My Suikoden II Experience And Why I Had to Quit Traditional JRPGs
Over the past 20 years, I've spent a significant amount of time trying to recapture the nostalgic joy I experienced playing Final Fantasy II on my Super Nintendo. Suikoden II marks the end of this 20-year saga.
Twenty years later, I'm not the same kid with all the free time in the world. Heck, I have my own kids now. Although I'm finally free from the arduous gaming marathons, attempting to force myself to enjoy something I just don't like anymore, this freedom comes with a price. I've decided not to play any more traditional Japanese Role Playing Games (JRPGS) for review or for enjoyment. Because frankly, I don't enjoy them anymore.
I don't blame Suikoden II for this decision entirely. Suikoden II is simply the straw that broke my stubborn camel back. Despite my current disdain for the traditional JRPG formula (turn-based battles, random encounters and prioritizing story-telling over gameplay), I can say without question that Suikoden II is certainly all the good things you've read, seen and heard about it. It has a tremendous story, well developed characters, an excellent soundtrack and a unique take on combat that unfortunately never caught on in future JRPGs.
So why did Suikoden 2 make me quit traditional JRPGs?
Suikoden II did not help me reach this conclusion alone. However, like many traditional JRPGs, Suikoden II is a game for Bookworms -- the term I use to describe gamers who play games primarily for their stories. Suikoden II's story is tremendous and its host of 108 characters are very well-developed. From the beginning of the game, you are thrust into an unending war between multiple kingdoms - all with their own (sometimes corrupt) interests in ruling the world. As the story progresses, friends die, corruption spreads, and those in power abuse it by oppressing and murdering their own people. This his how mature gaming is supposed to be handled, not with awkward sex cut-scenes and cliched "adult" conversation.
"You seemed to love the story. So clearly that's not what led you to quit Traditional JRPGs."
The story is not all smiles. It ends quite a bit weaker than it starts. It relies too heavily on some really emotional scenes to cover up the fact that the premise for the plot falls apart after the climax. The main antagonist really has no substantial reason to continue the war. The game masks his intentions, using suspense-driven cutscenes to make you think some big reason will eventually be revealed. When that doesn't happen, the ending loses some of its levity. In short, I am not a Bookworm when it comes to video games. It's not that I don't enjoy good stories. In fact, I love them. It's just that I don't think a 40+ hour game is the best way to deliver a great story. I'd rather watch a 1-hour anime.
But that's not the real answer to your question. The focus on story required the designers and developers to forego the parts of JRPGs I actually enjoy.
I am the consumate Builder -- the term I use to describe gamers who enjoy leveling and customizing characters. I prefer RPGs to allow me to build my characters into gods and to encourage me to explore the world around me by allowing me to fight for and find treasure that helps me to become said superpower. Although some of Suikoden II's limited exploration does allow you to fight monsters for leveling and runes to supplement your combat skills, the time it takes to grind for these rewards is far too great for a father who can often only game in short spurts. Ten-year-old me would have had several hours daily to dedicate to fighting for runes with a 2% drop rate or overcoming the increasingly stingy experience points (XP) drops Suikoden II throws at you. Wife-and-kids me aint tryin' to hear that noise.
Suikoden II offers fairly deep customization options. You can embed combat and magic-centered runes on all your playable characters, granting you the abilities embued within them. These runes allow you to build some very robust 6-person teams - given the amount of playable characters you can recruit and add to your party.
This mechanic alone may have been enough to make me overlook the elements of the game I didn't like, if it hadn't been such a tedious nightmare to manage. Adding people to your team requires that you talk to a specific person in your headquarters. Adding runes to your body and equipment requires that you find a rune or weapon shop in order to do so. The traveling and backtracking this series requires for you to simply build the team you want makes the joy not worth the effort from my often impatient perspective.
I am also a huge Explorer - the term I use to describe gamers who like to explore large, open worlds or sandboxes. Suikoden II released in 1998, and I'd played Suikoden beforhand, so I was by no means expecting it to have a living, breathing world like you'd find in The Elder Scrolls or Fallout.
Further, Suikoden II did attempt to give the player a bit of room to roam and explore. It just didn't mix enough solid incentive for the exploration, other than a few towns or wooded areas to buy or fight for more rare runes and armor. I wouldn't turn my nose up at Konami's attempt here, but it's extremely hard for me to love Suikoden II's world when I can go get lost in a game like Crackdown, explore its city, find ability orbs and engage in fast-paced, fun combat in a fraction of the time.
Suikoden II's combat is fast, fun and was way ahead of its time in terms of how many combatants you can bring to the party. Unfortunately, success in combat relies on all of the tedious activities I spoke about in the Builders section.
There are essentially two types of battle:
- Standard turn-based battles you encounter during normal play
- Scripted major battles that are basically mock RTS fights, which really aren't that enjoyable
Standard battles are mostly fun, but got old to me quickly because the game handicaps your ability to level at your leisure by significantly cutting down the amount of XP you can acquire as you level up. The major battles are scripted snooze fests that require very little, if any, real strategy.
Music is one of the major reasons I continued playing JRPGs for so many years after they ceased to be fun for me.
I'm an Audiophile -- which means I am a huge sucker for a game with a beautiful soundtrack. It's one of the reasons I love Shenmue so much - I know it's really a great interactive movie presented as a terrible game. Although some of Suikoden II's tracks are certainly skippable, the bulk of the music is downright amazing and worth your time.
It's a bit difficult for me to write this closing knowing this is quite possibly the last piece I'll ever write for a genre of games I used to love so dearly.
My life is different now. I'm no longer afforded the patience I once had in abundance. Truth be told, this saga probably could have ended in the late 90s. That's when I first noticed that what I loved about JRPGs was no longer hitting the mark. But every once-in-awhile, a Shadow Hearts would come along and make me forget about all my dislike for slow turn-based battles, random encounters and forgone gameplay to promote linear storytelling. And although this certainly will not be the last RPGI write about. I believe it is indeed the last tale I'll tell about Traditional Japanese Role-Playing Games.
It's been real, old friend. Maybe one day, life will slow down and you'll evolve enough to make me want you back. But for now, we must part ways. Godspeed.