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Wolf Kanno's Crazy Ramblings and Incoherent Statements

My Top 100"s Lost but Not Forgotten: Suikoden IV ~ Part 1

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List, blah blah. Didn't make it, blah blah.
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I feel I have a theme going here. Like the BoF1 entry, anyone who took a quick glance of my list will know I'm a pretty big Suikoden fan, you'll also notice I snubbed one of the main entries and most of the spin-off/gaiden games. I'll say right now, that I have to actually play Suikogaiden due to lacking the proper emulator, which is why it was "skipped" but I know most of the plot and like it as well. Instead, let's discuss the fourth entry of the ill-fated Suikoden franchise, and as a first for these articles, I'm even going to dig into an entry that would likely not have made my list at all, but I feel is pretty important to discuss concerning the Suikoden franchise.
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Suikoden IV, despite the IV in the title, is actually a prequel to the whole franchise, taking place about 150 years before the first game far to the south of the Scarlet Moon Empire in an oceanic region that will be called the Island Nations by the time of Suikoden II. The region is filled with several independent island countries like the commerce focused Middleport, the Nay Kobold settlement, the culturally divided Na Nal Island, and the powerful Kingdom of Obel. The region is best known for both its powerful pirate factions who cause a lot of problems in the area. The Island Nations are also known as the source of the powerful Rune Cannons that make the region very difficult to conquer. In addition, the region is also known for its long history with the Rune of Punishment, one of the 27 True Runes that governs punishment and forgiveness, the Rune's destructive powers are well known, as well as the curse it places on its host. Unlike other True Runes, this one tends to kill its bearer over time, showing that even the one chosen by the rune is not safe from judgement. To make matters worse, the rune seems to have the power to warp ones fate so that the host is almost forced to use the rune's power, increasing the likelihood that the next use will be the host's last, making it one of the most sadistic of the 27 True Runes.
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Two nations also meddle in the region, namely the Gaian Duekdom to the West, which has set up a foothold base on Razril Island where their famous knights are trained to protect the mainland from piracy and the influence of the other nation, namely the Kooluk Empire to the north. Kooluk is a small dwindling empire that is in conflict to their more powerful northern neighbor, the Scarlet Moon Empire. Seeing their own territory constantly being raided and lost to the imperial expansion, Kooluk has tried in the past to expand its own territory in the south over the island countries. They were repelled from their last invasion a number of years ago before the story began.
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Our story begins in Razril where we are introduced to knights-in-training Lazlo (official novelization name of the Hero you can name yourself) and his childhood friend Snowe Vingerhut. Lazlo was found lost at sea when he was a very small child and taken in by the influential Vingerhut family, growing up together, the two are as close as brothers though certain feeling of inadequacy complicates their relationship. The two succeed in stopping their Commander Glen and Vice-Commander Katarina from taking their ship and passing their final exam so they can become full-fledged Gaian Knights. On their first voyage to sea, the duo are attacked by the dreaded pirate Brandeau. Fearing for his life, Snowe abandons ship at the first sight of conflict and it's up to Lazlo to stop Brandeau. Brandeau tries to kill Lazlo with the Rune of Punishment he wields, but Lazlo is mysteriously shielded from the runes power, which consumes Brandeau and then tries to attach itself to Lazlo. Commander Glen appears and takes the rune instead, realizing what it really was and not wishing for his most promising student to be cursed. Lazlo is rewarded by the commander for his bravery, while Snowe's reputation is sunk due to his cowardice. This creates a serious rift between the two as Snowe's family is the governor of Razril itself and thus Snowe has grown up with a certain sense of entitlement.
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Soon Razril is attacked by a mass armada of pirates wishing to avenge the fallen Brandeau. Realizing the knights could not repel the fleet by themselves, Commander Glen locks himself within the Hall of Knights with strict orders that no one enter and uses the Rune of Punishment to decimate the fleet, but Glen was right in realizing that the rune's power would be too much and it begins to consume him. Shocked by the power unleashed, Lazlo breaks the commander's orders and enters the Hall of Knights to check on him, unbeknownst that Snowe follows behind. Here Lazlo gains the True Rune from the dying Glen, who had wished to die alone and keep the rune from passing onto one of his students. Thanks to the commander's death, Snowe's testimony, and now possessing the cursed rune; Lazlo is falsely accused of murdering the commander to get the rune and subsequently banished from Razril.
