Pokemon Pearl: Sinnoh, revisited

Gee, it seems that I can’t get enough of good ol’ Sinnoh, can I? I have at least ten Pokemon games waiting in line to be played, and instead of humouring them, I’m waltzing back to Sinnoh for the third time in five months. Well, blame this on Suikoden Tierkreis: after having endured 30 hours of narrative absolutism at the hands of that game, I desperately needed to grind. No more overstuffed storylines, no more cutscenes by the truckload: just pure, unaltered grinding—preferably in a cozy and welcoming game world, for I’m not in the mood to tackle brand-new hardcore grindy games right now. (Blame that on the upcoming winter.) Compensation, I cried thy name—and thy name was Pokemon Pearl

Coming back to Sinnoh was quite a pleasant experience, shall I say. I didn’t discover it very long ago, but it already feels like a very familiar place—not as familiar as, say, Koholint Island in Link’s Awakening, but definitely more so than I expected for a game world that I only crossed twice beforehand. I can only imagine how wonderfully sweet it must be to play Pokemon games as a child and have the nostalgia factor added to the mix—especially since Pokemon regions are so welcoming and comforting to start with, which was not exactly the case of Koholint Island. 

The feline run

My initial plan for my Pearl run was a Glameow Solo Run: I was thrilled by the idea of clawing my way through Sinnoh with that aloof purple feline and couldn’t wait to see it expand to massive proportions at the lv.38 mark. Alas, that was not meant to be: unbeknownst to me, that plan had no chance of materializing, for Glameow is a Pokemon that can only be recruited in the latter stages of the game—on Routes 218 and 222 to be more precise. Teary and disappointed, I had to wave my Glameow Solo Run goodbye and settle for a compromise. The said compromise took the form of a Shinx Solo Run, which would evolve into a Shinx/Glameow Duo Run as soon as I could get my hands of the coveted purple feline. This seemed like a neat endeavour, and I dove into it with gusto.

Once again, I gave my trainer the fitting name of Pearl—I think we have a pattern here, indeed—and chose a Piplup as my starter, with the idea of using him as a convenient HM move wielder after the recruitment of my Shinx. I was rather surprised to discover that my over-excited tsundere best friend was not named Barry in that game like he was in Diamond and Platinum. Instead, a totally different selection of names was available, none of them sounding pleasant to my ear. I proceeded to give him the name “Barry” and made an interesting discovery in the process: if you hit the OK button while no name is written in the name selection screen, the game attributes the name “Diamond” to the guy. I thought this was a nice Easter egg, and since my own trainer was named Pearl, I decided that this was a very fitting name indeed and kept it. Out of curiosity, I conducted the same experience with my copies of Diamond and Platinum; and it turned out that the little chap is given the name “Pearl” in Diamond and “Diamond” in Platinum. Nice touch, Game Freak. (Incidentally, this trick also works for your trainer; but the names attributed are classic, run-of-the-mill ones, which is far less interesting. Oh, well.) 

Everything went smoothly and according to plan: I recruited a Shinx on the outskirts of Sandgem Town and cruised through Sinnoh with that electric feline, taking down one Gym Leader after the other. I expected this run to be very similar to my Piplup Solo Run of Platinum, but things unfolded quite differently in the beginning. The Grass-based Second Gym in Eterna City that had been such a pain with my Piplup turned into a total breeze with my Shinx; on the other hand, the Rock-based first one in Oreburgh City, which was mere gravel on the road for my Piplup, was a painful trudge for my Shinx. Of course, this all boils down to elemental complementarities, and I’m quite delighted to see that I’m starting to identify and remember them more clearly after three leisure trips through Sinnoh. 

When I finally reached Route 218, I recruited a Glameow without too much hassle, to my great delight. I tried to start battling with the lithe feline right away, but the fights were annoyingly difficult compared to the walk in the park they had become with my overpowered Shinx—who, by that time, had evolved into a proud Luxray. I thus amended my plans once more: I equipped my newly recruited Glameow with an Exp. Share so that she would gain levels without having to fight and forged ahead with my pleasantly strong Luxray. The newest version of my plan involved trying to tackle the Elite Four with my two felines together, and then with each one of them individually if the duo attempt worked out. I reached the Elite Four headquarters without a hitch and started clawing and scratching my way through it, confident that the Lv.68 of my Luxray and Glameow-turned-Purugly would give me a good edge over the Elite Four ‘Mons, who were hovering around the Lv. 58 mark. Alas, the edge was definitely not sharp enough: after a couple of painful failed attempts, it became abundantly clear that my two felines were not strong enough to conquer the Elite Four together, let alone single-pawedly. Some grinding was most definitely required if I wanted to become the new Champion; but the thought of grinding in Victory Road was so painful that I cowardly decided to give up instead. This taught me that a Solo Run can be carried all the way through only if the involved ’Mon garners all the experience from the fights. My Glameow didn’t take part in a single fight until I reached the Elite Four heardquarters, so my run was technically Solo until then and went quite smoothly; however, the experience share that my Glameow reaped from fights sapped the progression of my Luxray, enough so to compromise my chances of tackling the Elite Four right away and without extra grinding—whether it be with one feline or the two of them. The effects of that experience sharing were actually quite drastic: while my Piplup had reached a lofty Lv. 90 when we crossed the Elite Four Headquarters’ threshold in my Solo Run of Platinum, my Luxray and Purugly were only at a mere Lv.68, which was definitely not enough to breeze through the challenge. Well, be it. It was a well-learned lesson that I will put to good use in my next Solo Runs of Pokemon entries. 

