Trees And Relative Dimension In Space

20200818_135404Well this is it, this is the end of the line. Unless Konami choose to resurrect the series as a dead-eyed slot machine shadow of its former self (again)and they might – Suikoden’s tale comes to an end here. It’s all this game’s fault. If only it had been good enough to have been worth localising, or if it had been localised anyway and given overseas fans a chance to prove their loyalty for the series to Konami, then Suikoden might still be with us…

Let’s stop that train of thought right there. Genso Suikoden: Tsumugareshi Hyakunen no Toki wasn’t the final nail in Suikoden’s coffin. By the time this came out (2012) the series had already been effectively dead for years – and before that it had been limping along with the odd tepidly-received release with no clear vision of its own future. Whether you think this UMD contains the greatest RPG ever made or it isn’t even worthy to set your drink on we can’t frame it as Suikoden’s reaper – because it’s more accurate to call it Suikoden’s ghost.

And I was so sure I wasn’t going to like it. Tsumugareshi’s set not just in another time (again) but a wholly separate universe free from all the things that made Suikoden popular and respected enough to go on to fund an astonishing $3 million USD (and counting) Kickstarter twenty-five years later. All those links to the older games – the ones I once imported with glee – have either been deliberately severed or reduced to nothing more than a few generic concepts and musical motifs. Oh and there’s a lot of tree-based time travel going on in here too. But none of that makes it a terrible Suikoden game – it can’t, the game’s fundamentally too disconnected from the rest of the series to seriously be considered a Suikoden at all – and once you start to look at Tsumugareshi Hyakunen no Toki for what it is, rather than what it isn’t, you’ll find a decent PSP RPG hidden underneath the crushing weight of expectation that had been thrust upon the poor game’s shoulders.

This little PSP RPG makes a lot of good decisions that work to the strengths of the genre, the format, and its own tale; and as arguably all story-driven RPGs should this begins with the characters. The traditionally expansive Suikoden cast remains but the focus is often very firmly kept on just a small handful of them at any one time, with perhaps one specific person swapped out for another for a short while or giving you a small pool of inconsequential extras while retaining a core team. I’ve played enough RPGs with large casts by now to know what could be seen as extreme railroading is instead for both my and the story’s benefit: A writer than can guarantee who at least four or five of your total six party members will be is a writer who can give these characters real dialogue, interacting with the current scene as it plays out as well as each other, developing relationships that can directly reference earlier incidents or build up towards individual climaxes. When one of the game’s animated cutscenes pops up most – possibly even all – of the people you’ve brought along are visible within it as active participants, saving you from the awkward suspension of disbelief that comes from sworn allies vanishing into thin air at the precise moment common sense would tell you they’re needed most. I know I’m supposed to tell you that true choice is best option and wheel out terms such as “player agency” “customisation” and “flexibility” in its defence but in all honesty being able to look at a party member and not have that nagging feeling this lone scrap of dialogue is going to be their only character development before they’re relegated to a limbo existence as an opinion-free optional unit is the right decision for a game that wants you to care about an intertwined group of people spread across the vast expanse of time itself.

Ah yes, time travel. There’s a lot of it in Tsumugareshi, and it’s not all that clever. You’ll be strolling along in the present, whacking evil and doing just fine then… Oh no! A problem! Ah, but as the historically inclined person nearby will be quick to tell you, a hundred years ago this problem was not a problem at all! If only you had some way to travel back in time in convenient century-long chunks via a nearby magical tree… I am of course slightly (slightly) misrepresenting Konami’s PSP RPG here, but that’s more or less how these bumps in the road go – and to be fair this straightforward treatment is still more than a lot of episodes of Doctor Who ever bothered to do with their sentient time travelling police box, and that show’s been around for almost sixty years. The simplicity of these cause-and-effect patterns also prevents the plot from splintering into a thousand theoretical “What-ifs”, a scenario that would render all future drama ultimately meaningless as no sacrifice or friendship would ever be more than a butterfly-flap away from having never existed at all.

