For those who are unaware, the Suikoden series takes place along varying points of a time line in the same world (excluding the upcoming Tierkreis which, from what I understand, is in a parallel dimension of the same "Suikoden Universe") and all are interconnected, if only by references and similar characters sometimes.
Suikoden 3, however, is unique amongst its brethren, and indeed amongst almost all RPG's, in that it plays out from a number of different points of view. While this does occasionally result in replaying the same events from different sides, it allows for a much fuller and deeper experiencing of the events transpiring within the game. In fact, it almost plays out like a novel.
Once the game opens (after perhaps my favorite opening sequence in any game ever), you may select one of the three main characters to start your experience; Chris Lightfellow, the newly minted Captain of the Zexen Knights dubbed The Silver Maiden, Hugo, the son of Lucia who is Chief of the Karaya clan, and Geddoe, the leader of a band of mercenaries from Holy Harmonia and a man with a mysterious past.
After your selection, you are thrust into a world where the olive branch of peace is slowly withering amidst the sparks of conflict being struck between Zexen (Chris) and the Grasslands (Hugo) with Harmonia hovering ominously in the distance.
The story that follows is likely my favorite in all of JRPG history as the 108 Stars of Destiny must be assembled to stop a horrific plot born of one man's disdain for his ruler.
Here, I will discuss the attributes that most people agree are the qualifying factors of a good game; Visuals, Audio, Gameplay, Story, and Value (including replay-ability).
Visuals – 8.5
Visually speaking, this game wasn't astounding even back when it first came out. The character models in game are sometimes a little squished and unappealing, and the cut scenes use the exact same graphics as in game does. While it creates consistency, it doesn't create a lot of atmosphere during sometimes pivotal events.
That being said, everything else is very nice, from colorful landscapes to bustling cities to simple yet beautiful character portraits. It's all very clean and sharp. And again, as I mentioned before, the opening sequence is stirring and spectacularly done.
Audio – 9.5
Once again, right off the bat, I will bring up the opening with its sometimes haunting melodies that set the tone of strife so well. In game, the music is well suited to both locations and situations and features some memorable tunes.
Sound effects are well done but tend be a little short on variety. Rune sound effects are generally very good as well.
The only negative here is the total lack of voice acting at a time where at least partial work was becoming standard. However, given the slipshod nature of Suikoden IV's voice work, this isn't as negative as it could otherwise be and naturally, it's tougher to voice 108 characters than it is to voice twenty five or thirty as is the case with Final Fantasy X.
Gameplay – 9.5
Before 3 came along, Suikoden had a tradition of a fairly generic JRPG battle system of six characters (two staggered rows of three) per fight with a variety of ranges on there weapons. 3 though, changed this system in a few ways that really made it shine.
First off, your party now consists of three pairs of fighters that rather depend on each other for success in battle. You still start off in two staggered rows of three, but once battle begins, your characters move about an area map based on your commands in an updated fashion (so when a new turn begins, they are still in the same location as when the previous turn ended).
Thus, decision making becomes important for defending spell casters and use of area of effect items and abilities that might miss an important member for healing or cause damage to your party through poor positioning.
Secondly, specific pairs union into a single more powerful union when paired together (Hugo, with his trusty griffin Fubar, for example) where they combine stats and attack together, making it much harder for them to be killed.
Outside of standard battles, there are duels which are paper-rock-scissors affairs where you fight a single opponent. These are unchanged from previous Suikodens.
Also outside of standard are the large scale battles which now take place in more of a board game fashion where you may position your units at choke points to keep an enemy from advancing, or slip through a quick side route for an easier escape. It works well, but you only get full control and a full roster on a few occasions, so it's not as fully explored as I would wish.
There are a number of mini games as well, including a couple of card games, a dice game, and my personal favorite, the theater (where you gather scripts and put any of your 108 stars of destiny in a roll and watch hilarity ensue :P )
Story – 10
If I could give the story a twelve or thirteen or a twenty I would. Alas, my own rules allow only for 1-10. As such, I won't spoil anything and will simply say that the unique novel approach of telling the story from up to five viewpoints (with another bonus viewpoint in which you can just mess around for some giggles) really works and serves to tell a unique tale with a villain whose motives feel real, unlike the "I'm evil because I feel like it" motive so popular in some JRPG's (I'm looking at you, Blue Dragon…)
It proceeds along in an orderly fashion with no pacing problems and the only negative I could see someone experiencing is the necessity to replay the same scenes from different points of view (which I personally loved).
Value – 10
I clocked my first playthrough in at 96 hours and change. That alone makes it worth the price of admission, never mind the fact that my second playthrough gave me another 65 hours of Suikoden love. Definitely my favorite of the series and a game I can easily recommend to anyone who loves a good story or loves RPG's in general.
It's difficult to experience everything (including switching in and out and fully developing some 65-70 fighting characters) in a single playthrough, so there is plenty of opportunity for replay.
As I said above, this is most likely my favorite JRPG ever and my third or fourth RPG overall ever. The endearing story and colorful (if occasionally anachronistic) cast make this a game not to be missed, including a great reward if you manage to collect all 108 Stars before the game ends!