Langrisser was the first real strategy RPG made by Masaya back in 1991, and the first installment in one of the more well-known strategy RPG series. It has the distinction as the first and last domestically released Langrisser game, though fan translators are still at work on all the other games in the series. Treco's domestic version of the game changed nearly every character name and included touch-ups of all the portraits, some drastically differing from the original portraits (compare Sabra to Narm for the most striking change).
Warsong's innovation was the introduction of a particular kind of commander/troop style which alludes to the kinds of wargames Masaya had previously worked on (the Elthlied series in particular). The characters in one's party are considered commanders, who can hire up to 8 army units to aid them in combat. The kinds of units hirable are completely determined by the commander's current class and include soldiers, horsemen, archers, mermen, gryphons, guardsmen, and monks. At the beginning of each scenario, commanders may hire troops and equip one of a limited number of items. There are no shops to buy items from and no towns to explore, just map after map of foes to fight, SRPG-style.
Maps play out in simple turn-based style. Each turn begins with the player movement phase, followed by the enemy movement phase, as in Elthlied. Units may be moved in any order, but as a consequence, moves cannot be retracted. Maps are 2D tile-based with clear grids. Battles may only be initiated between adjacent units and are executed in traditional 2D cut-scenes. As units or commanders lose HP, they have reduced efficacy in combat, scaled to the loss of HP.
Experience is accumulated only by commanders, but foes vanquished by a commander's units contribute to the commander's experience total. And, while killing a commander directly will destroy that commander's remaining units, one will only earn the experience points for defeating the commander, so the experience-point hungry will want to focus on defeating all troop units first. Note that experience is ONLY earned for defeating foes, so "almost" killing a unit nets no experience, nor does healing your own units. As a result, cleric commanders tend to advance MUCH more slowly than other characters unless they are conscientiously "fed" almost-dead units to slay.
Leveling up visibly has no effect on one's stats unless one reaches level 10 and a class change, but there are "hidden" benefits to higher levels. For instance, at level 5, the radius for magic is increased as is its efficacy. Additionally, class level plays some hidden effect in the strength of one's troops: even if their stats are the same, a level 1 soldier unit fighting a level 9 soldier unit will be sorely outmatched.
Examining class-changing reveals one of the first major problems with Warsong. Three of the characters have the exact same class change chart, which gives them a strong carbon-copy feeling. Furthermore, the class advancements do not, in many cases, make much sense. Lords, who are strong against knights, typically can only advance via class-change to Magic Knights, a mounted unit! Furthermore, only a mage can ultimately advance to become a Ranger, the character class with the strongest attack stats. Clerics end up with stronger attack magic than mages.
Additionally, because class-changing is permanent, it is possible to make one of the characters, Tiberon (Taylor), completely useless for the second half of the game. Tiberon can either become a Serpent Knight or a Knight, but a Serpent Knight is extremely weak on land and all of the later maps are land-based.
Close examination of the units reveals another serious problem with Warsong's mechanics. In theory, units have set strengths and weaknesses, so that one should use soldiers against archers, archers against horsemen, horsemen against soldiers, and so forth. These relations are modified by terrain types, commander level, and proximity to the commander (troops within a commander's radius of influence receive significant stat boosts based on the commander's class). Unfortunately, while this premise works out quite well in the later games in the Langrisser series, Masaya completely botched the balance in Warsong.
First of all, randomness plays much too large a role in the battles. As a result, a horsemen unit attacking a soldier unit of equal numbers typically destroys the soldiers with 1-3 horsemen left over, but sometimes results in the soldiers destroying the horsemen, instead. This makes battles extremely unpredictable, making this more of a "role-playing" game than a "strategy" game in some sense. Indeed, the balance is such that the net result of a scenario is determined more by the strength of one's commanders than by skilful movement of their troops.
