Tactics Ogre - Staff Retroview  

Hail to the King
by Bryan Boulette

High Challenge
50-70 Hours


Rating definitions 

   After the death of King Dolgare, chaos erupts on the island of Valeria. The king had, through diplomacy and force, united a fractious island of quarrelsome ethnic groups, and with his heirless demise, various factions each schemed to take control of the whole of Valeria or, at the very least, secure their own independence. In the south, Cardinal Barbatos emerged as the leader of the majority Gargastanians, while Dolgare's former counselor, Bishop Branta, took over the leadership of the Church and the elite Bacrumese ethnic group. In order to secure his power, Branta sought the assistance of the expansionistic Holy Lodis Empire, who sent the ruthless Roslolian Order of Dark Knights to provide the power behind the throne Branta had claimed. A new civil war erupted.

   Barbatos was no match for the power of the north and Lodis' Roslolians, and his people were losing the will to fight. He needed a scapegoat -- an easy target to fill the people of Gargastan with a new bloodlust. And an easy solution presented itself in the minority ethnic group, the Walstanians. Barbatos quickly formed up death squads who began a campaign of ethnic cleansing within Gargastans borders, prompting the formation of an organized resistance under Duke Ronway. Nevertheless, the genocide spurred new strength from the people of Gargastan, who fought back even harder against Branta and Lans Tartare, the leader of the Dark Knights. Branta wanted to advance all the way south and claim victory over the entire island, but for an unknown reason, Lans held him back -- with the exception of one expedition into the south, during which the Dark Knights burned a single village before returning to the north. Branta's hands were bound from claiming more Gargastan territory, Barbatos lacked the strength to capture any of the north, and the Walsta rebellion seemed to be at an end when the castle of Duke Ronway fell to Barbatos. It seemed like an uneasy and uncertain end to the conflict had finally arrived.

   Think the story's been spoiled for you? Guess again: all of the above actually transpires before the title screen even appears in Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. Once that title screen does show up, that's when the action really begins, as the game focuses in on three Walsta youths, survivors of the village destroyed by Lans and his knights. When they hear Tartare will soon be passing through, they hatch a plot to assassinate him for revenge, and meanwhile they hope to come up with a plan to rescue Duke Ronway, who is set to be executed soon for his rebellion. As deep and twisting as the prologue itself is, expect even more from the actual game, which lays out a complex web of shifting political alliances, brutal murder and warfare, and painful betrayals.

   Tactics Ogre has one of the most compelling, most mature, most surprising, and most original stories ever developed for a video game. In short, it's simply one of the best ever crafted for the medium, penned by the hand of a master -- Yasumi Matsuno, the director and writer for more well known games like Final Fantasy XII, Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story, and Ogre Battle. As the seventh episode of the Ogre Battle Saga (only three of which have been made into games, to date), Tactics Ogre carries with it a rich and textured history -- there's a considerable depth to quite a few of the characters, many of whom have a familiarity with each other that transcends their experiences within a single game. But even beyond that, there's an enormous amount of detail and care visible in every aspect of the world's history, from the depictions of the legendary and mythic Ogre Battle itself, to the great pains Matsuno takes in presenting the Valerian war as one piece in a much larger struggle between two ambitious rival empires (and with casual ease, the visionary director is able to present players with a conflict reminiscent of the bloody proxy wars fought between the United States and the Soviet Union during the long Cold War).

