Suikoden Tactics Hands-On Impressions

The 108 Star Story gets strategic with the all-new Suikoden Tactics.

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At today's press event, Konami unveiled its next PS2 Suikoden title for the first time. The long-running role-playing series is turning to the realm of strategy for this installment, which has been dubbed Suikoden Tactics. The transition to a strategy RPG has been made smooth by remaining firmly seated in the series' already rich and detailed universe, as well as through some gameplay tweaks designed to assist tactical neophytes by replacing layers of menus with some slick and simple visual cues. We grabbed some time with the game and found it both very easy to play and very strongly Suikoden.

Suikoden Tactics is set some years before the events in Suikoden IV, in the same realm of the island nations. The war between the Kooluk Empire and the other kingdoms has not yet begun, though the frighteningly powerful rune cannon weapons have begun to emerge. The hero of the game is a young man named Kyril, who travels with a small band of fighters dedicated to unraveling the mystery behind the genesis of the weapons. The secret of the rune cannon is somehow tied to the fate of a race of strange fish-men, creatures that have been appearing throughout the islands and that seem to possess large amounts of runic power.

We were told that, as usual, plenty of familiar faces from previous Suikoden titles would make their way into this game. Right off the bat, in fact, we were taken to a flashback battle (in the town of Razril) starring the bandana-wearing main character of Suikoden IV and his perfectly coiffed friend, the haughty Snow. They're mere youngsters here, though, trying out Snow's new sword on an infestation of tribblelike furballs in the town's dark backstreets. Kyril and his friends soon make an appearance as well, and soon all are caught up in some good old-fashioned turn-based battle.

Like in many strategy games, action order is determined by the speed of the characters, both ally and enemy, and all move using a grid-based system. When it's your turn, though, the game makes use of a number of visual cues through bubbles over the heads of the sprites that give you information about your environment. For example, as you choose where to move your character, if you happen to stray within the range of a foe, a sword icon appears over that enemy's head. This quickly and easily lets you know if you're trying to park a character in a danger zone, without having to switch out and click on the enemy to see its action range. Once you're able to bring your fighter in attack range of an enemy (you'll be able to use both melee attacks, as well as magical rune attacks based on any runes you have equipped), some new informative bubbles pop up. Enemies that you can hit for critical or life-ending damage appear with a halo over their heads, allowing you to determine where to focus your attacks. As in many games, approaching a foe from the side or the back lets you do more devastating damage.

Bubbles appear over your own characters, too, giving you information about their status. One of the features of Suikoden Tactics is that certain areas of the battlefield are imbued with elemental runic power; these areas glow with the corresponding element color (green for the wind rune, brown for the earth rune, and so on). Each character has its own elemental affinity, so if you move it into a complementary zone, a smiling face will appear over its head to let you know. A character standing in a positive rune zone will do more damage, have increased defense, and will regain a bit of health each turn. Likewise, if a character moves into the zone of a rune that is opposed to theirs, a crying face will appear over its head. A character standing in a negative rune zone will take more damage, and will lose health over time as well, so you'll want to avoid it when possible. If people need healing, a first aid symbol will appear over their heads to let you know, as well.

Another element of the Suikoden series that's been retained is the combination attacks that let two or more characters join forces in a single blow. An icon will show up over a character's head if it can talk while in battle. The more characters converse, the greater their bond to each other, and if they're compatible, they'll be able to learn combo and assist attacks. Also, two bonded characters will look out for their friends. For example, if an enemy is striking at someone's unprotected back, a friend will move in to block the attack. It's a feature that's true to the spirit of the series, and it's something we're eager to be able to play with more.

The game is visually quite attractive, with a dreamy, watercolor-shaded opening sequence and cel-shaded character sprites that are intricate and well-animated. We were able to play the Razril opening battle, and the field environment itself was large and had lots of depth and detail. The character portrait art is as lovely as always, and the music sounds like it's coming along nicely. We heard a limited number of voice clips that sounded pretty solid.

Probably the most surprising thing about the announcement was the release date--Konami says to expect Suikoden Tactics for the PlayStation 2 in November of this year. Be sure to stay tuned to this gamespace for more news on the game as it's made available, as we'll be sure to keep our eye on this venerable RPG-turned-strategy as time goes on.

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