While it has a few minor problems, they are dwarfed by the sheer amount of enjoyment the game will undoubtedly offer to anyone who enjoys a good RPG.
It's been a little crowded in the PlayStation 2's role-playing game market this October, what with the release of no fewer than four such games. Yet Konami's entry, Suikoden III, rates at the top of the heap, thanks to an incredibly fleshed-out setting and a huge cast of characters in a tightly woven and relatively contrivance-free plot. Strangely enough, Suikoden III manages to distinguish itself from its contemporaries by not straying too far from common fantasy set pieces and themes, instead opting to focus on the execution of the storytelling. While it has a few minor problems, they are dwarfed by the sheer amount of enjoyment the game will undoubtedly offer to anyone who enjoys a good RPG.
Suikoden III begins on the verge of a peace agreement between the upstart Zexen Federation and the Grassland's Six Clans, with both of the warring factions lying in the shadow of the Harmonian Empire. You assume three main roles: Chris, the newly appointed captain of the Zexen knights; Hugo, the son of the Karaya clan's chief; and Geddoe, the leader of a mercenary band acting as part of Harmonia's frontier defense force. Their storylines are interrelated and even have a few points of intersection. This chance to see a few plot points from different perspectives is grandiosely named the "trinity sight system," but thankfully, the mechanic works much better than its gimmicky name, as each character's story is fairly independent of the others. The shifts in viewpoint help make things very interesting, as political intrigue renews the Zexen-Grassland conflict and new threats arise.
This installment in the Suikoden series takes place 15 years after Suikoden II, though in a neighboring region of the continent. It's not necessary to have played Suikoden II to understand the unfolding plot in the game, though one scene late in the game will not have as much of an impact on newcomers. The writing otherwise does an excellent job of couching back story in the dialogue and avoiding blatant and lengthy exposition. Those who have played Suikoden II do get to transfer their save data at the start of the game, but the bonuses this provides are just that--bonuses. However, Suikoden III's accessibility to those new to Suikoden does not mean that the gameworld is thinly developed or that it exists in a vacuum. The gameworld is rich with history, politics, and culture, and Suikoden III just does a great job of showing instead of telling, inspiring the imagination of the player to round out the detail. The gorgeous opening movie is illustrative of that. While it's only a montage of unrelated scenes featuring some of the game's more prominent characters, each scene is evocative of a larger story.
Mechanically, Suikoden III is fairly standard as an RPG, but with a high level of customization. At any given point, you're in control of a party of up to six characters. Moving about the world and through dungeons will inevitably put you in a series of random encounters with the local monsters, as well as scripted fights against boss monsters. Combat is conducted in pairs--that is, a full party of six will act as three separate pairs. Orders are issued at the start of a round, and each pair is issued a command. This results in a little loss of control, because if one character is ordered to use an item, cast a spell, or execute a special attack, the other character will default to attack. The only time this is really a problem is if you're using one of the spells that has a wide area of effect, as your teammate may wander into the blast while charging the enemy. At least there is a meter at the bottom of the screen that will show you if your partner is going to move before you can finish casting. At any rate, area-effect spells are so powerful that they need to be balanced this way, forcing you to team up your spellcaster with a slow character or wait to use area-effect spells until your character has more experience and can cast them before your partner can run off. So while the combat system isn't necessarily flawed, issuing only three orders for six characters may take a little getting used to. In addition to this main combat mode, there is also a one-on-one duel mode and a strategic battle, neither of which have a whole lot of depth, but they at least break up the monotony.
Besides endowing you with experience and treasure, winning in combat will also give you points that can be used toward advancing combat and magic skills. There are basic skills that any character can learn that enhance natural abilities, like magic resistance or accuracy, and then there are some special skills that will only be available to select characters, like "thief" and "freeze." Each character has an aptitude for each skill that governs not only how quickly the skill can be improved, but also the maximum level of improvement. Characters are further differentiated by how many skills they can use at one time--some characters can have as few as three, while others can have up to eight. Items and such will also give bonuses to skills. It's a good system, and it allows you to decide whether you want to field a team of specialists, a team of jacks-of-all-trades, or a team featuring little of both.