Suikoden Tierkreis begins with the protagonist being woken up by a friend, Marica. Players take on the role of an unnamed male character who is set to go on a patrol around the village with friends in order to get rid of some animals that have gone wild and are threatening the village. Upon exploring a hill and coming to a vista point, something unexpected happens - the sky becomes blindingly bright and the earth starts shaking. When the light fades away, the vast valley in the distance has dramatically changed, transforming into a forest with a huge statue and ruins located in the middle. Even more unsettling, your friends seem to think you are going insane, as their minds are set on the forest always having been there. Delving deep into the woodland, the group reach the deserted location where an old book is discovered and carried back home. Touching it results in some of your friends receiving a strange vision and then suddenly regaining memories of the forest never existing - yet not everyone is bestowed with such recollection, meaning they still believe madness is controlling your mind.
The adventure moves on to the city of Cynas, home of the world’s most extensive library, where the band of heroes hope that the expert librarians there will hold answers to questions about the weird tome and be able to shed some light on the mystery. However, the people there are now being ruled by the “Order of the One True Way”, which believes in predestination, and wages war to surrounding nations to convince them to believe the same thing. Seeing how those guys hurt the people who do not want a faith put on their shoulders against their own will, you decide to help, becoming mortal enemies with the Order…and so your adventure continues and the story unfolds, revealing the existence of parallel worlds, and that people touching the book become what are known as ‘Star Bearers.’ An army of Star Bearers will be built up on your travels as more of the world is visited and the fight against the Order continues, uncovering the truth behind the alterations that have appeared.
While it takes some time to become truly interesting and inspiring, a few hours in the story really starts hooking you and leaving that feeling of wanting to come back for more. Despite five successful main series entries of Suikoden across the PlayStation and PlayStation 2, as well as the strategy spin-off Suikoden Tactics, this DS episode is set almost completely apart from the rest of the series, with only tenuous links to the mainline entries. Having never played any of the previous instalments does not impact on how much enjoyment can be extracted from playing Suikoden Tierkreis since not having an understanding of the over-arching storyline is not too bothersome. However, whilst this will prove to be a relief to some sectors, long-term fans will likely find it quite disappointing. Suikoden Tierkreis is similar to most old-school RPGs in that you take control of a group, exploring settings and conversing with people to advance the story. The twist here, though, is that there is a grand total of 108 characters to recruit along the journey. The majority can be used directly in battle, but around twenty of them remain in a support role, offering additional power triggered automatically during battles. Those types can either be recruited through side-quests, simply by talking to them at the right moment, or joining your ranks at various points in the story. What needs to be taken into consideration, though, is that some of them can be missed, so perfectionists beware!
The extra characters are not found by roaming around a world map in Suikoden Tierkreis, however, with players travelling from one place to another by directly selecting their destination with a cursor on the map (à la Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World) and switching locations will advance time across thirty-day long seasons. These periods influence the enemies' powers and some seasons are also required to trigger certain events related to side-quests, amongst other things. In terms of battles, there are no random encounters on the world map, but when fighting does occur, players gain experience in the classic fashion, thus gaining levels and becoming stronger in the process. Tierkreis should definitely be praised for its experience system; a specific character will gain a level with every 10,000 EXP points gained, yet the amount obtained in each battle is dependent on their current status, with newcomers receiving more and veterans less in an effort to create balance between the vast selection of characters joining your party along the way.
