Ah, Suidoken. When is this series ever going to get back on its feet? Pound for pound, I would say that the first two games in the series can hold their own against any other role-playing games (RPGs) out there. Suikoden II in particular still ranks as one of the best RPGs I've ever played, period. With such a strong start, I seriously don't understand how it's possible that the developers behind the more recent installments keep dropping the ball. III was painfully slow and IV was a bizarre seagoing deviation leaving most fans with a bad taste in their mouths. Striking out in a different direction and hoping to revive this flagging series, Konami brings us Suikoden Tactics.
It does not succeed.
A strategy RPG (SRPG), Suikoden Tactics brings the Stars of Destiny to the world of grid-based combat and group dynamics. Most SRPGs involve building a team of characters, equipping them with the proper weapons and armor, and moving them around measured battlefields to attack enemies from a point at which the player has an advantage—usually from behind or from a higher elevation. Very similar in concept to something like Final Fantasy Tactics or the recent wunderkind Disgaea, Suikoden Tactics sticks close to this basic formula and adds two twists: elemental affinities and team attacks.
The Suikoden series has always used relationships and teamwork as a theme, so team attacks are a natural fit for Tactics. When two or more characters have a personal connection, they can implement powerful offensive powers provided they are positioned correctly. It's a nice idea, but doesn't really have much impact over the course of the adventure. The real meat of combat, elemental affinities, is more significant than team attacks, but makes less sense in terms of relating to the franchise's history.
Each character in the game has a strong suit. For example, some characters are based on the element of fire, some are strong with lightning, or water, and so on. Naturally, there is a rock-paper-scissors effect between characters of different affinities. This idea is not new. The twist is that the actual squares of the battlefield's ground can be given elemental properties that greatly affect the tide of battle. A pirate standing on a water square is effectively twice as tough, although he would be at a disadvantage standing on a lightning square.
Aligned properly, characters will have great boosts in defense and gain life back each turn; the opposite is true for soldiers occupying the wrong colored spaces. Using this system effectively is central to this game, and a mechanic that I think has potential. I would very much like to see this concept expanded in a completely separate game.
Why do I want to see it in a separate game? Because although I'm sure my description of Suikoden Tactics sounds at least mildly intriguing to SRPG fans so far, the disc stumbles so badly in terms of presentation and intellectual content that I can't recommend it under any circumstances.
To start with, the graphics are absolutely terrible. I'm not someone that gets off on the latest visual bells and whistles, but I have a certain standard. Suikoden Tactics falls so far below my already-quite-low standard, it's not even funny.
Looking like they fell off the blocky truck, the characters are pathetically under-detailed. Arms and legs are rectangles, and some characters don't even have real faces. If someone could lift off a character's hair, he'd find a little nub that says "LEGO" on it.
I guess the artists were going for some sort of minimalist cel-shading technique here, but whatever it was they were aiming for, they missed. These stiff little piles shuffle around bland environments, without a hint of personality, life or energy to any of them. I guess Konami thought that since the camera is usually panned out so insanely far from the action that they could get away with some atrocious shortcuts in this area, but they were badly mistaken.
The story is just as terrible and wretchedly defined as the graphics. I didn't have a whisper of connection with any of the main characters, and to be honest, I couldn't even tell who the main characters were for the first few hours. The plot revolves around some nonsense that is completely unclear and absolutely lacking in dramatic weight. Why am I supposed to care about "rune cannons" when they aren't explained? Why am I supposed to care that a character gets turned into a fish and then dies? For that matter, why am I supposed to care about anything in this game?
The developers have absolutely no idea how to tell a story, and I couldn't skip through the deadly-dull cutscenes fast enough. Given the state of game development today, it's totally unacceptable to watch a group of PS1-quality models standing motionless while hitting a button to scroll through talking heads and verbal Malt-O-Meal. The era of long-winded, passive storytelling is over, and I'm not going to stand for it anymore.
With flat visuals and a flat story, the only thing that could have possibly saved Suikoden Tactics would be the strength of ironclad gameplay. (It worked for Final Fantasy Tactics, after all…) But, the simple fact is that even with the elemental tweaks and team attacks, this game is sorely average in terms of the challenges and ideas presented to players. With nothing to sink my teeth into during play and then being put to sleep between missions, my time with Suikoden Tactics was the most tedious and joyless I've had in a while. I'll always have fond memories of the first two games, but the last few haven't even been mediocre—it's a crime to waste a franchise the way this one has been wasted, but it seems that despite their best efforts, Konami has lost sight of what made it great in the first place.