The Suikoden role-playing games have achieved a sort of cult classic status over the years, particularly 2002's Suikoden III, which served as the series' breakthrough hit. Suikoden IV also serves up a drama-laden tale about those special individuals known as the 108 Stars of Destiny. But this time, the grandiose storytelling is couched in some tedious new gameplay elements and a slightly stripped-down battle system. While the narrative is still enticing, and the eclectic cast of characters remains a positive, aspects like a horrible seafaring travel system and an often outrageous enemy encounter rate detract much from the experience. Even longtime Suikoden fans will want to approach this title with caution.
In the series timeline, Suikoden IV plays out more than a hundred years before events in the first game, and it takes place not on the known mainland but in the scattered archipelagos in the southern seas. There, aspiring knights of the Gaien nation train under the tutelage of Commander Glen, who oversees the marine forces on the island of Razril. The main character is a quiet but capable young man who is due to soon graduate with his friends into the ranks of knighthood. But a chance encounter with a desperate pirate puts a knot into things, because the pirate bears the magical Rune of Punishment, one of 27 True Runes. When used, the Rune of Punishment drains the life of its master. And when he is dead, the rune randomly selects a new host from anyone who might happen to be nearby. Through a miserable string of misfortunes, our young hero ends up with the Rune of Punishment. And so begins the journey to unravel the rune's secrets...just as the island nations boil on the brink of war.
Gone is the "trinity sight system" from Suikoden III, with its three convergent storylines. Here, your character is at the center of events, and any outside information comes in the form of cutscenes. The narrative in this game is not as tightly scripted as its predecessor's, since there's no need to weave three large bands of detailed individuals into a single plot. There are still a number of focal characters you'll get to know quite well, however, and the cast is as diverse as you would expect from a Suikoden title. Pirates fight alongside ninjas, who get along well with cat-people, who will chat with mermaids. Meanwhile, the 108 Stars of Destiny remain fun to both ferret out and recruit to your cause. However, instead of pulling all your allies to a castle keep, you'll eventually be carting around your whole group in a giant galleon that you'll expand to meet your needs. And while the ship is a serviceable substitute for a castle base, ships come with some unfortunate issues in Suikoden IV.
To travel across the ocean to visit the many small islands that are scattered hither and yon, you'll have control of a vessel of some type at all times. You'll navigate from one island to the next by putting out to sea, then selecting your destination, and then waiting. You'll keep on waiting, for sure, because the boats in Suikoden IV all move at a pace that makes an advancing glacier look brisk. Getting from island to island is a matter of staring at your ship as it crawls through the wide sea, inch by painstaking inch, until you finally get to where you're going. Once you've picked your destination, there's no need to even touch the controller. The ship will creep along by itself through leagues of boring ocean. It doesn't improve matters that you often don't know exactly where on a given island your port of call is, so upon reaching land, you usually have to wind your way around it to find a place to put aground. Moreover, islands won't let you brush your ship up against them, so at times, an invisible barrier will inexplicably and suddenly push your vessel back to the open ocean. As a result, you'll have to wrest with the sluggish game controls to get things turned around again. If that wasn't bad enough, there's the matter of all the monsters.
Random encounters have been a part of Japanese RPGs since time immemorial, and Suikoden IV employs them to excess. Not only do ships move slowly (even your character's "run" is a little weak), but also you have to contend with getting into a fight once every few seconds. On land, as well, you'll be drawn into battle quite often as you move your character through the game's landscapes and dungeons. And since your characters will level up quite quickly, the encounter rate passes from being a mere leveling utility to being a time sink. While, thankfully, you can get a special item later in the game that allows you to visit certain places you've already been, it's still no trade-off for all the painfully long, battle-filled treks you'll have to make across huge swaths of sea.
Battles have also undergone a major change. While each of the previous Suikoden titles let you have up to six characters in your party, in Suikoden IV, you can have a maximum of four. While this makes battle somewhat simpler to organize, part of the fun of having such large character parties was the versatility the party brought to the table. In previous titles, you could have several different groups of characters join in for a combination attack at one time. The combination attacks are still here, though there's necessarily less variety in their use. The basic mechanics remain unchanged, so characters can perform melee attacks or use any equipped runes to cast magic spells, in addition to joining with any compatible characters for attack combos. Battles are turn-based but still progress quickly, which is a blessing, considering their frequency. Underleveled characters still get up to speed quite rapidly, so it's pretty much always feasible for you to switch your main group out to get some new recruits into the mix.
It will take a good 30-plus hours to complete Suikoden IV, and it will take a few more if you're one of those fanatics who absolutely must round up every last Star of Destiny until your contingent has reached its fated size. Since the chart of the ocean realms is obscured (you reveal the detailed map underneath as you move your boat across it), tracking down all the islands and all your friends can be a bit tricky. Given how long it takes to sail from one end of the map to the other, revealing all the chart is an epic undertaking in and of itself.
Visually, Suikoden IV is a bit uneven. While the character-art portraits of the main cast are well detailed, the character models feature a pretty basic level of detail, with only a handful of different facial expressions and animations that aren't always very fluid. Environments like jungles, beaches, ruins, villages, and other structures do the job, but the color palettes used aren't very vibrant, so while they may have, say, good foliage detail or unique architecture, it can get lost in all the dull colors.
The game's music is the same way. It's understated, inoffensive, and so likely to just blend in as background noise without really making an impression. The game features a good amount of voice dialogue, and the results are actually good, on the whole. Aside from a couple of painfully squeaky voice actors, most of the cast delivers a solid performance.
Suikoden IV retains both interesting storytelling and a compelling cast, but it mixes in a number of flawed and frustrating elements. There's enough of the traditional Suikoden formula here to give this title a draw, despite some broken seafaring and a tedious encounter rate, but the game can only be recommended with caution. Those who are well used to abusive levels of random battles will find the game less ornery than most, but even those hardy souls may need an extra touch of patience for Suikoden IV.