(Wii Review) Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber (Virtual Console)

Developer: Quest
Publisher: Square Enix
Genre: Strategy / Role-Playing Game
Players: 1
ESRB: Everyone
Reviewer: Marcus Way

Overall: 9 = Must Buy

Ten years on and Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber is still a compelling game. Few series have mixed macro- and micromanagement as Ogre Battle, and that approach, combined with a unique form of story telling, has managed to sustain a title that is quickly approaching its first decade on the market.

Considering that Ogre Battle 64 can fetch upwards of $70 on eBay, the Virtual Console release will be a no-brainer for most strategy and role-playing fans out there. Due to a limited print run during the title’s original release, most likely from Atlus’ limited resources, this might be the only chance many of you out there have at even playing it. So, is it worth its cult status? I’d say yes, very much so.

Getting the most out of it really depends on what you want out of a strategy game. Keep in mind that this isn’t Final Fantasy Tactics, and what I mean by that is that this isn’t a purely tactical game. The best way to describe Ogre Battle 64’s approach is that it takes a micro view towards strategy and a macro view towards tactics.

Combat is a largely hands-off affair with you, as the general, only having three commands, known as Interrupt Commands, at your disposal: battle strategy, retreat, and magic (Elem Pedra). Retreating and casting aren’t immediately available during combat but are gradually unlocked as an interrupt meter fills during the fight, with each full bar opening up new command options: two fills unlocks retreat and three allows you to summon an Elem Pedra, a personification of the elements, to attack the enemy. The battle strategy commands are fairly broad, directing the troupe to attack certain targets, such as the weakest unit or the leader. This might sound uninteresting, and to be honest it kept me from giving the series a fair shot back in the mid ‘90s, but it can actually be quite interesting as you come to realize that it’s your pre-combat and strategic preparations coming to fruition that is what is really on display. The battle animations can even be turned off, which can save a decent amount of downtime, but I left them on as I found myself enjoying the skirmishes and rooting for my guys.

While combat may be nearly automatic, preparing for it is not. Ogre Battle 64 might not ask much of you when things get rough, but it asks more than enough to make sure that your soldiers are ready when it comes time to engage the enemy. It is almost bewildering how many options are available; the small, quaint icons do little to prepare you for the onslaught of possibilities.  Each five-unit squad can be reformed, reinforced, rearmed, renamed (down to the soldier), and replaced. There are dozens (and dozens) of classes to choose from, which are determined by the soldiers’ gender, species, and alignment. Gear purchased from town shops is bestowed upon qualified units to upgrading them into any number of classes, from a fighter to a knight or a dragon tamer to a dragon master. Troops are recruited at the end of each mission and deployed in three-unit squads, and are not replaceable: if they fall during combat, they’re gone forever. Keep the little buggers alive and they will upgrade whenever they gain enough experience to one of two gender-specific units, depending on the gender of the unit leader, as a male swordsmen fighter or female archer Amazon. The class system alone is staggering as options are constantly being opened as the story progresses.

Squad deployment on the regional map is also important as it can lead to a horrible route or a glorious victory. Each squad is represented and commanded by their unit leader on a quasi-3D view of the area. The goal is to liberate towns and storming the enemy’s stronghold while holding your own. Strongholds are vital because they operate as a field hospital, a base of deployment, and their safety is a key victory condition. They are often secure through the initial stages of an operation, though, as enemies are normally a safe distance away, secure in nearby towns. Dislodging an enemy results in the liberation of the town, which offers a way for unit leaders to restore health as well as the possible means to revive units at a witch’s hut or purchase new items and equipment at a shop. Routed enemies tend to make a beeline right back for the town, so it’s often difficult to press your advantage without sacrificing valuable healing time. It’s often more difficult to hold towns after liberating them as the counterattacks from regrouped enemies can route disorganized commanders. Getting the right unit to the right place at the right time and prepared for an assault is determined by a number of key factors: squad speed, roadways, time of day, fatigue, and direction.

Getting the squads to the desired locations requires knowing just how quickly they can get there, since they will often run across an approaching or retreating enemy. Poor timing will also create a traffic jam of sorts, with allies too close together to properly maneuver to their own objectives. Roads make travel faster, but they are also often lined with enemies; the wildness often offers a shortcut, but the terrain might unexpectedly slow you down or your arrival spring an enemy ambush. The time of day and fatigue must also be watched, as some units fight better at different times and all need to rest after traveling. Once a squad becomes too tired, they will immediately make camp, which means that any attacking enemy lucky enough to make it in time to the camp will get a few lucky shots on the snoozing and disoriented soldiers. Likewise, units facing away from an approaching enemy will also be penalized by a few hits as they reorient themselves to face the threat. Things can get surprisingly tense as the map fills up, time winds down, and you see your handful of units closing in on an enemy’s stronghold as their compatriots converge on key towns.

