Developer: Konami, Hudson Soft
Price: Try Your Luck
After the disappointment of Suikoden IV, I was truthfully a little leery of what the next game in the series would provide. As a die hard Suikoden fan, the moment I heard that another game would be released into the series I marched myself down to the nearest GameStop and reserved myself a copy. Any fan of Suikoden knows that this series is obscure and the games are next to impossible to find. For some reason, it’s the policy of Konami to release only a certain quantity of them to the US. This means no “greatest hits” versions. Honestly, I wasn’t holding my breath for this game as it was, yet again, a prequel to the first game.
Suikoden V is set over a decade before the events in Suikoden I and features some of the characters that would later join the heroes of later games, including one of the main party members. Konami returned to the anime-esque style of animation, abandoning completely their sloppy attempts at “semi-realism” that left the characters looking lifeless and their scenery looking gray and dull. They also returned to their masterful story telling and presented a brand new theme rather than recycling their own material. To put it simply, Suikoden V was a call back to the classics.
The story line is complicated, intelligent, and deeply emotional. The characters are repeatable, lovable, and take on a life of their own. The villains are also sympathetic despite their actions and the story itself is a very human tale.
As with all Suikoden games, the central power in the game comes from the 27 True Runes of power. These runes are semi-sentient magical entities with their own willpower that grants those who bear them longevity and supernatural abilities. Some runes are benevolent while others are more of a curse to their bearers. In this game the three featured runes are the True Rune of Dawn, the True Sun Rune, and the True Rune of Twilight. The Sun Rune inhabits the forehead of the ruling queen, Arstat, and is shown to drive her into realms of insanity. Because of the Sun Rune’s influence, she justifies the harsh punishment of an entire village, she kills those within her own court, and she’s seen laughing as she does so. When she manages to shake the rune’s influence off, she’s deeply remorseful. It borders on possession so it may trouble some more sensitive players.
The Dawn Rune is more of a healing entity while the Twilight Rune is more of an offensive power. Neither of these smaller runes, however, seem to influence their bearer in the severe fashion that their “mother” rune does.
While there’s no blood to be seen in Suikoden V, violence is no stranger to the game. It is centered around a highly political war and a good deal of characters die on-screen and off. One character, if certain actions are taken, is outright filled with arrows before they meet their end. Some characters are stabbed, and others are knocked around quite a bit. With the absence of blood, this stuff generally mild on screen but the implications are pretty heavy. The prince also uses blunted weapons, so when he enters combat (especially during one-on-one duels) the sounds of blunt force on his opponent is a little cringe-worthy for the more sensitive gamers. Overall, it’s mild. There are Disney films with more violence than this game.
The language in this game stays true to the mild nature of the series. There is d***, bas****, and heckola but none of the “big boy” swear words are included. As far as crude humor, there are bath scenes and awkward conversations. One of the queen’s knights, Kyle, is an open pervert. He tries on many accounts to try to persuade the prince into “manning up” around the ladies and taking a peek where he shouldn’t. He also makes references to feminine features that he’s particularly fond of. Again, most of the weight of this humor is in implication rather than execution.
Jeane is in this game, a re-occurring character that, with every new game, seems to loose a little more of her modest apparel. In this game she is barely covered so there’s a lot of cleavage, a lot of skin, and…well yeah. She’s very aware of her good looks and it’s the interest she gains from a lot of male characters that leads to some more mature discussions within the game. Thankfully she isn’t seen often and a lot of the implications surrounding her behavior are kept off-screen.
The elephant in the room in regards to Suikoden V has to do with the main plot point of the first act of the story. The prince’s younger sister, who is still very much a child, is at the age (…at least in this universe) where it’s appropriate to seek out her future husband. While this was a very common thing in many cultures historically, it’s still a little unnerving to watch grown men seeking the hand of a young child…especially considering one of the suitors was once engaged to the little girl’s older aunt.
Thankfully, implications of… intimate situations when she does end up with one of the suitors is completely left out. The man that takes her hand seems more interested in the position of power that comes with the arrangement than the arrangement itself, which is more than can be said of some of the others. Still, it’s kind of an uncomfortable situation that bears mentioning.
Again, there are implications of alcohol use in taverns and the behavior of some characters, but it’s never a point of interest within the game. Drugs outside of those used for medical purposes aren’t mentioned at all.