Dipping a toe in Nuzlocke waters

After that interesting confirmation that there is indeed no room for two in a Solo Run, I was still in the mood for some Pokemon action. I thus decided to try my hand at the Nuzlocke challenge, which had been tempting me for quite some time. I dutifully stuck to the classic rules and added a few extra ones for good measure:

—Following the Trainer ID last number rule for the choice of my Starter: 1-3 for Grass, 4-6 for Fire, 7-9 for Water, 0 left to my discretion.
—Having the Battle style on “Set”—which I always did anyway in order to shorten battles.
—Not using Battle Items and not making my ’Mons hold Berries—which I usually forget to do anyway.
—Not running away from random battles.
—Not healing during battles, except if the opponent uses healing items, in which case I could use a similar one—including Berries. 

I was initially planning to rely only on Pokemon Centers for healing, but I gave up as I realised that this would make me lose a tremendous amount of precious time during the levelling-up process by forcing me to go back and forth constantly between town and field—not to mention that such a choice would render my ill-earned cash totally useless. I was considering doing the opposite, i.e. not using Pokemon Centers and relying solely on healing items; but the idea of navigating the menu to heal every ’Mon individually felt a little too close to a chore for my comfort, and I finally decided to make this first Nuzlocke run lenient as far as healing was concerned and to rely on both healing techniques. 

And so began my Nuzlocke epic. Randomness dictated that I should select a Piplup as my starter, and I happily complied, before making my way through a Sinnoh that was suddenly much less welcoming and forgiving. I failed to capture any ’Mons on Routes 201 and 202 and was nearly wiped out by the first two Trainers I met on Route 202, whom I fought in a row without healing in-between: when I emerged from that ordeal, I was literally hanging on to my last HP point. True story, folks. Overjoyed and incredibly proud of my amazing survival feat, I made my way to Jubilife City without too much extra hassle. But the elation was not meant to last: as soon as I set foot in town, my Piplup was wiped out during a fight against a pupil at the Trainer’s School; and since I had failed to recruit any other ’Mon, my trainer blacked out—in Nuzlocke words, game over. Gee, what an epic failure! 

Of course, I was not going to give up that easily: my competitive streak had been stirred, for better or worse, and I started another playthrough right on the spot. Randomness dictated once again that I should start the game with a Piplup, and I’m definitely starting to think that I share some kind of mystic connection with that Water Starter. At any rate, I dutifully complied and this second run unfolded in a more successful way: I managed to recruit two ’Mons on Route 201 and 202, survived the Trainer School in Jubilife City, earned the first Gym Badge in Oreburgh quite easily thanks to my Piplup and reached Floaroma Town. It was in this lovely blooming town that I took the ominous decision to give up on that run, despite the fact that it was sailing quite smoothly. The reason was quite simple: with a Piplup, a Starly and a Shinx, my team was virtually a copy-paste of the one that I recruited in my run of Diamond. This all boiled down to chance, obviously, but the results were the same: I ended up with a team that I already knew fairly well, which was not what I had signed for. Had I started with a Chimchar or a Turtwig and recruited a Bidoof and a Kricketot instead of a Starly and a Shinx, the face of my run would have been changed drastically; and to be honest, I contemplated erasing my file and starting anew a third time. However, I had gotten my fill of Sinnoh already, after a 20-hours-long Solo Run and two attempts at Nuzlocking my way through, and I decided to pack up and leave that lovely region for the time being. 

That being said, these small bites of Nuzlocke Challenge were absolutely scrumptious and left me craving for more. This is a tremendously fun and compelling way of playing that radically transforms the whole Pokemon experience and gives a vibrant new intensity to that usually indolent series: danger looms around every corner on previously quiet Routes, every fight threatens the very existence of your run, and the first encounter in every new area suddenly becomes an event of huge magnitude in lieu of the barely registered occurrence it usually is. I could feel a brand-new shiver of anticipation every time the familiar battle music started after I set foot in a new Route and a vivid pang of disappointment when the coveted ’Mon broke free from the Pokeball. Oh, the thrill! This was a fantastic experience, and I’m most definitely going to try the Nuzlocke Challenge with a different set of Pokemon games in a not-to-distant future. 