The world map offers a bit of a breather compared to the regional map. Here, the story is progressed by you choosing which mission to tackle first as well as access to a few administrative actions. A cool feature, and one I will discuss a bit more later, is that alignment and story elements change depending on what order missions are handled. But the most important activity that the world map allows access to is training. Ogre Battle 64 isn’t the hardest game you’ll play, but it isn’t the easiest, either, and missions can become difficulty fairly early on. If you don’t train enough, the missions quickly become massacres. By spending a few gold and a few minutes, your units can spar with a training squad that will allow them to beef up their stats. Train, train, and train some more. The game truly shines once you get to explore the different class types, so just the interesting combinations alone are worth your time – never mind actually surviving future encounters.

For all of the combat talk, there is one area in which Ogre Battle 64 excels and that few titles can match: the story. Once you realize just how sprawling and intricate the story is and how intertwined its progression is to your decisions, the game becomes all the more addictive. Similar to Bethesda role-playing games, Ogre Battle 64 begins by asking you a series of questions. During your oath of allegiance to the Kingdom of Palatinus, you are asked a number of questions whose responses will immediately effect how the game plays out. Aside from some of the more obvious, such as which deity you follow, there are others that revolve around what you hope to accomplish through your services and what you expect for your efforts. For instance, I said that I was going to offer freedom and fight chaos. Shortly after things kicked into gear, I heard about cries for freedom from the rebellious underclass and lectures on the importance of fending off chaos from the aristocracy. As things progress, by the order missions are accomplished, actions taken, and answers given, the storyline starts to diverge to offer each player a slightly different experience. It makes the traditional Evil Empire and Glorious Revolution storyline actually interesting and worth paying attention to as you navigate the hazards of become a person you – or your allies – might loathe. The only thing I found odd was the random bits of cussing and inconsistent terminology that seemed to fit our world more than the game world. With six different endings and numerous paths, from being good to chaotic to pure evil, the replay factor is phenomenal.

Surprisingly, for a ten-year-old game on a system not known for its strategy titles, much less strategy role-playing games, the menu system and controls are shockingly good. The Nintendo 64’s analog nub helped pave the way for the smooth transition to the (required) classic controller, but even then, much of the game’s complex menu system is made approachable and navigable through an easy-to-follow layout and icon-driven system. Granted, the game is daunting, even if you take advantage of the Tutorial, but the best way to learn, like most games, is to just dive right in. It’s all very confusing at first, but it only takes a few missions to get the hang of things. A mixture of commonsense and intelligent design decisions really gives the game a feeling of being ahead of its time, such as the ability to skip scenes, a snap feature that brings the ‘move to’ location flag to nearby towns and strongholds, quick menu access via shoulder buttons, and the separation of activities by phase of action.

There remain a few hang-ups, however, despite the developer’s outstanding efforts. One irritating problem I ran into was getting caught in a long combat loop with retreating enemies on the regional map. Fights tend to break off after each side exchanges a few blows, with the losing squad retreat for a few seconds afterwards. This is well and good, often giving yourself a breather and time to realign your on-screen cursor, but sometimes the enemy will run into an object that cannot be navigated – say, a river – and you are too close to turn away. The result is a really cycle of fighting, winning, going back to the map, and then immediately reengaging the retreating enemy. Some unit leaders have long health bars, especially those that can heal, further extending the sequence. Another minor issue is the snap feature’s difficulty in ascertaining which object you’re trying to select whenever there are multiple elements in an area. You might want to go into the town but the feature snaps to the nearby retreating enemy instead, which means using the directional pad to try to force the flag icon to where you actually want to go. This is pretty common but, given the time and control limitations, an acceptable irritant. Most of the time, though, the game progresses without issue.

Nintendo’s use of the cartridge in the days when systems were switching to the CD-Rom caused many a problems for the N64, the most prominent being the required reuse of visual and audio assets. Ogre Battle 64 couldn’t escape this, with many towns, structures, and character models being reused and having only a handful of audio tracks. Luckily, what’s included is nice, with a soundtrack consisting of a nice mix of calming and bombastic tunes with decent effects and some nice, if a smidge pixilated, character design. At the ten-year mark, it is clearly a sign of the times but more than serviceable.

At 1,000 Wii Points ($10), the Virtual Console release of Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber is a phenomenal deal. With upwards of a hundred hours of gameplay, which includes multiple endings, branching storylines, dozens of classes, and a surprising amount of customization, there is a whole lot for the would-be general to tackle. Don’t let its release date or the screenshots fool you: Ogre Battle 64 is a satisfying, addictive title whose production values still manage to charm. A few control issues linger from the N64 days, but they are minor for such a complex game and more than tolerable. If you want something a little different, a little less tactical and more strategic, with surprisingly innovative storytelling mechanics, then look no further. A great buy.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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