While many gamers will no doubt herald Final Fantasy Tactics as the pinnacle of strategy RPG gaming, it’s always been my belief that Tactics Ogre was actually a better game. Tactics Ogre had bigger parties, could be unmercifully difficult (you couldn’t revive fallen characters until well into the game—meaning a lost character was truly lost forever), and was incredibly deep in the gameplay department. Now, this isn’t meant to slag Final Fantasy Tactics (a fine game in its own right and another of my favorites), but just to point out why I’ve always felt that Tactics Ogre was the true king of console strategy RPGs, at least in the realm of the PSX—Sega’s Shining Force series is certainly no slouch in the strat RPG department, either.
How fitting is it, then, that Square has announced plans to port Final Fantasy Tactics to the Game Boy Advance—where it can go head-to-head with Atlus’ latest installment in their popular Ogre Battle series, Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis? Pretty darn fitting, if you ask me.
Of course, to be fair, Tactics Ogre GBA is a little less intricate than both Final Fantasy Tactics and the original Tactics Ogre game (which began life as a Super Famicom title then was later ported to the PSX for a domestic release). That doesn’t make it any less enthralling though—and considering that we have this game, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Fire Emblem looming on the horizon, the future is looking quite bright for strategy RPG fans. If the two upcoming games are half as good as the newest installment in the Tactics Ogre series, gamers are in for a real treat.
A Plot of Labyrinthine Complexity
Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis is a gaiden, or side-story. It’s not part of the major Ogre Battle plotline, and as such, stands independently of the earlier games. You don’t need to have ever played another game in the Ogre Battle series in order to grab this one and jump right in.
In what seems to have become a convention of the subgenre, Tactics Ogre contains a plot that is incredibly complex. Featuring a large cast of characters, oddly named locations, oodles of historical backstory, and loads of political intrigue and backstabbing; it’s often far more complex than it needs to be. By the middle of the game, I found myself really not caring much about the story because the twists and turns had thrown me for such a loop that I had only the most rudimentary sense of what was going on. Truthfully, you’ll need a scorecard to keep everyone and their situations straight.
What I could make sense of revolves around a young knight named Alphonse. Lodisism is a relatively new religion that sprang up 15 years before the events in the game. The Holy Lodis Empire controls the entire island of Ovis, which is located off the west coast of the continent Galicia. Lodisism swept the island, overtaking some regions without any conflict, and others (such as Anser) only after great bloodshed. As Alphonse, a member of the Order of the Sacred Flame of Felis, you’ll travel across Ovis and find yourself embroiled in a quest to capture a powerful spear before it falls into the wrong hands—and questioning everything you’ve come to believe and accept about yourself in the process.
And that’s about the best I can do with the story. Tactics Ogre is often unnecessarily deep—particularly for a tale that really boils down to little more than ‘knight goes on quest to find sacred artifact and save the world’. Sure, all the intrigue and scores of characters make the story seem far grander than it really is, but in the end, it’s almost too much. When you find yourself halfway through the game and don’t have a clue as to what’s going on, then there’s probably more complexity in the story than necessary. This is exacerbated by the fact that the title is a GBA game—meaning it’s portable and can be picked up, played for an hour, then put down and not played again for days. The narrative thread is completely lost in situations like this.
In its defense, though, the story is well written from a grammatical standpoint. There aren’t any glaring spelling or grammar errors in the narrative. If the plotline had been simplified slightly, Tactics Ogre would garner a score in the 90s for its story. Instead, it has to lose a few points for being needlessly complex in spots.
While the plot of Tactics Ogre may be a mess that will leave most gamers confounded by the midway point, the gameplay will keep them coming back.
Tactics Ogre shines in terms of gameplay—bringing forth a deep and complex battle system that would have been almost unthinkable on a handheld a few years ago.
While the core elements of the system have been found in console strategy RPGs for the last few years, the fact that they make the transition to a handheld system so seamlessly is still amazing.
The game’s battles take place on isometric maps with varying geographical, topographical, and elemental conditions. Each of these conditions affects how the battles play out, how far characters can move, etc. Moving on a battlefield in a town will be far easier than it will be on a snow-covered mountain, allowing your troops to move further in each turn.