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Lazlo is thankfully accompanied by two of his fellow knights who defect out of a strong belief in Lazlo's innocence (which you get to choose) as well as a Nay-Kobold named Chiepoo that Lazlo had befriended earlier. From here Lazlo has a few misadventures where he encounters a sea monster, gets stranded on a deserted island, helps a mermaid, and encounters an undercover Kooluk ship that is scouting the area in preparation for a new invasion. Finally Lazlo and his group are rescued by the residents of the Kingdom of Obel.
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The ruler of Obel is much more sympathetic to Lazlo's plight, especially considering the late queen had been a former bearer of the Rune of Punishment before it took her life and the life of the heir of Obel. Lazlo is recruited to help Obel thwart the Kooluk invasion and tries to gather allies among the island nations, but no one really wants to believe Kooluk is going to invade until they topple Obel itself. Turns out Kooluk has gotten their hands on Rune Cannon technology thanks to an arms dealer named Graham Cray who has returned to the region in search of the Rune of Punishment. Thankfully, the King of Obel had prepared for war early and gives Lazlo and his recruitsí access to a special warship the Dauntless before Kooluk took the island and now the game starts proper with Lazlo sailing about the islands trying to convince the petty and often boneheaded leaders of the various islands to actually band together to repel the invading empire. I feel it says something about the island nations that the pirates are the first ones to answer the call to arms.
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In 2002, Yoshitaka Murayama, the main creator and driving force behind the Suikoden franchise, left Konami to go freelance which was a plan he had set out for himself when he first joined Konami ten years earlier. Despite the fact that Suikoden III was the most commercially successful entry in the franchise, he still went through with his plan leaving a vacuum for the series direction. When the time came to make a follow up, the series fell into the hands of Murayama's longtime collaborator Junko Kawano, who had helped Murayama conceive the original Suikoden as well as supply the character designs for that entry. Suikoden IV is a bit of an oddity among the franchise. With Suikoden III, Murayama had started to shift gears on the franchise, dropping the silent protagonist and exploring the conflict through multiple viewpoints, as well as expanding customization options and trying to add a bit more tactical know-how to the series. By contrast, Suikoden IV feels like an extension from the first entry Kawano had worked on.
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Kawano tried to update the tech of Suikoden with the fourth entry. I'm not sure if it was her idea or if Konami was looking at the success of FFX and X-2 and simply told her to do a little "following the leader" while giving her a meager budget to do so, but IV brings a few interesting technical elements to the franchise. Itís one of only two entries to be built for progressive scan TVs, the other being Suikoden Tactics. The game tries to update the graphical quality to something closer to Square-Enix's efforts to mix results. Things like the water effects and some of the lighting elements in cutscenes are noticeably impressive when they show up, but the attempt at high detail and the skill of the art team along with Kawano's character designs do not always match up and so graphically the game somehow manages to look a bit worse in places than its PS2 brethren. An example of this is the use of motion capture for character animations, which adds fluidity to some of the Unite Attacks and duels, but with the cartoonish designs of the characters, sometimes falls into uncanny valley territory. In fact Lazlo has the distinction of having one of the worst looking running animations in the series, always looking like he's running with his pants around his ankles. The game also introduced full voice acting to the series with mixed results in the English translation. The lack of a budget and a strong development team makes IV consequently feels a bit regressive compared to its two predecessors, and is often compared to the first game the most.
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Suikoden IV drops the controversial battle mechanics from Suikoden III which unfortunately included the awesome, if overpowered, Skill system. Instead SIV returns the franchise first game, while retaining a few minor elements from SII. It retains the Rune Affinity mechanic from SII as well as the ability to equip multiple runes onto certain characters, but most of the cool new runes introduced in SII and III are mostly removed for unknown reasons, in fact Suikoden IV only has one more rune than the first game with a total of 35 distinct runes. To put this in perspective, SII featured 87 distinct runes, while SIII featured 71, so the reduction is quite noticeable.
