Videogame Franchise: Suikoden 1
Remember how I said Final Fantasy 6 is the best of them all because it has a huge variety of characters and side stories? Imagine an entire franchise following the same logic, with every game being part of the same world and storyline, instead of standalone games. And that franchise is… The Elder Scrolls. But that’s not a JRPG. If we limit the comparison to those, the best one by far is the Suikoden franchise.
Inspired by the Chinese epics of Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Heroes of the Marsh, the stories are always about powerful nations at war, with the outcome being manipulated by powerful runes that can shape reality. Obviously, the ones in possession of these runes are always the main characters of every game, and your mission is to end every war with as fewer casualties as possible. So although they are war games they always promote pacifism and mutual understanding amongst different races.
Just like almost every classic JRPG, you don’t make your own adventure as it happens with western open world RPGs. The storyline is specific and you don’t have much control over it. You are given some choices, but they don’t really matter outside of getting a better ending by managing to gather all the characters in the game.
Speaking of characters, you thought the few dozen ones you have to gather in Final Fantasy 6 are too many? Try 108 in every single game. Ok, about a third of them join automatically through the main storyline, but you need to find the rest and make them join by fulfilling some sort of prerequisite. And many of them don’t even stick around forever; they don’t all appear at once and they sometimes leave before the final part of the game, so you don’t have the liberty to look for them whenever you feel like it.
And yes, just like with Final Fantasy 6 very few of them have interesting storylines and nobody affects the main plot. But at least you are given a reward every time someone joins. They don’t simply make the roster of available warriors bigger, your army number grows, your castle looks better, and you have more mini games and options for customization. It’s really exciting to have a visual and practical progression of your efforts, instead of treating the characters as meaningless collectibles.
The plot is also so intriguing and exciting to follow. It’s not simply “take your faceless army and go fight some generic enemy”. There are a gazillion characters with a name and a personality, fleshing out every area of a ridiculously large map. The world-building is one of the best I have seen in my life. And yes, it is usually silly, since it mixes a hundred different cultures living in seemingly random locations, and it’s not like you can change the borders or the power of each faction based on your actions. Still, the effort they placed in creating the setting is mind-boggling. It’s not that consistent, but I would be lying if I said I’ve seen much better in other games.
As far as the gameplay goes, it has a bit of everything and it changes things around in every next game, but not as drastically as Final Fantasy did. The basic choices and tactics are the same you find in any classic JRPG, and changes are mostly secondary details for the sake of spicing up the battles. The first game of the series comes off as bland because of it, since there isn’t that much variety in what you can do, and the AI is so easy to predict. It’s mostly a game of rock-paper-scissors, and even that is usually done in the exact same order every single time, so if you write down the pattern the enemies are using, you can stroll through the game rather easily. Also, the rune the protagonist is using can instantly kill any non-boss enemy for a few times before he needs rest, a thing which makes even the random encounters very easy. Basically, although the first game is fine to play, there is no challenging difficulty to the most part. If you know what you are doing, it’s almost boring to play.