Think carefully before you answer. Why do you play games?
It's not something you might have asked yourself too often. The playing of videogames isn't usually the kind of activity that's subjected to such close scrutiny, and it's a particularly interesting question when it comes to RPGs. By their very nature, RPGs are slow and cumbersome beasts, awkward amalgamations of random battles and windy dialogue. Where shoot-em-ups provide the instant gratification of a holiday romance, RPGs are more like a marriage, and in some cases very nearly as long. When you commit to an RPG, you know you're signing up for the long haul and, crucially, you know that much of the time won't necessarily be "fun" in any conventional sense. Even the very best games in the genre can be long-winded, repetitive and overblown. But, like reading Proust or watching Hungarian art-house movies, there's an understanding that the end result justifies the journey: that the game's plot, characterisation and imagination will reward the player in a way that more than makes up for the long and arduous route to the game's finale.
But, when confronted with something like Suikoden IV - a role-playing game of such crushing mediocrity that playing it sucks the very enjoyment out of life - it's a question that might well spring to mind. Why are you doing this? Why are you putting yourself through this?
'you'll see most of the plot twists coming a mile off and the world is too sparsely detailed to ever truly feel alive'
So, why do you play games? Is it for the plot? Suikoden IV is actually a prequel to the series, a story of action on the high seas. The Knights of Gaien man an implausibly small rock in the middle of the ocean and keep the seas free from pirates. The game's hero has only just graduated into the Knights' order when an attack on Gaien sets in motion a desperate chain of events. It's not long before the player finds their character exiled from Gaien, set adrift, saddled with the Rune of Punishment and ultimately tasked with finding 107 other characters with whom to team up and save the world. It's not the most original story or setting - the piratical setting is heavily reminiscent of Skies of Arcadia, minus the charm and self-knowing humour, and the "young boy saves the world" story is straight out of the RPG book of clichès. Competently told without ever really managing to surprise, it will probably be of most interest to Suikoden veterans who will appreciate the filling out of the series' back story, although it won't exclude newcomers either. Yes, you'll see most of the plot twists coming a mile off and the world is too sparsely detailed to ever truly feel alive, but Suikoden IV does its basic tasks efficiently enough.
Is it the characterisation, then? Well, Suikoden IV certainly takes a few interesting approaches. Chief sidekick Snowe Vindergut comes out well: his character grows and develops as the story unfolds and his journey towards redemption is one of the most interesting aspects of the game. Sadly, most of the other characters are mere ciphers. The game's designers have clearly decided that having 108 playable characters forms a scripting challenge too far and as a result most of them are totally indistinguishable outside of battle. Even more bizarre is the decision to render the central character nameless and entirely mute; a clear reflection of the series' 16-bit roots. This convention worked in 2D and still occasionally works in simpler 3D games such as the Zelda series, but in a fully-fledged RPG like this it's a complete disaster. With no personality and no dialogue, your avatar is a blank canvas; other characters briefly pause in his presence to spout soliloquies before racing off again. Conversations are one-sided and chemistry is non-existent - the relationship between the central character and Snowe is entirely undermined because there's absolutely no convincing reason why the dashing, charismatic Snowe should even consider being friends with such an incredibly boring mute. Actually, one possible reason does spring to mind, though it's almost certainly not what the game developers had in mind: with his bowl haircut and doe eyes, the central character looks about twelve years old, and his mute adoring gaze lends his relationship with Snowe an unintentionally homoerotic air that's really rather distracting.