Suikoden is a little like a jug of milk. You get home from the store, and relax with a nice, tall glass of the frothy white stuff. A few sips down the hatch and it's good, but not quite hitting the spot like you expected. Something is missing….you bolt towards the kitchen, returning with a fistful of Oreos in your grubby little mitts. Now you're in frickin' heaven! A few days go by and the remainder of the cow juice is still sitting in your fridge, about to expire. Not one to waste, you chug down most of the rest, leaving but a small puddle sloshing around in the bottom of the carton. Despite what the date says, it's still pretty good, but not nearly as tasty as when you first bought it. It's been two weeks now and, coincidentally, you forgot to put it back in your refrigerator, so now all that's left is a curdled mess coating the darkest depths, like a grand tomb for all the forgotten calcium you neglected to consume. Repulsed by the odious smell and afraid that you might contract some horrendous disease just by standing within five feet of the damned thing, you don a hazard suit and employ a pair of tongs, seal the jug into a containment unit and dump it in the nearest river you can find. The next day, you go out and buy a new jug of milk, but dammit, you forgot the Oreos!
And that's how we arrive at Suikoden V. Though you, you smartypants reader, have probably long since noticed, it took me the whole paragraph to figure out what a bad metaphor that was. Still, it's a healthy and accurate facsimile for the ups-and-downs this oft-loved series has endured. The original was pretty good, the second a verifiable classic, the third a little less than fresh, and the fourth a downright embarassment and affront to the good will and support of long-time fans. As the analogy would imply, the fifth Suikoden title marks a return to form, but, sadly, no Oreos were included.
That doesn't mean it can't be tasty, though. Suikoden V has a great cast of varied and likable characters – a hallmark of the series and a testament to the developers who have to juggle the likewise trademark 108 Stars of Destiny, playable and support characters that you can recruit for your cause through the progression of the game. The plot is suitably Machiavellian; though it makes fair use of magic, strange creatures, and other mythical artifacts of the RPG genre, there is a respectable level of real-world intrigue and pageantry played out amongst the aristocracy of Sol Falena. Our protagonist, known only as "The Prince" (you get to name him whatever you want in classic silent-hero fashion), returns from the city of Lordlake as the game opens. Flanked by his bodyguard Lyon, the Queen's sister Lady Sialeeds, and one of the newest Queen's Knights Georg, The Prince relays his report to Her Majesty about the dire conditions in the now-arid village. You see, Sol Falena is a matriarchal country and so whatever Queen Arshtat says goes. Normally a just and kind leader, she's visited the power of the sun on Lordlake via a rune inscribed on her forehead that gives her the power to call upon that big, bright ball of gas lurking in the sky. Unfortunately, the rune's influence combined with the struggle between two opposing aristocrat families for control of the Senate has been driving her loopy, making her decisions less and less rational over time.
Other matters are afoot, though, as a traditional series of gladitorial games is planned to determine who will get to marry the young princess Lymsleia and, thus, become a member of the royal family with the accompanied power and prestige to boot. Of course, the aristocrats have schemes up their sleeves to win the coveted prize, which leads the nation into a downward spiral (I won't spoil how) that ends up with The Prince and the few who remain loyal to him seeking out allies to take their home back. It's really quite a fun and intriguing story, with characters who break stereotypes and act realistically in most situations. It's a breath of fresh air from the brooding angster and/or happy-go-lucky do-gooder that seems pervasive within the genre (or, rather, gaming as a whole). To put it simply, the characters feel a helluva lot more three-dimensional than you'd expect and it's a step in the right direction for the development of video game narrative.
There's a reason I've spent so much time talking about the plot, though, and as good as it is, it also points out one of the glaring flaws in Suikoden V's design: the prologue alone takes around 10 hours to complete. All of the events described above and more take up that time. Compelling it is, but at the sacrifice of action. You get few chances to play with the battle system during this span and, even when you do, the story often supplies you with over-powered characters that make fights a breeze. By the way, I'm defining the prologue by the amount of time it takes to actually reach the point where you can start recruiting characters for your army generally start indulging in all of the cool features (like building your HQ) that makes Suikoden, well, Suikoden.
Once you get to that point, the rest of the game is pretty good. The battle system is a little archaic in some ways, especially in its presentation (menus are a bland brownish color and items are listed with their amounts sandwiched right next to their names), but the overlapping turns make turns end quickly and the formation system lends enough strategy to the formula to keep you from groaning every time you encounter a random battle. It's really the key to winning, as well; you can fit up to six characters in your party at any given time and different combinations can unlock new techniques involving multiple characters. The various formations you discover throughout your journey can also provide your party with certain bonuses. There are also two other types of battle, duels that play out like a match of rock-paper-scissors and war scenarios with RTS-like mechanics that will pop up from time to time. The crazy fans that have stuck with the series through its ups-and-downs will no doubt be familiar with these conventions and it's also good to know that they've been restored after the last few iterations tried to deviate from the norm. That wouldn't be such a big deal if the devs hadn't failed miserably doing it.
Sadly, few lengths were taken to improve the graphics. The characters look nice enough, and their animations do a pretty good job of correlating the emotions they're supposed to be displaying. On the other hand, the environments suffer from basic geometry, simple textures, a washed-out color pallet, and a general feeling of unabashed stoicism. It doesn't look quite as bad as it sounds, but don't set the table for a visual feast. The music works, though, and the voice acting generally does, too. Considering there are so many characters with spoken dialogue, you get a few bad voices in the mix, but overall the voices fit and the performances aren't filled with all of the awkward fits and sudden stops found in lesser games.
Suikoden V suffers from a few other nagging problems that smudge an otherwise good presentation. The isometric camera angle is generally horrendous. You can zoom in and out, but walls, buildings, and other objects too often get in the way. That's not to mention that some exits/entrances are hard to make out, as well. As it is, Suikoden V would benefit greatly from a rotating camera. On occasion it will pan up to an overhead view, but I honestly can't think of any reason why they'd go with one like this. Adding to this frustration are some towns that are too large and labyrinthine for their own good. You know it's bad when you have to take a roundabout route on the east side of town just to get to an area that should've been accessible on the west side. There is no map to help you, either (there's one for the overworld but it's pretty poor, as well).
That's about it for the main complaints, though. Suikoden V by and large shines if you can get through the sticky parts in the beginning. It's a fun and engaging RPG and the overall length allows for enough actual gameplay to at least somewhat justify them. While Suikoden IV left the sour taste of curdled milk in gamers' mouths, the fifth in the series feels like a fresh, frosty glass of fun and excitement, minus the cookies necessary to make a wholly satisfying snack. Of course, none of this does much for the lactose intolerant!