If you've never played a strategy/RPG before, then Suikoden Tactics is probably the one you'll want to take the plunge with. Designed specifically with new users in mind, this side story to January's Suikoden IV is one of the most accessible role-playing games of the year (traditional or otherwise) -- and while it most certainly doesn't have the plotline or mechanical chops to compete with 2005's other genre heavyweights, it does have a couple of cool little features worth mentioning... even if it is rather thin.
Beginning seven years prior to the events of Suikoden IV, the former Rhapsodia (as it's known is Japan) tells a story that eventually runs parallel and beyond this year's proper sequel. Its main focus is the aftermath of the Kooluk and Island Nations war and the mystery surrounding the origins of the Rune Cannons (magical weapons that can do some serious damage). At the forefront of this story is Kyril -- a powerful young warrior who is continuing his father's curious obsession with learning all he can about the cannons.
For hardcore story friends, Suikoden Tactics won't offer anything spectacular with its surprisingly somber narrative. Moderately complex as it may be, there isn't anything particularly standout about it in regards to twists, turns, and surprises (you'll probably see most of them coming before they happen). Granted, the strategy/RPG genre has never been known for its depth of story to begin with, but after playing through Final Fantasy Tactics and Disgaea, I've found that there's more than enough room for such a thing. To its credit, though, Suikoden Tactics does boast a couple of wicked but scripted death scenes and a few elaborations on plot threads first hinted at in Suikoden IV. Unless you played through the previous game all the way through, however, most of the loose end-tying might not make as much sense.
Because of the paltry storyline, the majority of the characters you encounter don't really mean much in the grand scheme of things. Other then the few central players (Kyril, Seneca, Yohn, and Andarc), almost all of the 60-plus characters you'll encounter are little more than support units or five-second talkers. Veteran SRPGs gamers shouldn't find this kind of presentation to be e too much of a surprise... but if you're new to the genre or like a little more dialogue to balance out then action, then expect some disappointment.
Where Suikoden Tactics stands out more anyway is with its battle system. Borrowing an idea from Nintendo's Fire Emblem, the game offers a nice play on the combo attack idea by allowing players to build stronger relationships with each battle. If Seneca and Andarc spark up a conversation during combat, for example, they'll improve their compatibility with each other and thus, increase the power of their cooperative attacks. Clever use of squares with elemental properties plays an important role in battle as well, by giving players an incentive to use characters of a certain elemental nature in specific areas (or not to use them in others). The trade-off, of course, is that if you want to speak to another character or transform the elemental properties of an area, you'll have to use a turn to do so. This ensures a good balance of pros and cons for both battle commands and it works pretty well.
The game's problem is that in the long run, it won't pose too much of a challenge. Veterans of strategy RPGs and those quick to learn should easily master the nuances of Suikoden Tactics in just a couple of hours. Being able to command element affinities and build up combo attacks is great, but since the battles never get too multifarious these interesting elements ever feel as important as they should (with a couple of exceptions later on in the game). Most enemies like to repeat the same attacks over and over again too, and when combined with the helpful speech balloons (icons that essentially tell you what's going to happen on the next turn) it can make combat feel a bit repetitious and predictable. Because of this lack of challenge, don't be too surprised if you blow through the story missions in a weekend (or even a day if you dedicate yourself), and a week if you decide to do everything else.
Strangely, Suikoden Tactics still manages to be fun while it lasts. Simple as it may be, the game has a good number of side quests that can be picked up and played at anytime for extra potch or characters, and the gameplay (despite its shortcomings) is rather addictive (thanks to some cool customizable skills and spells). There are four different "free battle" areas that you can hop into too, so level grinders should take solace in knowing that they can spend as much time as they want building their ultimate characters. It's also important to point out that, unlike Suikoden III, Suikoden Tactics offers a group pool of skill points rather than for individuals -- making it easier to balance the abilities of your characters than in the regular games, and the number of Runes and Rune Magic is pretty solid.
I'd also like to note that I prefer the presentation of Suikoden Tactics to that of the last two games. Boasting heavy lines and a pseudo-3D look, the artistic design reminded me more of the first two Suikoden titles rather than the last ones. Textures and map navigation is much better too, and the addition of progressive scan is a big plus. Sadly, the voice-over work isn't quite as good (everyone sounds like they're 12 years old and don't flow with each other -- expect sudden stops) and, as I mentioned earlier, the story doesn't stand out like you'd expect it to. The soundtrack is pretty kickass, though, and has a nice mix of original and remixed Suikoden IV tunes throughout.
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