Vice Has Fury Vice Has Fury

   No punches are pulled as this gritty tale unfolds. Whereas Final Fantasy Tactics flinched before the big moments, shying away from showing the true horrors of class and religious oppression, Tactics Ogre doesn't hold back. Where other supposedly deep games like Suikoden depicted racial tension in an exaggeratedly cartoony manner, a melodramatic "Humans hate Elves hate Dwarves, because" theme that climaxed in a "gotta wipe 'em out!" pastiche, Tactics Ogre avoids such over-the-top displays in favor of a realistically portrayed ethnic cleansing driven by showing different human populations divided not by the boundaries of species, but simply by different ethnicities, religions, and politics. And where many other games have begun as political and religious struggles of man versus man but eventually descended into the standard RPG tripe of true demonic evil being at work, Tactics Ogre avoided this pitfall. It remained focused solely on humanity and human motivations and flaws. The enemies in this game are never "evil" -- some lust after power, some fight for their own survival, some simply enjoy killing for more animalistic and visceral reasons. At one point, two primary characters in the game argue over the whys of the conflict, and reveal at their hearts competing human views on the world itself. It's a beautiful debate between Lockean and Hobbesian philosophies, and helped cement Tactics Ogre's place as one of the games with the most finely-crafted and realistic villains ever -- a true classic, the primary antagonist fights for an ideology above all else, and it's one the player may even find him or herself sympathizing with.

   It wasn't just the villains that were so well presented, though. The game has a rich cast of interesting, complicated characters, each of whom has his own detailed personality and biography. It's no small cast, either -- there are more than double the story-based characters in Tactics Ogre as there are in Final Fantasy Tactics, and TO manages it without the game-breaking super-classes prevalent in its sister title. And while characters in FFT all but ceased to possess any semblance of a personality or story once permanently joining the roster, this is not the case in TO; even after joining, story-based characters continue to feature prominently in cutscenes... as long as the player succeeds in keeping them breathing, anyway.

   But perhaps one of the finest attributes of Tactics Ogre's story is that it affords the player with real choice. While in games such as Vagrant Story and FFT, the player was dragged along a linear path as he or she watched a fascinating story unfold, Tactics Ogre broke from the pack in presenting a branching storyline with shocking plot twists that allowed multiple scenarios to occur depending upon the choices the player makes at key points within the game. While such conventions are commonplace today, it was a scarcity when Tactics Ogre was first made for the SNES, and the major emphasis Tactics Ogre put on these key decisions was handled in a groundbreaking way. The finale of the game's first chapter, even so many years later, still stands as one of the most climactic moments in RPG storytelling. These branching stories also allowed for an interesting prism into the motivations of the game's cast, as characters that would become allies of the hero on one route would be bitter adversaries in another, if they survived at all.

   Having accepted the fact that Tactics Ogre has one of the greatest stories ever told in an RPG, one must then question whether it has gameplay to match. The answer here is most assuredly yes. In fact, Tactics Ogre so innovated within the SRPG genre that an entire brood of games developed based upon the standards laid out here: Final Fantasy Tactics and FFT Advance, Disgaea, Vandal-Hearts, the Front Mission series, Hoshigami, and Vanguard Bandits all virtually mirror the gameplay of Tactics Ogre, from the status screens to the menus to the gridded isometric battlefields to the actual battles themselves. With the exception of the NES's Fire Emblem, Tactics Ogre is probably the most significant and influential SRPG ever made, and it's impossible to overstate how much later games within the genre aped the formula perfected here. But the copycats could never quite compete, as Tactics Ogre generally did things bigger and better. Fans of FFT's battle system should appreciate even more that Tactics Ogre has larger and more distinctive maps, a larger roster of playable characters, and larger battle parties with ten characters per battle instead of the tactically-limiting five.

Notice the Crinkly Effect Notice the Crinkly Effect

   Any gamer attempting to tackle Tactics Ogre will encounter a challenge the likes of which is rarely seen in SRPGs today. Tactics Ogre kindly asks that its players keep their characters properly leveled and ensures that vigorous attention is paid to details like statistic development and class management, without going overboard to extreme lengths like Nippon Ichi's SRPGs. Characters that fall behind will stand little to no chance against more powerful adversaries, but thankfully the game provides a helpful Practice Mode that can be used to train weaker characters up to higher levels. Mastering these training sessions is an essential component of victory, particularly later in the game. However, it's never only about the stats -- Tactics Ogre pushes its players to think and employ proper strategies. Even moreso than in games like FFT, TO places huge importance on often overlooked factors such as the battlefield -- terrain type and height, unit positioning, weather conditions, and elemental alignments. It's a game that is often frustrating, but at the same time is ultimately intensely rewarding.

