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Thursday, June 6, 2024

Eiyuden Chronicle: Hundred Heroes

A spiritual successor to Suikoden by series creator Yoshitaka Murayama, who tragically passed away only a couple months before the game's release.  But does Eiyuden Chronicle prove to be a worthy successor to a cult classic franchise, or does Murayama's final project simply fall short?

Hyped up years before its launch by Suikoden Fans owing to a Kickstarter campaign and a general lament over a lack of good "old school" RPGs, Eiyuden Chronicle certainly built up a fair bit of hype during its lengthy development.  Launched four years after the Kickstarter's successful completion (and about a year after a short prequel game), it certainly seemed to be a successor to Suikoden in just about every way possible, for both good and ill.

Indeed, the Suikoden influence is unmistakable, with numerous elements copied straight over from those games.  You have a six-person team active as you explore, with three in the front row, three in the back, and optionally one providing a support ability.  Some larger and more powerful characters also take up two slots (a front and back row space) rather than one.   Characters gain levels after earning 1000 Experience points, with lower-leveled characters catching up much faster as XP gained is divided by their current level.  Combat is once again turn-based, with each character able to use runic abilities and spells and "Hero Combos", which function similarly to Suikoden's Unite Attacks, with both/all characters involved spending SP to perform a powerful combo.  Characters still upgrade their weapons at blacksmiths rather than replacing them with new equipment, though armor and accessories are still found and/or purchased.

Things do change up in some other ways.  Runes return, though in a slightly different form - each character now has up to eight slots which can fit different types of runes - from stat boosters to spells to special abilities, restricted by a "rarity" ranking from one to four, with more unlocking as characters gains levels.  However, some rune slots have fixed runes (usually special moves) that cannot be reassigned.  Spells run off a more traditional MP system rather than having different tiers with limited casts per tier, and MP can accordingly be restored with potions purchased in shops.  Special moves, on the other hand, are fueled by "SP", which recharges each turn in battle.  Some characters also benefit simply by having stocks of SP on hand - for example, Mio's attack damage increases by 2% for each SP stocked.  Items no longer have to be equipped to character inventory slots to be used in battle - anyone can use them from the bag, though they're still broken up into predetermined stack sizes that depend on the item type and bag space is limited.  

Shields are an interesting new mechanic.  They're armor pieces mostly equipped by front-line characters, but don't just boost defense - they actually provide "armor" that reduces damage, and once they 'break' by taking damage, they're gone for the rest of the battle.  Blunt attacks seem to damage this armor more, while magic attacks ignore it entirely.  It's used quite often by bosses as well, so having a character or two in any given party that can weaken armor is a good idea.  Another unique strategic element is that rather than giving each character a generic "Defend" command to reduce damage, some characters' have different effects - some will boost their own evasion or even attempt to parry and counter an enemy's attack.

Another unique twist to many battles is the Gimmick command.  Mostly appearing in boss fights, these operate somewhat like the combat gimmicks in Final Fantasy X's boss battles, allowing you to gain an advantage over the boss or avoid some of their more dangerous attacks.  A couple examples include having characters take cover behind rubble to avoid a dangerous beam attack, or activating one of two spellbooks to summon a giant hammer to stun a sandworm boss.  The Gimmick command can also show up in certain random encounters in the form of Battle Chests - sometimes there will be a chest in the background of a fight, and you must use the command to retrieve it before all of the enemies are defeated.  This is only way to get some items (and full completion for the trophy).  Thankfully none seem to be permanently missable, but getting a specific enemy formation with the chest to appear is entirely up to chance and can be pretty annoying at times.

The old Suikoden war epic gameplay staples show up again too, with large-scale, grid-based war battles and duels.  War battles operate in an interesting way - you and your opponent choose all of your moves at the top of each turn and then all of your units move at the same time, so it's not always easy to outmaneuver your foes.  As with the old Suikodens they're mostly vehicles for storytelling rather than being very in-depth, but it is pretty cool to see so many autonomous sprites onscreen duking it out all at once; something that the PS1's limited capabilities wouldn't be able to do.  Duels work similarly to the rock-paper-scissors clashes of the old games, with you trying to guess your opponent's moves based on what they say, though it's more cinematic in nature - once you succesfully attack or counter enough times, you choose to "Break", which moves the storytelling within the scene to a new stage and changes up the dialog.  It takes a bit of getting used to, but is an interesting new spin on it.  Building up your castle town is now a more in-depth process too - rather than simply recruiting people and watching your castle grow on its own, you take a more active role by collecting resources in the field and spending them on various amenities and shops.  Some can't be built until you recruit specific characters, while others serve a more utilitarian purpose, slowly generating more resources for future building projects.  It reminds me a bit of Ni no Kuni II's town building mechanic, though not quite as in-depth as that game's was.

