"For those who have clamored for a "true" sequel to Final Fantasy Tactics, I bring you good news: this is as close as any game might ever come."
This has been a long time coming. Nine years after the last Ogre Battle game was released, Square Enix has given fans of strategy RPGs something they've craved for years – another trip through the worlds of Zeteginia and Valeria. The Ogre Battle series of SRPGs is well-loved by a few, but forgotten by plenty more. Recently the series has found new life on Nintendo's Virtual Console, but without new gameplay. For those who crave that something new, the re-make of Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together is less of a re-release and more of a remake. The new version of the PlayStation/Super Famicom classic features new gameplay, characters, and scenarios. The end result is something slightly nostalgic, but also perfectly suited for the PSP and the modern strategy gamer. Tactics Ogre is here to remind gamers just how good an old series can be.
A brief introductory comment: those who have played the PlayStation Limited Edition version of Tactics Ogre (or imported one of the previous releases of the game) will notice massive changes to the localization and the character customization system. In this reviewer's opinion, every single change made to this game has been a good one. The writing has been improved significantly and the character customization and leveling system has been wholly revamped. If you hated the original Tactics Ogre for some of its quirks or idiosyncrasies, but enjoy SRPGs, I beg you to give the new Tactics Ogre a shot.
This chapter of the Ogre Battle story begins in the war-torn continent of Valeria, where several ethnic groups struggle for superiority. The oppressed Wallister people are attempting to free themselves from the oppressive control of the Galgastani, while the Bakram nobility wait in the wings. The protagonist, Denam Pavel, finds himself in the middle of the fight as a fledgling member of the Wallister Liberation Front. Forces from other nations, including the juggernaut Lodissian Empire and the fledgling New Xenobia strive to influence the fate of Valeria using the main characters. As always, nothing is as it seems, and the journey that Denam, his sister Catiua, and his friend Vyce take is littered with plot twists, mysterious enemies, and brave companions.
Gameplay is key in Tactics Ogre, as a classically-styled SRPG in the vein of Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem. In fact, the comparisons to Final Fantasy Tactics are very noticeable; both games feature a similar tone, heavy emphasis on character customization, and an intense time commitment to explore and complete. Make no mistake, this game is engrossing. It contains so much customization that the new player might find it overwhelming at first. But the heart of the game is simple: deploy characters on a grid and use a turn-based battle system to defeat the enemy and/or complete an objective. Fans of SRPGs should find no surprises in the battle mechanics or the core gameplay.
Story and random battles are where the player spends most of his time, and the game does a good job of keeping them tactical while also providing a solid element of luck to keep things fresh. Enemy AI is a little predictable, but enemy units don't make many stupid decisions. They gang up on weak characters, kill them, and move on to the next one – a tactic that player characters have been using in SRPGs for years to great success. However, the AI does get a little funky in one area: if the player is trying to keep an NPC alive, the task is never an easy one. NPC characters tend to put themselves in positions in which they die quickly, or run into the heart of the enemy force. Saving a life may require a couple of tries. But from start to finish, Tactics Ogre excels at providing varied battle maps, powerful enemies, and new challenges to navigate. While the game has a bit of a learning curve, it never feels unfair or impossible and allows the player to feel in control and to see the success of judicious use of strategy.
While strategic battles are the lifeblood of the game, sometimes that blood runs cold, and the sheer number of battles slows the game down to a crawl. The battles themselves rarely take less than half an hour by mid-game, but there are many even excluding optional and random battles necessary to gain experience and items. Upon adding it up, Tactics Ogre offers dozens of hours of gameplay even if you're trying to speed through the game, and hundreds of hours if the player takes the time to explore every inch of Valeria. Honestly, this left me with mixed feelings. As I loved the depth and the potential to explore, there were certainly times when a series of battles felt like a slog, or when a single battle simply took too long.
Given how long battles can be in many strategy RPGs of this ilk, it is truly frustrating to lose, or to miss an objective, because it requires the player to start the whole thing over again. Fortunately, Tactics Ogre offers a clever mechanic ("The Chariot"), which allows the player to backtrack up to fifty turns within a battle and allow things to unfold differently. The Chariot is a truly welcome addition to the game's remake, as it saves at least some of the time and frustration of having to restart a battle. While not useful in every dire circumstance, the Chariot brings more fun by limiting a player's time and effort investments during a failed battle. And at the risk of spoiling the game slightly, the Chariot evolves into a very different function post-game, one that makes for a significant reward upon completion of the game. I won't give specifics, but suffice to say that this mechanic and the evolved "The World" version is a great strength for all players of the game, from strategy newcomers to hardcore completionists.
