface. The true ending is a little disappointing and hollow but it’s so much more preferable to any of the bad endings, so it’s well worth the effort.

 

The Bottom Line

 

 

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Kelly

I was born and raised in a traditional Christian household, educated privately, and brought up with a passion for Christ. The works of CS Lewis and Tolkien were my greatest influences. I aspire to become a published fictional author, hopefully illustrating my own work as well. Christ is the center of my universe and my faith is the lens in which I look through in regards to everything. As far as games go I am swayed best towards fantasy/action/rpg's.

2 Comments

  1. Michael M. on March 25, 2016 at 2:36 am

    Great review Kelly! Thanks for writing on this one. I never got around to playing it, I once saw it for rent way back in the day when it first came out. I am a fan of Suikoden III, so now that you explained it’s not as good…I don’t see myself ever playing this one. I have better RPG’s to dig through, but I appreciate your work here 🙂 God bless.

    • Kelly on April 9, 2016 at 6:24 am

      It’s not horrible, but it is a bit of a grind for a story that seems recycled. I really wish they had put more thought into the characters. I could have handled the retelling of Suikoden II if the characters were more relatable but… unfortunately it fell short. I’m re-playing V and I’ll be doing a review on that game very soon. That one I can definitely recommend!

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