True to the games that came before it, Suikoden V is rich in moral fiber. At the very heart of this story is the importance of family and the weight of responsibility. Freyjadour, the main protagonist of the game, is introduced in his family setting fulfilling his role as high prince in carrying out his mother’s wishes. His kingdom and his people really don’t seem to hold him in very high regard for reasons that I will explain later on. Even the servants around his palace seem to brush him off as more or less a glorified errand boy. Frey is, more or less, isolated to interactions between his family and their protectors, the Queen’s Knights. He never seems bitter or overly troubled by the rejection of the common folk but rather he clings to his loved ones all the more. He’s exceedingly respectful of his mother and father, an upstanding older brother for his little sister, Lymsleia.
To start off, I’ll address the most unique feature about this game: It does not pull any punches when it comes to social and political commentary. Firstly, Suikoden V is set in the Queendom of Falena. In this particular country, women are of far more worth than their male counterparts. The kingdom is ruled by a queen from the royal house of Falenas who obtains a husband only after he has won the right to her hand in the Sacred Games. In the games, men can compete themselves or employ, contract, or force a slave to compete in their name. The games themselves are a call back to the old Gladiators of Rome. Slaves and warriors are often pitted against each other for the entertainment of the ruling class in a bloody arena. If and when a champion emerges and wins the right to the future queen’s hand in marriage, he serves not as a king but as the commander of the Queen’s Knights, a special class of warriors charged only with enforcing the will of the Queen and defending the royal house.
In this political system men of the royal household or more or less glorified servants to her grace as we see in the introduction of Suikoden V. The main character is Freyjadour (Frey), the eldest child of Queen Arshtat and Queen’s Commander Ferid. His younger sister Lymsleia is named the heiress to the throne while Frey is tasked, essentially, with carrying messages for his royal mother, overseeing preparations for festivities, and going ahead of the royal house to ensure that the area is secured and safe for their arrival. While it’s made clear that every member of his family loves him fiercely, the kingdom itself looks down its nose at the prince on the basis of his gender. Servants are overhead saying things such as, “He’s useless,” and “He’d be better off dead.” Refreshingly, the game does not focus on a need for a social shift in this regard. Frey carries himself with honor in spite of the kingdom’s view of him and proves that he is a strong individual with only the good of his kingdom in mind.
Gender equality is a topic that’s been stoking the political fires of our own society. Suikoden V addresses it in a firm but non-preachy way, showing a unique angle to the conflict, and it isn’t presented in a way that feels like pandering or patronizing.
The second element that Suikoden V addresses that can be considered a “hot topic” is that of slavery and class warfare. This is also introduced to us in the opening act of the game. Slaves are seen in deplorable conditions, some of them suffering from open wounds without hope of treatment. They’re confined in cages and treated like animals in the belly of the arena. Eventually some of these slaves will go on to join the prince in his uprising, but it’s a haunting look at an issue that, again, is still a raw one for the majority of the world.
And finally, there’s political discourse. The kingdom may be ruled by a Queen but she is obligated to bend her ear to the noble houses around her in order to maintain the peace. Two dominating houses have torn the kingdom two ways and eventually these two houses lead to an all out civil war within the borders of Falena with the poor queen at the center of it, hands tied.
Without giving too much away, Suikoden V has one of the most human stories that I have ever encountered in my years of avid gaming. Everything boils down to clashing ideals. Each side in the conflict has a valid point to bring to the table or the best intentions behind horrible methods. Even the villains of the game have relatable backgrounds, confused but understandable reasoning, and seem like actual human beings rather than cackling shadows stroking a cat in the corner. The prince himself is perhaps one of the most human of the Suikoden heroes as we see his life among his family, kingdom, and his friends. While a silent protagonist, he is expressive and relatable. It’s really hard not to love his inner circle of family and friends, which makes the inevitable fallout that more painful. It’s impossible not to tear up when the prince’s life is torn to pieces and he’s left not only wrongly shouldering the blame for it, but also having to pick himself up after being dealt such a crippling blow.
Visually this game looks great for the time that it came out. The artists instead embraced the anime, cell-shaded look from Suikoden III and expanded upon it. The character models are detailed and fluid…at least for actual characters. NPCs are wooden clones of each other, but this is a minor nit-pick. The world itself is beautiful, colorful, and so culturally rich that it feels like it could be a legitimate location. Every village has its own flair and flavor. There is so much detail in the outfits of different cultures, their mannerisms, and even their speech patterns.
