I want you all to take a moment to remember and pay your respects to the one and only Freddie Mercury. The Queen mastermind was many things: an unparalleled showman, an incredible singer, flamboyantly gay, a living legend, and surprisingly shy off stage. Freddie was one of the greatest rock stars of all time, and he gave us so much to enjoy as his legacy.
Now, the younger and/or less experienced of you out there are no doubt wondering why the hell I’m kicking off an RPG review with prattle about a dead musician, no matter how brilliant or talented he may be. Meanwhile, the Ogre fans who’ve been around the block are nodding along in understanding (and appreciation, I hope) – because the Ogre Battle series is, indirectly, part of Freddie’s legacy. I doubt Freddie ever considered that his music would be the inspiration for a young Japanese video game designer, but fate works in mysterious ways. Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, like Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen before it, draws its name from quirky Queen song titles, despite the game itself having nothing else in common with the band.
It was over 15 years ago that Tactics Ogre was first released, and back then it was a feisty little upstart in the RPG world; it introduced plenty of revolutionary concepts and put the Tactics RPG on the map, paving the way for future fan favorites like FF Tactics and Disgaea. But a lot of time has passed since then, and Square had their work cut out for them to make the PSP remake seem fresh and not the old granddaddy of the genre.
And they’ve succeeded, for the most part. The story has been updated and given a brand new translation – a far more sophisticated script for a more sophisticated era. In fact, some might even consider it too sophisticated; the dialogue, for all its richness and depth, may come across as verbose to the point of distraction. Don’t get me wrong – this may be the most intricate and lovingly crafted translation I’ve ever seen of a Japanese title – but I fear that gamers who aren’t students of literature may lose interest in the overall story because it’s so damn dense.
The war-torn continent of Valeria has innumerable factions and characters jockeying for power: The Walister, Galgastani, and Bakram are the three social castes fighting for control, all while juggling political alliances, truces, and hostilities with neighbors like Xenobia and the Holy Lodis Empire. If that sounded like a mouthful, it only gets more and more complex when you actually play the game, and you’ll inevitably be overwhelmed at first when bombarded with the many characters who form the major players of all these factions.
So you’d do well to visit the Warren Report often, which is a nice handy reference for keeping track of those said characters and factions. It takes hours just to get acquainted with the Tactics Ogre world, and for some (I’m looking at you, Halo fanboys), that may be too much to ask from a video game before the story really gets rolling. If you’re willing to put in the time, though, very few game universes rival the depth and intrigue of this one.
For now, all you need to know is that Denam, his sister Catiua, and longtime friend Vyce have lost their families to the war, and meet secretly to conspire for their revenge on the enemies responsible and free their native Walisters from Bakram and Galgastani oppression. As you’d no doubt expect, plenty of allies, enemies, treachery, loyalty, victories, and defeat line the long road to justice. If there’s one constant in epic storytelling, it’s the “unexpected” plot twist.
That road, however, doesn’t just have twists and turns – the original Tactics Ogre innovated by throwing forks in there too. The remake of course keeps these branching storylines intact, and it’s as interesting as ever to see where your particular choices land you. Each weighty decision you make will throw Denam and his party in remarkably different situations down the road. Characters may live or die, people may or may not betray you, and some new battles may pop up while others never occur. If you and a friend each play the game, it’s a fun side activity just to ask each other what happened in your respective games – you’d be surprised how differently one playthrough ends up from another.
Luckily, Square made a great addition with the Wheel of Fortune. While this feature won’t win you a new car or a trip to the Bahamas, it does something even better: allow you to change your fate. Certain major events in the story are referred to as “anchor points”, and the Wheel of Fortune gives you the option of turning back time to that point in the game, allowing you to make different choices and see other branches of the story without starting from scratch. Remember how awesome it was when you were a kid to read those “choose your own adventure” books and flip through all the different pages to see the outcomes? That’s sort of like what the Wheel of Fortune does for this game.
The battles on the typical isometric grids are characteristically engaging and can be pretty tough without the proper preparation. It’ll be instantly familiar to a Tactics RPG veteran: move your characters around, taking one action per turn (attacking, healing, using items, activating special abilities that cost TP, etc.) and trying to eliminate the enemy force or often just the leader. A smaller version of the Wheel of Fortune, called the Chariot Tarot, allows you to go back up to 50 turns in battle any time you want to correct your missteps. A purist would refrain from using this feature, and the game keeps track of battles you won using it as opposed to the victories that were legit.
Even the shorter battles in the game are pretty damn long (at least half an hour each, some much more) which makes Tactics Ogre less suited to quick sessions. You’ll sink as much time into organizing your army between battles as you will fighting with them. There’s the usual staggering level of customization involved with a Tactics game – you can change any character’s class and equipment outside of combat, teach them magic spells, or learn new abilities and assign them to the limited number of ability slots. One nice gameplay tweak to this version is that characters don’t have individual levels, only the classes do. So if you leveled a knight up to 10, any character that switched to the knight class would be 10. Conversely, if you never leveled any wizards, switching that same level 10 knight to a wizard would drop his level to 1.
The graphics and presentation are a real mixed bag. Virtually nothing has been done to change the fuzzy sprites and backgrounds of yesteryear, still looking like they belong on a Super Famicom. On the other hand, the detailed character artwork and maps outside of combat are gorgeous, although not in a technically impressive way. The soundtrack was and still is one of Tactics Ogre’s strong points, beating plenty of modern games and their cacophony of loud noises today.
In the end, Tactics Ogre doesn’t change the fact that the Tactics RPG is a niche genre, putting some people off while the fans ravenously eat it up. If you’re into Tactics, this game is definitely one of the best. It takes more than a fair amount of commitment on the player’s part to get absorbed into the intricate, many-layered story and environment, but if you do, you won’t be disappointed.
Now if they would only come out with a sequel to Ogre Battle 64, I could die happy.