Based on: The Suikoden world's distant past; simultaneously trying too hard and not hard enough.
Fear. Fear is the mind-killer, according to various sources such as Frank Herbert's Dune and Tetsuya Mizuguchi's Rez. When it's not busy annihilating grey matter, though, fear lends a hand to the creation of some decidedly mediocre video games.
Some time early in the 21st century, someone at Konami was afraid. Suikoden III had debuted to a decent critical reception, but unspectacular sales as well as complaints from some fans of the first two games who didn't take kindly to some of its drastic changes. Furthermore, series creator Yoshitaka Murayama had departed Konami during the game's development, leaving the series adrift, so to speak.
Sailing, sailing, over the ocean blue.
It was time, then, to pull back and regroup. If the dates on design sketches are to be believed, work was already beginning on an ambitious project that was to become Suikoden V?, but that wouldn't reach completion for several years. Konami needed a marketable game out soon to keep the series alive, so Suikoden IV was placed under a new director and sent in a new direction. It needed to be fast, and it needed to be safe. How to accomplish this feat? Well, someone had a few brilliant ideas.
Idea 1: Borrow elements at random from higher-profile games.
One thing that had defined the Suikoden series up to the point was the colorful, cheerful, perhaps slightly effeminate main characters. But Final Fantasy VII and VIII, the very games that overshadowed the first two Suikoden entries, suggested that what modern gamers really want is a detached, brooding hero. Hence, Hero IV, also known as Lazlo. Perpetually scowling, this silent protagonist's main task is to stare stoically while terrible things happen around him. Of course, he quickly acquires the True Rune of Punishment, which mainly manages to make his life even more miserable in addition to serving as the requisite deus ex machina during critical plot points.
Hero: I wish I had more than two expressions.
Idea 2: Less is more. Let's not muck about with interesting systems.
So some players found the fluid placement of characters on Suikoden III's battle screens frustrating? Well, Suikoden IV has none of that. The pair system was confusing? It's out too, and even front and back row positioning is nowhere to be found. In fact, why even bother with the usual six-person party? If Square can get away with only three characters in a battle, then surely four is more than enough. Never mind that we have fifty-six combat characters to switch between!
The skill system introduced in Suikoden III was better received, but in the apparent rush for simplification it was removed as well. And then there were the runes; you just can't have a Suikoden battle system without runes. But you can make development easier by simply giving every character a generic number of rune slots and spell charges from a formula based on their Magic stat. In a rare concession to the need to differentiate characters at least a little bit, they've been given various affinities with different elements... but perhaps in another misguided attempt at simplicity, those stats are totally hidden from the player. The overall list of runes is also pared down from previous entries, with no movable command runes available in the game.
The only significant new system introduced in Suikoden IV is the naval battles. They work reasonably well, but here too the framework is simple to point of making things pretty easy. Move ships around a square grid, try to broadside your opponent with Rune cannons that have an elemental advantage over your foes. And if all else fails, you can usually bum-rush the enemy and attack with a boarding party of over-levelled playable characters. It doesn't help things that the enemy AI isn't terribly bright.
Let's party like it's 1989 (which means no giant enemy crab jokes, sorry).
Idea 3: Let's not get carried away with plot and continuity.
How do you avoid screwing up an intricate series-spanning continuity when your original author is long gone? Well, you can always set your game in the distant past. Suikoden IV takes place a nice safe 150 years before the first Suikoden. Only four characters have any direct connections to other games (two being series staples Viki and Jeanne), although series fans admit that the inclusion of the "legendary" Schtolteheim Reinbach III was a nice touch. Even so, the plot did create a few questions by postulating the existence of a nearby empire that nobody in the future had ever heard of, a little problem that was more or less cleared up via its dismantling in the side-story Suikoden Tactics?.
The main plot was also the shortest since the first Suikoden, with fewer of the involved side-quests seen in Suikoden II or III. While one could argue this keeps things focused, it also offers fewer opportunities for introducing and fleshing out the requisite 108 recruitable characters. Suikoden IV suffers more than any other game in the series from "met by the side of the road" syndrome -- characters that join the party for no better reason than they happened to be heading in the same direction as the hero. This is especially noticeable towards the game's end, as you realize that quite a few characters have a few lines of dialogue during their recruitment and are then never heard from again.
But hey, at least the tactician is an alcoholic and the requisite anthropomorphic race is a really terrible pun.
Despite all of these regressions, Suikoden IV is not by any means a terrible game. The systems, while pared down, do generally get the job done with a minimum of fuss. The 3D character models are much nicer-looking than Suikoden III's, and the voice acting (a first for the series) is passable. If this were a first effort from a developer new to the RPG scene, it might be downright impressive. As an entry in the Suikoden series, though, it just doesn't stand up to expectations.
Images from official art, copyright Konami