Originally released in 1995 on the Playstation, the first Suikoden game introduced gamers to a massive cast of 108+ characters, a rich world, varied cultures and alliances and many interlocking storylines that continue to this day. Now, almost fifteen years later, we still see games rolling out frequently bearing the Suikoden banner. The have expanded the series to include card games, tactical RPGs and visual novels. It was just a matter of time before Konami decided to take the series to the Nintendo DS, but the question is: is the DS able to handle such a massive game? When playing Suikoden Tierkreis I was left with one answer: yes.
Created as a spin-off of the main series of games rather than being in the main timeline, Suikoden Tierkreis was made to explore one of the myriad of worlds that exist in the Suikoden metaverse, The Kingdom of Salsabil. Players must assume the role of an unnamed young male protagonist to gather the combined forces of 108 heroes and defeat a powerful villain known as The One King. The One King is the tyrannical leader of “The Order of the One True Way”, a religious organization that seeks to control the world by spreading his doctrine that all fate is predetermined and all people have no control of their lives.
Tierkreis takes one of the more vague notions in the series and really fleshes it out. This is the idea that in the Suikoden world, there are multiple alternate dimensions that characters seem to pass in and out of. In older games, there was a character named Yuber that was hinted to be of limitless power because of his other worldly upbringing. Other instances included the occasional trip into demon worlds by characters, and demons into our world by powerful magicians hell-bent on taking over the universe. Suikoden Tierkreis finally addresses this by laying out a network of organized dimensional portals that link the worlds. This is a convenient way to allow for DS Wi-fi interactions and clean up a dangling plot point from the series, so it’s a win-win situation.
After poking around online and discovering that the unnamed protagonist was named “Sieg” according to official artbooks, I was set to play. For some reason I hate naming unnamed characters, its just one of my pet peeves with RPGs. Immediately the player gets ushered into a storyline that is definitely a Suikoden storyline, yet slightly different. Gone from this game is the emphasis on the runes, or even any true runes. In this game magic is handled by people called “starbearers” which is a clever way to differentiate this world’s 108 stars of destiny from the other games. Another difference lies in the fact that thee are no large scale strategic battles or duel style battles. In place of these, there are a few one on one battles and segments where you split your massive party up into groups in order to fight back multiple sets of bad guys, so the feeling is still there without the diverse series of different battle mechanics.
Another difference from previous games is that although the game plays more like the older games in the series (1 and 2 respectively) you may only have four characters in your party at a time. You still get benefits based on where the characters are placed, but but strategic options are limited by the size of the party. You still have "unite attacks"(where characters sacrifice turns to strike together) that do massive amounts of damage, but early on these are few and far between as you don’t have large groups of related characters until much later in the game. To counter this, the game seems to be skewed a bit more to the easy side, as you have much more magic than in previous games. In previous Suikoden games the player was limited in how many spells could be cast, whereas in this game you can use certain powerful attacks, like the hero’s “Masterpiece” skill forever for a critical hit at every turn. As you can see despite a few slight changes, this game is still Suikoden through-and-through.
One more change to the Suikoden formula is the implementation of a seasonal calendar system, which serves to make certain characters available only at certain times and to change the aggressiveness of some monsters. For example, early on in the game, you get told by an NPC that a certain type of butterfly monster is a lot more common during the sprout season (the seasons are based on the lifecycle of a flower ). This is important because early in the game, these creatures are very hard to fight, then later in the game items they drop are rare and valuable. These days and seasons also come into play with a new system of jobs that this game employs. Once you take up residence in your castle, you can be hired for a multitude of odd jobs all over the country. These range from fetch quests to escort missions to surveillance/recon missions. Both of these features make the game a lot less linear than previous entries, and help to make the game a lot easier to break up into short segments for easy on-the-go playing.
One thing that struck me about Tierkreis is the richness of its storyline. Usually in handheld RPGs there is a tendency to make the game more casual friendly or dumb it down slightly to make it seem more like what a handheld game is perceived to be. This is not the case with Tierkreis, as the storyline is pretty epic, somewhat dark (although not as dark as past games) and full of twists, turns and betrayals. It does take the story a bit to get moving, but once you make it to your own castle, the game is great.
