Even among RPGs, a misnomer genre descended from dice-aided storytelling guided by dense tomes of lore differentiated by setting, games that truly put a well-developed setting first and focus on how the player characters work in the world around them are vanishingly rare. Whether because the usual tropes are shoved into the framework of an existing setting, or because elements of the setting are simply afterthoughts, it’s exceptional to find a case where the setting and story work symbiotically. The biggest and most consistent of these exceptions is Suikoden, Konami’s long-running and distressingly ignored RPG series. Taking elements from a classical Chinese folk story, each game takes place in a small region of a larger world, following the tale of a hero’s encounter with the True Runes, and subsequently the story of how they are swept into gathering the 108 Stars of Destiny and changing the fate of their nation.
Now that said, the first Suikoden is not terribly good in the use of setting, and really concerns itself more with trying to establish many setting elements at once rather than using them in an effective way. Little is done to flesh out the history of the Scarlet Moon Empire, or the Toran region in which it lies. Many of the True Runes, central to the series mythos, are introduced, but only the protagonist’s Soul Eater really impacts the story in a meaningful way, for all the Gate Rune does factor into the story towards the end. As such, our main concern here is looking at the central themes within the storyline itself, and seeing if they remain with the series going forward.
The narrative follows a fairly standard rebellion plot at the outset. Terrible oppressive empire, starving masses, lawlessness abounds. Our hero is son of an imperial general, Teo McDohl. Trying to integrate into the family business, he is given command of the household’s personal retainers and sent on minor missions. Ultimately, your friend Ted is forced to reveal that he carries the Soul Eater, a True Rune which the empress, Windy, has been seeking for centuries. You flee in the night, but your best friend Ted is grievously wounded and begs you take the Soul Eater so it can’t fall in Windy’s hands. Outlaws, and already disillusioned with the Empire from your short tour of duty, you easily fall in with rebels led by Odessa Silverberg.
Odessa sends you on a series of missions, first to aid bandits you earlier arrested, then to deliver blueprints for a secret weapon to the Liberation Army’s factory. Odessa herself accompanies you, and much commentary is made on how easily young McDohl can inspire others to follow him. So it’s no surprise that, as you return, your headquarters is attacked and Odessa is killed. She asks you two favors: to dump her body in the river and hide her death, and to obtain the help of her brother Mathiu. As a tangent, this is the first time we see the Soul Eater in action, as it gains a spell following Odessa’s demise. While this is spelled out later, essentially the Soul Eater seeks to devour the souls of those close to its bearer to increase its power, which manifests as gaining a new spell every time a major NPC dies.
From this point, the plot is divided into very discrete arcs, and simply hitting the highlights in each is the easiest way to go. You go to recruit Mathiu, who has retired as a strategist and become a school teacher. The Empire tries to drag him out of retirement, threatening his students. Realizing people will die regardless of his own involvement, he takes up Odessa’s mantle… on the condition McDohl acts as the leader. He believes this, not his own leadership, was Odessa’s final request. Obviously, you agree.
You go to recruit an influential merchant, Lepant. He refuses to see you, and you sneak into his house. There, it’s revealed his wife has been taken hostage. The situation escalates, and you end up saving her and securing his allegiance. He tries to leave his wife behind, and she has none of it. Joined by bandits and other survivors of the imperial raid on the old headquarters, you have the troops to pose a serious threat to the imperial garrisons. Fate intervenes, and an elf named Kirkis requests you save his village. McDohl scouts ahead and discovers the imperial general of these lands has obtained a new weapon, the Burning Mirror. You go to inform the dwarves he stole the weapon, and are forced to prove a human could survive their vaults. Proving this, the dwarves immediately accept responsibility and construct a counter-weapon. In the interim, the elven village is burned down, but survivors appear followed by the Liberation Army. You crush the imperial army, and invade the fortress to take the general’s head. The general, however, has been possessed by a black rune, and coming to his senses begs you take his head as atonement for his crimes. You can choose to do so, but instead it’s better to request his service instead. He laughs at the prospect, until you remind him that the emperor he swore allegiance to would never command him to commit such atrocities. He joins, hoping to meet the emperor and put him back on the right path.
Emboldened by victory, you march on the domain of Milich. His stronghold, however, is protected by poisonous flowers, and the doctor capable of producing an antidote is quickly spirited away to prison. Using forged papers, you sneak in and release him, only to be caught at the entrance by Milich. To this point in the game, your servant Gremio has refused to leave your side, by which I mean he literally forces himself into the party during every mission. When Milich releases deadly, man-eating spores (… just roll with it) and locks the gates, Gremio quickly shoves the party deeper into the prison and shut an interior door. He locks the party away from danger and sacrifices himself, imploring McDohl to “always follow your heart”. When the Liberation Army finally frees you, you immediately prepare the antidote and march on Milich’s castle. He too has been possessed, and eagerly joins you to confront his emperor.
