Genso Suikogaiden Vol.2: Crystal Valley no Kettou came out a mere six months after Harmonia no Kenshi and wow does it ever show: Everything from the Luck Point system to the look of the text boxes, the button layout, the way the story’s once again split into four separate chapters… all of it’s absolutely identical to the previous game with not a single shake-up or fresh twist on an existing concept in sight.
And in this instance I am so happy that’s the case as there was nothing wrong with leaving Suikogaiden Vol.1’s underlying framework exactly as it was and the fact that the greatest difference is the addition of a small animated version of Domingues (a message-carrying bird) to the brief loading screens is just fine by me – when the base is as solid as this and the gap between releases so short anything more would have felt like a time-wasting meddle. After all this is supposed to be Suikogaiden Volume 2 and not Suikogaiden 2; it’s purposely designed to be the closing portion of a single story and this immediate familiarity with the game’s mechanics as well as the strong artistic consistency shared between the two games is exactly what a direct continuation like this needs – it feels as though you’re flipping over to the next chapter in the same book rather than starting a completely new one. Besides change for change’s sake rarely does any project much good and considering the snappy timescale and no doubt limited budget (Suikogaiden never, ever, feels cheap but I’m more likely to believe badgers play tennis on Mars than I am Konami gave a project like this lavish funding) “only” having to concentrate on producing the story and artwork was without a doubt the best use of everyone’s time.
This sensible repurposing of preexisting tools begins as the first game did with a little touch of extravagance: Vol.2 opens with yet another beautiful introductory movie filled with a thrilling selection of scenes from the game and the odd related shot that’s mostly just for dramatic effect (I thought the most egregious example was Futch’s adorable companion Bright looking far more like his later adult form as he flapped through the sky than his easily-cuddled in-game appearance), backed by an incredible arrangement of Suikoden II‘s “Withered Earth”. The music was so good I actually took a quick break from the game once the game reached the title screen so I could go hunting online for places to buy the soundtracks. You’ll be pleased to hear that just for once neither of them are rare or expensive second hand but my quick search seems to suggest they aren’t available digitally, so overseas fans will probably need to have the CDs from Japan.
Before beginning the final part of Nash Latkje’s adventure you’re once again given the option to import save data from another Suikoden – this time Suikogaiden Vol.1… and this save could contain your Suikoden II data… which could contain your Suikoden I data – a save file you potentially created six years earlier – and all of this can be taken forward into Suikoden III. The presence of the data does actually make a difference to at least one of Vol.2s alternative routes, showing additional scenes and fabulous artwork of a few famous heroes that are otherwise unavailable. Whether this is a thoughtful reward for the dedicated or a sharp poke in the eye for all the latecomers, less organised, and those who don’t have enough spare memory cards to keep a single save for over half a decade is somewhat down to how you view it and at the time of writing… I’m not sure where I stand on this one. I do appreciate them giving fans a real reward and creating an unbroken string of player-driven continuity from the very first game right through what was at the time the entire series (excluding the GBA title Suikoden Card Stories, which feels reasonable enough to me), but it still doesn’t feel quite right that Nash’s tale can never be complete without playing through two RPGs first, especially as Suikogaiden really isn’t going to be picked up by anyone who isn’t at the very least already extremely keen on the series anyway. Even so, as reliant as a few secret scenes may be on previous entries in the series and putting the odd reference to Nash’s adventures in Vol.1 to one side this second game finally feels like a story that’s found its own independent stride, helped in no small part by being set after the end of Suikoden II and making the forced insertions into historical events (as found in Vol.1) virtually impossible. The balance has been shifted in such a way to make cameos and references to earlier events – do try to keep still during Eilie’s knife-throwing show – now feel more like natural little occurrences rather than content lifted from another game, and Vol.2 even takes a few tentative steps into Suikoden’s future, laying early groundwork for certain things that would take centre stage in Suikoden III, such as the Grasslands region and the mighty Flame Champion.
For all the sweeping brushes with the wider political landscape and the country-consuming wars that usually define mainline Suikodens Vol.2 takes place on a much smaller and more personal scale, largely concentrating on a single location per chapter and one main event within it. This narrow focus makes the story crackle with energy and turns your full attention to memorable events such as stopping a faker’s evil scheme, fighting dragons, and facing Nash’s past head-on. The golden-haired ladies man (Sierra’s words, not mine – really!) is always on the move and always getting himself into some sort of trouble and when the situation calls for action the text does a great job of making it feel sharp and punchy, successfully conveying movement even when all you are actually shown is perhaps a single background and a static picture of a very large guard dog or maybe an image of a man raising his arm. The complete lack of early false ends or fail states here actually helps to keep the story flowing – it’s true that Nash will always (eventually) win no matter what decisions you make on his behalf but your choices never feel meaningless, the Luck Point system often forces you to compromise against your will and no matter what Nash ends up doing it’s bound to result in an exciting scene you can concentrate on enjoying rather than marking off as “Avoid or die” on a little checklist as you reload an earlier save.
When you get to choose, that is. I’ll admit I didn’t do any counting but it seemed to me that even when you include the extra scenes that only occur if you have imported save data, the ones that won’t unlock unless you have the Luck Points to spend on them, a special secret dragon-beating choice, and a few that only appear if you picked a specific previous option there aren’t all that many spots where you have a direct influence on the story, possibly even less so than in Vol.1 (it’s a shorter game too – my save file came in around the four hour mark, compared to the first’s 5hr30). It’s a little odd in hindsight to look back on the dramatic conclusion to Nash’s tale and realise the entire sequence doesn’t even try to throw in a token choice just to give the d-pad a little exercise, but as I was so engrossed in what was happening I didn’t even realise until the credits scrolled by it obviously didn’t matter all that much anyway. – and at least when you do have a say these decisions really will influence the course of the chapter and who you’ll get to meet along the way.
Suikogaiden Vol.2’s story is a marked improvement on the first half, a worthy conclusion to Nash’s introductory yarn, and proves without a doubt that Suikoden’s world is (or more accurately, was) more than detailed and entertaining enough to accommodate worthwhile stories that venture beyond all of the usual history-changing king slayers, bloody conquests over true runes, the Stars of Destiny, and all the other devices that mark a Konami RPG out as being specifically Suikoden – in the end Suikogaiden’s only problem is that there aren’t any more of them.