Visually there’s not always as much difference between the past and the present as you may imagine, a design decision that not only helps these separate streams of time feel like two parts of a coherent whole but actually has its roots in plain old reality – a shortcut home from school has been carved into the dirt by generations of children’s shoes, a modernised train station remains tied to the same old tracks, the bones of a traditional shop can still be seen under its freshly-painted facade. Even if we ignore this historical thread the environments still look fabulous: Never mind the often beautiful polygonal graphics the little PSP’s working hard to display or even the impressive 2D run cycles shown on the loading screens serving as a cute little callback to what I feel obliged to refer to as “real Suikoden games”; the artistic craftsmanship that went in to this title is superb and it’s clear from the beginning that a lot of effort and imagination went into Tsumugareshi – the people working on this cared. Watch our hero run through a field carpeted with flowers, attack a wyvern that’s all sharp lines and neon blue glow against shadowy skin, and fall to their knees after an enemy sorcerer’s swirled up a storm of ice crystals from the end of their magical staff. Gaze upon the immortal Emperor Lenepharias XIII as he rises from his throne, ornate flowing robes stretching all the way to the floor and framed by an elaborate golden flower-shaped ornament, radiating exactly the sort of ethereal intimidation a magical emperor should. You can find this artistry in every aspect of the game: The world map is presented as a beautiful watercolour – do notice the brushes and ceramic pots stained with paint on the side – that’s slowly filled in as you visit new areas. Everyone’s character portraits on the menu screen are delicately framed by woodcut-style leaf designs. Clothing styles can be traced back to a particular town or faction. There’s not a single thing you can point to in Tsumugareshi that hasn’t been treated with great care and attention to detail – including the gameplay, which hasn’t been left to lag behind these sumptuous visuals.

Areas of all types are short and sweet, most towns are shown from an overhead perspective with icons over buildings indicating various shops and other interactive points of interest, the world map marks off where you need to be with a big flag pinned to the exact location and even allows you to zip directly from one place to another no matter how far apart they may be. “Complex” dungeons are constructed along the same lines as their console-based forebears, being quite short and linear labyrinths with treasure chests waiting at most of their abrupt dead ends, and you can choose to warp back to the entrance or escape to the world map at any time you like with just a few button presses (so long as the story doesn’t demand your presence) – all of these conveniences almost sound like RPG heresy or *gasp* dumbing-down, but in practise they’re exactly the sort of features a typically time-consuming genre in portable battery-reliant form needs to truly flourish. Pick this game up and you’re immediately on the right track, always working towards something worth doing, and no matter whether you’re splayed across the sofa at home or grabbing a quick five minutes on your lunch break, on the train, or in any of the other places people once used PSPs, you’ve got a realistic chance of doing something productive in whatever fleeting sliver of free time you’ve got.

Battles against the local wildlife are triggered by physical contact with visible enemies roaming the area, leading to an engaging action-points-based combat system with the option to organise basic combos for an additional damage boost. The main difference here is the pool of points you have to spend on performing special attacks (also defensive stances and counterattacks) always starts at a set level and builds up as a battle goes on, encouraging you to use your full range of abilities as they’re needed because there’s no need to carefully spread your reserves out over a dungeon’s worth of encounters. Runes have been axed entirely in favour of consumable magic stones and potions although these are common enough (and can be created in acceptable quantities back at your home base) for you to only have to be aware your current supply levels in broad “I have a little”/”I have a lot” strokes. One rather sweet use of Tsumugareshi’s time travel theme is the way present day characters – including those restricted to helping out at your headquarters – can learn new techniques by chatting to or fighting alongside their historical counterparts, and these encouraging short conversations or battle time spent perfecting an ally’s skills take on a special sort of poignancy when you realise these willing friends are separated by entire centuries and have long since faded into legend once you return to the game’s present.