Like any good SRPG, Tactics Ogre involves a wide array of options a player can use to customize party members. Denam's force can include up to sixty characters, with a substantial number of different unit types. With nine races, plenty of class options, and hundreds of spells, abilities, and weapons at the ready, a player always has the opportunity to try something new. One welcome differentiator in Tactics Ogre's class/experience system is that character classes level up, rather than single units, which is somewhat similar to the mechanic found in the Valkyria Chronicles franchise. Fortunately, this means that as new story characters are added to Denam's force, the player need not level them up to the strength of the rest of the party. Instead, you can find the appropriate classmark to convert them to an existing class, and they're able to hold their own with the rest of the team. If you love to build super-powerful units, to create a finely-tuned fighting force, or to explore all the classes and abilities that a great SRPG has to offer, Tactics Ogre will be your Holy Grail. No SRPG I've played offers more room to explore, to build and arm characters, and to unlock ability, spell, and class.
From a story perspective, Tactics Ogre is based very loosely on the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990's, focusing on politics as much as on swords and sorcery. The player in Denam's shoes must make morality-based decisions that affect a complex (but still elegant) narrative. These decisions determine Denam's alignment between Law, Chaos, and Neutral, as well as the path the story takes. Denam's journey changes dramatically based on how he reacts to the situations he is presented, and nearly every choice is painted in shades of gray.
It falls to me to report that while the plot is strong and engaging, the characters are less than impressive. There are too few instances that give characters a real chance to show their personalities, with the exception of the three leads. Denam gets some time in the sun, capably handling the lead character role no matter which path the player chooses. His lines are written well, and he shows enough individuality to capably push the narrative along. Vyce and Catiua also make for suitable companions, with their own motives and perspectives. Catiua can be a bit annoying at times, as she seems to spite Denam with her decisions and act childishly, but in truth, there's nothing unrealistic about that. Beyond these three characters, the other player characters and villains have a smear of personality, but not much more. Even the Lodissian Dark Knight Lans, a major antagonist, gets too little care to be a great villain.
In any case, both the story and characters excel in one particular area. Valeria is a continent of moral ambiguity, and every decision, selfish or altruistic, is cast in a shade of gray. No decision is made without consequence, and no life is taken in vain. This is reflected not only in the decision points that determine the path the story takes, but in the gameplay as well. Kill too many of the Galgastani, and you may lose favor with the people. Or perhaps making too many Chaotic decisions causes you to alienate the Lawful members of your party, leading them to defect. Tactics Ogre is masterful at reminding the player that no good deed goes unpunished and, as Denam says, that "to lead is to stand alone."
When it comes to graphics, Tactics Ogre is a study in contradictions. Comparisons to Final Fantasy Tactics are inevitable, like in so many other aspects of this game. While the detailed, hand-drawn character art is simple and beautiful, the game shows its Super Famicom roots in the sprites for these same characters. Simply put, the game would benefit from more detailed and larger sprites, as the ones that exist are not naturally expressive. In addition, nearly all of the game's cutscenes are rendered in the in-game engine. This may have been fine three console generations ago, but could certainly be improved for PSP release. The few cutscenes not rendered in the engine use a map and still character art; nothing that takes the player deeper into the game. Still, the line art is quite elegant, and there is a substantial improvement over the original PlayStation version of the game. For a PSP title, the art could be considered anywhere between slightly below-average at worst to slightly above-average at best, depending on personal taste.
The audio component of Tactics Ogre is a treat for fans of the Ogre series, as so very much of the score is composed of classic tracks from other games in the series. There's a classic and immediately identifiable battle theme taken from the original Ogre Battle, and several variations on this tune used as other battle themes throughout the game. These upbeat tracks are full of victorious horns and strong melodies. And yet, where the background score is strong, the game would benefit a great deal from more voice acting. Between chapters, the player is treated to mini-cutscenes with full voicing, which are remarkably strong at setting the scene. With Square Enix's flair for the (melo)dramatic, there's no reason that there shouldn’t be more of these fully-voiced, animated cutscenes throughout the game. It would surely make up for some of the still-outdated graphics that mar the finished game.
In closing, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together appeals to a very specific demographic: the serious fan of the SRPG. It is time- and energy-intensive, but the reward is immensely worthwhile. Tactics Ogre is one of the finest games available for the PSP, and one of the best SRPGs released in the last dozen years. Involved, intense, customizable, and full of stuff to unlock, it is a must-buy for the serious SRPG fan as well as a shining example for someone new to the genre. Just make sure you can set aside fifty or so hours to invest in it, and you will be well-rewarded for your time. For those who have clamored for a "true" sequel to Final Fantasy Tactics, I bring you good news: this is as close as any game might ever come.