In some ways, Suikoden II closely adheres to the formula established by its predecessor. The gameplay, for instance, has remained
nearly unchanged. There are still 108 characters to be found, still six characters to a party; the magic is still derived from
Runes, which can be equipped on individual characters to allow them to cast certain spells a limited number of times; weapons
are still upgraded by simply paying a fixed amount of money. The only thing Suikoden II adds here is the ability to embed Runes
into the weapons themselves, thus increasing the weapons' power, and the ability to equip multiple Runes on a single character
(some can equip as many as three). The idea here seems to be, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." The gameplay was good in the
first Suikoden, so there's really no reason to change it just for the sake of changing it.
In other ways, though, Suikoden II vastly improves upon its predecessor. The story is not just better, it's one of the best stories
to be found in any RPG ever made. In the first Suikoden, you had to
spend a lot of time dealing with elves and dwarves and dragons and kobolds and such; in the sequel, those fantasy
elements are still present, but they've been greatly toned down, and the game is better off for it. The first Suikoden felt
like a fairy tale; the second Suikoden, for the most part,
feels like a very well-written historical novel that just happens to be about a fictional nation. There is none of the
goofy grandstanding typical of RPGs in this game. The goal is not to save the world. In fact, you don't know how big the world is;
the game takes place in a pair of countries surrounded by mountains and water, and for all you know, that may well merely be
a small part of the world. You merely play as a bunch of people who
fight for their homes against a ruthless foreign invader. This adds to the realism of the game, and ultimately is of much
greater substance than all those save-the-universe plots. (To add to the historical-novel feeling, the game uses real-world names
for its characters, like Camus, Hauser, Annabelle, Jess, and Viktor.)
Because Suikoden II is a direct sequel to the first Suikoden, there are numerous connections between the two games. A full third
of the cast from the first game shows up again. It's great to see everybody, and it's great to observe how they've changed in
between the two games. They have changed, but believably so; Flik, for instance, is now older, calmer and more confident, still
a fierce fighter, but more level-headed and laid-back, and makes a fine elder statesman for the rebellion. Some of the returning
characters are not on your side, which is a really simple twist, but when you meet these characters and talk to them about their
motivations, it's a genuinely shocking one. Other changes are purely visual: Valeria's new portrait looks great, and her
demeanour indicates that she's finally found herself. At one point, you even get to go back to Gregminster to meet President
Lepant of the Toran Republic, established at the end of the first game, except this time, you're talking to him tentatively,
as a former enemy might.
There are 108 characters in Suikoden II; the game can't possibly develop all of them, and so it's forced to paint in broad strokes.
But it compensates for the lack of development by showing a whole bunch of extremely distinctive, memorable character types.
For instance, there's Shu, your chief military strategist. He's even more brilliant than Mathiu Silverberg (from the first
Suikoden) was, but he lacks Mathiu's humanism; when you first meet Shu, he comes across as quite cold and cruel. However, once
he joins the resistance, he throws his whole life into it, the way only an extremely sharp-minded, calculating man can. It is
people like Shu that make revolutions. Freed Yamamoto is an honest retainer, the type of man who serves with unquestioning
loyalty; the game emphasizes his integrity by showing you that he lives in poverty, and that despite his noble status, his wife
has to do their laundry herself. The two Matilda Knights, Miklotov and Camus, are the embodiments of knightly chivalry, but also
possess some of the pride common to aristocrats. Hell, even the cook, Hai Yo, comes across as a man who genuinely loves his art
and knows all there is to know about it (you can even order a great variety of dishes from him).
The game's way of drawing you into its story is to make you lose battle after battle. For at least the first ten hours, the
characters do nothing but retreat. You find Viktor's fort and you think, hey, this is where my base is going to be, but no, you
have to abandon it. You go around towns recruiting characters, but then those towns are conquered anyway. You reach the capital
of your country, and it looks like you'll be making your last stand there, but no, you lose even that. Along the way, you are
haunted by Luca Blight, the prince of the invading country. This is a demonically malevolent man, but also a believable man:
he is extremely ambitious and haughty, used to having people grovel before him, and he seeks not to destroy the universe, but to
humiliate the neighbouring countries into submission. His contempt for ordinary people, the contempt of a king, is also quite
convincing. By the time you finally win a battle against this man, the game has hooked you for good.
And eventually, you do start winning; you even get a whole castle to yourself, like in the first Suikoden. As you recruit more
characters, the castle grows in size, and eventually, you can spend hours just wandering around in it.
Suikoden II is one of the few games to concern itself with such things as "themes." The game is about war, and thus its themes
are history, loyalty, and fate. They are reflected in the main conflict, which has to do with the relationship between the hero
(a deaf-mute protagonist a la Chrono Trigger) and his best friend Jowy. The game is very convincing in showing their friendship;
for the first several hours, Jowy is always at the hero's side. They even get sentenced to death together, which leads Jowy to
say the beautifully pointed words, "We have not betrayed our country. Our country has betrayed us." They escape death together.
But circumstances unfold in such a way that eventually, they end up on opposite sides. Because the game spends a great deal of
time building up Jowy as a positive character, and showing his good qualities, one can care about him, and one can care about
what happens to him. Even his wife, a minor character, is a believable person, and we can see why she loves him. The final
confrontation between Jowy and the hero, which takes place in the end-game, after the final boss has been defeated, is absolutely
devastating. Here we have two friends who genuinely tried their best to avoid fighting each other, who both hated war and sought
to end it, and yet they ended up as enemies. Jowy's lines here are the best parts of an already excellent script. At other points,
he, Shu, and others reflect on history and how it is perceived as it recedes into the past. These reflections have a brooding
air. The game doesn't answer the questions it asks, but it honestly thinks about them, and that by itself is very impressive in
a genre that all too often substitutes pointless platitudes for genuine meditation.
The game doesn't maintain this level for its whole duration. There's a subplot involving the return of Neclord, the vampiric
villain from the first Suikoden game; this is pretty unnecessary, although it does set the setting for the coolest battle theme
in the game. The subplot with Two River City, which concerns the strife between three different races (humans, flying "Wingers,"
and the dog-like Kobolds), is pretty forced, and is resolved a little too glibly to look believable. Some later scenes, which
describe how the enemy uses the demonic Beast Rune, are an unfortunate lapse into generic fantasy. Still, the game is so good
so often as to sit comfortably next to the all-time great RPGs. Hell, it's brilliant. I strongly recommend it.