There are a lot of SRPGs out there, more prolific now than ever before. The genre owes a great deal to one man, Yasumi Matsuno, whose work with Quest and Square Enix gave us many of the SRPG standards we know today. Final Fantasy Tactics continues to echo in the minds of many as the gold standard of the genre.
Before using tile-based combat however, Matsuno had another brainchild, Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen. Adding a real-time element to the mix, Ogre Battle seeks to place the player in the seat of a general commanding his troops. Where a typical SRPG makes the player a god, able to manipulate each unit’s turn of combat, Ogre Battle rids itself of that vanity.
As a general rule, one manages their troops, making use of provisions and resources and assembling teams that are best suited to certain situations. Then, when the critical moment of battle comes, it’s up to the units–not the player–to decide how combat plays out. All the player can do is issue a general order, to strike at the strong or the weak, the leader, or simply the best the enemy has to offer.
Ogre Battle adds to this with reputation, alignment, and special abilities channeled through the Tarot Cards. The Tarot in fact plays an important part in the game from the very start. The player’s main character, called the Opinion Leader, answers a series of questions about morality, and then chooses a card. This card and the answers given construct exactly the kind of person the Opinion Leader is when the game begins.
The Tarot continues to influence the game from hereon in. When a player unit liberates a city from the enemy, they may draw a card. If the card is beneficial, like the High Priestess or the Heirophant, their statistics improve. If Death or the Devil are chosen, then reputation plummets, and the player’s destiny changes. Beyond that, one can also use the cards they’ve acquired to help change the circumstances of battle. Between summoning gods which wreak havoc to healing one’s entire unit, the cards can be the savior of one force and the decimator of the other.
One’s reputation and alignment determine many things about the game, including its ending. Perhaps most unique is the presence of the character Deneb, who is common to all the titles in the Ogre series. In this instance, she works for the enemy, the Zenobian Empire, a once righteous, now corrupt force, which has enslaved the people it once protected. You, as the leader of the rebellion, seek to overthrow the Empire. You have a choice then, upon defeating Deneb, to either forgive or execute her. Your choices until this point determine the outcome. Consider however that Deneb is a neutral character. Being too highly aligned may make her shy away. Yet if one’s alignment veers too low, the game’s best ending is also put in jeopardy. It can be rather taxing to be a completionist in this kind of game. How will you walk in the shadow and still lead your rebellion into the light?
These and other challenges are what make Ogre Battle so interesting. The game is a tribute to open-ended gameplay, granting the player a great deal of freedom which determines the outcome of things.
Ogre Battle is not necessarily for all tastes however. Indeed, it’s often hard for the typical SRPG fan to swallow, due to the battle mechanics. Not having direct control over one’s units is a big change and often makes the game that much more difficult for the average player. I myself struggled through my first playthrough years back, until I realized the difference between acting as a virtual god and playing as a general.
The game’s visuals have held up over the years surprisingly well. While the overworld map is quite bland, the actual in-game sprites and effects are well done, showcasing some wonderful art direction and a respect for sprite-making comparable with that of Sega’s classic Phantasy Star IV and Square Enix’s Chrono Trigger It’s not always the prettiest game to be sure, but it’s nonetheless a worthy effort. The addition of a real-time day-and-night system is also excellent and actually adds to the gameplay by strengthening low-alignment characters at night, while the reverse is true for high-alignment characters.
The sound is another matter. While the music is still bright and vivifying, the sound effects are rather tinny and don’t land with much impact where sword strikes and magic are concerned. The only exception to this is the presence of some digitized voice. Whenever a unit liberates a town or city, a voice rings out “Liberation!” as it does when two units meet in battle, announcing their intent to “Fight it out!” It’s a nice touch, even if it’s a bit muffled.
Perhaps the only real disappointment is the story itself. While the narrative is good and the plot mechanics respectable, actual depiction is severely limited. There are no cutscenes between acts, with most of the story resolved through townsfolk speaking to you via a text bubble, or the talking portraits of some special characters saying this and that. It’s serviceable, but uninspired, and the only real category where Ogre Battle falls short.
It’s a walk down memory lane to play Ogre Battle on the Virtual Console. While later games such as Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Calibre would reprise and update the formula, it’s a rare thing to see. Most SRPGs follow the formula of its successor, Tactics Ogre. It’s not a bad thing, but it does make SRPGs rather similar across the board. Ogre Battle’s a classic, and one I strongly urge even newer gamers to pick up and experience for themselves.