“Suikoden Means War,” cried the U.S. print ads for Suikoden II, though the translation was far from accurate. “Suikoden” is actually an English-Japanese transliteration for “Shui Hu Zhuan,” the title of a fourteenth-century Chinese novel familiar to some as Outlaws Of The Marsh. But the mistake should be forgiven. Suikoden II is good enough to stake a new claim on an old word. It conveys the turmoil of war with the ring of truth.

This war breaks out in the same world as Suikoden I, three years after that game’s ending. An orphan, Nanami, is left alone when her childhood friend, Jowy, and her brother, the player-named hero, join a youth military corps. They’re off to defend their homeland, the Highland Kingdom, against its neighbor, the Jowston League of City-States. When Jowston motions towards peace, Jowy and the hero dream of going home to their village and living a simple life with Nanami. But the three youngsters will learn that life isn’t as simple as they thought.

The ensuing chain of events carries the most compelling mixture of modernistic war opera and intimate, humanistic realism that I’ve seen or heard about in a videogame. In the original Suikoden, it seemed like the writers had set out to tell a colorful war story, but stumbled across a few universal themes along the way, which they then hurriedly patched into the narrative. Suikoden II is different. The pacing and character development are carefully measured and mixed to bring the timeless themes of war to unforgettable life. To cite just one example, the theme of hubris, so simple and uninteresting in the abstract, is grippingly elaborated through the experience and outlook of a child as he grows into adulthood.

Yet the themes don’t burden the plot, as happens, for example, in Final Fantasy VII or The Matrix Reloaded. Instead, story events have terrific pacing and focus. Most of Suikoden II unfolds with a brisk succession of dramatic developments. You can race from one plot point to the next, like devouring chapters of a book. Or, you can avoid your key advisors, assemble an ad-hoc party from the nearly 100 characters who eventually become playable, and wander the lands to fight monsters, explore dungeons, play whimsical minigames, gamble money, or collect rare items.

The look and sound of this world is organic, pleasing, and clearly influenced by ancient art. Many environments and backgrounds, and especially water surfaces, have the shading and texture of classical Chinese landscape painting. Some of the music uses South Asian tonalities with sitar and tabla. Women warriors sport colorful ethnic robes; jousters on horseback twirl their weapons as they advance. Although the graphics are mostly two-dimensional, each character is well-animated and has a surprising range of stances and body language.

One often feels, even when playing really good role-playing games (RPGs), that most of the fighting exists to pad out the gameplay, or at best to drive a cycle of experience points and loot. The three battle systems of Suikoden II, though, are essential to both story and character. In one of the three systems, the one-on-one “duel,” the player and an opponent covertly decide on their respective moves, and then let fly with them simultaneously in a scheme that follows the logic of “rock-scissors-paper.” The beauty of the system lies in the secret to success: your opponent’s trash-talking gives you a hint of which move he’s about to pull. Understand his personality, and you’ll catch his hint. (There are no female opponents used with this system.)

Another battle system, army-against-army, tries to improve on its counterpart from Suikoden I by dividing the two sides into multiple detachments. It doesn’t approach the versatility of Final Fantasy Tactics, and certainly would not support an entire game on its own, but it does allow for a story to be told as only a videogame can tell it. For example, when a commander and his regiment betray their army, the event does not interrupt gameplay but enriches it, since the event is “narrated” through their actions. The player, of course, must then change tactics in response to the plot twist. Also, the broad battle plans which are drawn up for each army campaign reflect the ruthless character of the lead strategist, Shu. A memorable mixture of Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, and Bill Gates, Shu is in many ways the architect of this war, and his cold, manipulative efficiency poses a stark counterpoint to the idealism of the game’s young hero.

Finally, the party-against-party battle engine is one of the best of the genre. Low-level characters are allowed to advance extra quickly, eliminating the need to roam around picking fights and “leveling up.” A highlight of the system is the variety of combination “unite” attacks. In other RPGs, character interaction within the player’s party is limited to simple “protect” modes or joined magic spells. But here, each “unite” attack is a succinct animated sequence that displays the trust and interpersonal chemistry of paired or grouped characters.

Just as the fighting systems develop character, the story of a war that envelops the countryside builds an interesting perspective on what constitutes “courage.” As the characters gradually organize their mass movement, they go through convincing struggles for personal transformation. This means developing enough courage to think of trust in a different light: not as a “gut feeling,” but as a choice. Many of the characters of Suikoden II are betrayed, abandoned, or otherwise let down by family, country, and longtime friends. They must really struggle to stay away from the abyss of cynicism, and start over by placing trust in complete strangers. So when a rough-edged bandit learns that his buddies have been killed, he struggles to carve out a new role for himself in the war, awkwardly bonding with and encouraging a dreamy, insecure bookworm.

This sensitivity to individual lives is counterbalanced by a tough, overarching perspective on “duty” that I’ve never seen so explicitly developed in a videogame. In one of the game’s multiple endings, the hero abandons his comrades and runs away. Unlike the gimmicky “Join the dark side” choice at the end of the first Dragon Warrior, this ending is believable and consistent. The hero’s dereliction of duty has been foreshadowed by recurrent moments of dialogue, and is rationalized with convincing sentiment. It’s not triggered by one wayward player choice, but by a steady accretion of choices and plot consequences. And down the path to this alternate ending, the hero is punished by various forms of guilt ranging from subtle to traumatizing. This “deserter ending” of Suikoden II convincingly argues that “duty” is not just some oppressive convention, but an instinctive social bond without which life loses some of its meaning.

No player will settle for this “bad ending” and walk away from the game satisfied. But neither is it some fluffy pretense of “interactivity.” Playing through all four major endings creates the feeling that alternate realities slide beneath the small choices of everyday life. They show how one’s essential character is revealed through decisions, not “personality traits.” Through these multiple endings, and other junctures of the story, the delicate balancing act among theme, plot, character development, and player interaction amounts to a kind of videogaming poetry.

The game’s flaws, such as they are, are mostly mechanical. System menus have noticeable load times, which is baffling when more elaborate menus in other 32-bit games are smooth and rock-solid. There is at least one game-crashing glitch. Dialogue boxes are occasionally misnamed, and the text suffers from lazy proofreading (although the English translation itself is quite good). But these are inconsequential issues compared to what the game designers have accomplished. Suikoden II recreates some of the humor and visceral energy of the Chinese novel that loosely inspired it. But the characters and dramatic movement in this story of war are given enough time, thought, and care to come into a life all their own. Rating: 9 out of 10.

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