Game type: JRPG
Time demand: Lots. The game itself takes up a good 60+ hours, with some fiddling about, and trying to recruit all the characters, but not as much fiddling as you COULD do. And this is unfortunately a save-point type game, so you can't just save anywhere or anywhen. Boo.
Platform: Playstation 2
Released: February 23, 2006 (Japan) / March 21, 2006 (U.S.)
What it is: This is going to be a bit odd reviewing the game itself. Because you see, I've been a big fan of the Suikoden series since the very first game, *before* the second one ever even was released, which gives me Geek Cred or something, I'm sure. But anyhow, this is the fifth game in the series, and since each game tends to be compared to its predecessors, it's odd to just take it as a separate entity. Especially since, unlike say the Final Fantasy games, these games are all taking place in the same world, with at least some vague similarities in gameplay, and with some things tying them together (like recurring characters, offhand mentions of things that happened in other games, etc).
So what I'm saying in a long-winded way is: I'll try to review this in and of itself at least to some extent, but there's also going to be some comparison to other games in the series as well. Sorry, and all.
Anyhow, for the new players: what this is, is a long-assed JRPG. It is very story-heavy, with (like most of the Suikoden games) a fairly heavy emphasis on politics, and a lot of exploration of the game world (basically each Suikoden game takes place in a different region of the particular fantasy world, sometimes in vastly different time periods). Aside though from the story and politics aspects, the best way to describe it may be as a "collecting" RPG. In other words a biiig part of the game is collecting various things, such as books to give you more info on the game world, foods of various types to have your chef cook up new dishes that give you boosts/healing, artwork that you can display around your castle, etc etc... oh yes, and character recruits.
See, this isn't one of those wussy games where you get a mere 7 or 8 party members and have to switch between them. Oh, no. In each of the Suikoden games, there are 108 Stars of Destiny, or in other words, 108 characters for you to try to get onto your side before some crucial point in the game. Yes, I typed 108. Now, not all of those are able to be used in battle, but quite a few of them are. And the others almost always have some sort of purpose - either used in army battles, or unlocking some new thing in your castle such as the restaurant, or a mini-game, or the ability to change your interface in some way, or a new shop. And in each game, recruiting all possible Stars of Destiny before a set point in the storyline does something special for you - usually unlocking the best possible ending, as opposed to a generally good end to game, usually with some major drawback. In fact, this was the case in all the games, IIRC, except 3, which actually gave you an entire new character to play through the events of the game as, in a seriously shortened version, to see things from their point of view. (Lack of more details due to spoiliness.)
Now, this particular installment takes place in Falena, a vaguely-Nilesque country that isn't quite Egyptian, but is based around its Queens and the Sun Rune that they guard, and is a country where the river Feitas allows travel throughout the country and influences a lot of the civilization, yadda yadda. So... psuedo-Egyptian-but-not-really. The main character is the Prince of the nation, which isn't as important as it usually might be since only women can inherit the throne and alladat, but hey. The Prince is a silent protagonist which you name yourself, which can work surprisingly well in some games with voice-acting and 3D graphics, but isn't handled as well in this one, what with him standing around just nodding like an idiot to people having long in-depth conversations with him, etc. And the protagonists for each of the games are still individual enough that it's not like each person can readily identify with them better because they can name them and choose their dialogue options... but enh. It's a small point, and a series staple, so I roll with it.
If you've played JRPGs in general you probably know at least partly what to expect from many of them, and this is fairly typical in its broad outlines. A long involved story, a world map with you trekking between various towns and dungeons, random encounters, experience and a currency that you can collect through fighting (potch, in the Suikoden games), items you get from chests and from fights, and fairly linear gameplay with an occasional chance to go off the rails and do some side questing/recruitment/exploring/whatever.
The game (like the series in general) really excels though in some of the extras it brings to the table. For starters, the combat is turn-based, but still more complex than that of, say, early Dragon Quest games or what have you. Your combat team in this game consists of up to six members, with up to four members on reserve either waiting to be swapped in if needed, or giving some sort of special effect (such as being able to smith weapons in between fights, healing a small bit of HP at the end of each combat round, and so on). You can attack, use a Rune, or you can perform special combination attacks that certain characters with some sort of link may have. The Prince and either his bodyguard or his sister's bodyguard, for example, can perform a special attack that has both of them attack the same foe, for slightly greater damage than usual. Or, of course, you can use an equipped item, or if you have an open equipment slot, take a new item out of your (large) inventory to equip it. You can "auto-attack" for a round to keep from having to input orders for each character, you can try to run away (or if the foe is much lower level, opt to let *it* run away), or you can try to bribe the enemy to leave you alone. Or once per fight you can use a special formation-based skill that all characters perform, taking up their round of attacks.
In addition to all of this, there are even more mechanics that you fiddle with mostly out of combat, but that affect the fights. Along with experience you also gain skill points after each fight, which let you increase your characters' skills at certain combat and magic tutors. This in turn lets you increase your attacking speed (possibly getting off multiple attacks in one round), increase damage you do, reduce damage done to you, increase spell power, etc etc. Some characters also have special skills all their own, such as Treasure Hunter, which raises the drop rate of items from enemies. Then there are the aforementioned battle formations - you start out with the standard three-in-front, three-in-back formation, but you can collect new formations by finding them in specific treasure chests, each of which can put different numbers in the front and back lines (making them more or less vulnerable), and giving certain adjustments to stats. And, of course, different skills you can use once per battle.
