The 108 stars of destiny are a mysterious bunch, wildly disparate individuals each born under the auspices of their own celestial house. Whether they're warriors or wizards, merchants or manservants, successfully recruiting the 108 stars is at the core of the Suikoden experience. Suikoden V hews closely to the series' traditional roots with a lively and expansive cast, a return to the classic six-character battle system, and an engaging plot full of political intrigue. Some pacing issues in storytelling and gameplay cloud the water, but it's otherwise an adventure you'll be happy to get swept into.
Things take place in the Queendom of Falena, a realm guided by its queen and the power of three magical runes: Dawn, Sun, and Dusk. The land and its people are uncomfortably riding on the edge of uncertainty regarding Queen Arshtat, who two years previously put down an uprising by taking up the Sun rune and burning a village and the surrounding countryside to ash. As the prince of Falena, the game is quick to establish how marginal the role of a royal male is, as you're sent to the decimated village, Lordlake, to review the damage and the situation on behalf of the queen. It's easy to distrust Arshtat, who is at one moment noble and warmhearted, and imperiously cruel at the next; she's obviously unbalanced. It soon comes to light, though, that the Sun rune she now bears (which cannot be removed until death) is somehow exerting its influence on who was previously a just and beloved leader. The truth behind Arshtat's terrible actions, the scheming of two of the land's largest noble houses, the tragedy of Lordlake, and the mystery surrounding the power of the nation's three runes begins to slowly unfold.
Suikoden V takes its sweet time kicking up the action initially, as you'll be shuttled back and forth between various areas to take care of errands for the queen, with precious little battling and a whole lot of running around towns and talking to people. It's somewhat off-putting, particularly when you have to wind your way around labyrinthine towns and buildings searching for the right trigger to advance. However, the game at least uses the time to efficiently introduce you to a large host of characters and factions, and when things pick up and the traitors start to come out, the surprises in store have gratifying weight. It's also great to see the development of your own character, the prince, from a meek errand boy used as a pawn to a confident commander rallying the nation to his cause.
Getting through all the ensuing upheaval means a lot of fighting. Suikoden V's battle system goes back to the same six-character maximum party setup from the series' days of yore, and you'll have a lot of options to explore in battle. One new twist is battle formations, where you can change the arrangement of your party and gain certain bonuses. The traditional three-in-front, three-in-back formation lets you heal your own party for a certain amount once per fight. Other formations let you gain attack power or magical defense, or increase your overall accuracy as passive abilities. You can use these bonuses to your advantage, depending on the foes you're facing and the challenges you have to deal with.
The meat of the turn-based battles is a mix of melee fighting, rune magic, and special skills. Runes can be equipped at special shops, attached to a character's hands or forehead. You'll have access to offensive elemental magic, healing spells, and a variety of rune-specific abilities, such as shielding magic or ferocious attacks. If you've got two or more characters in your party who are closely affiliated, chances are they can join together for a powerful co-op attack of some kind. The ability depends on the pairing involved, and there are many--fathers and daughters, aunts and nephews, close friends, and others. These spice battle up a bit and allow for the expression of character personalities in fights. Battles earn you experience as well as skill points that you can use to augment different character abilities, like attack power, defense, magical defense, cast time, and more. The only negative things that can be said about the battles is in regards to their frequency (high) and the fact that the slight load time before and after a skirmish tends to add up and bog matters down a bit.
In addition to group-on-group fights, the Suikoden duels and army battles are back and ready for duty. Duels are based on story events and occur a number of times over the space of the game; you'll have to defeat a character in one-on-one combat to advance. You have just three options in a duel--attack, guard, and special--and these have a rock-paper-scissors relationship. Special moves break through guards, guarding allows you to turn aside attacks, and attacks will turn aside special moves. You have to rely on verbal cues from your opponent to decide what move they're likely to make, and then you have three seconds to choose your own action. While the dueling calls are usually pretty easy to figure out, duels are still a neat and dramatic way to advance story progression.
