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Suikoden Tierkreis DS (2008, Konami). Grade: B+.
I've never played the other games in the Suikoden franchise. Back when I had my kidney stone, I was looking for a used game that I could play while waiting in the lobby of the hospital. I found Tierkreis (which is German for "Zodiac") at Book Off for 950 yen. It looked like the kind of RPG that I like to play, and it was under my 1,000 yen spending cap. After about 60 hours on it, I beat the storyline boss, viewed all of the end credit cut scenes, and am trying to figure out if I'm going to play it any further, or not. The problem is there's no New Game+ mode, so when you beat the game, that's it. If you missed a quest, or a recruitable NPC, you have to start over from scratch and try all over again.
(In the main base castle, talking to some of the recruitable NPCs prior to starting out on the last set of fights.)
The plot is fairly straightforward. The Suikoden franchise universe is huge, and Tierkreis was designed to give the player a chance to explore some of them all in one place. There are 12 spellbooks, one linked to each world. The villain is a religious leader called The One King. He has his minions tracking down each of the books, and when he gets them, he uses them to summon parts of each world into this universe. The result is that most of the people on that world are killed, while the survivors (specifically the Starbearers), have their memories altered to think that nothing's happened. One day, the hero (you give him his name) discovers one of the books, touches it, and gets his memories back. From this point, the goal of the game is to get strong enough to be able to recruit the other Starbearers into your army, before finally going up against The One King. There are a total of 107 other Starbearers, which is why the game took so long to finish. If you get all of them, it unlocks one extra cut scene during the end credits.
(The last dungeon in the game before facing The One King. There's a chest halfway up the stairs, and the hero is standing next to a save point.)
Your party consists of up to 4 characters at a time, and the only way to rotate other characters in or out of the party is to visit an inn in one of the towns. When you get into a town, you're given a location list, rather than being able to wander around freely on a map. Each location consists of a couple rooms or field areas, and leaving one takes you back to the location list. You can travel between cities on the world map, but those are also fixed locations, and you can't wander off the roads. Each location unlocks as you progress through the story, which usually requires beating new boss monsters. There's a calendar in the upper left corner of the top screen, showing 3 seasons of 30 days each (Sprout, Bud and Blossom). Certain monsters are only available during one specific season, as are a few of the recruitable NPCs. Traveling from one city to another takes a fixed number of days, which advances the calendar. Additionally, when you take a quest, it may have a day requirement (1 day, 5 days, 10 days, etc.), so to complete the quest you have to leave your base, visit another city, and then come back and check on the status at the quest center. (There are maybe 30-40 quests, but I missed some of them because I started the final story chapter without realizing that the quests would be closed off).
(Battle screen, with the party shown at the top. You can have 4 fighters in the party, plus one support character. The support provides special effects, such as removing status effects on one character at the end of each round, doing a little healing, or adding bonuses to physical or magical attacks.)
Fighting is turn based. You decide what each character is going to do (swing, cast magic, heal, defend or use an item), then both sides respond depending on everyone's speed stats. With 108 characters to choose from (you're forced to keep your hero in the party at all times), it's really more a question of whether you need a specific NPC for a quest, or to recruit someone else, followed by which ones you prefer to use in battles. Experience is divided between the survivors at the end of the battle, and then prorated by comparing your characters' levels to that of the enemy. The higher your level, the less experience you get, with a minimum cap of 1 point per enemy in the battle (three enemies, 3 points if your characters are too highly leveled). Generally, you go up a level every 1000 exp. Monsters drop healing items or trade items, and you can get healing items, armor or weapons from treasure chests in the dungeons. You get money by selling excess stuff in the shops, or through "trade."
(Hitting the enemy with a spell.)
