Based on: Some bits of Suikoden II but not others; Multiple points of view.
The Empire Strikes Back. Chrono Cross?. Mega Man 3. Legend of Mana. Life can be hard when you grow up in the shadow of a widely-adored older sibling, and such was the case with Suikoden III. The third chapter in Konami's RPG franchise received a rocky reception from many series fans because, well, it wasn't Suikoden II?. Favorite characters didn't return! The battle system received a serious overhaul with strange and unexpected elements! And horror of horrors, you couldn't wander freely over the world map. The scandal of it all.
Suikoden III is not a perfect game, and its plot may not have had quite the visceral impact of its predecessor. But like the other black-sheep sequels mentioned above, it has a lot to offer those who are willing to accept it on its own terms and recognize its role in shaping future chapters of the series. While some of its experimental new directions fell by the wayside, others were good enough to be picked up for future sequels. (And a few were, admittedly, too interesting for their own good.)
Besides the move to polygons, Suikoden III's biggest and most immediately evident changes were in its battle system. While it retained the six-person party, limited item access, and rune-based magic that define the series, almost everything else about it was different. Perhaps the most successful of these changes was the skill system, which let you train your combatants in a relatively realistic manner. Instead of simply gaining fantastic new abilities outright by equipping an item or gaining a level, characters can gradually improve in various areas of expertise by visiting physical and magical tutors. Each character has unique innate skill affinities, giving the player ample choices for constructing a balanced party from among the enormous roster of available warriors. Raising a character's skill level rarely grants a concrete ability; instead, it raises the chances of success and effectiveness of certain combat maneuvers.
Costumes of the Karaya tribe.
A character skilled in a particular brand of magic will cast the corresponding spells both faster and more effectively. A character skilled in repelling attacks with the sword or in blocking with their shield will be much harder to hit, regardless of the armor they've equipped. This emphasis on growing skills over grinding levels and buying equipment gives a very organic feel the character development. Few things are more satisfying than having a character with mediocre gear parry an attack by a higher-leveled enemy, deflect another, and then land several consecutive counters in one turn on the strength of her skills alone.
A more controversial change to the combat is the Pair system, in which every combatant is paired with a "buddy", and a single command is given to each pair on each turn. This takes a surprising amount of control away from the player for a traditional turn-based RPG, since you're not actually issuing commands directly to each character. After giving each pair one of the usual fight/magic/item directives, a reasonably intelligent A.I. system kicks in to flesh out the details. This actually works out more effectively than you might expect once the player figures out how best to work within the system. Pair a mage with a tank, and the fighter will sensibly protect the caster from approaching enemies. Attack- and defense-oriented characters can similarly work together to make the most of their strengths. Many characters' teamwork will improve as their skills grant them additional abilities.
The Alma-Kinan and Chisha tribes.
The buddy system ties in to the new position-based battlefield as well. Instead of lining up in rows, characters will move around the battlefield to attack and defend, bringing various long and short-range skills into play. This also means that area-effect skill can damage poorly placed allies, adding another (some would say annoying) tactical level to combat. More skilled characters seem to be better at staying out of their partner's way or at moving themselves to tactical defensive or offensive positions. Again, these systems lend a somewhat realistic and organic feel to battles, making the player more akin to a squad commander than an omnipotent puppet-master.
Due to their lack of popularity, warranted or otherwise, the experimental buddy and character-placement mechanics didn't make their way into any of the game's sequels. Neither did Suikoden III's most visible new "system": the Trinity Sight System. Taking a cue from the shade of grey inherent in several of Suikoden II's antagonists, Suikoden III literally lets you see everyone's side of the story by putting the player in the shoes of several different main characters aligned with different powers in the game's world.
One might question the wisdom of basing a game's entire narrative around a bad early '90s glam metal album, but it actually works. Trinity Sight goes a long way towards solving one of the most common problems imposed by the over-arching mythology of the Suikoden universe: How do you make 108 characters, with often as many as seventy or eighty in party combat roles, each unique, interesting, and relevant? While there are admittedly still a few random wanderers picked up by the side of the road, the interlocking storylines of Suikoden III allow a huge number of characters to be directly related to one of the main characters' plots. It may be short on carry-over favorites, but Suikoden III's overall character roster is arguably the most compelling in the series.
Zexen knights and Zexen civilians.
These characters come from a wide variety of well-developed competing cultures and nations, which leads to one of the other strong points of the game: the character and costume design. Each culture, from small villages to mighty empires, sports a coherent set of designs such that the player can usually identify the homeland of both playable characters and NPCs on sight, without resorting to a lot of mere palette-swaps.
The Karayan tribe, central to the game and home to one of the main characters, is a prototypical grasslands culture, based loosely on Native American and African motifs. One could imagine most of their costumes, decorated with repeated triangular motifs in earth tones, being crafted from animal hides and readily available fibers and natural dyes, accented with beads and other artifacts gained through trade. The most unusual accents belong to Lucia, the village chief, and her son -- not surprising, since she seems to have previously journeyed across the continent far from her fellow villagers, having made a brief appearance in Suikoden II.
The Alma-Kinan, by contrast, are a clan of forest-dwelling archers. Their preferred green-tinted tunics help them move stealthily through their native habitat, and are lined with the fur of woodland creatures no doubt felled by their bows. Still further east, Chisha village is located on rocky soil mainly suited to growing grapes exported as wine. Their costumes of traded fabrics and intricate bead-work are reportedly based on Mongolian tribes.
Harmonians, ex-Harmonians, and one bad-ass mercenary.
Off to the West is the Zexen Confederacy, a relatively advanced merchant nation dealing in iron and other large-scale trade goods. Their military units are decked out in plate mail and thick cloth, only slightly customized for individual needs. Civilians wear a wide variety of city-dwelling fashions, many likely brought into the local port from other nations.
Later in the game, we meet characters from the continent's true super-power, the Harmonian Empire. A highly advanced and strictly regimented society, its upper ranks are outfitted in expensive but functional uniforms in the national colors of blue and white. Even ex-patriots who have abandoned the Empire in pursuit of their own goals retain some elements of its style. Other examples of crossover styles drawing from multiple cultures can be seen in the citizens of Le Buque, a former Grasslands clan that has been living under Harmonian rule for fifty years prior to the start of the game. And finally, we have the mercenaries, whose eclectic gear is tied to no one place or culture.
In a way, they could be seen as an embodiment of the game's spirit. Like Suikoden III itself, their modus operandi is to try new things and see what works.
Images from official art, copyright Konami