This week marks the release of Suikoden III in North America ten years ago. The game also came out in Japan at the same time and, infamously, never came out in PAL territories ostensibly due to quality control rules regarding localisation languages in Europe.
Suikoden III is an interesting game in that it marks the end of a lot of things about the series. This was the last game that original scenario designer/all-round Suikoden creator Muryama Yoshitaka worked on, for starters.
Muryama created Suikoden as a one-off game. Through a mixture of good timing and luck, the first Suikoden came out in a relative barren RPG landscape on the original PlayStation. That game did well enough to earn itself a sequel. Suikoden II, although set in the same world as the original game, three years in the future, functions as something more akin to a re-imagining of the original title. The (contextual) success of this title saw Suikoden become a bonafide franchise with three side games and a slightly dizzying array of merchandise and publications separating Suikoden II from its numerical successor.
By this point, Muryama had some sort of idea about the greater plot of the series. Although each game deals with regional wars in a technologically stagnant world, the arcing plot was growing more to encompass the role of the 27 True Runes, the magical crests which governed every aspect of the world. Their role in the struggle between Order and Chaos, intersecting with questions of free will and destiny were commented on in the first two games but really came to the fore in Suikoden III.
Despite the successes of the original batch of Suikoden games on the first Playstation, Konami had reservations about the direction of this overarching plot. The rumours persisted as to the reasoning, from simply busybody executives, to concerns that if the plot were to be wrapped up soon, then the reliable profit earner would be no more but in the end, the result is the same; Muryama Yoshitaka was to leave the team towards the end of Suikoden III’s development cycle.
Suikoden III was also the swansong for series artist Ishikawa Fumi. Ishikawa was the artist from Suikoden II onwards, replacing Kawano Junko’s slightly more art nouveau style of work with a hard-lined, bright coloured look and more detailed costumes which captured more attention in the early 2000s. Although there is no indication of disastisfaction with her, she would be replaced by her predecessor, Kawano Junko, once a new producer for Suikoden IV was announced. That producer? Kawano Junko.
Let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that Suikoden III was the last traditional Suikoden title before it was overwhelmed by heathens, however. It is important to remember that Suikoden III was a very divisive title when it was first released. Although praised by contemporary critics at the time (the game still holds the highest average Metacritic rating for all Suikoden titles), the game proved to have as many detractors as supporters within the growing quote-unquote “Suikoden community.”
Although the Trinity Sight System that was the core of the games narrative proved relatively uncontentious, some complained of the repetition of visiting previously seen locales with new characters at different points in the narrative. Some were more irked with the idea that enemies, enemies, were Stars of Destiny in this title, showing the growing conservatism that quickly grips the fanbase of any media type.
This conservative element of the fanbase also dismayed of the series jump to 3D graphics over the beautiful sprite work of the first two games which lent the game a distinctive visual style. By choosing a slightly super deformed style over more realistic modelling, the game managed to maintain some semblance of a unique aesthetic while still maintaining clarity.
The majority of fandom complaints however stemmed from the battle system, which featured six characters sorted into three groups of two. You would choose the commands for one character in each group, with the second character entering into a sort of AI-informed support role on each turn, based on the commands selected. As far as RPG battle systems go, it’s fairly unobtrusive and easy to get to grips with even if it’s question what, exactly, it’s supposed to bring to the game but as far as a vocal segment of fans were concerned this was the equivalent of Dirge of Cereberus: Final Fantasy VII.
Suikoden III’s plot continued the themes of the original games, namely that of a local conflict where there are multiple points of view. The Trinity Sight System, however, allowed this to be explored with more than mere platitudes for the first time in the series. The ability to take on three different perspectives in the narrative, with the bonus of three other minor narratives for added detail, allowed Suikoden to process a more complicated and nuanced plot in a segmental manner, allowing layers to fall gradually and gaps to be filled in when dictated by the story and not the linear narrative of the first two games.
Not that Suikoden III’s story should be considered high art. It embraces the noble savage stereotype so hard you expect Kevin Costner to play the lead role and many story and plot elements are either of their time (if you’re being generous) or near farcical (if you’re not). But what it does, it does well, providing a broad stroke look at issues of colonialism, cultural development and the disconnect between war and those who would run them. Combining that with the most developed cast of characters in any of the games and the added layer of the predestination concepts mentioned earlier results in a plot that secures depth through the sheer physical mass of its storyline if nothing else.
In the end, Suikoden III was a game of incremental changes in gameplay, which angered a reactionary fanbase and plot nuances which met with wide approval. As a talisman for the series, it was largely a failure. It certainly failed to galvanise the series and fanbase in the same manner as Suikoden II.
Looking back, many fans view it as a sort of last hurrah for the series, even as it stumbles on like a zombie with 2011’s Genso Suikoden Tsumugareshi Hyakunen no Toki not exactly setting the world on fire. At the time, many thought it might mark the beginning of the end. Perhaps, uniquely in this case, they’re both right. Although it is amusing to think that a title which deals so much with stagnation preceded what some see as the biggest run of intellectual stagnation in an RPG series to date.