Publisher: Square Enix
Genre: Strategy / Role-Playing Game
Reviewer: Marcus Way
Overall: 9 = Must Buy
Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together is the reason that you still have a PSP. While tactical-RPGs might not necessarily be your cup of tea, Tactics Ogre joins a praised pantheon of PSP releases that seemingly come out of nowhere to sustain the system’s relevance through increasingly anemic release cycles. Whether it is God of War: Ghost of Sparta, Gradius Collection, Jeanne d’Arc, or any number of the system’s gems, Sony’s little handheld has a knack for getting one or two titles each year that are so compelling that any thoughts of getting rid of it are shelved as quickly as the system itself once the game’s been mastered. For fans of the genre, it will be quite some time before they put anything back on the shelf.
If you haven’t heard of Tactics Ogre before, you will most likely be familiar with its mechanics and design thanks to Final Fantasy Tactics. Despite being released on the PlayStation, as well as the Super Nintendo and Sega Saturn in Japan, and having a spin-off on the GameBoy Advance, Tactics Ogre had a hard time getting out from under the shadow of then-SquareSoft’s surprise hit. But it will be thanks to the efforts of today’s Square Enix that a whole new generation of gamers will get to appreciate developer Quest’s impact on the genre.
If there was anything getting in the way of Tactics Ogre‘s success, it was itself. For as addictive, unique, and engrossing as it was and remains, it has always been a very tough nut to crack. Innumerable stats, dozens of recruitable troops, and face-slapping difficulty made it a bewildering and intimidating experience for many who attempted to unify the peoples of Valeria. The team at Square Enix wisely realized that, while its fundamentals were as strong as ever, some tweaking was necessary to both broaden its appeal and account for advances in the genre. Even after adding, subtracting, remolding, and refining to the point of this being almost an entirely new experience, the game can still be intimidating.
For those who try the first few battles and feel their resolve weakening after seeing the plethora of stats, schools of magic, armor and weapon types, skills, and outcome-altering abilities, I can only offer encouragement and the promise that the time and effort is worth it. As difficult and time-consuming as its many intricacies are to grasp and stay on top of, there is an incredibly rich role-playing game that offers a shocking amount of game-changing choices set in an involved story with some of the best tactical combat available on any platform.
Now, as to why it’s so good. In short, there is little else on the market like it. Not only is it a self-contained portion of a storyline that spans three other great games—Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen, Ogre Battle 64: Persons of Lordly Caliber, and Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis—two of which feature similar yet noticeably different mechanics, offering fresh and engaging experiences in their own right, but it manages to have as equally involved strategy and role-playing elements. When I talk about role-playing, I’m not referring to the traditional approach of taking a band of heroes from town to town, collecting loot, and leveling up enough to take on the boss. I’m talking about the kind of role-playing where you inject yourself, and your personality, into the story.
You will be asked to do anything from stay behind to help rescue a new ally’s friend while the enemy is hot on your tail, to slaying an entire village of innocent people out of loyalty to your commander. What’s surprising is how blasé the game is in introducing these choices, which works doubly in its favor as their sudden appearances not only keep you in suspense, as anything can happen at any moment, but they also immerse you in a world where your actions make a difference, impacting how NPCs act and the story unfolds. There are multiple endings to take into account the different paths taken, and the character bios, normally static bits of fluff, adjust to update that person’s evolving relationship with you. The game also bestows titles for decisions made that serve as indicators of your general standing. New to this version is the World Tarot, a feature that allows for other choices to be explored without sacrificing your current army. Most of this is wrapped up in the Warren Report, a helpful section of the menu that does an admirable job of managing the mounds of ever-shifting information. While its predecessors had similar branching mechanics, Tactics Ogre‘s emergent storyline goes far beyond them and offers something that should rightfully be the envy of its contemporaries.