Battles are waged on these maps, with Alphonse selecting seven other comrades in arms to aid him in the upcoming skirmish. The party is almost always comprised of eight people in the main campaign mode—quest mode occasionally makes you use fewer members. Since the party can hold up to 32 characters total, this makes planning for each battle vitally important. While having several knights is sure to cause a fair amount of damage to the enemy, using them on a screen where their movement will be hindered can cost you the battle.
Characters are taken from a wide variety of classes, most with male and female forms as well. There are also beast classes (dragons, octopi, etc.), fairies, hawkmen, and more for you to use in your campaign. Making things even more complicated is an alignment system—characters can be lawful, chaotic, or neutral, a biorhythm indicator that determines whether a character is confident or terrified, and a multitude of potential classes.
All of these things, and the aforementioned geographical, topographical, and climate information, factor into how effective your troops will be in battle. Tactics Ogre gives you an exhaustive amount of information to consider with each move, but that’s what makes the game so compelling. Is it better to mount a head-on attack this turn and take the return damage, or risk staying put and hope to come around the back of the enemy where you get to attack with no counterattack in the next turn? How will the lay of the land affect that strategy? Is your archer the right choice to attack that nearby knight, or should you work on bringing one of your hawkmen into the fray? Each turn presents questions like this and a multitude of others. Hardcore strategy fans will spend huge chunks of time considering all of the variables in a quest to make the best move and suffer the least amount of casualties.
While in battle, you’ll have the option of slaying your enemies outright or persuading them to jump ship and join your cause. Persuasion works best when the person you’re trying to win over is near defeat and when persuaded by a member of the opposite sex. Persuading enemies to join you is a good way to get stronger party members throughout the game.
Of course, if persuasion doesn’t work, you can buy recruits in the local shops. Recruits will cost you quite a bit of goth (the game’s currency), particularly if you’re trying to buy leveled-up members. Each extra level of experience raises the price of the recruit. In the early going, where goth is particularly scarce, persuasion is a more viable option for expanding your party.
Each battle will have a condition for victory or defeat. Often the cause for defeat is the death of Alphonse. Victory generally requires little more than defeating the leader of the enemy troops. It’s unfortunate that there aren’t some more inventive scenarios, like the ones in Vandal Hearts that have you trying to not kill zombified townsfolk, or capturing the enemy before they escape. Defeating the enemy often allows you to speed up the pace of the battles, but at the expense of experience and potential items found after defeating enemies. Once again, strategy comes into play—in some scenarios, a hasty victory is the way to go. Do it too often, though, and you’ll find yourself under-leveled for some of the later battles.
Fortunately, leveling up can be achieved through fighting random battles. Tactics Ogre has a generic world map that allows you to move between towns by following various routes. Sometimes, when you arrive in a town, you’ll encounter enemy forces in a battle that’s not part of the game’s main storyline. In these fights, you’ll generally have to defeat all of the enemies on the screen, thereby giving your army a fair amount of experience.
Characters earn experience points for each successful attack and counterattack. The level of the enemy determines the number of points earned, so attacking the weak isn’t recommended. When the character earns 100 experience points they level up, gaining more hit points and stat increases as well as the occasional new skill.
Aside from leveling up, characters can earn emblems based on their actions in the game. Some emblems are rewards for things like killing an enemy when you’re near death, while others are more shameful in nature. Earning the emblems allows for certain characters to attain new classes and become stronger. So, you’ll want to earn as many emblems as you can in order to reach the best of the rare classes the game offers.
If the emblem system and the sheer multitude of classes wasn’t enough to increase the replay value of the game, then the branching story paths certainly will. Not only can you play through Tactics Ogre a number of times with a variety of different parties, you can also play through several times and have unique experiences based on the decisions you make in the game. These decisions will affect who joins you, endings, and so forth—making it so that you can play through this lengthy game a number of times without having the exact same experience.
And that’s not even talking about the other modes of play—quest mode offers the player the chance to explore rare maps and find loads of treasure and goth. It costs goth to play these maps, but the rewards are well worth it—particularly since you’ll find weapons that aren’t available in the main quest.