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This also leaves very little room for interesting customization and worse of all, many of the missing runes from previous entries were special runes used to help characters feel distinct and add personality to them like Genshu's Swallow Rune, Cecile's War Horse Rune, and even Pahn's Boar Rune. This goes a long way into explaining another issue SIV is often accused of among Suikoden vets, which is that SIV is often regarded as having one of the weakest casts of characters among the franchise. Of course there are bigger reasons for this as well. Unlike previous entries, Lazlo doesn't get saddled with the same type of entourage previous heroes get and even the ones he does have are mostly hit or miss among fans. The four cadets you can recruit are lacking in any meaningful characterization outside of a novelty trait to make them feel distinct. Chiepoo has a lot of personality, but many fans can find the Nay-Kobold to be incredibly abrasive since he's both trying to be Mr. Exposition for Lazlo and comic relief in a title that sometimes takes itself a wee too seriously at times. Other characters like Flare get quickly sidelined for most of the game and several of the other characters feel a bit too novelty than others. Other characters can either sink or swim depending on the game's voice acting which ranges from serviceable with several of the characters I listed above, to laughably bad. It's hardly the worst I've seen in a game, but it does get annoying that so many character feel like they're being voiced by maybe five to seven VA overall.
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Granted there are several exceptions to this rule such as Kika, Lino en Kuldes, Eleanor Silverburg, Chiepoo, "lone returning character" Ted, and of course the first physical appearance of series long running gag Schtolteheim Reinbach III. Probably the best character is the ability to recruit Ted, McDohl's best friend from the first game, whose entire story exists to partially fill in a minor plot hole from the first game and to serve as one of the game's several shout outs to fan favorite entries. Yet there is a real feeling of the cast just kind of being here and very few characters get as much of a spotlight outside of a handful to help flesh out the story. This isn't helped either by coming after Suikoden III, which took great strides in actually trying to make most of the 108 Stars of Destiny feel important to the main plot. In some ways, even the first Suikoden feels like it does more to make the cast stand out than this entry did. Other issue are simply the fact the plot feels a bit bare bones compared to other entries and some of the strange transitions and cuts in the cutscenes almost gives the impression that IV's plot had to be cut down considerably to either fulfill some arbitrary deadline or fall within the game's budget, likely a combination of both sadly.
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Another change to the game that doesn't do it any favors was removing SIII's controversial "Buddy System" and simply reducing the party to just four members instead. This causes way more problems than the Buddy System, as it drastically reduces the playable cast, especially since Lazlo can never really be removed and the game continues the trend of saddling you with certain story characters making it difficult to even bother using the characters you recruit. Personally, I feel the attempt at up-scaling the graphics probably made using a six party team technically infeasible as the Buddy system was said to be a work around the developers had implementing the team dynamic in SIII. To help alleviate the issue of the limited team builds, the game does allow you to make two additional parties you can switch to when sailing on the Battleship. Course the game doesn't do a great job of explaining this to you, but this is pretty much the only way you're going to really get to use a large part of the cast and learn all of those Unite Attacks, especially the game's lone four member Unite Attack.
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"Learn Unite Attacks?" you may be asking. Yes, in this game, simply getting the right team together isn't enough anymore to activate these powerful moves, now you need to play a number of battles with the characters together in a party before they'll learn their Unite Attack, and even then, you'll need to kill a certain amount of enemies with said Unite Attack to level it up enough to actually do respectable damage which is also new to the series but likely implemented because Unite Attacks are kind of OP in this series. It's a bit annoying because it forces you to rely more on guides in some ways as the game doesn't always give you strong enough clues to know who actually has a Unite Attack together. What I found a bit more disappointing though is the sheer lack of variety in them. Several of the Unite Attacks follow the same motions and simply change out who is in the party showing that despite the game utilizing motion capture for some of the animations, they really didn't have enough resources to build any variety with it. One area I will praise them is using the Unite Attacks shared by Lazlo and Snowe to convey their character growth. The original Friendship Attack has Lazlo do most of the work while Snowe delivers the coup de grace. It's a decent attack but more than anything, it really showcases their relationship. If you do everything needed to recruit Snowe by the game's end and witness his humiliating character arc, the humbled Snowe and Lazlo now see each other as equals and their new True Friendship Attack features both of them giving their all and also happens to be the strongest single target unite attack in the game.