Armies in the game will skirmish on both land and sea. The wars are also story-driven and will happen at precise points in the narrative, and you'll have to win to move on. They're not that hard to beat, though (not that they ever have been, historically); army units come in threes and have the same vulnerability structure as duels. For land units, archers are strong against cavalry, cavalry are strong against infantry, and infantry smite archers. Similarly, at sea, archer ships best combat ships, combat ships break up rams, and rams decimate archers. Once you start things moving, the fights happen in real time--you'll choose a given unit and then give it orders on where to move and who to attack, and it'll creep across the battlefield for you. However, in practice, a lot of enemy army units simply wait until you get nearby to start moving, so you have a bit of leeway in how you draw them in. The tricky part is mainly balancing your forces and making sure that you don't end up having units facing their one weakness and getting squashed. This isn't Suikoden Tactics, but it's another nice way to break up progression and let your army win some decisive victories.
The size and stature of your armies depends on who you're able to recruit, and this is where Suikoden V shines. The objective of the game is to gather as many people to your cause as humanly possible, with a particular emphasis on those known as the 108 stars of destiny. The stars range from everyone from a chef to a mercenary, a private detective to an orchestral conductor, dragon knights, and beavers, and while not everyone is meant to actually fight alongside you in battle, all of them will contribute to the size of your force and the mettle you command. At a certain point in the game, you'll be able to move into a castle that serves as your headquarters, and here's where all the people you recruit come to hang out, ply their trades, or wait to be called into battle. There's nothing like starting out with a large, empty fortress and seeing it gradually fill with a wide assortment of vibrant, likeable characters, interacting with each other and goofing off between wars.
Suikoden's always been great at making the stars evince unique personalities with just a few exchanges of conversation, and there's lots of interesting people to meet and lure to your forces. Some will seek you out, some will accidentally fall in with you, some will have to be bribed, some you'll have to defeat in battle--there are many, many ways to recruit characters, and people who turned their noses up at you earlier may come along when your army's a bit bigger. Getting all 108 stars affects the game's ending, too, so there's a tangible reason to want to "catch them all," although with the number of variables at play, you'll probably need some sort of guide to nab all of them.
The game pads out to average RPG length, but there's a certain amount of variability depending on how many stars you try to seek out. Winning later army battles requires a certain number of stars, though even if you didn't run around into nooks and crannies seeking people out, normal fast progression should net you enough cronies to skate through. Investigating and recruiting all 108 stars is a labor of love that's going to add up to a bit more time. The game also has more than one ending, depending on the number of stars you have and choices made during the game. In fact, your character is very frequently asked questions by all sorts of people, and your responses can affect their behavior, whether or not they'll join you, and other story events in the game.
Visually, Suikoden V has a simple look to it, with the bulk of interest residing in the crazy character designs that you'll come across. Most characters are vibrant and distinct, old and young, sporting everything from military armor to flowing robes, amusing and outrageous hats, or fur. The environments in the game are pretty staid and ordinary looking--particularly outdoor zones, with large swaths of well-made but generic trees, grass, and earth. Towns fare better, with sometimes complex layouts involving hidden paths to seek out, and multiple camera angles. The music in the game incorporates a lot of classic Suikoden tunes in certain places and matches it with new themes that are naturally soft but good at setting the tone for the various villages and dungeons you'll come across. Voice acting is present for a lot of characters, and it has its ups and downs. Some actors emote very well, a few are too squeaky, and there are some questionable readings; but on the whole, the speech works out well.
Suikoden V represents a homecoming of sorts. It's not without flaws, but it does a great job of bringing many of the series' best elements to the fore, and provides an experience that fans in particular will really appreciate. The engaging storytelling dovetails perfectly into the recruitment of your 108 closest friends, and there's still nothing quite like gathering up one of the largest playable character casts in the console RPG genre.