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?
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.
So maybe it's the battle system that draws you to these games? If so, and if you're of a masochistic bent, you might be in luck, because Suikoden IV adores random battles and throws them at the player incessantly. In fact, the frequency of these battles often verges on the farcical, occurring every few seconds on average, and you'll be attacked without warning even in some towns and other seemingly "safe" areas. There hasn't been another game with this kind of encounter frequency since, well, Skies of Arcadia. Moreover, the nautical nature of the game frequently requires the player to undertake long journeys in a straight line over featureless oceans; there are few words to describe the combination of tedium and frustration that results when an entirely pointless and uninteresting twenty-minute journey is interrupted every few seconds by a random battle with exactly the same monsters. Those who found Wind Waker's aquatic travels in any way repetitive should give Suikoden IV a very, very wide berth indeed.
The battle system itself is uninspired. Perhaps the best that can be said about it is that battles are usually mercifully brief. There's little depth to the fighting and any customisation is mostly achieved by swapping characters in and out of your party rather than developing the ones you already have. Suikoden's trademark "friendship" system returns, allowing certain characters to buddy up for stronger attacks, but with only four characters in your party rather than the six seen in previous instalments, the possibilities offered by this system are substantially reduced. For much of the game, though, you'll barely notice, as most random encounters are so easy that your characters will barely break a sweat. Perhaps in recognition of this, the developers have thoughtfully included an "Auto" option, thus relieving the player of the need to actually take any part in most of the game's battles and providing even less reason to play the game in the first place. Grid-based ship battles initially appear to offer some much-needed variety but the strategic options are strictly limited and these sequences usually descend into two stationary ships repeatedly pummelling each other with cannonballs until one or the other finally sinks.
Even outside of battle, the game often seems to play itself. Lengthy dialogue sequences are par for the course in this genre but Suikoden IV chunters on interminably. Even when the game does hand control to the player, there's often little to do but run around trying to find out who you need to talk to in order to trigger the next scripted sequence. The first few hours of Suikoden IV are among the dullest of any game in recent memory as the player is frog-marched from one NPC to another to progress the plot. Any areas outside those strictly necessary to advance the storyline are blocked off, nobody apart from plot-critical characters has anything interesting to say and there's little in the environment with which to interact. It's retrograde game design at its most depressing. Later on the game does open up a little, and the opportunity to hook up with the various playable characters will appeal to completists, but it remains in thrall to its linear narrative throughout.
Offering little in the way of plot, characterisation or gameplay, therefore, Suikoden is forced to fall back on its graphics and sound in order to impress. Here, again, it's something of a mixed bag on both counts. Graphically, the game is bland: environments are flat and empty and there's little sense of scale. Holding down the Run button causes the main character to perform a constipated scuttle that has to be seen to be believed. Cut-scenes, however, are more impressive - well-directed, with an excellent depth of field effect and some surprisingly effective animation, they provide a sense of drama that's completely lacking from the rest of the game. Likewise, the surprisingly competent (if infrequent) voice acting almost makes up for the drab and uninspiring musical score. Almost. It's a sad day when the most inspiring thing you can say about a game is that the cut-scenes feature a nice camera focus effect.
Let's recap. Why do you play games? If you're looking for excitement, this game falls short. If you're seeking new experiences, this game offers none. If you want an exciting story, dramatically told, this game will leave you cold. If you're looking for interesting characters, this game's generic cardboard cut-outs will bore you to tears. If all you want is entertainment, you'll find it impossible to avoid the fact that vast swathes of this game are simply no fun at all. Suikoden IV plays like a game that's generations out of date, and it's so in thrall to established genre conventions that it never stops to think that it's failed in the basic purpose of a game: to entertain.
So, then. Suikoden: 4? Yes, sounds about right.