Three’s a Crowd – Suikoden III’s Place as the Third Wheel of the Suikoden Series

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June 23, 2015 saw the release of Suikoden III as a PS2 Classic in North America and Europe. For European Suikoden fans, it marks the end of a near-13 year wait for the title since its original 2002 release.

Infamously, the game never came out in PAL territories ostensibly due to quality control rules regarding localisation languages in Europei. While European fans are understandably excited about this first chance to play the game without resorting to emulation, importing or console modding, fans in North America may be forgiven for being more muted about the prospect. Especially when you consider Suikoden III’s role in the collective narrative of the series.

While the fandom hype for the third game’s re-release has been a lot more muted when put against the comparative hysteria that greeted Suikoden II’s release on the PlayStation Network, Suikoden III is still a very interesting game in that it marks the end of a lot of things about the series, making it something akin to the final part of a trilogyii. This was the last game that original scenario designer/all-round Suikoden creator Murayama Yoshitaka worked on, for starters.

Murayama created Suikoden as a one-off game. The game he had in mind was what would become, as was covered in my previous article, Suikoden II but for a variety of reasons, Suikoden was the title created instead. 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 titleiii 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.

A small sample of Suikoden II merchandise available following the games success in Japan.

A small sample of Suikoden II merchandise available following the games success in Japan.

By this point, Murayama 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 reasoningiv, 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; Murayama 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 workv 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 dissatisfaction 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 falling into the current revisionist 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)vi, the game proved to have as many detractors as supporters within the growing quote-unquote “Suikoden community.”

Optional chapters dealing with Thomas and his band of misfits were also derided widely by the fandom.

Optional chapters dealing with Thomas and his band of misfits were also derided widely by the fandom.

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.

The large timeline jump, some 15 years from Suikoden II, also limited the number of returning characters. Suikoden II saw around 35 characters from the original title appear in some form whereas Suikoden III had about ten, with another five or so characters being descendants of those from the first two games. This was a generational jump, not just a sequel set a few years latervii.

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. It is due to this art style that even today, Suikoden III remains one of the PlayStation 2 games that doesn’t really benefit from smoothing effects on the PlayStation 3 as its graphical shortcomings are not as exposed on a HD television as most other titles.

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 can be questioned 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, say, turning Breath of Fire VI into a mobile phone game. It didn’t help that some of these new gameplay elements were poorly explainedviii.

The AI-infused battle system displaced the static "rows" system much to the ire of some fans.

The AI-infused battle system displaced the static “rows” system much to the ire of some fans.

As alluded to before though, 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 gamesix.

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 from the larger video game community. 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. This is not an attack on its merits as a game but merely a consideration of its role in the series. Suikoden III would be the first victim of the “It’s not Suikoden II enough” mentality, a form of thinking that hinders the series even now during the current glut of PSN re-releases.

Despite this, time has been kind to Suikoden III and looking back, many fans view it as a sort of last hurrah for the series, even if they do consider it a drop from its predecessorx. This is certainly much kinder than the contemporary thought at the time, with many thinking 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.

If Suikoden II is the axis of the Suikoden series in terms of fandom love, Suikoden III is the axis of the series creative-wise.

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