So, after having scoured Pearl to my heart’s content, I’m now bidding Sinnoh farewell. It will probably be a while before I go back there: I’m now eager to move to new pastures and to discover other Pokemon regions, and I have more than enough material to satiate these exploration urges. I cannot say for sure which entry my gaming instinct will elect next, but I’m confident that my next Pokemon run will happen quite soon indeed. For now, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Suidoken Tierkreis (2): The most mediocre gameplay of them all

After I abundantly praised Tierkreis’ amazing narrative in my last post, it’s time to pore over less glorious aspects of the game. I won’t waste time introducing what these aspects are: if Tierkreis’ narrative was indeed stellar, its gameplay is the most mediocre, dull and uninspired piece of game mechanics I’ve seen in a long time. Not only does this gameplay have the fearsome power of boring the player to tears, but it also manages to completely wipe out the exploration thrill and the glorious sense of freedom that make RPGs so compelling in the first place. This kind of offense has become all too common in story-driven J-RPGs lately; and while it used to affect mostly home console RPGs, Tierkreis sadly shows that portable RPGs are no longer safe and protected from this infamy. I strongly feel that story-driven J-RPGs could greatly benefit from a different approach to both gameplay and narrative, and I’ll expand on that once I’ve given a good grilling to Tierkreis’ mediocre gameplay. (This intro may sound a tad negative, but fear not: this post will end up on a positive note, like most of my posts. After all, I did say that I loved this game, didn’t I?) 

Could it be any more boring? 

I was utterly shocked to discover how little actual gameplay there is in Tierkreis. The game’s storyline is a pure gem, that much is undeniable, but it’s also invasive and overbearing to the point of becoming oppressive. It steals the gameplay’s thunder almost constantly: Tierkreis is first and foremost a massive narrative feast that incessantly shoves cutscenes up your retinas and never lets you dive fully into the gameplay. To make matters worse, you hardly ever do something truly meaningful in that game: not only are the gameplay segments pitifully and frustratingly short, but there are also of the most boring nature imaginable. Here’s a revelatory example, which I will call “The Great Hall Bore”: you come back to your headquarters after a so-called “mission” —i.e. a scripted segment loaded with cutscenes—only to be welcomed by yet another cutscene informing you that something has happened and that you must meet your troops in the Great Hall to discuss the situation. You’d think that after having interrupted the flow of the gameplay every thirty seconds with cutscenes during the last half-hour, the game would have the courtesy to take you directly to the aforementioned Great Wall, wouldn't you? Heck, no! It saves that most boring task of crossing half of your headquarters and climbing three floors to reach the Great Hall for you, the player. And guess how many times you have to meet your troops in that accursed Great Hall throughout the game? Here’s a clue: way too many. 

Since I mentioned the missions, I might as well expand on how dreadfully dull most of them are. The recruitment missions usually involve going to a certain place, talking to the coveted character and then coming back to your headquarters with a new member added to your roster. Does it sound boring? That’s because it is. But there is worse: some missions are purely and simply devoid of any content. Despite the fact that their descriptions seem to involve performing an action, the only real thing you have to do to fulfil them is to let a given amount of time pass. And how do you make time pass? By running around on the word map—which, en passant, is nothing more than a lacklustre drawing with a few locations pinpointed here and there, on which the Hero runs following dotted lines. The whole process is so insipid and lifeless that I nearly want to cry in misery. 

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the dungeons are utterly soulless too. They are not even full-fledged dungeons to start with: let’s rather call them “these rare areas where the game lets you regain control at last”. No, wait a minute; such a name could make them seem like a relief of sorts, which they are not the slightest bit. A more fitting name would be “The areas you have to trudge through to trigger the next cutscene in line”. Yes, that is exactly what these places are. For one thing, they are anaemic, each of them containing just a couple of screens. For another, they are poorly designed, abusing dead ends and uninspired camera angles and boasting a level of utter emptiness that no RPG should be allowed to endorse nowadays. To add insult to injury, they have an infuriatingly high random encounter rate—undoubtedly to hide the fact that they are so microscopic. The crossing of such areas should provide moments of much-needed freedom that let you explore to your heart’s content and experiment with your characters; instead, it is the most dreadful chore of the game, a painful trudge filled with random encounters every three steps. What a missed opportunity, indeed. 

All this dullness is already bad enough, but this is unfortunately not the biggest failure of Tierkreis’ gameplay. Wait! I hear you cry out, what can possibly be worse than a boring gameplay? Well, I’ll tell you: a boring gameplay on rails.  

Do I even need to be there? 

To put it bluntly, Tierkreis is a game that basically plays itself, using the player as a cutscene-triggering lackey. 

Since its very inception, the holy realm of RPG has been governed by an implicit golden rule that goes as such: the player must feel strongly that their actions are shaping the narrative. The storyline has to unfold exclusively through the player’s input, following the pace that suits them best. All RPGs, even the most linear ones and the ones that abuse backtracking, strive to carefully craft the illusion that the Hero, controlled by the player, is writing history as buttons are pushed and quests cleared one after the other. Or rather, nearly all RPGs: for Tierkreis shatters this golden rule to pieces and chooses instead to very openly coerce the said player into the narrow path dictated by the storyline, to an extent and with fervour that I’ve never encountered before—and that I fervently hope never to encounter again. Indeed, this game gives you the most unpleasant feeling that the storyline is writing itself and dragging you along the way. You’re basically at the game’s beck and call, jumping when it tells you to jump and clearing whatever boring task it throws at you; and you’re not doing that because the game manages to make you feel that it’s your duty as the hero, but because you simply don’t have any other choice. To make sure that you do its bidding, Tierkreis has a bunch of unfailing constraining techniques that it uses profusely. Lo and behold, here’s the accursed list: 

—The composition of your party is often predefined, to an extent that’s way too large for comfort. I can understand that the Hero’s presence is mandatory, but does the game really need to force one or two other unmovable party members on me, occupying two or three of the four slots available and severely curtailing my opportunities to experiment with characters? As you’d expect, this all boils down to narrative consistency, which is just frustrating. Why give me the opportunity to recruit so many characters if I can’t use them to my heart’s content?  