As for the fighters themselves, they improve as they gain experience and go up in level of course, or as you raise their different skills, and of course you can buy and equip different and better armor for them. Weapons however are different - each character has a specific weapon that they use and keep, which cannot be changed. You can and should, however, forge that weapon (for steeply increasing prices) at various smiths located around Falena, which greatly increases its attack power as the weapon increases in level.
And then there are Runes - Each character has a different number of Rune slots that may increase as they go up in level, but at max they have three - right hand, left hand, and head slots - and sometimes characters have a Rune in a certain slot that can't be removed, and certain runes can only go in a specific slot. Runes can give a constant effect, such as increasing your crit chances or number of enemies encountered, can have a combat-based effect such as giving a double-damage attack or chance of an instant kill, often with some drawback, or they can be spell Runes. Each character has a certain number of spells that they can cast per spell level (something like D&D in that sense), such as 4 level 1 spells, 2 level 2, and 1 level 3, and these are used up as you cast spells from any of that character's runes. Each character has different stats that effect magic use, and different spells-per-level as well, making them quite different as far as usefulness with the magical runes goes. Uses are recharged when you rest at an inn (or go past various plot points), and characters tend to gain more uses as they go up in character level.
This is already a long-assed post, so I'll try to be brief for the rest, but it's tough. Because combat's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to things that separate this game from other epic JRPGs. There is for instance the headquarters, which you get in each game in *some* form (usually, as in this game, a castle), and which you can explore, find different shops and services and characters in, etc. Alongside the normal combat there are Army Battles, which are a different type of strategy-based combat, and Duels which are one-on-one, rock-paper-scissors type fights, all of which take place at specific points in the story. There are, as mentioned in passing before, various mini-games. There's a trade goods system, which you can use to make extra potch. And, as mentioned before, there are a *ton* of things to try to collect and find, of all imaginable types.
In other words, the game has a lot of fun characters, good in-depth gameplay, an interesting and political story, and lots to see and do on the side. It is, in short (too late), fun.
There are, of course, downsides.
-Long Intro Is Long! No, seriously. No, I really mean it. On the bright side, this game has given me a *lot* more patience with games that take like 2 or 3 hours to really let you learn the ropes before they get started, because after you play Suikoden V which takes about 10 hours or more to really stop holding your hand and let you start doing stuff on your own (and doing the fun collecting and other things which are the meat of the series), well, a couple hours is nothing. Now that said, it's not like that's 10 or more hours of solid cutscenes or anything - you still get to explore different places, fight some battles, and so on in that intro period. But it's just a lot more linear than usual, and doesn't really get you to the very best parts of the game very quickly.
-The army battles. I've seen different opinions on this, but in my opinion, this time around they really could use some work. Those of you who have played previous games in the series probably already know that they change the army battle system around at least somewhat each time, and this time they went with a real-time approach, where you direct your little units around and they're constantly moving, and so on. This is a HUGE pain, because you'll often be fighting on like 2 or 3 fronts, and there's no way to pause to give commands - you have to try to catch them on the fly, and if another unit way across the map happens to run into the enemy at that point, you'll be wrenched away and unable to command the unit you really need to give orders to. Really annoying. Especially when you add in the fact that you can't just pre-create units and save them, but instead have to set them up each time you go into battle.
-The random encounters. Now unlike some people, I don't automatically hate random battles, but in this game the encounter rate is just way too high. It makes exploring anything hugely annoying. One of my main gripes with the game, really.
-Some of the characters could use more work. Usually there are carry-over characters between games, but this one takes place a few years before the first game in the series, so there isn't a bunch of cross-over, and the characters that DO show up from previous games don't tend to be the ones that I really liked. There are some new characters that I really enjoyed, though, so it's not a total wash. But I really would have liked to see more of those specific characters! One of the drawbacks to having soooo many recruitable people...
-The detective this time around doesn't do much as far as hinting how to recruit other characters - if you've already run into a character but haven't recruited them, you can have the detective search for their location, and even that doesn't always work. And with as obscure as some of the methods are to recruit these characters, that's seriously annoying.
-Needs moar Yuber (as in, any Yuber at all!)
There are probably more flaws, but those are the ones to spring to mind. And as annoying as some of them are... in a 60-hour, deep game like this, the positive definitely outweighs the negative, in my mind. And this review is already way long (didn't I mention that like 3 pages back?) so just one more thing... the comparison for those who *have* played along in the series before.
Now, if you're a long-time Suikoden fan... why don't you have this already? Seriously though, if you've played the games, especially the latter ones in the series, you may have been seriously diappointed in 4, and decided not to stick with it. Worry not! This game takes much more after 1 and especially 2, and is miles better than 4. (And IMO way better than 3 too, but that's much more a matter of debate.) Seriously, it does keep some of the improvements in later games such as the skill system, and adds formations and such, but it really goes back to its roots in terms of story length, depth and structure, the types of things you can collect and services you unlock, having a (relatively) normal castle, the combat system, etc etc freaking etc.
And that, I think, should do it. I know I've probably forgot to cover a ton of stuff, but yeesh, enough already. So if you wanna gab about the game or even have any questions, have at it in the comments.
Recommendation: If you like the Suikoden games but gave up before this one because of latter games in the series, definitely pick this up. If you like JRPGs in general and haven't tried this series, ditto. (I'd normally say you might want to start with the early ones in the series, but this one's a strong entry in the series AND a lot easier/cheaper to find, so...). If you like RPGs but haven't really tried/liked JRPGs, this one's one of the better ones out there... IF you can get past the long intro period, which drags its heels a bit.
And that should do it. Phew! (And I really do need to make myself a Yuber icon at some point.)