In the beginning of the game you start out as a kid, raised in the village of Citro and placed into a sort of village defense force. Your snap judgments on the battlefield in the face of a huge monstrous threat give you the attention from many towns around you. You win influence and essentially found your own kingdom. This puts into place the long running side quest of amassing your army that has become the main staple of the series. By the end of the game, you are rewarded by seeing your characters grow and mature as true warriors from humble beginnings.
The storyline progresses very well with a wealth of animated cut scenes with full voice acting. These generally pop up at really tense times within the progression of the game, or moments where a couple of sprites walking around would not convey the same emotion as a cut scene. These cutscenes are not a novelty as in some other DS games, and come up quite often, showing that Tierkreis has a lot of production value for its small package.
On the technical front the graphics are pretty good, but not astonishing. They are better than what a Ps1 or N64 could produce, but not quite as good as the DS’s own Final Fantasy IV. The backgrounds are generally impressive, and almost look hand drawn, but the character models are a bit on the weak side sometimes. This is mainly due to the insanely massive amount of characters that you can use. While most games have something like eight characters tops, Tierkreis has 108 that join your castle, and something like 80 (I never actually counted them) characters that I would call battle characters i.e. characters you use in the battles. Since there are so many unique character designs, character animations, character voices etc. there had to be a cut somewhat, so you have the characters looking chibi style, and sort of muddy sometimes. Another hit is that the monsters in the game are mostly color swaps of other monsters so there is not a lot of variety to be seen. In all honesty though, if you love the characters from the old games, this will not bother you.
The sound is generally very good in Tierkreis, as it has the epic symphonic score that Suikoden fans are accustomed to. Norikazu Miura who has provided music since the later PS2 titles was back at the musical reigns with a massive team of composers at his side, so you know this wasn’t going to be any other game, this was Suikoden. For those who do not know, Suikoden is known for its stellar musical scores, which are so popular that the soundtracks sell fairly well independently of the games themselves. The music is varied and fits all of the locales perfectly. Each culture has its own themes and musical style, which is a nice little touch for a game with such a large amount of areas to visit. Tierkreis also has a massive amount of voice acting jammed into its cartridge. In fact every principle characters has a few lines of dialog at one point or another, and much like the Tales series, almost all of the major plot points are fully voice acted. The only downside to this is that a few of the characters seem to either be on caffeine or their voices have been sped up seemingly to save disk space. For instance the main character, which was not silent, always seems to be speaking at 1.3-1.5 times faster than a normal person should. This wasn’t a huge problem as it added to his personality, but it was odd at first.
Much like the multitude of other Nintendo DS role playing games, Tierkreis does have some sort of online service, but its not a multiplayer option. Basically what you can do is visit the area that acts as a hub between worlds, and you can hire adventurers from other people’s DSs or submit your warriors for a chance at leveling them up. This works pretty well, but you have to use some strategy. You don’t want to decide to do this when you really need the character that your are whisking off into abyss as they are out of your party for a few real life calendar days, not just game days. Other problems may occur such as a person not sending your people back right, or barely using them for instance. This is all due to the game not really explaining the online system to you very well in the first place. All in all the online was a nice touch, but hardly a high point for the game.
Suikoden Tierkreis is one of the best handheld RPGs that I have played in a few months, and may be the best one that I have played on the DS. Granted, I am a huge fan of Suikoden, but the immense laundry list of nice little touches usually only reserved for big budget console RPGs was nice. Tierkreis is however not a perfect game by any means, as it suffers from mediocre character designs and odd voice acting quirks like a sped up voice, as well as a limited roster of monsters. The game does make up for this by having tons of animated cut scenes, full voice acting for the majority of the game, and a rewarding online mode. Bottom line is: $34.00 will get you an immense 50 hour or so RPG with all the trappings of a big budget game at a smaller size. Because of this, the game is highly recommended.