Tsumugareshi’s not all fighting and time travel, and anyone eager to help but not well suited to monster-slaying goes back to your ever-expanding home fort, broadening the available facilities within. These include meal-serving cooks, forges to upgrade your weapons and armour (these are sadly pieces of generic equipment given a boost rather than the personalised armaments of old), paid-for expeditions on your behalf that can bring back useful items and further funds, or challenging timed hunts for you to participate in yourself. As this place uses the same detached point of view and icon system as most towns do it never quite feels as immersive as the headquarters Suikoden fans fell in love with but nobody can sincerely argue with the thought behind it: These are still people you know offering things you need, and the game is made better – as a Suikoden and as an RPG in its own right – by their inclusion.

It’s not completely ridiculous to claim Suikoden as a whole has been harmed by this quiet shuffle into oblivion, and when viewed in the harsh light of the series’ lasting legacy Tsumugareshi’s a barely-relevant shadow of past glories; a game that largely sidesteps the series’ rich history and a disappointment to fans hoping to see the setting’s return to the forefront of RPG consciousness. But we also have to acknowledge that this game is hurt by Suikoden in turn: What could have easily been presented as a good quality standalone RPG is instead forcibly connected to a series with enormous expectations resting on its name and then unfairly positioned as that previous work’s last stand. Tsumugareshi never stood a chance: It couldn’t – and probably wasn’t allowed to – continue the ongoing series as it had been left by Suikoden V, but it also wasn’t given the creative space and publisher confidence to blossom into a truly fresh start with some real energy behind it either. Suikoden didn’t deserve a death like this – and Tsumugareshi Hyakunen no Toki didn’t deserve to be born under such a long shadow either.

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9 thoughts on “Trees And Relative Dimension In Space

  1. Unlike many other fans, I would not have minded if Suikoden would have gone on as stand alone RPGs. With the only connecting tissue being that they have 108 characters, play during a war torn time, and include runes in some way.

    Tsumugareshi always looked like the more interesting one of the two when stacked next to Tierkreis to me. Too bad the PSP was pretty much completely dropped on Western markets by that time, maybe otherwise we would have gotten it. You’d think there’d be more talk about the game, even as an JP exclusive, but it existing at all seems to be mostly ignored or hand waved away.

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    1. I think it all comes down to Konami really: Suikogaiden and even Card Stories felt like they had a point to them even if they didn’t really fit in or play like the others, and so it was easier to judge them on their own merits. Whereas this suffered under the same problems Operation Raccoon City did for Capcom – it’s a good game, just not the one fans were asking for and put out at a time when the publisher didn’t seem to care either way.

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  2. Thanks for this Suiko-series, was looking forward to it! I honestly had no idea this game even existed; I thought Tierkreis (which I couldn’t get into at all) was the only thing after 5. It’s a shame, this one looks and sounds a lot more impressive.

    Been following the Eiyuden kickstarter and it’s been pretty heartwarming to see the amount of support for it. They’ve had some considerable hustle with the stretch goals too, starting the recruitables at 100 and then sneaking in stretch goals to get closer to 108 (even though it’s not the same universe or related at all etc etc). They’re now at 109.

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    1. You’re very welcome, thank you for reading!

      The Eiyuden Kickstarter’s doing everything we all hoped it would and more, isn’t it? I can’t wait to see how it turns out!

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  3. Interesting! And good point about RPGs in portable format. I’ve always been prone to playing handhelds at home as often as out and about, but I gather a lot of people don’t do that, and in that case a long-form game like an RPG does need to give some thought to making itself work within the constraints of a ten minute bus ride. It hadn’t occurred to me before. Good point, well made.

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    1. I do appreciate it when portable games remember how they’re going to be played, it makes a real difference for time-starved people like me :D

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  4. I’m definitely planning to revisit this game at some point. I remember enjoying what I played of it, all those years ago. You make a great point about it being a decent RPG if it didn’t have the shadow of Suikoden over it.

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  5. For the longest time I thought this was just that port of Suikoden I & II. Only later I realized it was its own new game. But I definitely thought the same thing you mentioned at the end while reading your post. This game would have fared better if it hadn’t had the Suikoden name attached to it. But seeing the direction Konami in general went afterwards, it probably wouldn’t have made any difference. At least with this the series did get a better send-off than the Breath of Fire series. lol

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