If there’s one series I wish more gamers knew about, it’s Suikoden. A Japanese role-playing game with tactical strategy elements, it was developed by Konami and released on the original PlayStation. I’d actually played Suikoden II and III first, really enjoying both. Suikoden II was one of the best JRPGs on the PS1, a game that stuck with me the same way Final Fantasy VII did. When I finally got around to playing the first Suikoden, I enjoyed experiencing the game that started the series.
At its heart, Suikoden is a leadership simulator covered in JRPG armor. The story for the first Suikoden is a mashup of Star Wars and the Chinese classic Outlaws of the Marsh. The main character, officially known as Tir, is the son of a famous official in the Scarlet Moon Empire, General Teo McDohl. When the general gets sent north on a mission, Tir carries out a series of tasks with his friends. On one of his early missions, he witnesses firsthand the corruption of the Scarlet Moon Empire as they’ve been overtaxing its people. When he’s ordered to take mountain bandits as captives, he obeys, even if he’s concerned by what he’s seeing. As Tir learns more about the injustices the people are suffering, he eventually takes up the sword to join the rebellion and fight against the Empire.
There is a lot more to his turn, including a unique rune with which he is entrusted, something that the Empire desperately wants. But even then, the overall plot is full of tropes that fantasy fans will be familiar with. Where Suikoden really starts getting interesting is after you gain your castle and start recruiting members. There are 108 in total, each represented by their own star of destiny. I know there’s a fear that having such a huge cast can dilute the importance of each member. But Suikoden’s strength is in showing how all these disparate parts contribute to the army as a whole.
Every time you gain a character, they change a part of the castle, and you slowly see your residence take on a life of its own. One guy, Sergei, is an inventor who adds an elevator, making travel faster between the floors (before his arrival, laboriously walking up the stairs is a chore). Another, Sansuke, sets up a hot bath and your group can chill in a steaming tub while appreciating antiques. An innkeeper you recruit, Marie, has a more personal connection to the main character: After Tir defies the Empire, he becomes a wanted man. With soldiers after him, he finds shelter with Marie, who runs the inn at Gregminster. Thanks to her aid, Tir and company are able to escape. Unfortunately, soldiers learned Marie hid Tir and she has to flee to avoid imprisonment. You find her hiding in Seika, having lost everything. But she doesn’t blame you for what happened, which made me feel worse. After you get your castle, I was glad she agreed to set up an inn there, even though she charged me for every night’s stay.
Despite the colorful anime-style visuals, Suikoden isn’t afraid to show the darker side of war. There are terrible tragedies that occur, and many people die throughout the game. After Tir joins the rebels’ Liberation Army, he goes on a quest with the rebel leader, Odessa, to deliver important blueprints. The Empire springs a trap on her and she’s assassinated while saving a young child. Because she doesn’t want the rebellion to lose hope over her death, she asks them to hide the news about her passing.
It was a difficult decision, but for the sake of the rebellion forces, you choose to hide the news about her death. This has a ripple effect later when members eventually learn about her death and refuse to follow you, questioning your abilities and qualifications as a leader. This in turn forces Tir to undertake quests to prove himself to them, leading to more battles. I appreciated the way Suikoden forced me to think about the effects of my actions beyond the immediate party and contextualize them in the struggle between forces and how everyone has conflicting interests. The whole series takes place in the same universe, so the political machinations each of the nations takes part in have repercussions that echo throughout the entire series. Despite the existence of magic and dragons, it feels like a real world.
I love the fact that the turn-based combat in Suikoden lets you use six characters. The strategic element depends a lot on the formation and the combinations the characters form as they use both attacks and magic. Formations in particular are really important, as some characters can only attack from the front row and others, like archers, from the back. Having a balanced mix of characters can be the difference between victory and defeat. I also hate having a big cast of characters, then being only able to use the same three for most of the game. Six characters is a fair number given the large potential pool, and the story often forces you to switch party members around, helping you to get a feel for how they fight. Each also wields their own special weapon that can’t be changed, but can be sharpened to strengthen their impact.
There are larger-scale battles where your army goes up against other armies. These sections highlight the characters you’ve recruited and distill the battle down to a game of rock-paper-scissors. For example, if the enemy decides to use magic, a volley of arrows from your own forces will hurt them badly. But if you use those same arrows when the enemy charges, the arrows fly right over them and you’ll take a bad beating. Future games in the series would expand on the battles, but the simplicity here still makes for tense sequences.
And then there are the duels, which are one-on-one matches that function similar to the standard battles. Depending on what type of attack the opponent makes, you have to respond accordingly. There’s usually a tell in the form of what they yell at you before commencing an attack. Fatal rock-paper-scissors makes for an intense game, and strategic mistakes can lead to disaster.
In one of the earlier battles, you engage the Empire at Garan. As I outnumbered them, I actually wiped them out with ease. Immediately following the battle, one of the soldiers, Flik, insists you follow up the attack with an even stronger assault to knock the enemy to their feet. Your military advisor, Matthieu, urges you to wait, gather intelligence, and make better preparations before attacking. Flik’s enthusiasm wins the day and you go out to battle, only to be faced with a mysterious poisonous gas that wipes out most of your army. Your forces suffer a disastrous defeat. When your soldiers die, their souls become angels and ascend upwards. I was devastated to send so many troops to their death.
While the foot soldiers are faceless, your officers and generals all have personalities and their own backstories. In one harrowing sequence, the elf Kirkis barely makes it to your castle. He begs for help for his village which will be attacked by Kwanda Rosman, one of the Six Great Generals of the Scarlet Moon Empire. Rosman has a special weapon called the Death Star, aka Burning Mirror, that can destroy entire cities. But the elves don’t welcome the presence of humans and even imprison Kirkis and Tir. They’re rescued by Kirkis’ girlfriend, Sylvina. Sylvina stays behind in the village, but makes Kirkis promise to come back with aid.
They go to the dwarves for help. The dwarves are just as stubborn as the elves, and don’t care if the humans kill the elves. But the dwarven chief agrees to help if Tir and company can steal one of their royal treasures, a running water root. The vault it’s sealed in is complex, one of the largest dungeons in the game to that point. While the puzzles aren’t hard, it takes a long time to get to the bottom, defeat the Gigantes boss, then retrieve the root. Only then does the dwarven chief agree to help by building the Firewind Cannon which can counter the Mirror.
Tragically, on the way back, Kirkis notices a fire. The whole Elven village was burned down by General Rosman. Kirkis is distraught, throwing away the engagement ring he was going to give to his girlfriend, Sylvina. That’s when another companion picks up the ring and tells Kirkis not to give up hope. In the next scene, you’re ambushed by imperial soldiers, but as it looks like you’ll be beaten, the rebel army comes to the rescue. It was Sylvina who escaped and informed them with the help of a Flash-like elf called Stallion. Their reunion is touching as the two lovers ignore everyone around them.
The rebel army proceeds to engage in their first big battle, which is about getting revenge for all those who were murdered. Things take on another twist after you defeat General Rosman and realize he was under the control of someone else. Here, you have the choice to execute him for his crimes, or to accept he was being manipulated by a greater foe and have him actually join your side.
If games are a series of decisions, Suikoden constantly forces you to make tough ones. Determining as a leader what’s the right choice and what’s the expedient one isn’t easy, especially if the traditionally moral answers aren’t what’s right for your forces. Suikoden tells a sweeping tale about justice, corruption, and humanity in a way few games have. The path to liberation is bloody. Then again, no one ever said leadership was easy.