As hinted at before, this pattern of design oversight extends to the scenario map designs. On top of the Tiberon / Serpent Knight issue, there is a major problem revolving around cavalry. For some reason, movement of cavalry units is extremely limited on indoor floor panels. However, the castles are often defended by large numbers of soldiers, requiring horsemen to defeat them. The net result is that the horsemen take forever to move around the castle, unnecessarily slowing the game by this artificial movement restriction. This problem becomes exacerbated near the end of the game by the fact that nearly every final class for a commander is some kind of (mounted) knight. On the final map, after defeating all of the lesser enemies, it took me over 10 turns to move all of my commanders within fighting distance of Ganelon (Bohzel) because of this movement restriction coupled with Ganelon's defensive AI.
AI is another key problem in the game. The "AI" is entirely form-based, following one of three patterns of movement and largely ignoring the benefits of terrain in its execution. In theory, one could use the AI to specify one's troop movements relative to the movement of one's commanders; in practice, though, it is more effective to individually move one's troops to take advantage of the terrain. Moreover, to "effectively" use the AI movement of one's troops, one must move much less than maximal distance each round, since the AI forms shuffle troops from the back to the front. Without reducing one's movement rate, this AI shuffling will result in troops being left far behind the commander. Those who choose to use the full 8 troops per commander will quickly understand why a more effective AI movement algorithm to automate troop movement would have been quite a boon, especially given the size of the scenario maps.
In general, strategy RPGs make a point of carefully interleaving intriguing plot elements with the time-consuming tactical battles, providing more incentive to advance the game. Warsong attempts to follow this tradition, but ultimately fails again. Many important plot elements are told via narration instead of shown via in-game conversation, such as Garret's (Ledin's) first meeting with Mina (Kris), his future wife. Furthermore, the narration does a poor job of providing transitions between scenarios, making a number of the scenarios seem painfully disjoint from the plotline.
In-game conversation is minimal, dry, and too focused on Garret, who spouts streams of stock dialogue. The other characters in the party rarely speak after joining up, further enforcing the cardboard-cutout nature of the characters suggested by the carbon-copy class advancement paths. This nonexistent character development is framed by an extremely boring plotline and stereotyped thematic material. And, unfortunately, Treco's translation is not to blame for most of the so-so-ness which confounds the text of the game - it sounds almost as bad in Japanese. Even the absurdly vague "Evil" which keeps popping up in Treco's translation isn't really Treco's fault: it is about all you could use to translate the "jaaku" in the Japanese source. The name changes were for the most part nonsensical, but there really was little to be done with the original text short of a complete rewrite.
Graphically, Warsong leaves much to be desired. The portrait modifications from Langrisser are a slight improvement over those from Langrisser, but they are still quite ugly, for the most part. The maps are quite large but consist of gridded tiles with a modicum of variety. The icons representing troops and commanders are functional, but not too aesthetically pleasing. In battle cut-scenes, the same small icons used on the maps are reused with minimal animations, resulting in the worst cut-scene battles in any 16-bit strategy RPG that I've ever seen. There are only a few exceptions to this rule - the Efreet, Dragon, and Chaos all get huge portraits that take between a quarter and a half of the screen in the battles. These larger portraits are reasonably done, but the difference in scale results in considerable amusement at the expense of your characters.
Moving to music, there are at most five different songs that play throughout the twenty scenarios comprising Warsong. What this means is that, for the majority of the game, you will be listening to one standard theme playing during your turn and another standard theme playing during the enemy phase. In and of themselves, these themes are so-so, but after listening to them ad nauseum throughout the entire game, they become grating, to put it mildly. Masaya could have gotten away with this back on the Master System, but this was a 16-bit game...
Overall, Warsong is a very low-grade Genesis game that offers little return for the painful time required to play it. Those who want to try the Langrisser series for the first time should begin with Langrisser II, where the series *really* began. Fans of the series who feel a need to learn the storyline for Langrisser I should stick with one of its many remakes, each of which adds enough character interaction and transition text to make the storyline at least minimally coherent.
Only a true masochist who enjoys pointless exercises in tedium would find something delightfully new in Warsong not found in one of the other installments in the Langrisser series. The tenth anniversary of the Langrisser series is being celebrated this April 26th, marked by the release of Langrisser I, but I know I won't be doing any serious celebrating until the tenth anniversary of Langrisser II...