Eiyuden Chronicle clearly isn't the biggest-budget game around, but they still managed to make it looks and sound very good given what they had to work with.  The game utilizes some gorgeous 2D-animated characters on imaginative and gorgeous full-3D backdrops, and it all looks good (and period-authentic) enough to put Square Enix's tacky "HD-2D" graphics to shame, highlighting some beautiful spritework and 3D animation alike, particularly in the large-scale boss fights.  However, I'm not terribly fond of the simulated "camera focus", which blurs out objects in view when they're not in close proximity to your character.  The voiceover shows quite a bit of quality too, with every dialog scene and character having voice talent behind them; even nonessential characters in your party get the odd voiced line here and there, which avoids a common pitfall of a lot of other large-party RPGs.

So, fans of '90s style RPGs have quite a lot to like in Eiyuden Chronicle, but like I said at the top, it does carry over a few less-savory elements from that time period as well.  The camera in the game can be a bit annoying in places, as it's a fixed view in indoor areas but fully rotatable on the world map, and it doesn't always point north by default, so until I figured that out I was getting disoriented pretty easily trying to reach new destinations.  The fixed camera can block your view of certain pathways and hidden treasures in some cases, and while there is a handy minimap to show you inobvious paths, some hidden ones aren't always shown on it, so you'll have to pay careful attention to both views if you want to fully explore each area.  There are also several instances of annoying railroading - I often found myself wanting to go back and get a character or just explore, but the game would insists I go to do the next quest first.  It's also a good ways into the game before fast travel becomes available too, so if you're not extremely diligent in exploring each area it might be a good while before you get another chance to.  Thankfully nothing seems to be permanently missable, but it's still annoying.  Random encounters are still very much a thing too, and while the rate you get battles is pretty decent for the most part, it can still be a bit frustrating at times; particularly when you're seeking out a particular enemy group to try and get a Battle Chest or trying to solve a large-scale dungeon puzzle.  There are also side missions aplenty, some with annoying random requirements (like getting a rare drop from a specific enemy) as well as minigames - a collectible card game that plays somewhat like Caravan from Fallout: New Vegas (introduced by a character who looks and sounds a fair bit like Yugi from Yu-Gi-Oh, no less) and a Beyblade-esque minigame about battling tops, which mostly seems to boil down to counter-picking your opponent through trial and error (or using a guide).  You'll be seeing quite a bit of both if you want full completion, so be ready for that.  At times it's not always clear exactly what you're supposed to do next either, even with a quest marker system in place; I had to do a fair bit of wandering and check a guide a couple times to hit the next plot beat.

All told, Eiyuden Chronicle delivers what it promises - a spiritual followup to Suikoden with all the trappings of a late '90s/early 00's RPG.  It has a runtime of about 50 hours (substantially more if you want full completion, a great deal more if you try to grind out all the grindy trophies), a large world to explore, over 100 characters to recruit, and a story that's one part war epic and several parts anime-styled silliness, all built around turn-based battles, random encounters and equipment management.  It's about as authentic an experience as you can get considering it was made by someone who was made two acclaimed RPGs in that time period; it's just a shame it ended up being Murayama's final game and that he never got to see it get a proper release.  He reportedly had a script for a sequel planned out though, so if it sells well enough we might just see an Eiyuden Chronicle 2.  If not, though, it was at least nice to see one last game from the franchise's creator carry on the Suikoden format, even if it had to happen without the name attached.


Developer: Rabbit & Bear Studios
Publisher: 505 Games
Released: 2024
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, XBox One, XBox Series, PC, Switch
Recommended Version: Avoid the Switch version, at least for now; there are numerous reports of bugs and poor performance, though the developers have said they are planning a patch to address them.  All the other versions seem to be fine.