Ah, Suikoden. One of my favorite series ever. I've written about it countless times. I've gushed about its intricately designed world. I've praised its down-to-earth, rustic atmosphere. I've lauded how its game design still stands out as unique in the RPG genre, even today. I've even gone so far as to catalogue a general synopsis of what makes each game's region stand out. Even Suikoden IV, the worst entry in the series according to basically everybody, was a game I enjoyed simply due to being able to see more of the Suikoden world.
A Game Unlike its Brethren
Suikoden III is the black sheep of the series. Everything about it feels different from the other four mainline entries. Gone is the silent, nameable protagonist. Gone is the tradition of obtaining one of the series' true runes at the start of the game. Gone are the fully controllable party members. Even the series' hallmark feature, base building, is very subdued in comparison to the other games. You don't really acquire your base until well over halfway through the game, and by that point you've likely recruited everybody already.
Most of the base building is done through the optional chapters where you control Thomas, who is perhaps the most bizarre departure from series norms in the entire game. Thomas is a demure, polite, and entirely ordinary young man who is, by far, the weakest playable lead in the game. It's as if he took the one non-combat trait of all of the previous and subsequent protagonists — bringing together an army at a castle — and ran with it, leaving the hero business to everyone else.
That's him on the right. Oh, Thomas, you lovable goofball.
The Trinity System
As for the main heroes, they're also a huge departure from series tradition. Not only do they talk (!) but there's three of them (!!) and you get to choose in what order to play each of their stories. Each one of their stories feels quite different from the others, and, despite playing out in the same land at the same time and covering the same course of events, the three of them rarely interact with one another until the three plotlines converge at the end of Chapter 3. For a modern comparison, the constant switching between characters is a lot like Yakuza 0.
There's an overarching story about an invading army and a mysterious masked villain, but Hugo, Geddoe and Chris each see very, very different facets of this story. Hugo is a relatively aimless young boy from the rural Grasslands who learns to overcome his prejudices as his story progresses. Geddoe is a middle-aged man who leads a unit of ragtag mercenaries. Chris is a renowned knight captain who struggles with the burdens of fame and the corruption within her home nation of Zexen.
Each character's story makes the same world feel entirely different. Hugo feels the most helpless, as a tribesman with a terrible temper who is consistently placed in situations out of his element. Geddoe doesn't even really feel like a hero, and more like a man who's just out to get his job done. Chris comes off as cold and pompous, and with a lot of the baggage that you usually see in people with affluenza. Yet all three manage to feel like distinct "good guys."
They may be atypical in several ways, but they circumvent genre tropes without resorting to the anti-hero cliche on the opposite side of the spectrum. Each lead character feels unique and fresh, even 13 or 14 years later. Even better, they all fit perfectly into the Suikoden universe, as if the side characters from previous games were suddenly thrust into the role of main hero.
My favorite part about the heroes in this game is that the story actually uses the traditional Suikoden setup to deconstruct player expectations. For you see, there was a typical Suikoden hero who managed to unite an army to fight the big bad army on the opposing side. You even get to name him. This "Flame Champion" is the real traditional hero of Suikoden III, but here's the kicker: his story was told 50 years ago. It's over.
Instead of playing the main Suiko storyline of kicking an evil army's butt, you're playing the aftermath. All three new heroes end up searching for this mysterious Flame Champion throughout the game, and he becomes the connecting thread that binds them together. Hell, even his design looks like the typical Suikoden hero, much more than any of the others do.
One Step Forward, Three Steps Back
Where the game succeeds in telling a compelling story in a new way, it also fails in several ways the previous games did not. Rather than having six controllable party members, you have three "sets" or "pairs" of fighters. You can only give commands to one in each pair at a time. It feels like a rather arbitrary limitation, and a massive step back from controlling an entire party in the other four mainline entries. Even Suikoden IV, which only allows four members at a time, feels better than III, because in that game, you at least have full control over each of them.
Konami also decided to experiment with enemy and ally placement on the battlefield, allowing some spells to hurt your allies if they're within range. It's annoying, and adds nothing but frustration to the experience. Suikoden III, unfortunately, has the worst battle system in the series.
The step down in game design doesn't stop there. Many of the fields and dungeons are either massive corridors or open fields that stretch on for several screens. I fell asleep several times while exploring the different areas in this game (and that is no exaggeration).
The army battles, another series staple, are known to change with each game, but their Suikoden III incarnation is a simple board game that just results in your units auto-battling the enemy units in a typical fight. In all of the other games, each army battle had completely unique mechanics entirely removed from the normal battles in the game. This leaves them feeling largely tacked-on, and, more importantly, not very fun to play. Thankfully, one-on-one duels are still in, and are the same as ever.
The music is also a huge step down. Almost EVERY track in the game is forgettable. Let me list the ones that aren't: Exceeding Love, Blade and Beautiful Grasslands. Exceeding Love is actually still the best opening in any game I've played to this day, managing to evoke a sense of tribal mysticism with a made-up language, playing over absolutely gorgeous animation that sets the tone of the game almost perfectly. So, while it compensates for the lackluster OST in a fairly heavy way... it's not quite enough to redeem the full package for me. Most of the music is, like the dungeon crawling and battle system, boring.
A Great Narrative Wrapped in Tedium
Overall, my return to this game has left me a bit underwhelmed. I still enjoy it, and I still think it has a strong plot with an amazing multi-PoV system that I wish more games implemented. Playing it again 14 years later, however, its flaws only stand out even more. The graphics are ugly, the sound design is bad, the translation is bad at times, and the game part of the game is rather underwhelming.
As a Suikoden fan, I still loved seeing more of the world. One of Suikoden III's biggest assets is in how it manages to feel like a direct sequel to the previous two entries despite being so different. Old characters return in new roles, and Harmonia, the world superpower only alluded to in previous entries, begins to take center stage for the first time.
There's many twists and turns and revelations that will leave long-time fans of the universe very satisfied. However, it comes at the expense of the rest of the game not matching up to its story. As seen in the picture above, the Karaya clan that Hugo is a part of was mentioned way back in Suikoden II. The character you see there, Lucia, is also in this game. In fact, Hugo is her son!
If I were to recommend any order to play the Suikoden games, my new recommendation would be V - I - II - III, with IV and Tactics as extra sidestories, if you are so inclined to play a massively disconnected set of prequels.
III is definitively the narrative climax of the series, and its appeal is in the story and characters and world. Marching through the mechanically superior games first will give you the attachment you need to appreciate this game for what it is.
Suikoden VI... maybe we'll see you continue the story someday. The series really only needed one more game to finish its loose ends. A man can dream, at least.
What do you think of Suikoden III? Share your thoughts in the comments below!