—The locations on the world map appear only when the storyline dictates that the time is ripe to explore them. Before that, the map basically looks like a blank slate. This is bound to kill any thrill of curiosity and wonderment that could have been born in your soul from staring at remote places with exotic names and looks, and it’s incredibly patronizing to boot. Give me a break, Konami: I’m not an innocent child that needs to be surprised and entertained by the sudden appearance of new locations—especially when the said locations are so few and so utterly generic to start with. 

—The game prevents you from returning to some places at some points, on the basis that the storyline doesn’t require you to go there or forbids you to do so. I really, really hate when games do that. Am I the bleeping Hero acting on his own free will here or not? Oh, wait: actually, I’m not. I’m the game’s puppet, and that’s the whole problem. 

—Last but certainly not least, perish the thought, Tierkreis often forbids you to leave an area until you’ve cleared what you’re supposed to do there. I can’t find the words to express how much this infuriates and maddens me. This is insultingly patronizing, and the scolding comments made by your party members when you try to leave these accursed areas only add fuel to the fire of my wrath. To increase my ire even more, Tierkreis uses a totally archaic system of save points and is utterly stingy with allocating them. Can you see the offense looming on the horizon? Heck, you guessed it: some of these places are entirely devoid of save points, which forces you to clear them right here and now lest your progress be lost. (Can you hear my teeth grinding like crazy?) 

I loathe Tierkreis’ patronizing ways; I really do. But there is more to abhor: not only does the game actively coerce you into doing its bidding, but it also makes sure that any endeavour to rekindle your freedom is utterly pointless. And what better way to do so than by attacking one of the most prominent symbol of freedom in RPG and sucking every purpose out of it, turning it into a mere futility? You guessed it, ladies and gentlemen: they made level-grinding useless. Tierkreis taunts the player with its random encounters, making them believe that the virtually unlimited avenue of level-grinding freedom will be preserved at least, and then pulls the rug from under their feet by shoving in their face how totally futile and pointless it would be to even think of grinding for levels. See for yourself the extent of this game’s callousness: 

—Predetermined progression: The various magic abilities wielded by your characters are not acquired as they gain levels like in any other RPG under the gaming sun; instead, these abilities are granted to them when some milestones in the storyline are reached, regardless of the characters’ levels. While this design choice ensures that all members of your large roster remain properly balanced, it also totally kills any motivation to level-grind in Tierkreis, trampling your last hope of getting a relief from the ubiquitous, all-encompassing storyline. 

—Unwinnable boss fights: Is there anything more discouraging, disheartening and pointless than a boss fight that you have no chance to win? Such occurrences shouldn’t exist in the first place. Ever. This is the supreme negation of the very act of gaming and the most potent offense that a game can commit. I don’t care that it serves a narrative purpose; if I have no chance whatsoever to win a boss battle despite my level 99, then don’t let me fight in the first place and serve me a cutscene instead, you stupid game. Jeez, it’s not like you’re not soiling yourself with cutscenes already. 

In the end, Tierkreis’ gameplay is an epic failure. As I played its short and boring segments, I often felt more eager to reach the next cutscene in line than to keep doing what I was doing; and as a whole, discovering the narrative was by far the most pleasant part of the game. This is just so wrong. This is something that should never happen when playing an RPG. No matter how excellent Tierkreis’ or any other RPG’s narrative may be, it should under no circumstances be more enjoyable than the gameplay. Ever

The saddest part is that despite all my ranting and fuming about it, Tierkreis’ gameplay is not even mediocre per se. It is actually a fairly competent gameplay that has the supreme misfortune of being rendered mediocre by the overwhelming presence of the narrative—or, more precisely, by its lack of cohesion with the narrative, which is an affliction that struck many J-RPGs of late and that I will now examine more closely.

Can I please get my freedom back? 

Indeed, what is Tierkreis at its core? It’s a bunch of old-school RPG features plastered with a complex storyline. Or, if you prefer, it’s a complex storyline peppered with old-school RPG gameplay segments. Such an assemblage may look promising seen from afar: after all, one could think that pairing a good, solid old-school gameplay with a rich storyline would give us the better of two worlds, right? Alas, it’s not that straightforward. 

Tierkreis is a perfect example of the struggles encountered by J-RPG as it moves from its old-school roots to more modern templates, meandering and getting somewhat lost in the process. Nowadays, many Japanese developers feel compelled to include incredibly intricate storylines and character development by the truckload in their RPGs. Such narrative extravaganza is told through dozens—if not hundreds—of cutscenes that nearly always give the feeling that they’re barging into the flow of the gameplay and severing it in the most unpleasant way. The reason why they feel like intrusions and hindrances rather than welcome developments is quite simple: in most cases, either due to laziness, shortage of funds or lack of imagination, developers put together an old-school RPG gameplay and then shoehorn their narrative into it. This produces games in which the gameplay and the narrative are totally disjointed and sap each other rather than support each other, and Tierkreis is the perfect encapsulation of this process. Such a marriage cannot work, due to the very nature of the old-school gameplay based on grinding, exploration, turn-based random battles and the like: this kind of gameplay was designed to maximize freedom and give room for experiment, customization and micro-managing. As a result, it cannot accommodate a complex narrative, which is by nature encompassing, directive and invasive. This is a lose-lose situation if I ever saw one: the player cannot fully enjoy the level of freedom they expect from the gameplay because they are constantly pushed around and interrupted by the narrative, nor can they fully enjoy the narrative, which is too stretched out and intercut with gameplay segments to be truly gripping. And let’s not even talk about the pacing: Tierkreis and all its story-driven cronies won’t let you fall into the comfortable and slightly obsessive rhythm generated by grinding, nor will they let you relax and allow yourself to be carried away by the story. 