At this point, your castle is assaulted by Teo McDohl. Your forces are no match for his armored cavalry, until you realize that the secret factory may have survived, and the weapon they produced should be enough to pierce the armored troops. Securing Odessa’s legacy, you defeat your father’s armies. He challenges you to a duel, and emerging victorious he praises how far you’ve come and hopes you’ll continue to follow the path you believe in before dying. From here, you seek to recruit the Warrior’s Village, which has been swarmed by the forces of the vampire Neclord. Much backstory happens in this arc, but the important thing for our purposes is the warrior village itself. Most of the village is trained in the way of the sword, and it is tradition that each warrior name his blade after the one he is most dedicated to protecting. Unsurprisingly, the two playable characters we meet here name their blades after love interests. Anyway. Viktor, who throughout the game has been sort of the mouthpiece for silent main McDohl, has sworn revenge on Neclord for basically zombifying his entire village to amuse himself. It’s very much a “but for me it was Tuesday” moment. Viktor takes up a new blade, the Star Dragon Sword, to kill the vampire, and everything turns out quite nicely.
At this point, you feel you need a serious boost to attack the remaining domains of the empire, and seek the aid of the Dragon Knights. You quickly discover the dragons have been poisoned, and need to create medicine for them. You head to Seek Valley, where Windy ambushes you with Ted, somehow alive, begging you return the Soul Eater to him. You refuse as Ted speaks to you through the rune, asking your forgiveness for everything he’s done as he asks the Soul Eater to take his soul. Thwarted, she retreats. Meanwhile, an apprentice Dragon Knight has gone to the imperial palace to get another ingredient for the medicine. He gets away, only for his dragon to be mortally wounded. Through some miracle, he comes out alive, and comments that he hopes his dragon died protecting him, as the alternative is too hard to bear.
Two more imperial generals remain, and the follow much the same pattern as the first. However, after assaulting the second, Sonya, it’s revealed that your army has been betrayed, and her fortress is set ablaze with your party and Mathiu still inside. You make it, but Mathiu is seriously injured. From here, you assault the capitol’s defense force, led by Ain Gide. Defeating his armies, he personally stands guard at the gates of the palace, forcing a duel. As he says, “if I betray [the Emperor], who does he have left?” He falls, exclaiming he will “go ahead”, and you fight through the palace to the gardens, confronting Emperor Barbarossa. He employs his rune to become a great gold hydra (because sometimes Suikoden wanted so hard to lay down mysteries for the setting at large) but still falls. Windy berates him for his failures, at which point she tries to claim the Soul Eater one more time, but is rejected by the souls of McDohl’s friends. Barbarossa tells her it’s over and declares he loves her, even knowing she was using him. Unlike his generals, he was never possessed and still helped her commit atrocities in his empire. He says “It was my only mistake. But it cannot be forgiven. As a result of my mistake, I lost my empire. McDohl, what kind of land will you create in its stead?” At which point he leaps from the balcony, Windy in tow.
Now, this is unrelated to the themes specific to Suikoden, but is important to the series as a whole, so here we are. Being Suikoden, the central conceit is the idea of gathering allies, specifically the 108 Stars of Destiny. Should you do so before the final assault on the imperial capital, the blind seer Leknaat will appear and congratulate you. Key party members, however, note that one of the stars is missing, and at this point Leknaat uses her Gate Rune and the power of the 108 Stars to bring back Gremio.
Having boiled down the script a bit, it’s fairly clear that Suikoden is about loyalty. Different sorts of loyalty, to be sure, be it love, friendship, fealty, family, and so forth, but loyalty nonetheless. But more than that, for every instance of loyalty we also see an accompanying obligation. Serving the emperor in the face of increasingly erratic demands is loyal, confronting him and fighting against him so he might change his ways is a duty. But most interesting is McDohl, and the souls residing in his rune. Ted asks him take on the heavy burden of the Soul Eater itself. Odessa tasks him to lead in her place, and create a free country in place of the empire. Gremio and his father ask only that he follow his heart and hold to his convictions. While these are all compatible throughout the game, in the end there’s a choice to be made. He can’t stay with the country he founded and still hold the Soul Eater’s secret. Is it right to stay among friends when his right hand is continually plotting to take their souls? Fittingly for the series as we go forward, the duty he accepts is that of his friend. He takes the Soul Eater, and leaves the land of his birth to keep it secret. While Gremio’s loyalty won’t be denied supposing you revived him, he otherwise sneaks off in the night and hopes for the best.
Not a lot of substance to this one, I’m afraid, but Suikoden just isn’t very complicated. However, stay tuned for the next game in the series, which will be much more interesting.