The music in Suikoden V is one of the best soundtracks that the franchise has to offer. The score goes hand in hand with every culture, location, and emotion that needs to be conveyed through the course of the game. With exception to the theme for Haud Village and the theme for the Do Rei Mei elves, the soundtrack is flawless from start to finish. For examples, the heartbreak of Frey as he reflects on all that he’s lost is only deepened by the song “Sorrow”. The river-dwelling culture of Raffleet is beautifully represented by “Town on a River,” and the strength and pride of the royal family is painted perfectly with the theme of the royal capital, “Power like the Sun.” If you have an ear for music, I highly suggest a listen through the entire soundtrack. Every composition is amazing.
Finally, the gameplay takes what made the previous games great and expands upon them. The primary combat style is the typical RPG turn based style in which one side of the battlefield attacks, then the other side attacks. Suikoden V has expanded upon this in their formations, which are tactical ways that you can arrange your party to give them an added bonus or increase the strength of a certain kind of tactic. Formations are found randomly through the world map as treasure or drops and can greatly turn the tides of battle. For example, the “Cross Formation” gives all characters +5 in their attack. This is great for standard grinding because it allows you to sweep through opponents. For more difficult battles, like hard-hitting bosses, formations like the “Crescent Formation” gives your party +5 physical and magical defense. Collecting and using formations is essential, especially towards the end of the game.
The standard battles also bring back the combos of the later games. Combos activate when certain characters are within the party together. For example, Frey and his bodyguard, Lyon, have a combo attack when they’re in the party together. The combo attacks no not only deal out heavier damage, they also sometimes leaving one of the characters dizzy or stunned in the process, but they all deliver their own animation sequence to help spice up the battle. Some have rather standard animations while others are outlandishly hilarious. They’re well worth playing around with to best suit the formation and strategy in going up against harder opponents.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a Suikoden game if it didn’t include the dueling system. I’ve covered this in my previous reviews and the mechanics are pretty much the same. Two characters face off one-on-one (this is typically Frey and another character). There are three options during a duel: attack, special, or guard. Attack beats guard, guard beats special, and special beats attack. You’ll get clues on how to react based on your opponent’s dialogue. What’s unique to this game is that if you and your opponent choose the same thing (such as special) you’ll enter a dead lock where you must button mash in order to over-power the opponent and win the strike of that round. It’s pretty straight forward and you’ll get a tutorial round in the first act of the game. The most challenging part is to guess what your opponent will do based on their dialogue. Every opponent is a little different, so knowing their personality also helps.
Finally, we have the tactical battles. In Suikoden I, II, and III these battles were limited to the ground troops that fall under the command of the lead character. In IV we had naval battles in which three different kinds of ships would fight on the open seas. In Suikoden V, we have both land battles and naval battles as the kingdom of Falena is situated both on land and along the banks of the mighty Falenas river. The naval and ground battles have similar mechanics in that one sort of ship or unit has an advantage over another and you must move several units across a battlefield grid to position your troops in whatever fashion is best to attack or defend. These start out fairly easy but as the game goes on the battles are larger and the stakes are much, much higher. In fact, several characters can permanently die if they fall on the field of battle. So as always, it’s good to have a backup save file in case this happens.
Suikoden V is a solid game. It more than made up for the relative weak game that came before it and honored the three stronger games that set the tone for the Suikoden games. Even away from its own franchise it’s a fantastic game. The story hits a lot of hot button issues but it does so in a thoughtful, respectful manner. The characters are some of the most human of any games I’ve ever played, and the true ending is a very, very strong way to say good-bye to the mainstream titles for this series.
I know the odds of seeing a Suikoden VI is slim to none, but these games always leave me wanting more. I can easily say that the Suikoden series is my favorite RPG series of all time. The story-telling is masterful, the characters are memorable, and the execution and mechanics of the games themselves keep you engaged. If you’re a veteran of the games, V is worth hunting down. If you’re a newcomer, it’s actually a great introduction to the series.
The Bottom Line
Suikoden V is a worthy successor to the franchise. The story is unique and gripping, the characters are absolutely memorable from both sides of the conflict, the world is creative and well-structured, and the presentation is absolutely fantastic. If the series is going to end with V, then it ends strong. I couldn't recommend it more.