This incapacity to design a harmonious and seemingly organic blend of gameplay and narrative, in which the two complete each other rather than cancel out each other, is the biggest failure of story-driven J-RPG as a genre. Fortunately, it’s not an irreversible one: with a good dose of patience, brain-racking and gusto, it should certainly be possible to design a story-driven RPG in which the gameplay and the narrative feel like a natural extension of one another. In fact, some games already achieved that goal: Riviera masterfully tied the outcomes of its storyline directly to the way the gameplay is performed, and my beloved Avalon Code is blessed with a gripping narrative that modifies the gameplay in major and incredibly original ways. We can only hope that more games will follow their example in the future and that cutscene-laden J-RPGs with disjointed gameplays will slowly disappear, and be ultimately seen as nothing more than meanders that the genre needed to go through to find its way. 

There is even some hope for Tierkreis, actually. Sure, it’s already out there and cannot be altered, but considering it from a different angle can help one ease their way through it. If you approach that game as a massive visual novel with old-school gameplay segments, it suddenly becomes much more palatable. In fact, I could nearly believe that this was Konami's plan from the get-go and that Tierkreis is indeed a visual novel based on the Suikoden universe rather than an RPG—if not for the fact that it is far too long, does not have different routes and features still a trifle too much gameplay to pass for a visual novel. Oh, well.

Despite being three hours into my second playthrough of Tierkreis, I won’t clear it now and will instead shelve the game for the time being. I want to preserve what little replay value it may have, and the 30 hours I spent on my first playthrough left me sated already. A summary of my run would be pointless, since Tierkreis is the kind of game that unfolds in the same way for all players: suffice it to say that I ended up with 48 Stars out of the 108, and it was already much more than I could use. 

So, I’m done with Tierkreis for now. I loved that game, I truly did; and despite hating its patronizing ways, I would still recommend it to anyone who love their RPG stuffed with a compelling narrative and charismatic characters. I will probably come back to it one day, if only to gain a new insight into the storyline; but for now, I’m moving to freer pastures with a huge sigh of relief. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Suikoden Tierkreis (1): The most stellar narrative of them all

Suikoden… I wonder: am I the only one who tends to read the name of this game series ‘SuiDoKen’ instead of ‘Suikoden’? I’m not particularly dyslexic, but this just feels so much more natural, somehow… 

With this disclaimer out of the way, let’s talk a bit about that tongue-twisting series, shall we? Developed and published by Konami, Suikoden—or Gensou Suikoden as it is known in Japan—is a loose adaptation of the Chinese novel Shui Hu Zhuan, reprising most notably its enormous roster of characters and remolding said roster in imaginative and fanciful ways. The first installment was released in 1995 for the Playstation, and all entries ever since have taken place in the exact same universe introduced by that first game. The Suikoden series is most famous for its unflinching narrative continuity: characters return from one installment to the next and the overarching narrative and mythology of Suikoden’s world is expanded and fleshed out as games are released. This makes the series a hard sell for players who missed the first entries; on the other hand, thanks to dear internet, it’s always possible to catch up and absorb the knowledge one needs to understand and enjoy these games to the fullest. The series’ most prominent feature is undoubtedly the so-called ‘108 Stars of Destiny’: 108 warriors with various abilities that you can recruit to help you fulfill your quest. As you may rightfully imagine, recruiting all 108 Stars grants you some bonus and affects the end of the game in a positive way. Unlike other features of the series that I won’t enumerate here, the 108 Stars are present in every single Suikoden game ever released, including the spin-offs. 

The spin-offs, yes. Despite being the kind of series that should normally only allow for canon entries, Suikoden actually counts two spin-offs:  the Japan-only Genso Suikoden: Tsumugareshi Hyakunen no Toki for the PSP and—you guessed it—Suikoden Tierkreis, released in 2008(jp) and 2009(eu/na) for the Nintendo DS. Suikoden Tierkreis does not take place in the canon Suikoden world, but rather in one of the numerous parallel worlds that constitute the multiverse in which the series takes place. As a result, it features exclusive characters and does not reintroduce a single face from others games in the series, which makes it the perfect game for a Suikoden beginner. Also, ‘Tierkreis’ means ‘Zodiac’ in German, and that’s how I will refer to that game from now on for the sake of brevity. 

