Konami’s Suikoden series has had a weird existence among JRPGs. It never really meshed with its contemporaries because of how much it focused on politics and large casts over save the world plots and a group of friends joining together in a small party. The best games in the series had some maturity to them a lot of other rival series never had, and it never really found a sturdy fanbase to keep it as one of the big hitters, usually due to a lack of production values and subject matter that’s harder to sell to a wider audience. Suikoden IV was the first try to make a more traditional JRPG within the series …and it failed horribly because it was so bland that nobody could possibly like it. However, after Suikoden V, Konami realized the series needed a drastic change to keep up in the market. The series is now dead, so they sadly failed. However, their second attempt at trying to attract a larger audience was surprisingly strong. Suikoden Tierkreis is a far more interesting game then you’d think it would be.
Tierkreis begins in the tiny Citro Village, where we meet the main hero and get to name him, along with his friends Marica, Jale, Dirk and Liu. The group is out to hunt down wild animals in the plains, only to witness a forest with massive ruins to appear out of nowhere …and forget that said forest and ruins weren’t always there. The group ends up exploring the ruins and finds a strange book that gives the hero, Marica and Jale magical powers called “mark of the stars,” and the three suddenly realize that these ruins weren’t always here. The group eventually discover that there’s people from other worlds traveling about in theirs, believing they may be connected to the strange book they’ve found. More immediately, however, is the group’s discovery of the Order of the One True Way, a powerful cult that rules over a large part of the continent and believes the future is predetermined. The Order wants the book that the hero and friends have found, and the fate of the world itself may rest on who manages to get those books. The hero finally resolves himself to resist the Order, claims some ruins as the headquarters for his own warrior company, and starts recruiting people and making political pacts to prepare himself for war with the fatalists.
I was initially disappointed with Tierkreis‘ story because it establishes early on that the hero can’t travel to other worlds, meaning the multiverse set-up the game introduces is ultimately wasted. Or, it is at first. That set-up becomes the very core of the game after a few hours as the group begins to discover more about what’s happening to the world. Otherwise, Tierkreis‘ story is a good middle ground between Suikoden political skullduggery and more traditional save the world plots of other JRPG series. It’s well paced out, very meaty, and has a good chunk of violent politics at play. The Magedom segments stand out in particular, while later sections mix in some culture clashing. While the ultimate villain ends up being pretty lame and poorly defined, the Order itself works great as an antagonistic force. The plot really starts getting addictive around the halfway point, but two issues stick out. Dirk’s motivations for his actions later in the game are really, really weak and takes a lot of impact he could have had as a character. The start of the game is also one of the slowest paced Suikoden openings ever made, and that’s not easy to accomplish. They all use the early hours for story sake, but Tierkreis goes through several cutscenes, a few exposition dumps, an entire dungeon, a sequence in the Order’s capital, and eventually a strategic battle for the base before letting you recruit anyone to your side, the one thing you want to do as fast as possible in any Suikoden game. It’s always an issue in this series, but Tierkreis really makes you feel the time passing slowly.
The cast fairs way better. Tierkreis has a ton of different races and cultures to meet, and you get to recruit characters from all of them. A lot of these characters are more interesting than a lot of the main cast, like the mysterious Native American demon hunter Emuclaw, or the surprisingly educated and kind Lonomakua Pirates. It’s another case where you’ll want to go out of your way to recruit every character because you just want to meet more of these interesting people, not because of an obsession with the good ending (getting all 108 characters really only adds a scene that hints at something about the main character you probably already figured out). That said, some recruitments are really obtuse, even for this series, and have a lot of cutoff points. This is problematic because the game’s plot gives few moments of downtime where you can focus on recruitment, and missing a recruitment flag can be incredibly easy in a lot of these cases. Bring an FAQ with you if you want every character.
The party limit is surprisingly now four members instead of six. It’s not a huge issue, but it does feel odd that you can’t load up a huge party anymore. On the plus side, the amount of character customization is impressive here. Instead of powering up character exclusive weapons to improve damage output, you can purchase and equip new weapons, and several characters are capable of using shields or dual wielding. As you collect more of those strange books I mentioned earlier, the more mark of the star skills unlock for all characters. You also have a proper MP meter instead of a set number of spells, so using these powers is now much easier to do and highly encouraged. You can customize characters to best fit what the party needs more easily this way, able to make tanks, mages, healers or whatever you need with just a bit of tweaking. Of course, certain characters fit best with certain builds, but there is choice in which build to use.
Difficulty is solid, although the game can feel incredibly easy at points. Giant enemies and some bosses are dealt with effortlessly with a good party, and the only times I felt a significant challenge was in the early hours and the late game dungeons. Some of the enemies in the last dungeon are insane, but can be easily skipped over. Save points aren’t too close together either, so planning ahead with a healthy amount of items is always a good idea. The world map is handled with a simple area select screen, but mapped areas can appear in certain spots with their own enemies and locations to walk to. This makes some backtracking obnoxious, but nothing too bad.
Doing extra missions is a lot of fun. There’s some challenge found of these not present in the main quest, and a lot of them introduce new and interesting characters. The party missions, however, are obtuse. You have to send a group of characters in your company to accomplish a set mission, but it’s often hard to tell what the stat requirements are. This can make getting every star of destiny a pain, as some characters can only be unlocked through missions like these, and one character in particular only gives you one chance for success. Saving constantly is a must.
The graphics are odd. Very odd. The character portraits in dialog scenes are all very nicely drawn and colorful, and the menus are all very well designed, but the 3D models used in battles just don’t fit. Looking at them up close reveals strange features on character faces that aren’t on their portraits, and a weird artistic clash results. It’s like the models and portraits were designed by two entirely different teams. The soundtrack fares better with some strong pieces and a good amount of variety for every different nation and culture …but the voice acting is another matter entirely.
Tierkreis can’t decide if it has a good or bad dub for most of it. There’s a lot of good performances here, but some dialog had to be rushed and spoken in a very fast, condensed manner. There are moments where I felt like I was listening to the Micro Machines guy. Some performances, however, are just downright unsalvageable, and it’s almost always with major characters. A few of the animated cutscenes are painful because of it, and I was wishing at times for the game to just let me turn any voice acting off. Some of this is technical limitations with the DS, I understand, but other bits come more from inept talent or direction.
Ultimately, despite the faults, Suikoden Tierkreis works. It’s a good meeting of classic Suikoden and a refit for more casual JRPG players. The story is mostly strong and entertaining, the cast is fantastic, and the amount of customization is staggering. If you’re a Suikoden fan, it’s not a game to pass up. If your not a Suikoden fan, this is a solid place to start. It’s not a great representation of the whole series, but it’s a good bridge game.
Final Score: 7/10