Suikoden III is the first episode of Konami's epic RPG series to hit the PlayStation 2, and unlike its direct predecessor, it actually presents technological innovations over previous games in the series. Although these innovations, such as polygonal graphics and streamlined gameplay mechanics, meet with mixed results, Suikoden III's addicting nature and overall excellence make it the best game in the series and perhaps the most enjoyable RPG yet released on any of the current generation of gaming consoles.
Suikoden III's storyline revolves around the 3 kingdoms of Zexen, Harmonia, and the Grasslands, and the historically tense relations between them. Decades ago, a massive and brutal war between the kingdoms was settled only by the emergence of the Flame Champion, a mysterious young man possessing the immense power of the True Fire Rune.
As the game begins, another war between Zexen and the Grasslands has just concluded, and representatives from both sides have arranged to meet in neutral territory to sign a treaty. However, just after the treaty has been signed, one of the Grasslands clan chiefs is assassinated, seemingly by Zexen knights, and the Zexen representatives are attacked, seemingly by Grasslands troops. Both sides, angered by the transgressions so soon after the signing of the treaty, prepare for war anew.
Like in past Suikoden games, war and treachery are central themes in Suikoden III, and they help build a compelling (though somewhat predictable) event-based plot that ranks as the RPG's strongest individual facet. Also helping out Suikoden III's storyline is the fact that most of the game is played from the viewpoints of 3 separate protagonists, like in Sega's Shining Force III. Hugo is the son of Lucia, the chief of the Grasslands' Karaya clan. Chris Lightfellow is the captain of Zexens' knights; she's already a decorated hero as the game begins. And Geddoe is the leader of a band of mercenaries serving as essentially a border patrol for the kingdom of Harmonia. The three characters play a prominent role in the upcoming war, and being able to see events from each one's perspective adds complexity and depth to the storyline.
Another recurring theme in the Suikoden series is the recruitment of the 108 Stars of Destiny, those chosen few who will make a significant difference in the war at hand. Like in past Suikoden games, the 108 Stars in Suikoden III vary widely in appearance and ability, and collecting all of them is part of what makes the RPG so addicting. Players will want to continue playing just to see who they will recruit next and what they look and act like.
Of course, with over 100 significant characters in the game, very few will be adequately developed. Character development of the 3 protagonists is strong, with the exception of that of the ever-mysterious Geddoe. But many of the other 108 Stars, such as the charmingly rambunctious Lilly Pendragon, leave you wanting more information about them than you can actually uncover in the game. Perhaps the only other weakness in Suikoden III's plot is its pacing; it generally takes a very long time for relatively little to happen.
The most noticeable indication of innovation in Suikoden III is in its visuals. The newest installment in the series is the first to forgo the 2D bitmaps of the past and use 3D polygonal graphics, and they work really well on the spell effects and summons, far surpassing those of past Suikodens. However, outside of battles, the graphics are only average compared to other PlayStation 2 games in terms of their detail and animation.
The character designs and artwork of Suikoden III are markedly similar to those of Suikoden II. The majority of the characters are appealing in their appearance, and they translate quite well from their anime-styled portraits to in-game polygons. The anime opening movie is nothing short of spectacular, showcasing the game's art at its finest while animating almost flawlessly.
Suikoden III plays very similarly to past games in the series. It's a traditional turn-based RPG, battles are randomly encountered, and you can bring 6 characters into battle with you. Equipped items can be used to aid allies, and spells can be cast through runes, up to 3 of which can be equipped on characters. Combination attacks can be carried out by placing certain characters together in battles.
Like in Suikoden II, there are 2D overhead turn-based strategy battles that are large scale when compared to the normal battles. These strategy battles are much better executed than those in Suikoden II, playing decidedly faster and making more strategic sense. They're still more of a storytelling device than a gameplay feature, though; the battles that you are supposed to win are really easy, and the ones that you're supposed to lose are clearly impossible.
However, important differences exist between the gameplay of Suikoden III and that of past games in the series. First of all, the battles have been streamlined to the point where commands are given to party characters in pairs rather than individually. As one can expect, this works well when you just want your characters to fight with their standard weapons, but it's annoyingly restrictive when you want your characters to cast spells or use items, because only one character per pair can do so each turn.
Also, character placement is now significant, because your characters move around in battles and because some of your attack spells affect a certain radius and can damage your own characters in that radius. However, the character placement gameplay elements prove to be a nuisance, because you can't really control where your characters go when they fight, which ultimately ends up making the area effect spells useless, unless you have a certain rare skill, which most characters don't.
Another change for the worse in Suikoden III's gameplay from past Suikoden games is its command execution. One of the gameplay strengths of the first 2 Suikodens was that their commands executed very quickly and very smoothly, so battles never dragged on and players didn't have to wait for menus to load. Suikoden III is noticeably slower than its predecessors, but fortunately the game is enjoyable enough to play so that this particular flaw isn't too intrusive.
On the plus side, there is now a skill system where characters earn skill points along with experience points and can use them to learn and upgrade combat skills. The skill system makes the game more enjoyable, as players can customize their characters to some degree in order to fit their play tendencies better.
Other gameplay changes for the positive are relatively insignificant but definitely welcome. For example, world map navigation is much more simplified; it's basically just traveling in a line between two points, and there are no battle encounters. You can bring a support character into your party to accompany your other characters, which can bring you benefits such as healing after battles and skill training without having to see a teacher in a town.
Like its gameplay, Suikoden III's control is strong overall but flawed. The onscreen characters control quite precisely with the analog stick, and they move briskly through the many maps in the game. The menus, despite being a bit slow to navigate through, are well organized and user-friendly.
However, the camera causes all sorts of control problems. It's mobile, but players can't control where it rests. As a result, a lot of views are obscured during area map play. In addition, the assigned resting locations for the camera vary wildly from screen to screen, which makes orienting yourself when you get to a new map more difficult than necessary.
Suikoden III's sound, like most of the rest of its individual facets, is strong but not spectacular. The sound effects are actually quite robust; they're fuller than those of past Suikodens, which is to be expected given the more advanced hardware of the PlayStation 2. The sound effects resonate especially well when powerful spells are cast during battles. Like the other games in the series, there is no voice acting in Suikoden III.
The soundtrack, composed by the trio of Michiru Yamane, Takashi Yoshida, and Masahiko Kimura, is markedly different from the ethnic-influenced scores of the first 2 Suikoden games. A few themes from past games in the series are remixed here, but for the most part, Suikoden III's background music is extremely mellow, almost ambient, especially in outdoor locations. It does pick up in towns and during battles, and it does serve as a fitting aural backdrop to the game, but aside from a few tracks such as the soaring boss theme "The Glittering Blade", none of it is extremely memorable or compelling. This is especially disappointing since Yamane was the composer for Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which featured one of the best soundtracks in any game to date.
Suikoden III isn't spectacular in any of its individual facets, but overall, its whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The combination of the game's multiple story viewpoints, the recruitment of a colorful cast of characters, and a complex war tale make Suikoden III the best RPG released in the US in 2002 and the most addicting since Sega's Skies of Arcadia.
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