I mentioned not so long ago that I preferred my RPG to be light on the narrative side, and it’s really like the universe wanted to take the piss out of me by suggesting me to pick up that game, for Tierkreis precisely belongs to that modern brand of cutscene-laden, story-driven RPGs that became the dominant trend in the home console RPG landscape in the last years. Such games are not exactly favourites of mine: while I don’t outright dislike them, I usually need a ridiculous amount of time to sink into them and enjoy them fully. Tierkreis was no exception, and it took a good eight hours littered with fleeting thoughts about quitting before I became really engrossed with the game and eager to pursue the adventure. And dear, don’t I regret my perseverance! Tierkreis is a brilliant game that I absolutely loved. However, I didn’t love it at all times, nor did I love all of it: in fact, it’s fairer to say that while I love it to pieces, I still detected a good number of blatant flaws. This game is the poster child for J-RPGs’ difficult evolution these last years, as I will profusely show in my next post. For now, let’s focus on Tierkreis’ abundant goodness, which lies in its epic, awesome narrative—rightfully so for a story-driven RPG.

Tierkreis will make me do something that I don’t usually indulge in, namely analyze an RPG’s storyline and spoil it profusely while I’m at it. However, it’s hard to proceed otherwise: not only is Tierkreis’ narrative the game’s unwavering main focus, but it’s also undoubtedly its greatest strength, as I mentioned just above. By ‘narrative’, I obviously mean the main storyline, but also the characters and the whole atmosphere of the game, which are all craftily woven together to create a encompassing experience that is mesmerizing and very much worth discovering. Let’s now explore this most compelling narrative, shall we? 

Like stars in the sky

First comes the atmosphere. It’s gorgeous, enticing and mesmerizing, and the graphics are mostly to thank for that. Tierkreis is the perfect example of a game that uses great graphics not to show off and pander to the latest visual trends, but rather to craft a beautiful world bound to make the player gape in awe at every corner—had I followed my impulses, I would have stopped playing every two minutes to grab my camera and this post would be littered with dozens of pictures. Tierkreis’ world is not only beautiful but also highly evocative and unique, thanks to a large degree of stylization. Of course, once again, there is a modicum of cliché in that game world, which features obligatory areas like a good ol’ desert and a snowy mountain and occasionally recycles some scenery elements; but that doesn’t detract from the fact that Tierkreis’ world is a highly polished and fleshed out one. Konami went to great lengths to make sure that this game world felt as real and consistent as possible: for instance, not only do the characters who join your side can be accessed and talked to at any given moment, but their lines of dialogue change according to the latest events. The cardboard cutouts used in most cutscenes are very well drawn and show a pleasant variety of emotions, and the animated cutscenes are completely hand-drawn, which gives a lovely old-school feeling to the game.

Next are the characters. To put it simply, these characters are totally, entirely, completely endearing and loveable. I've not been that fond of characters in an RPG since I played Avalon Code and had a minor crush on Duran, Nanai, Heath, my faithful Spirits and a couple of others; however, that was only a few characters in a larger cast. In Tierkreis, all the characters are incredibly endearing, despite being so numerous, and that’s in no small part due to the fact that they are so carefully and lovingly fleshed out. To craft such a large roster of characters, each one with their individuality and distinctive features, is a narrative tour de force if I ever saw one, and massive kudos must be handed to Konami for that. Not only do these loveable characters all have their own personality, backstory and relationships, but they also manage to avoid being complete J-RPG clichés, which makes them even more loveable. Don’t get me wrong: there is a modicum of anime/J-RPG tropes there, but they are far less potent than in your average J-RPG. Take the Hero: instead of being an emo amnesiac with a ridiculous haircut, he’s a well-grounded young man with generic short hair, who also happens to be a natural born leader belonging to a small brigade devoted to defending his village. The obligatory female sidequick does NOT have the obligatory crush on the said Hero and is not a tsundere trope on legs, but rather a cheerful young woman who’s also part of the aforementioned defense brigade. The same thing goes for all characters: they incorporate ever-so-slight cliché elements (the Hero may not be amnesic, but he was adopted as an infant and no one knows about his origins, which adds the required dose of mystery to him) yet manage to stray from them sufficiently to feel fresh and original—and most importantly, realistic and believable to a certain extent. This may be the key to their lovability: while it is often hard to relate to an amnesic character with an emo streak embroiled in a quest that they don’t fully understand, especially after having met heaps of such characters in countless J-RPGs, a bunch of determined people from all walks of life trying to save what they care for is much more likely to strike a sensitive chord in the player, especially the older one.    

The character goodness doesn’t stop there: not only are Tierkreis’ numerous characters totally loveable just by virtue of their careful crafting, but most of them can be used in battle, which gives you even more reasons to love them. Nearly all 108 Stars of Destiny can take part in fights, either as members of the main team or as support members, which gives Tierkreis a completion vibe similar to what you can find in the Pokemon series. Of course, it’s nearly impossible to enjoy the full cast on a first playthrough, and many of them have similar abilities, which led to some criticism: Tierkreis was accused of trying to artificially inflate itself by throwing heaps of similar and/or unusable characters at the player’s head. However, I feel there is no reason for criticism here: collecting the 108 Stars of Destiny is a fixture in the Suikoden series, but it’s not mandatory to complete this game or any other Suikoden game, so fake longevity is averted here. I see this as a giant buffet of characters, from which you can pick up the ones you love the most; and that choice is not all about abilities, but also about the characters’ personalities, backstories and looks. Any game that gives you a wide array of choices in any department without treading on fake longevity territory is good in my book; this is basically synonymous of huge replay value, and I rejoice in the thought that I’ll be able to experiment with totally different characters next time I play Tierkreis.  

