Strategy RPGs come with innate attributes which fans have come to expect. Among these are substantive and challenging battles, good use of three-dimensional battlefields (sorry, Shining Force), and large party customization. Through this sub-genre’s brief history, we have seen extraordinary successes — Tactics Ogre, Front Mission, Fire Emblem — as well as a few failures (I’m looking at you, Hoshigami). The format certainly lends itself to engrossing gameplay, gripping tales, and innovation, though copycats have run amok as of late. Ragnarok Tactics falls somewhere in between. If strategy RPGs had bodies to dive into the sea of immersion and complex game design, Final Fantasy Tactics’ entirety would be submerged, while Ragnarok Tactics merely dips a tentative toe.
RT follows a Carraway-esque, 17-year-old protagonist — you — who in turn follows his mentor, Toren, through plains and forest alike in search of monsters. A former mercenary, Toren has separated himself from the peninsula’s current stalemate between the Aura Republic and Branshaldo Empire, two factions who vie for power and influence. Certainly sounds like a strategy RPG plot, doesn’t it? After encountering leading officers from each faction, the hero has to decide whose route he (or she) would like to follow, or perhaps some combination. Herein lies the best part of RT: its branching story arcs.
After a brief linear romp in order to acclimate the player to both gameplay and central characters, decisions have to be made on the overworld: do you aid one of the factions, or follow Toren in his pursuit to exterminate monsters across the homeland? Even then, other paths make themselves available depending on dialogue choices and missions taken. What’s more, a handy (and arguably dandy) flowchart helps track relationships between characters. Initially, the hero enjoys an amicable relationship to those immediately close to him, and figureheads and their pawns maintain their traditional roles. Though, as predicted, friends become enemies and enemies become friends. Or maybe they don’t. The trajectory of the story is all up to you.
RT fervently stresses the need for multiple playthroughs. During character creation, some jobs are not available at the onset — the first big hint. Next, a staggeringly slow completion counter prominently sits in the bottom left-hand corner of the menu screen, indicating that the story holds so much more in store for those daring enough to go through the first couple scenarios again. I followed one particular character from beginning to end with no diversion (boring, I know), and ended the game with 22% completion. To make the impact of choices even more evident, sub-quests eventually pop up in towns or on the world maps that could introduce entirely new characters, sub-plots, or turns in the story. This also may depend on dialogue choices. Truly, the most enticing aspect of RT is its highly variable story and the influence of player choice.
However, a framework for good storytelling and player interactivity alone does not make for strong writing. While on the world map, various towns may be available in accordance with what event has recently taken place. Here, players can talk to the inhabitants through a menu screen. A word of caution: the following examples may physically pull money out of your wallet and into the hands of the publishers. “Why is there warrrr?” “OhmyGod the Aura Republic is so evil and stupid, hur hur hur,” and, “I am inconsequential, spoiled, and parasitic, thus I am the perfect representation of citizenry.” Of course, I’m paraphrasing, but the unsettling part is that I’m paraphrasing. In fact, Internet memes even made an appearance with a major character stating, “A winner is you.” Really? Finally, I must admit that about two-thirds of the way through the game, I just stopped reading townsfolk text entirely; I’ve never done this before in a game. I understand that the intent is to build a sense of atmosphere of what the general populace is saying and thinking about recent events so that the plot doesn’t take place within a microcosm of “important people,” and that endeavor is admirable. However, a little more personality and substance wouldn’t hurt.
Final Fantasy Tactics was released in 1997. Gamers across Japan and eventually North America experienced a level of customization, depth of strategy, and balance never witnessed before. Or since, unfortunately. RT brazenly attempts to copy this formula with watered down job classes, almost completely level terrain in unimaginative battlefields, and a catalogue of uninspired abilities that basically boil down to close-combat and ranged-combat. Although I cannot claim that RT bored me, I cannot say that I would ever opt to play this game while not watching videos of the Internet. Not only are battles repetitive, long, and tedious, but they require occasional grinding in order to meet random boosts in enemy levels across battles. On a more technical note, many of the special attacks and relaying of information (such as experience obtained) take a few seconds to clear before the player can input any new commands to units. If I didn’t multitask while playing this game, I might have lost my mind.
Job classes function much the same as they do in other games featuring this mechanic: units gain experience for themselves and separate experience for their job classes. After a few levels, a new ability that varies slightly from previous abilities becomes available. Here, players can put a bonus point in an ability that they’ll use exclusively while ignoring the newer ability unless the description makes it sound more powerful than anything currently in use. Mixing and matching job classes can yield unique abilities if players use a super move in battle that requires a certain combination of techniques. Fortunately, townsfolk sometimes offer hints about how to obtain certain abilities, but players likely won’t obtain these upon the first playthrough due to the breadth of abilities that are often required. The rest is basic strategy RPG fare: walk on a gridded battlefield until you can hit the enemy. Never split up. Keep fragile story characters in the back unless you want to lose a 30-minute battle after two successive hits. Watch Let’s Plays on YouTube of someone playing a far more entertaining game. Question what you’re doing with your life until the weight of existential stress becomes crippling.
The graphics, like the storytelling, offer some neat ideas, but ultimately fail to entice. Unlike most strategy RPGs, battlefields often have a sense of depth. That is, the “higher up” a player looks, the smaller the grids and units appear, which effectively appears three dimensional. The downside is that the game looks terrible. Blurry backgrounds and terrain meet sharp characters and enemies whose outlining are cracked. Simply put, RT is not pleasant to look at, aside from the still images that appear during plot sequences.
In a vote for consistency, the music fails to match the proper mood of certain exchanges of dialogue. At times that require a serious tone, the music remains lighthearted, energetic, or silly. RT offers few memorable tracks, but with the production values witnessed in graphics, at least I cannot say I’m surprised.
Fortunately, one upside of grid-based combat with heavy use of menus is that control is nearly impossible to fumble. Certainly, that is the case with RT. The only part of the game that could have any control issues is the world map where players use a cursor to select towns or whatnot, but the cursor satisfyingly magnetizes itself to locations.
Ragnarok Tactics has one hook: dynamic storytelling. Unfortunately, that story might as well be told by a fanatical JRPG enthusiast with inflamed skin. Although I honestly feel driven to unravel RT’s various arcs, the samey gameplay and adolescent writing may keep its secrets hidden. If the developers put as much effort into the rest of the game as they did catering to player choice, then this title would successfully tread new territory for its ilk.