Who could have guessed that the current console generation's go-to platform for RPGs both old and new would turn out to be the humble DS? It's a hand-held, it's manufactured by Nintendo and the hardware leaves a lot to be desired in comparison to current-gen home consoles and even its most direct competitor, Sony's PSP. Nevertheless, the DS has amassed a substantial library of role-playing games that caters to all manner of niches, from the hardcore dungeon-crawler to the classic strategy-RPG to something altogether unique. So far we've seen titles from such heavy-hitting franchises as Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger and Phantasy Star, and now it's Suikoden's turn. Konami have brought their classic RPG saga to the DS with Suikoden Tierkreis, the first Suidoken game for a hand-held and indeed for a non-Sony console. Unfortunately for long-time fans, much of the Suikoden charm has been lost in transition, but for those who persevere there's a whole lot of fun to be had.
It's important to note that Tierkreis ("tear-crease" - that's German for "zodiac", by the way) does not follow the established canon of the Suikoden series. This is a spin-off through and through, taking place in a new world with none of the plot continuity or cameos from previous games that one might expect. In fact, the only note-worthy holdout from previous Suikoden titles is the focus on finding and recruiting all 108 party members (or "Stars" as they're known in Suikoden) during the course of the game; everything else, from the epic army-vs-army battles to the quirky mini-games to the hunting of magical Runes, is either streamlined to the point of being unrecognisable or removed outright. These changes aren't necessarily detrimental to the game as a whole, but I imagine most veteran fans will initially be very disappointed.
The game's story centres around the efforts of our protagonist and his ever-growing party to thwart the One King and his cult-like organisation The Order's attempts to unite the entire world under his domain. During the course of the game you'll see the alliances and motivations of the game's various factions shift and change, but this isn't the nuanced, politically-charged tale that's usually typical to the series; this is your standard cookie-cutter JRPG plot, complete with "religion is, like, BAD" message and plot exposition that's about as subtle as being stabbed repeatedly in the eye with a stylus. Granted, it's quite ambitious as far as cheesy JRPG plots go and contains a lot of dialogue, but the quantity of the story is rarely matched in quality.
The underwhelming plot is more than made up for by the sheer beauty of Tierkreis' presentation. The game uses a 2048 megabit cartridge, the largest on DS, and it shows. The graphics are simply stunning, utilising a mix of 3D character models atop rendered 2D landscapes, a la the original Resident Evil games. Characters and enemies are colourful and detailed with hundreds of frames of animation and, in a nice touch, you'll be able to see equipped weapons and items rendered on each character. Environments utilise several layers of parallax and shading to create shifting horizons, rippling streams and dynamic shadows, and the end result is fantastic. Stories often play out with fluid anime-inspired animated cut-scenes, and the game is replete with lamentably shoddy voice-acting. It's not all bad, but for every line of spoken dialogue that matches the rest of the game's aesthetic there are two lines (usually spoken by the main protagonist, by the way) that would sound more at home in a House Of The Dead game. Of all the elements that could have carried over from the original Playstation era, why did terrible voice-acting have to be the only one that made the cut? Thankfully you'll spend most of your time absorbed in the game's excellent soundtrack, which is dynamic and varied in both instrumentation and tone. No cheap MIDI patches here - this is epic, high-quality stuff, and perhaps the high point of the entire package.
Tierkreis' game-play could be described as "streamlined" from previous entries in the series. For one, the six-member party has been reduced to four; because the game often forces you to use certain members in your party for plot reasons you'll sometimes feel limited in who you can and can't bring, but for those not used to the six-member party it won't be an issue. Battles take place on the bottom screen and are what you'd expect of the typical turn-based RPG, with commands to attack, use magic, use an item or attempt to flee from battle. You can control the battles (and indeed the entire game) using either the D-pad or the stylus, both of which are simple and unobtrusive. The rune-based magic system of previous games has been replaced with something called "The Mark Of The Stars" and is essentially the tried-and-true MP system seen in every second RPG, which is less strategic but perhaps more suited to a hand-held RPG. In addition, almost all of the characters can team up with another to for devastating combination attacks and with 108 potential party members there's a lot of room for customisation.
Having 108 characters to play with might seem daunting, but this is alleviated by the fact everything about Tierkreis moves at lightning speed. Towns and dungeons are arranged as points on a map that are quickly navigated using the stylus. Because traversing the game's world is so effortless, trading in items and weapons is also simple and easy, so just by paying attention you'll never be short of money. Characters level up quickly, so when the story forces you to take a new recruit with you they'll be able to hold their own in no time . Similarly, most random battles (and there are a lot!) can be won in a matter of seconds, even without using the auto-battle function. Sadly, this has as much to do with the lack of strategy involved in defeating most enemies as anything else. Most enemies and even bosses will do little more than attack indiscriminately, and while there are a myriad of strategic options in terms of character combos and magic attacks at your disposal you'll rarely have to do more than just attack right back. The game's most tactical moments occur when your base of operations comes under siege from an enemy army; in these situations you're forced to assemble two different parties and use them to breach enemy lines from different angles, but even these moments require little more strategy than choosing to put heavy-hitters in one team and support characters in the other. This won't necessarily impact on your enjoyment of the game (it's actually quite refreshing to play an RPG that moves at such a brisk pace) but the absence of Suikoden's usual strategic tact is definitely noticeable.
Rounding off the entire package is a robust set of online features. Using the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, players are able to trade items, weapons and even characters with each other. Trading characters lets you try characters you haven't encountered on your own and any traded character gains experience as it would normally. Online-specific quests are also unlocked via Wi-Fi, either through trading certain characters or from Konami directly, which feature items, monsters and bosses only accessible via wi-fi. These features aren't available until about ten hours in, but if you're enjoying the game by that point then the online connectivity will feel like icing on the cake.
This is one of those instances in which a numerical rating just isn't adequate. On the one hand, make no mistake about it - this is a Suikoden game in name only. The vast majority of the unique game-play traits that made the Suikoden series a classic of the 32-bit era are nowhere to be found, and the mature, politically-themed storytelling has been cast aside for an utterly linear and generic "good vs bad" plot that anyone with a passing interest in RPGs has heard a million times before. Look past these failings, however, and one will find a safe, simple yet fulfilling RPG experience that boasts a good thirty-five hours of game-play and some of the highest production values of any DS game to date. It's not the game many of us might have hoped for, but for those without preconceptions Tierkreis is a game worth serious consideration.