Each town has different prices for the trade items (iron ore, flower petals, carrots), and the idea is to buy those items in the shops that have the lowest prices, and then travel to a different town to sell them at a higher price. Trade items have no other uses, but selling a certain number of one item (anywhere between 1 and 30 of that item) can unlock other things, such as new trade items (selling 30 uncut rubies will unlock polished rubies in the shops), armor (ruby armor) and weapons, or food sold in the cafeteria in your castle (there are 9-10 special dishes that get unlocked in the cafeteria when you sell enough food-based trade items, that offer better HP and MP recovery, or stat buffing during battles). Getting enough money is NOT a problem. While you can only carry 5 diamonds at a time, you can buy them for 6000 gp each in one town and sell them for something like 30,000 gp each in another town. It's just a question of how long you want to run between towns before getting bored. However, experience basically caps out when you get to level 63 at the end of the game, and none of the equipment boosts your strength or magic stats by more than 100 points. My hero capped at 700 hp, and something like 400 strength. My best magic user had maybe 500 mp. So, when you face The One King, you're going to be just barely strong enough to survive him, if you're lucky and you got the best equipment in the game. That was annoying.
(And landing a little damage).
Enemies may be weak or strong against specific attacks (slashing, piercing, smashing or magic), so you want to mix up your party based on the kinds of enemy in a given dungeon. As your party gets the next book in the story, it unlocks one more special ability for each character, which may be an elemental magic attack (earth, air, water, fire, plus a chance of a status effect like sleep or silence), healing, or party stat buffing. So, again, you may want to pick your party members for the specials they bring to the fight.
Inside your castle, you can talk to the other NPCs and learn a little more about the backstory, or to propel the main story forward. Certain NPCs have special functions (one lets you play all of the music in the game, another shows you the cut scenes, a third gives you the number of enemies you've fought or lists the names of the NPCs you've recruited) which can be very important to your survival. One character gives you your quests, and the rewards (money, or equipment) for completing them. The blacksmith sells new weapons and armor which are unlocked by trading. The chef sells you the special foods mentioned above. And the alchemist sells you special accessories, also unlocked by trading trade items. Now, the reason for mentioning all this is that when you get to the last chapter, you effectively lose access to the castle. So, if you're not finished with certain quests, you haven't unlocked all the trade items, you need to buy new equipment or healing items, or you are missing a recruitable NPC, too bad. If you want any of those, you either have to hope you have an older save game (there are only 2 save slots) or you have to restart the game from scratch. I'm VERY unhappy with that part of the game.
Anyway, this is one of those games where you MUST have a good walkthrough for locating all the recruitable NPCs, and I did find a decent one on gamefaqs. I missed about 10 quests, and two unlockable trade items. Fortunately, the trade items I did unlock gave me access to the best weapons and armor available for the characters I had in my party. And, I defeated The One King on my first try. The end of the game has about five stages for the final boss, and it takes a couple hours to finally beat the game, and the last save point is some distance from the last room. So, it's a pain to replay the battles with your current party, and you have to walk all the way out of the dungeon to get back to the last town in order to reform your party with other NPCs, but that is at least an option. However, if you don't have the best weapons and armor for other character classes (like the pirates, that throw anchors at the enemy, the dagger users or the riflemen), forget it, because you can't return to your castle to buy them. That means if your final party had a swordsman, a mage, a cleric and a club user, and those are the ones you bought stuff for, those are the classes you're stuck with for your party. Unless you want to restart the game.
The character designs are good, although the movement animation is a bit stiff and robotic when the characters are walking around. The artwork is good, the fields look great, and there is enough variation in the designs of the monsters to keep them interesting looking for quite a while. The game is very wordy, though, and I kept smashing the A button to skip through most of the dialog. I didn't bother listening to the voice acting or the game music, so I can't comment on either of those. There were quite a few cut scenes, and the animation on those was very good.
Summary: Suikoden Tierkreis is a decent RPG, if that's what you're looking for. It is a fun, if occasionally frustrating, game with a 60-70 hour game play. But absolutely no replay value. There are some interesting elements to the game, and it's nice not having to worry about having enough money. Recommended if you can find it used, cheap.