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Another minor gripe I do have with the game is that despite the attempt at higher quality In graphics, so many of the concession this game makes ends up hindering one area you almost would expect the new graphical transition to shine, which is spell effect animations. SIV's magic animations mostly look underwhelming and this in turn hurts any feeling of "weight" they should have. Even the original Suikoden got this right with high tier spells looking impressive and the Soul Eater had both visual and audible cues to make it feel like an overwhelming force despite often not being any stronger than more conventional magic spells. The Rune of Punishment by contrast, outside of the awesome scream cues the spells make, feels really underwhelming in comparison. Hell, the higher tier elemental spells look like the starting spells in a typical Final Fantasy game. I never realize how much I look forward to this kind of stuff until I'm presented with a bad one. The other gripe is the game's slow ass battleship you use to get around combined with the game's abnormally high encounter rate. Viki and the Champion's Rune can't be found soon enough for most players.
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Now, I know the last several paragraphs have me painting this game as some half-ass disaster sequel, but despite all of these problems, SIV is still a fairly fun game to play despite being mostly disappointing for series veterans. Part of this is that the game's strengths do work out really well in its favor. Part of this plays out in how much more emphasis the castle mechanic gets in this game. The Battleship basically serves as the "castle" where your recruits hang out and while the castle hub has always been surprisingly involving, SIV introduces several new tweaks and ideas that SV kind of borrows, but may have become more standard had the series continued properly. SIV introduces a crafting system. In addition to your blacksmith increasing the power of your party's weapons, she can now take materials you find or use in trade to build armor for your army as well. New additions include a tailor to also make new armor and several other craftsmen to build accessories and such.
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This all plays into the one neat idea SIV does bring to gameplay that SV thankfully took to heart, the concept of armor sets. In SIII there were three armor sets where if you could equip a character with every piece of the set, it would garner a few bonuses. Mostly just increase how much money you get or raise one stat a level, but SIV took the idea and ran with it. Armor sets can take even some of the blandest characters and make them feel unique and powerful as the sets will grant huge stat boosts in addition to special effects like the Ogre Set putting a character in permanent Fury status or the armor can dramatically increase the likelihood of parry and counters. Some pieces of gear can be found, but most sets will usually require one or two pieces to be made which is where the crafting system really shines. Going along with this is the changes made to the Trading Posts system. In previous entries, it was a balancing mechanic used to make farming money easier but here it serves another purpose as the materials you can purchase for trade can also be used to craft new items, but what the game fails to mention is that the quality of the materials increase the more you trade, which becomes obvious when you start to realize that some gear require high grade material you never see because you haven't traded enough.
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The other area where SIV is pretty fun is with the minigames. Rita-pon may be one of top five minigames in the series. It's more or less a simplified game of mahjong that gets super addicting after a while. My other favorite mini-game deals with the mysterious twins who grow mint and mushrooms on your ship and are constantly fighting over the rooms conditions since both things they grow require opposing temperatures and environments; if it hits a fever pitch, they begin a "war" to see which of their plants will prevail and it plays out exactly like the War battles from the first Suikoden game. Speaking with Eleanor also allows you to play the game's naval battles whenever you want as well.
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The naval battles are SIV's incarnation of the War system, and probably my second favorite in the series behind SV's RTS system. You acquire ships throughout the game as either story points or for playing well and recruiting the right people. Ships are placed on a grid system and take turns moving and attacking much like a traditional turn based tactical RPG. A ship is crewed by a Captain, a boarding party, and the Rune cannons gunners. While only a select few characters can be Captains, everyone else can be a boarding member or a gunner and their stats will combine to give the full offensive/defensive power of a ship. There are two ways to attack, you can either board a ship to kill its crew and thus sink the ship, or you can use Rune Cannons. Boarding parties work more or less like army battles did in SIII, with you choosing the party and their strength largely being dependent on their actual level and load out. One difference though is that the A.I. tends to avoid using rune magic, so mages are worthless here. Instead they serve their worth with the Rune Cannons which are the heart of naval combat and the actual fun part of it. You assign characters to a rune cannon and depending on which elemental runes you have attached will be the element of the shells they can use. The power of the cannon is fixed based on the character, but considering the magical nature of the weapon, mage based characters often pack more power over fighters. From this point, cannons use a rock/paper/scissors elemental system to work out. Both the player and enemy unit will trade fire when rune cannons are used. If the elements neither oppose nor are the same element then they simply trade blows and damage is calculated. If the element of the cannon is the same, both shots will actually collide in midair and cancel each other out. If the elements oppose based on the directional wheel, the winning shell will not only cancel out the opponents shot but then proceed to hit the ship for damage serving as a duel function of offense and defense. So checking the elemental properties of an enemy ship beforehand can help you decide the right strategy to win. It's a shame there isnít that many naval battles in the story, but at least it also has a mini-game are to play to your hearts content.