On top of that, there’s also a link play mode that will allow you and a buddy to go head to head in battle, trade items, and so forth.
If the gameplay in Tactics Ogre has one flaw, it’s that it often is a very slow game. There’s no option to skip any of the movement and battle animations, which means you’ll have to watch your character saunter out into position, attack, and watch the counterattack. This eats up a lot of time, and even more when you factor in that you have to watch the computer controlled enemies do the exact same thing. I could get up and pour a drink in the time it took the computer to finish its move—not a good thing, really. Fortunately, you can quick save at any time as long as it’s your turn to move. This makes it far easier to play the game on the go.
Frankly though, for such a little cartridge, Tactics Ogre is chock full of gaming goodness. The game speed could have been tweaked, but other than that, this is a strategy RPG fan’s dream.
Tactics Ogre won’t blow you away with its graphics, but they’re more than serviceable for a strategy RPG—a genre rarely known for its graphical prowess to begin with.
Characters are all sprite-based creations on the 2-D isometric maps. They’re well detailed, particularly when one considers how small they are on the GBA screen, and animate quite fluidly. Each character has full animations for movement that are class specific, attack animations, and more. The sequences are comprised of a decent number of frames as well.
Backgrounds and maps are about what you’d expect from a game in this particular subgenre. Since everything is based on small squares, there’s a very blocky overall look to many of the towns and locales. Lots of right angles and symmetry make up the geography of Ovis, but that’s not a bad thing, per se. Houses, castles, and everything else have a decidedly 16-bit look to them, not quite on the same level of something from the PSX era like Final Fantasy Tactics, but that never detracts from the gaming experience. Even the best looking games in the strategy RPG field tend to look rather plain in comparison to everything else out there—and Tactics Ogre is no exception.
Spell effects are decidedly dated looking, too—but again, I find that it feeds my sense of gaming nostalgia. If you want cutting edge graphics, why did you buy a GBA to begin with?
The one area of the graphics that really impressed me was in the use of color. I remember the original Tactics Ogre being a relatively drab affair, filled with lots of muted browns and whatnot. The GBA game manages to utilize a broader color palette, which makes the proceedings a lot more interesting visually.
If the graphics in Tactics Ogre are reminiscent of SNES-era RPGs, then the sound and music fall into the same boat.
Tactics Ogre features a score comprised of several different tracks, all of good quality. The battle themes tend to be majestic enough to spur you into action, although it does get a little tedious the further you get into the adventure. The rest of the score is serviceable, with a few standout tracks and some filler tunes as well. In the music’s defense, it does often suit the game’s mood nicely. Perhaps I’m just becoming jaded about game music in general, because lately, most of the stuff I’ve heard through the GBA has left me largely indifferent.
Sound effects fare the same—there’s just not a whole lot of variety to them. Swords all tend to make the same sound regardless of what they’re hitting, the death screams are laughably simplistic, and most of the FX work is average at best.
The game also features a tiny bit of voice acting. When the player encounters a random battle, a nasally voice will say the word ‘encounter’. When fighting one of the main story battles, it will command you to ‘fight it out’. Overall, it’s pretty simplistic and gets old quickly.
So, the music and sound work isn’t terrible in Tactics Ogre, but it will probably have you turning down the volume and adding your own musical accompaniment in the latter stages of the game.
While Tactics Ogre does have some areas where it’s slightly deficient (the music, the speed of battle, etc.) none of those things hurt the game overall. At best, they’re minor annoyances that keep the game from being a classic and instead place it in the realm of very good. Fans of strategy RPGs in general and the Ogre Battle series in particular will want to run out and grab a copy of the game (which seems to be hard to find even though it was just released)—this is what you’ve been waiting for: a deep and involving strategy RPG that you can take with you wherever you go.
More casual fans might find the wealth of information Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis throws at you to be a bit overwhelming, but stick with it because once you get the hang of it, Tactics Ogre becomes an incredibly addictive gaming experience that will offer up roughly 30 hours of fun for a single playthrough—as well as giving you the opportunity to play it several more times with different strategies. That alone is more than enough to justify the $40 price tag.
If you’re a fan of strategy RPGs, then Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis should find a permanent home in your gaming library.