Suikoden Tactics is a strategy role-playing game set in Konami's Suikoden universe, though Tactics shares a rather tenuous connection with the rest of the games in the series. Suikoden Tactics retains some of the subtle nuances of the Suikoden series, but the title is really nothing more than a way to grab your attention. It doesn't really matter if you've played other games like it before, because Suikoden Tactics is easy to get into and challenging enough to be enjoyable to veterans and newcomers alike.
Suikoden Tactics follows the story of a young boy named Kyril, whose father is killed while investigating strange and powerful weapons (known as rune cannons) that somehow turn ordinary men into violent, aggressive fish men. Three years after the death of his father, Kyril is now a young man. So he decides to set out on a journey to investigate these rune cannons to see if there's any way to prevent more people from becoming fish men. The story unfolds with all the cliché you've come to expect from a role-playing game. There's a little of everything thrown in here: treachery, murder, adultery, war, kidnapping, conspiracy, and a bit of romantic tension.
Despite all that, and despite its focus on fish men, the story just isn't very interesting. The characters are rather generic, so you won't ever feel compelled to care about them. At best they're only slightly interesting; and at worst they're just expendable. All the story sequences play out in-game, with some static character portraits and tons of spoken dialogue in front of the poorly animated character models. The voice acting is pretty bad at times, but thankfully you can skip it using the triangle button. There are a couple of poignant scenes, but the dull presentation mostly kills any dramatic flair this game may have had.
While the story fails to be engaging, the gameplay goes a long way to make up for it. As with just about any other strategy role-playing game, the battles are the focus of Suikoden Tactics. You'll take a party of characters into battle, and then you'll take turns based on initiative. You move about on a grid, cast magic, engage in melee combat, and generally try to decimate your foes through careful planning and proper placement in battle.
The big twist is the way the game requires you to manipulate the elements. There are five elements in the game, each with an assigned color. Each character has an elemental association, and the terrain in battle can also be infused with elements. By using the elements to your advantage, you can get some much-needed stat boosts. Conversely, you can use the elements to put your enemies at a disadvantage. Each element is weak to another element, although they aren't opposites. For example, fire is weak to water, but water is weak to lightning. If you have a character with an elemental association with fire, you can place him or her on red terrain, and he or she'll get a stat boost, as well as regain a small number of hit points at the end of each turn. However, if you put that same character on a blue square, he or she'll be weaker, and he or she'll take damage each turn. You can use items and spells to change the terrain element of land on the battlefield, and battles will often be decided entirely by who is best able to maintain control of the terrain elements.
Aside from the elements, everything is fairly straightforward. There are dozens of characters to recruit into your party, though there are nowhere near the trademark 108 characters of other Suikoden games. Every character is unique, so there aren't really classes per se. However, all the characters fall into the basic categories of magic users, healers, archers, and fighters. You can also get mounts in the game, so you can have your characters riding on kangacorns or owls if you need a little extra mobility. You'll get a lot of characters by completing the main story missions, but some characters require you to complete a side quest before they join you. If you have a Suikoden IV save with all 108 characters, you can load it up at the beginning of Suikoden Tactics to unlock a couple of extra characters. And if any of your nonstory characters die in battle, they're dead for good...or at least until you reload your last save so you can try again.
You can customize your characters by giving them items and magic runes. Each character's weapon is predetermined, so you can hone it at a blacksmith to make it stronger. However, you can't change it out for another weapon. You can equip different types of armor, gloves, and other accessories, and you can give each character items like medicine and elemental beads. All the magic comes from runes, which you can purchase in any town. Runes give you abilities like elemental magic or special attacks, but there are also runes with passive effects, like the warrior rune, which increases strength. You can only equip a couple of different runes at a time on each character, but that's enough to give each character several special abilities.
You can adjust your characters' skills as well. After each battle you'll be allocated skill points, which you can use to either teach your characters new skills or level up existing ones. The skills are pretty basic. There's a skill to increase accuracy, a skill to increase your chance of getting a critical hit, and so on. Magic users can purchase magic skills, which increase their proficiencies with given elements. One of the more useful skills lets you move twice per turn so you can move up and attack an enemy before moving away (usually you can't move once you've completed an action). Characters can only equip a few skills in the beginning of the game, but as you progress, you'll be able to equip more skills, and you'll be able to level those skills up further.
Suikoden Tactics also has a friendship mechanic that's used to learn cooperative attacks, which inflict heavy damage on multiple targets. In battle, certain characters can use the talk command, which initiates a brief exchange and increases goodwill between the two characters. Once two characters chat a few times, they'll learn a cooperative attack, which can be used if the characters are in the correct formation. Friendly characters will also help each other out in other ways. One character might jump in to protect another from an enemy attack, or he or she might provide a support attack in the form of an assist. The friendship stuff is all well and good, but it rarely has a substantial effect on the outcome of a battle.
Overall, the battles are a lot of fun. But sometimes they can be a bit frustrating. In certain battles you have to protect an artificial-intelligence-controlled character, which is annoying, because these AI-controlled characters often make completely brainless decisions, thus getting themselves killed unnecessarily. It can be especially aggravating because the battles in this game are quite lengthy. So you can put an hour or more into a single battle only to lose at the end of it, which forces you to do it all over again. There is a nice feature that lets you continue after losing a battle, which resets everything except for your experience. So if you keep losing a battle, your characters will keep leveling up until they eventually become strong enough to complete the battle. For the most part, though, the battles strike a nice balance between strategic management of elements and straight-up fighting.
The presentation in Suikoden Tactics does leave a lot to be desired. The characters are blocky and undetailed, and the basic animations are stiff and awkward (though the attack animations are fairly fluid). Each character model uses about five different washed-out colors, and none looks particularly cool or interesting. The character portraits are nicely drawn, but the eyeless nonplayable characters look a bit creepy. The enemies are also pretty bland. There are several different colors of fish men and some generic enemy soldiers, but a bit of diversity would help make this game a bit more interesting. The battlefields are all quite large and well designed. There are elevation changes and obstructions that force you to adjust your strategy accordingly, but the layout of the terrain still feels natural--though the backgrounds do have a blurry low-res look that doesn't do much to impress. The graphics, of course, aren't a major concern in a game of this type, but a little added detail would have been nice.
The audio is just fine in Suikoden Tactics. The voice acting is terrible at times, but a few of the parts are respectably delivered. The sound effects work just fine. There are the usual clashes of swords and squeals of anguish, but there are also some cool little touches, like the way a magic user mumbles a chant when casting a spell. The music is generally good as well, although a couple of tracks are more likely to put you to sleep than get you primed for battle.
Suikoden Tactics doesn't do much in the way of story, but the simple-yet-unique mechanics make it a satisfying strategy role-playing game. You can beat the game in fewer than 25 hours if you don't replay too many battles or complete any of the several side quests. If you have the inclination, though, you can easily spend a lot of time collecting all the characters and trying different party combinations. If you like strategy role-playing games, but don't give a rip about Suikoden, you should still check this game out. If you happen to be a Suikoden fan, that's all the better.