Stellar storyline

Last, but certainly not least, is the storyline. (And here come the SPOILERS, as you’d expect.)

Oh, dear. Where do I start? This is absolutely one of the best storylines I’ve been treated to in an RPG, hands down. It starts as a routine quest to find explanations to a couple of weird occurrences happening around the main characters’ village before slowly morphing into a political imbroglio involving a creepy cult called “Order of the One True Way” and a would-be dictator; then the story takes a sudden turn for the worse when it is finally revealed that the very existence of the world is at risk due to a seemingly unstoppable physical phenomenon linked to a mysterious entity named the “One King”. The progress between these narrative milestones is as smooth as it can be, each new element being carefully introduced when the time is ripe. Tierkreis is generous with short exposition segments that help you get an instant feel of the situation at hand and somehow work better than hour-long expository cutscenes. The ‘sick man’ segment at Cynas is a telling example: you try to find a doctor to help a man dying at the inn where your party is stationed but are prevented to do so by the innkeeper, who claims such an act would violate the principles of the Order which rules supreme in the town. Your party members then take care of the man themselves and manage to rescue him from death, only to have the said man blame you for your meddling and claim that his survival was predetermined and nothing you did could change that, before starting to ramble about whether he’s been faithful to the Order’s principles or not. This segment lasts only a couple of seconds yet gives you a full and striking understanding of the locals’ mentality as well as of the obstacles you’re bound to face while dealing with the Order.

Not only is the story incredibly well told, but it’s also pleasantly realistic. The threats encountered by the characters are very tangible and ominous and can very much make a shiver run down your spine—no doubt because they are inspired by real-world menaces. Instead of fighting a group of misfits wielding a supposedly powerful crystal or your former teacher who betrayed you to become king of the world, you are confronted by a powerful cult with elaborated brain-washing techniques, a growing number of countries under its influences and powerful armies ready to attack at its beck and call. Now that’s what I call a threat. Later, you face the very dissolution of your world, caused by the collapsing of universes onto one another. While this may be a little less tangible as far as our real world is concerned, it’s not coming entirely out of the blue, since it refers to the physical cosmology theory of the multiverse born in the late 20th century and defended by a number of scientists. 

This is the perfect transition to the refreshingly simple metaphysics of Tierkreis. Unlike other J-RPGs that feel forced to create twisted metaphysical concepts from scratch and give them the weirdest possible names for good measure, Tierkreis bases its whole narrative and universe on a couple of concepts that are incredibly simple to grasp and yet pave the way for some mind-boggling developments. The first one is the “Infinity”, which postulates the existence of an infinite number of parallel universes, each one containing its own version of our heroes. The second is the existence of the so-called “Stars of Destiny”, a group of powerful warriors who can wield a form of magic unavailable to mere mortals and have a more important function that is revealed in the game. Last are the “Chronicles”, which are books that compile the whole history of every single of the parallel worlds; they are infused with the power to awaken the dormant potential of the Stars of Destiny, who can then modify their content under certain conditions. From these simple concepts, Tierkreis weaves a story that is so incredibly complex yet implacably logical and well-articulated that my mind still reels when thinking of it. Sure, there may be a few plot holes here and there, but as a whole, it’s just brilliant. Tierkreis’ story belongs to this rare brand of storytelling that prompts you to replay the whole game immediately in order to see everything in light of what you’ve learned in the later stages of the game. As a matter of fact, I did exactly that, and was shocked to discover that one of the very first events of the game takes place in a decayed version of the very tower in which you fight the One King at the very end of the storyline, which rose even more mind-boggling questions. 

But there is more: if you want to get the whole picture and fully understand the story in all its spinning complexity, you have to witness all the possible endings. Fortunately, there are only three of them: the Good Ending, the Bad Ending and the Perfect Ending, which you get when you recruit all 108 Stars. The Bad Ending is triggered by one particular choice at one point in the story and is incredibly brief, but it’s nonetheless crucial as far as the narrative is concerned, for—drums rolling— it reveals the true nature of the One King! This is actually a shiver-inducing moment that left me struck and gaping as everything fell in place in my head and the whole story took a totally different turn. The Good Ending and Perfect Ending both give hints about what the One King is and how they come to life, but only the Bad Ending lets you witness the full process in all its devastating glory, leaving no doubt about the heartbreaking nature of the One King. Konami could have played it nasty by saving the big final explanation for the Perfect Ending, but thankfully, they abstained from such roguishness and delivered said explanation in the Good Ending as well. The Perfect Ending only adds a cutscene containing a couple of minor narrative elements—nothing that a quick visit on Youtube can’t provide quickly and efficiently, saving you the chore of painstakingly collecting all 108 Stars only to get a disappointing extra cutscene as your sole reward.  

Will you have a bit of brain-racking?