What makes many of the decisions so hard is that the loss of a character can be a serious blow to the squad’s combat effectiveness. While some units can be recruited, other, more gifted and unique soldiers are picked up along the way. Regardless of whether the unit is special or generic, each requires equal amounts of micromanagement to be more than arrow fodder. The sheer amount of attention that is necessary to keep a squad up to snuff remains one of the most daunting aspects about Tactics Ogre, and it’s one of the things that will be the biggest turnoff for a lot of people. I made the mistake of letting my units sit on some skill points and use the same weapons for a few battles and quickly found out just how vital upkeep is after seeing the pride of my army squashed by some roving bandits. Humiliating.
Proper squad maintenance requires vigilance over all unit properties: skills, magic, armor, and weapons. There is some serious menu wading here, and enough stats that only the most fastidious will track, but staying on top of new shop items, unlocked skills, and loot drops is mandatory. Some changes were made to the core system in order to give the units a bit more uniformity, as well as alleviate some of the difficulty, with surviving units earning experience points for their class and skill points for themselves. This does help in a general sense, allowing for a foundation to work from when deciding what units to use and how to upgrade them. Spells can also be used across nearly all units through the use of scrolls, with those units schooled in that scroll’s particular arts learning that spell for future use. Just the number of spell classes alone is unnerving: air, lightning, fire, earth, ice, water, dark, dark, divine, ninjitsu, and war dances. Each school interacts with the different unit types by playing off of specifies- and class-specific strengths and weaknesses. Slacking on any one of them can result in some painful encounters, as enemy squads will happily stack themselves with mages practiced in the spells that your troops are most vulnerable against.
Once you’ve gone through the process of learning skill points, acquiring new skill slots, assigning skills, and making sure everyone’s gear is top notch, it’s only then that you should send the troops into battle. While the world map has set areas and paths, combat takes place within the areas themselves. The view changes from an overhead 2D perspective to isometric, with the area turning into a detailed battlefield, complete with elevated terrain, structures, foliage, and other environmental obstacles. Zoomed-out and overhead views are also available, making it easy to ascertain distance, line of sight, and position. All of these make a difference, too, with trees blocking arrows, water slowing units down, and terrain elevation affecting attack strength and hit probability.
Positioning in general is a crucial component to victory. Not only does the terrain play a part, but in what direction a unit is left facing can also make a big difference, as attacks from the flank and rear as more effective than those from the front. Units can move and use a skill before or after attacking, casting a spell, or using an item, which allows for some pre-planning before settling on the direction before ending a turn. If a fight is turning south, you can retreat or utilize the Chariot Tarot to jump back to one of the last 50 turns in order to avoid an unfortunate outcome; diehards might recoil at the thought of getting a second chance, but it’s both optional and just what’s needed to soften to the blow of nearly losing a 20-minute battle. Then there are the less obvious but just as important considerations, such as what kind of archer to take, since composite bows allow for arches while the stronger crossbow only shoots in a straight line and their experience (and skill set) will tend to favor one over the other. All of the tactical considerations make the combat that much more engaging.
Oh, and I almost forgot, there’s also friendly fire – and you just poisoned half your squad along with that lone barbarian.
There’s more, of course, from item creation to the ability to change unit classes to setting the AI to take over characters, but I think you get the idea: there’s a lot to do. It’s a shame that more elegant solutions weren’t found for bypassing the streams of menus, as a significant portion of the game consists of going through monotonous maintenance routines. That, alongside the heavy focus on micromanagement, will no doubt land like a thud with some, but the hassles are worth putting up with. I do wish that the sprites were touched up, since the redrawn character art, which looks fantastic, and effect-heavy spells give everything a more modern flair while the pixelated units bring it back to an earlier era. Then again, that’s not so much a problem as it is wishful thinking.
To say that the PSP version of Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together is a re-imagining might not convey just how different it is from the original release. Dramatic changes in the story, mechanics, and design has brought Tactics Ogre into a new era with a glorious charge. Newcomers will find an engrossing, involved story coupled with a rich role-playing aspect and addictive tactical combat while veterans will get a chance to rediscover an old favorite. The heavy emphasis on micromanagement and extensive menu system can drag the pace down, and will end up feeling like a chore from time to time, but they are minor complaints when considering just how solid of a package Square Enix has put together. Ridiculously replayable, consistently engrossing, thoroughly engaging, and still mighty intimidating, Tactics Ogre makes a great addition to any library.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)