JRPG Review: Suikoden Tierkreis

[Note: I recently found this review that I wrote of Suikoden Tierkreis a few years ago, but never posted. So here you go!]

Several months ago I finally relented and purchased my first ever portable system: a shiny blue Nintendo DS XL. Naturally, the first card to grace its virgin slot–that is, after the brief but obligatory primae noctis obeisance afforded to Chrono Trigger–was Suikoden Tierkreis, the most recent addition to Konami’s somewhat uneven but vastly under-appreciated console RPG series. I’ll admit straight out of the gate that Suikoden is my favourite RPG series, and that Suikoden III in particular is among my favourite games of all time. The fifth game was no slouch either—its likeable characters and compelling storyline nearly making up for the horrific disaster that preceded it—and so my hopes were high that the first portable Suikoden game would provide an engrossing experience worthy of the series’ legacy.

In this I was disappointed, but in all fairness it doesn’t seem that the game’s creators really had that goal in mind. You see, Tierkreis isn’t really a Suikoden game at all, but rather a generic JRPG with a whole lot of characters. This is a siginificant difference, and one of which even casual players of the series might not be aware. Yes, Suikoden’s primary gimmick has always been the recruitment of 108 Stars of Destiny, a conceit borrowed from the Chinese novel Water Margin, upon which the first installment was loosely based. Yes, Tierkreis, like the other games, involved a war, a castle, and an unlikely young protagonist caught up in political upheaval. But the superficial similarities to the other games end there, and unfortunately they are just enough to leave players craving the real thing.

The primary charm of the Suikoden series, to my mind at least, was that all the games took place in the same world, chronicling different chapters of its rich and complex history. Each new game, even the unspeakably dreadful IV, shed additional light on characters and countries we had come to know (or at least heard mentioned) in other games. Each new chapter taught us a little more about how the world worked, unveiled a few more of the true runes, and provided new clues for speculation. Tierkreis, as spin-off game taking place in a parallel but unrelated world, provides none of this for longtime fans of the series. Although it is implied that the world of the main games is one among many worlds in the greater Infinity (the in-game jargon for the multiverse), the world of Tierkreis is different enough from the main continuity that we can be assured that nothing we learn there will ever have any bearing on the other games in the series.

This in itself is obviously not a deal killer—look at the massive success of Final Fantasy—but the change in game world brings with it a number of changes in game mechanics that are most assuredly detrimental to the experience. Some of these, like the complete elimination of strategy battles and duels, are likely due to the portable format and its related technical limitations, but it nonetheless feels like the developers were just being lazy when complex military operations are reduced to a couple of normal party battles. Even the crude Rock-Paper-Scissors mechanic of the original game felt more like a real military encounter than did these scripted events.

Two more unwelcome changes were the substitution of runes with a standard MP system with fixed abilities and the elimination of the weapon-sharpening mechanic used in the previous games. I honestly found the latter change to be more irksome than the former. I can understand changing the rules of magic in a world with no True Runes, but why force the player to find, buy, and keep track of even more equipment, especially without a storehouse that allows you to equip all your characters from inventory? Not to mention the mechanic for unlocking new equipment for purchase at the blacksmith (or any of the castle shops) is obscure and inadequately explained in-game.

Perhaps the most puzzling of the developers’ choices was to eliminate the role of Detective/Investigator that had been established in the last few games in order to counteract the inevitable guide-dang-it results of trying to incorporate 108 recruitable characters in a game. If anything, a portable game should provide more in-game help with recruiting and not less. Who wants to play a DS while tethered to the computer for fear of missing a star and missing out on the best ending?

All this having been said, the game is fun and balanced overall, and provides a number of charming characters and interesting plot lines. The mission system is an excellent way for the player to keep track of the main plot and available side quests in the portable format, and perhaps if it had been more developed or inclusive of recruitment events it might even have eliminated the need for a detective.

Unfortunately many of the game’s most dramatic plot points are thoroughly ruined by the atrocious voice acting. I have trouble even imagining what circumstances could lead to such a perfect storm of awful. Budget must have been a factor here, considering the obvious deficiencies of the more obviously Canadian voice actors, but it seems that there was not even money to re-dub the tracks when the localizations were finalized. It really breaks the moment to hear “Rizwan” pronounced “Lizlan,” especially with a strong Prairie accent. Sometimes no voice acting really is better.

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