Suikoden II is (or I should say was) a unicorn among the Western gaming community. Although the game was praised by critics as a masterfully made RPG, the initial lack of response to the game’s release led to Konami pulling the plug on printing more copies. As a result, the game became an absurdly expensive rarity, selling from anywhere between $150 to over $400 for a physical print. But a few weeks ago, Konami released the not-as-rare-but-equally-fantastic Suikoden I as well as Suikoden II on the Playstation Network. The minute it became available, I pounced on the opportunity to play a game I had only heard of in myth and rumor by those who owned a retail copy. What awaited me inside this lost ark of gaming history was more moving, more captivating than I could ever have imagined. Suikoden II brought me back to the golden age of JRPGs; it reminded why I became enthralled with the genre and its storytelling techniques.
But why should we be interested in a somewhat unknown JRPG from 1999, infamous only because of its limited release? Because it still holds up today as a truly amazing RPG experience. Suikoden II features a war drama, massive in scope and complexity, that is by far one of the most memorable tales I’ve experienced in a long time. A bevy of relatable, well-rounded characters drive a plot that is as tragic as it is uplifting, leaving me shocked, saddened and optimistic with each new dramatic turn. To accomplish this with 108 unique playable characters is a challenging feat, but the game pulls it off spectacularly. Yet, what makes Suikoden II a narrative tour de force is its ability to convey a grim realism within this fantasy world. Tragedy is cruel in the world of Suikoden II and rarely is the audience given a breather through some miraculous, convenient plot device common to JRPGs; I’d liken it to why Game of Thrones is so popular in the sense that the game emphasizes the severity of war, death, betrayal and the unrelenting tragedy found within all three. There’s a correlation to be made here (one that George R.R. Martin even pointed out) to the Shakespearean forms of storytelling. It affects the player because it expertly constructs empathy, forming a strong connection between us, the characters and their hardships — it’s the mark of a great story.
Now, that isn’t to say that Suikoden II is perfect, but it is emblematic of the JRPG quality during that time period. The game is still chock-full of JRPG tropes and cliches, especially in the beginning. But let’s take a look at the bigger picture and put Suikoden II into a context. Around that time, a slew of JRPG masterpieces were being released, including Final Fantasies VII-IX, Xenogears, Wild Arms, Legend of Mana, and Vagrant Story. They’re the reason why JRPGs became a phenomenon in the West — those games focused on fantastic writing, unique worlds and brilliant but harrowing stories. Sure, gameplay factors in a bit in this scenario, but most fans of the genre love the grand style because of its commitment to great storytelling. Currently, however, this emphasis on narrative construction has been steadily declining in JRPGs over the recent years. Tales of inner and outer exploration have taken a backseat to innovating gameplay or attempting to create a brand. I’m not saying that gameplay and its mechanics aren’t important to a game (it’s very much the opposite) but that the signature of the genre has fallen into a lackluster, predictable rut. Suikoden II, as the main example, has a standard JRPG turn-based gameplay and mechanics, but it doesn’t detract from the game’s overall experience.
I wholly encourage every gamer to give Suikoden II, as well as Suikoden I, a try. It’s a highly accessible RPG which reels you in with a spectacular story that keeps on surprising and delighting with each dramatic moment. It’s tough to find games of this caliber in today’s market, especially ones that are as grand in scope as this one. As storytelling continues to become more sophisticated in the medium, however, we should remember that these are first and foremost video games. They must be both a work of art and an enjoyable piece of entertainment without sacrificing the two; games are meant to be played and crafted in equal measure. It’s something I see in Suikoden II and hope you see if you decide to give this masterpiece a whirl.
Written and edited by Tim Atwood