Love 'em or hate 'em, console role-playing games have amassed a following willing to live and die by plot-twisty storylines, convoluted combat systems (tagged with esoteric names like "Active Time Battle") and - more often than not - lithesome, blue-haired heroes and the spunky female sidekicks who love them.
The long-running Suikoden series (the release of Suikoden V marks the franchise's 10th anniversary) has been guilty of all of the above at some point in its illustrious (and not-so-illustrious) run - but its kicker has always been your ability to gather the support of up to 108 characters. Some can be placed in your party as playable, while others will lend their support in non-combative ways.
And that, along with Suikoden V's involving, lengthy (like 50-plus hours lengthy) kingdom-in-chaos-and-you're-the-only-shining-hope storyline, are the game's hooks. Hooks that'll satisfy those in the "live-and-die-by-RPGs" camp willing to plod through the game's ridiculously slow-paced, hard-candy shell of an introduction to get to the deliciously chewy center. Seriously, the game's first eight to 10 hours really feel like the Great Wall barring entry for anyone who's hemming and hawing about signing on Suikoden V's dotted line.
While it's good to get to know your main character (the plucky prince of a fictional, medieval-style continent named Falena) and his motley entourage of bodyguards and royal relatives, we're pretty sure it could've been done with much snappier pacing. But once you break through and get to the meat of your adventure (after a few dramatic plot twists that we shan't speak of here), RPG-savvy veterans' hearts will melt as the game takes you on an addictive trip of character-gathering, castle-building and some serious meat-and-potatoes power-leveling.
All of this melds into a satisfying mix of Suikoden's trademark blend of straightforward, fast-paced battles with six party members, one-on-one duels (timed rock-paper-scissors affairs with weapons) and army-scale sea and land battles. The big battles even work in some real-time strategy elements, making for mad skirmishes where you'll try to outmatch the bad guys' cavalry units with your archer units (to name one example). That said, the large-scale fights are mainly fluffy side-dishes that aren't nearly as deep or customizable as they seem. But the one-on-one duels and regular small-scale battles balance the action nicely, and help keep the pace clipping along without giving you that dreaded "oh please, not another freakin' battle!" feeling.
But c'mon. Suikoden is mainly all about the obsessive-compulsive scrabbling for all 108 "Stars of Destiny" - which means yes, there are literally 108 characters to meet and recruit to your cause. And Suikoden V manages this while avoiding the boring pitfalls that have nagged recent entries in the series. And having characters that you'll invest time and care into (thanks to some snappy dialogue and plenty of personality) certainly don't hurt either. Yes, you'll have to drag your feet through a tedious chunk of time initially to get to the good stuff. But the good stuff? Pure, undiluted role-playing lightning in a bottle.