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The other element of IV that serves as it's better quality while also highlighting it's weakness comes in the form of the story. IV has the misfortune of having one of the more disjointed and weaker plots in the series, not helped by the fact that Suikoden Tactics serves to actually fill in a lot of backstory for the setting and cast which makes some fans wonder if this was a result of the team trying to atone for the lack luster story of IV, or if Suikoden Tactics came to be from all of the story bits cut during development and is essentially the other half of the an original script in pre-development. While it's well established Junko Kawano helped create and write the first two entries in the series, her solo effort as the writer shows where her interests in the world lie. The political story of IV is fairly weak, and while it gets some much needed improvements in Tactics, politics still rank low on her narrative priorities. Kooluk is nowhere near as intimidating or opposing as the antagonists of previous entries. In fact background info discovered through NPCs, Tactics, the art book sources paint the Kooluk as more desperate than malicious. Not helping matters is that much like SIII; their involvement in the story is a bit of a ruse caused by the game's central villain Graham Cray, who uses the invasion as a means to flush out the True Rune so he can acquire it.
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Cray, for his part, is actually a fairly well thought out villain whose biggest issues really fall into him being off screen too often and having few outstanding moments when he does show up. Yet he's one of the series better developed and sympathetic villains. In essence he's a disillusioned former Scarlet Moon Empire nobleman who was once the bearer of the Rune of Punishment. Fearing for his life, he hacked off his hand that bared the rune and it transferred to his young son. His hometown was then the subject of a false flag operation his own country started which forced his son to use the rune to save the village but instead killed everyone except Cray. He now seeks the rune as it contains the last vestiges of his son's will. Pretty heavy stuff but it's a shame he doesn't get as much screen time to really chew the scenery unlike Luca Blight or the Masked Bishop. On the flip side, Troy, the champion of Kooluk is set up early in the game to be a powerful rival figure for Lazlo before he's completely put out of focus until the very end of the game, completing wasting all of the build up he's given in the beginning.
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While the politics are laughably simplistic and often times takes far too many cues from better entries in the series, the real heart of the story comes from the story of the Rune of Punishment itself. Unlike most True Runes whom you only often learn of one or two previous owners of, the Rune of Punishment has had several owners over the last thirty or so years and major story events within the game involve Lazlo being drawn into the rune to speak and free the souls of the runes previous owners which helps expand the lore and setting of the Island Nations. While the true runes have always had a strong focus in previous entries, IV is the one that truly makes the rune the central focus of the plot whereas other entries use the rune to kick off the game's events before focusing more on the real politick nature of the setting. For this reason, it's no surprise that despite the negative reception this game gets from fans, the lone exception comes in the game's main true rune.
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The other factor that makes SIV stand out though is it's good musical score. Suikoden has a pretty underrated OST but the true stand out pieces are from guest composer coba who is a renowned for his accordion expertise and has composed and performed with several international musicians like Bjork. He composed the games awesome opening theme La Mer, which is on par with Suikoden III's Surpassing Love and Suikoden II's Opening Theme as being a catchy and pretty epic theme, especially considering how rare it is to hear Calypso inspired music in gaming.
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At the end of the day, I don't really have any hard feelings against Suikoden IV. I was a bit disappointed when I played the demo, but was pleasantly surprised when I finally invested in the full version of the game. Itís also one of those rare titles where I do end up liking it a little more with each playthrough as it has its charming elements despite its problems. While I feel it has always been the weakest entry of the numbered series for me, especially coming off of Suikoden III which was a fun mess in itself and then being followed by the impressive Suikoden V; I also feel it has its merits and can still stand side to side with the other entries in the series. Of course, not helping things is the odd middle child in this whole thing which I'll get to when I do Part 2 and discuss Suikoden Tactics, a gaiden game of the Tactical RPG genre that serves as both prequel and sequel to Suikoden IV which fixes a lot of issues with IV while generating its own amount of bad choices.

Updated 04-29-2019 at 07:11 AM by Wolf Kanno

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