Battles happen randomly whilst walking around the areas, with the standard lack of indication beforehand that you are about to be attacked. Each fight takes place with a group of one to four characters that can be placed on a ‘board’ of six squares, arranged in two rows (plus one invisible support character, which is not part of the battlefield). The position of the characters on the board and the type of weapon they use will influence the damage they take and/or inflict. Characters attack in turn, based on their speed stat, which is the classic formula. There is an auto-battle function too to help quicken the battles, which is convenient when all you want is level-up some low-on-levels characters. You can either attack physically (or magically) using weapons, or make use of your ‘Mark of the Stars’ powers. These powers are unlocked progressively as the story advances and elements from a set of important items are collected. These ‘Marks of the Stars’ come in two forms; some can be used in battle, and others are only available outside of encounters. Battle ones are akin to magic found in most - if not all - classic turn-based JRPGs. The others bring you special abilities or statistical bonuses. Careful consideration is required throughout, since there are only four slots to assign Marks to, bringing a personal touch to matters, giving the player the chance to tailor everything the way they want.
In total there are perhaps around a hundred different Marks, with some characters having the same as others, with an example being magicians having access to similar abilities. Combination strikes are also a possibility, where Magical Points are consumed (more than most ‘Marks of the Stars’) as certain characters team-up with another character from the team (normally ones strongly related in the story, like a sister, or a brother in arms) for a flashy move with devastating results. One non-traditional aspect to battles is that money is not accrued from a victory, rather goods are collected that can be sold at trade counters in the towns, with prices altering in each area. This puts the onus on the player to sell goods from battles or treasure chests at the highest price possible (or even buy at the cheapest source and re-sell for the greatest profit). Its importance should not be overlooked as blacksmiths can be recruited as well, and they will not start forging items or selling some of the best equipment until large profits are made from trading.
Additionally, as briefly mentioned before, there are side-quests, in the form of missions that open up as progress is made in the story, and come in two varieties. The first one has the player send out some recruits for a set amount of time that passes whilst moving around the world, after which they return having either accomplished or failed in their task (prerequisites for success are not always self explanatory). The other type of mission lets you actually take control of your characters to accomplish them and they usually involve tracking down monsters. Anyone with a penchant for even more extras will appreciate the optional online quests where rare equipment can be earned, including some of the best equipment in the game and other unique pieces that cannot be won otherwise. Again, though, the prerequisite for winning these is not made abundantly clear, so unfortunately it all becomes very confusing. Also, some of them never reappear after you win or fail them, which leaving hardly any room for trial and error as the game automatically saves all results from online quests as soon as your characters return.
Those quests are different too in that they do not last a set amount of in-game days, but rather hours from the real world (usually 24, 48 or 72 hours). You can always cancel a quest and have your character come back before completion as sending a key character out otherwise prevents progress through the story. Doing this, however, leads to a quest being classed as ‘failed,’ with the probability of it not becoming available again. Speaking of the online mode, it can also be used it to send out some units to visit ‘other worlds.’ In short, some units can head out and help other players in their adventure, or you can choose to hire some for your own gain. Frustratingly, Suikoden Tierkreis’ Wi-Fi mode is not an option until later in the story, but does prove a vital addition as characters from other worlds being more powerful helps somewhat in your own story when it comes to training your squad.
Visually Suikoden Tierkreis is simply stunning, truly excelling in a crowd of graphically impressive DS RPGs that includes games such as Tales of Innocence and Final Fantasy IV. The pre-rendered backgrounds range from just ‘okay’ to ‘gorgeous’ and are reminiscent of classic PlayStation RPGs. The 256MB cartridge was clearly taken full advantage of, yet the 3D models used for representing the characters moving through those environments are not quite of the same standard as seen in games from Square Enix or Bandai Namco. On the positive side, Suikoden makes heavy use of anime style cut-scenes, and whilst not particularly long, the sheer quantity scattered through the story is indeed pleasing. Aurally, most of the soundtrack is appears to be orchestrated, which is an impressive feat for a humble DS game. It makes heavy use of violin and sounds great from beginning to end. The voice acting, on the other hand, while not bad as such, is ruined by how fast the voice actors talk. It is as if they were high on caffeine and does not feel natural at all. Even though this issue does not ruin the whole look and feel of Suikoden Tierkreis, if only the voice actors would have been asked to speak slower it would have been more intelligible and helped the game be more enjoyable than it currently is.