That being said, it’s worth noting that not all the questions raised during a playthrough of Tierkreis are bound to be answered at the end of the game, even with all the possible endings in hand. Konami conveniently paved the way for future installments related to the Tierkreis narrative arc by leaving many of them opened, preserving thus a lot of potential material and large avenues for future storytelling. From what I’ve read here and there on the internet, this way of leaving many questions opened and lingering seems to be entirely intentional and a fixture in the Suikoden series; the folks at Konami visibly want to craft a complex and compelling fantasy soap-opera, using as many entries as necessary to develop their huge, overarching narrative. However, and that’s where the genius of the narrative—and Konami itself— lies, it’s perfectly possible to guess how things may have unfolded in the past  and led to Tierkreis’ events—and to extrapolate how they may unfold in the future, for that matter—based on elements provided in the game. Even more interesting, Tierkreis actually offers several possible explanations to what happened over the course of the game, which are all plausible and logical; it’s thus up to the player to pick up the one they prefer, until a hypothetical future installment brings extra elements to the fold and clears matters for good—or not, since Tierkreis is already eight years old and no trace of a sequel can be found, not even as a vague innuendo from someone at Konami’s. Oh, well. At any rate, I’ll keep my own interpretation of Tierkreis’ events shelved until I clear my second playthrough; there are still a couple of elements that are murky to me and that I would like to clarify before delivering my vision of the story. I will edit that post if need be; for now, let’s move on! 

All literal interpretations of the story aside, Tierkreis’ narrative very graciously lends itself to other types of interpretations, which is utterly pleasant and makes that already splendid narrative even more excellent and fascinating, if that was possible. The story can be seen from different analytic angles and provides fascinating conclusions for each one, as I’ll demonstrate right now:

—The political philosophy angle: Tierkreis brilliantly illustrates the dangers inherent to any form of leadership. The Bad Ending, and by extension the genesis process of the One King, show that a kind leader with excellent intentions can still lead his troops to a complete disaster by taking just a couple of bad decisions. The Stars of Destiny relinquish their freedom and power of decision to follow the one of them who’s a natural-born leader, and that renouncement alone is dangerous, since it’s the first step on a trail that can ultimately lead to the birth of a brand-new One King. If the Stars remained totally independent, the One King simply couldn’t exist: its mere existence is a warning against the mirage of an encompassing positive leadership that could bring happiness to everyone and the illusion that sacrificing members of the group can lead to a greater good. The only way to save the world in Tierkreis is to let all the Stars follow their own way and fight their own part of the final showdown, after which everyone go back to their land and duties. Tierkreis teaches us that good leadership is bound to be temporary and must respect the individualities of every member of the group, lest a new twisted dictator be born before everyone can say ‘One King’.

—The metaphysical angle: Tierkreis postulates a universe of unlimited freedom, full to the brim with an infinity of potential developments and outcomes. This freedom is embodied by the Stars of Destiny, who are powerful individuals that can have enough influence on their environment to steer the course of events in a certain direction—or, to be more precise, a portion of the course of events. The more Stars are awakened and active, the more diversified and vibrant the future will become; reduce the numbers of Stars, and the future will slowly merge into a more unified thread, until it becomes still and encompassing under the dominion of the One King. Interestingly, this recoups quantum physics notions about the interdependence of mind and matter and their reciprocal influence on one another: as some Stars disappear, so do the worlds that they could have helped molding. It also gives a whole new meaning to the Hero’s motto, the deceptively cliché “You’ll never know unless you try”. This sentence that seems to be pure bromide at first sight, copy-pasted from any generic J-RPG under the gaming sun, reveals an unexpected depth upon further inspection and conveys a fundamental truth about Tierkreis’ world: this is literally a world in which the Stars of Destiny (such a perfectly fitting name, indeed) must take action in order to allow for a potential future to materialize. 

—The moral angle: This is maybe the most cliché of them, because it reprises the old J-RPG credo of “I will decide my own destiny!” However, it’s more palatable in Tierkreis because it’s backed up and fed by the other possible interpretations of the narrative. Following one’s free will, especially if one happens to be a Star of Destiny, is highly recommended in Tierkreis; but unlike in many J-RPGS, it’s not recommended only on the superficial ground that freedom is more alluring and glamorous than submission. It’s recommended first and foremost because not doing it can have devastating consequences: there is a moral imperative at work there, and Stars have the responsibility to follow their own way in order to preserve as many parallel universes as possible, and thus as many lives as possible. Freedom in Tierkreis does not equate roaming the world with no worries, but rather fulfilling your duties and remaining faithful to the path that only you can walk. From that angle, Tierkreis' storyline can be seen as a bildungsroman of sorts, a tale of spiritual growth in which the Stars of Destiny slowly discover their own tremendous power and the important responsibilities it entails.

When all is said and done, Tierkreis is the kind of game that makes you think. It doesn’t simply offer you a stellar narrative with compelling characters and an enchanting atmosphere, which would already be great; it also offers you the possibility to draw your own conclusions and interpret its storyline the way that suits you. This is quite rare in the gaming world and must be enjoyed to the fullest, and I can’t recommend enough Tierkreis’ stellar, shining gem of a narrative. There are other elements in that game that I wouldn’t warmly recommend, though, and that will be the subject of my next post, along with a plea for a much-needed different approach to story-driven J-RPGs. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!