   Best of all is the intricacy and complexity of Tactics Ogre's class system which, in essence, gives the player complete, 100% control over how each character develops. However, the complexity inherent in Tactics Ogre's class-based character development is so subtle that it's easy to miss out on how precisely one can finesse their growth. In short, everything is entirely stat-based, rather than a game with artificial and superficial depth to the class system, like FFT -- where all substantial growth is ability-based in the sense of progressing by acquiring 200 different abilities for each character. In Tactics Ogre, the player will pick a class that, for example, will provide +2 to strength at one level-up and then switch to one that'll give a teensy-bit more agility. These stats then play a massive role in every action that occurs in the game.

   By switching around classes at just the right moment, the player can create characters that are polarly different from each other as they develop in opposite directions. This incredible system necessitates learning the role that each stat plays in the game, learn the stats provided by class, and then just precisely plan out the advancement for each character to finesse them perfectly over the course of thirty or so level-ups. It is a system that is amazingly subtle, but the end result is for the player to have so much control over how all the characters evolve that it's impossible not to admire the flexibility, customization, and character management aspects of this game.

   Yasumi Matsuno's games are often identifiable, aside from his unique approach to storytelling, by the director and producer's insistence on using the same creative team in each game he makes. Not only is each member of Matsuno's core team immensely talented, but they bring a familiarity and style that is uniquely fitted to the games he makes. And so it is that in areas like graphics and music, Tactics Ogre does not disappoint.

   The game's music is composed by veterans Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata, and Tactics Ogre represents from this close partnership a maturation of the distinctive musical sound that would later appear in Final Fantasy Tactics, Stella Deus, and Final Fantasy XII. Though it came to the United States on the PlayStation, the game was originally done on the SNES console, and it should rank as one of the most technically impressive works of the console given the limitations imposed by the hardware on which they composed. Sakimoto and Iwata's music demolishes other SNES-era soundtracks, even from the most renowned composers like Nobuo Uematsu, in how much complexity it is able to achieve and how much varied instrumentation the two men are able to squeeze out of the synth sounds. Cutscene music is suitably heartwarming or regally tragic, or sometimes builds precisely the right level of tension. And the battle music in the game is phenomenally rousing, with militaristic use of percussions and brass.

   The graphics are not quite so impressive or timeless, alas. Unfavorable comparisons will surely be drawn to Tactics Ogre's sister game, Final Fantasy Tactics, and it's true that it holds up poorly against this companion title. Sprites are not as detailed or well animated; backgrounds are a bit more crude, and again lacking in detail compared to the later game. Spell effects are unimpressive, and none of the rudimentary CG sequences or 3D flourishes from FFT rear their heads in Tactics Ogre. Nevertheless, while the game lags on a technical level, the art itself does not disappoint, with overall art direction done by Hiroshi Minagawa and character design done by brilliant artist Akihiko Yoshida. Yoshida's character designs are simply fantastic, and the grace and subtle detail present in character portraits are far superior to the designs the artist later contributed to FFT.

   The ability to progress through lawful, neutral, and chaotic routes in a branching storyline lends a considerable degree of replayability to Tactics Ogre, as it will be difficult to grasp all the complexities of this story without seeing it, and its many conflicted characters, from all perspectives. Moreover, it's impossible to acquire all story-based characters on one playthrough, as characters that live in one scenario die in another; the completionist will want to see the contribution all of these unique figures bring to the unfolding saga. And the detailed class system brings even more replayability to the table, as there are so many different ways to cultivate each character's growth.

   One must be upfront in recognizing that Tactics Ogre is not for everyone. It is unforgiving in its challenge and its willingness to kill characters. It requires the player vigorously utilize the training system to ensure proper leveling. And it presents a class system devoid of flashy glitz and glamor, more focused on substance than style, and this can be off-putting to a gamer not anticipating such intense subtlety in gameplay. Tactics Ogre is, in certain respects, a dated experience. But the core of this game's epic story and groundbreaking gameplay are timeless, emblematic reminders that the game is and forever will be a masterpiece. The original is always the best.

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