Unfortunately for Nintendo owners, the Big N's decision to stick with the cartridge drove away almost all would-be RPG developers for the system. But all is not lost, as well-known Japanese developer Quest took on the burden of working within the restraints of the cartridge format to bring the latest incarnation of its strategy RPG series to the N64. Don't lose hope yet, RPG fans, redemption will soon be at hand. Ogre Battle 64 offers a detailed branching story and great depth of customization, both executed brilliantly within the limitations of a 35-meg cartridge.
The story centers on a kingdom that has been betrayed by its king so that his throne and the social elite of the country will remain safe. After witnessing the plight of the downtrodden lower citizens, the hero Magnus finds himself leading a revolt against the powerful Lodis kingdom to gain true independence. Although based on a somewhat archetypal premise, Ogre Battle 64 spins a complex and involving tale of political intrigue, personal relationships, and battlefield drama by using numerous cutscenes and in-game dialogue. The story's use of foreshadowing and ample character development keeps the game interesting over its lengthy (about 60 hours) duration. Plus, you can affect the outcome of the story. You can view a diagram that illustrates character relationships to help keep track of everything; you can read profiles of people, groups, and countries; and you can replay past events. While Ogre Battle 64 includes an intricate story and many RPG elements, it's a strategy game at its core. As the leader of the Palatinue army, you'll form combat units of up to five characters and deploy up to ten units at a time in each of more than 40 scenarios. Before moving to a stage, you will be given a briefing that outlines the area and your objective, and you'll possibly witness a cutscene. Units are represented as sprites that move across a 3D battlefield, which incorporates adjustable views and features scaling effects for the sprites. While controlling your army, you can set waypoints for your units, predetermine how to react to enemy units encountered along the way, and camp to recover from fatigue. Icon-based menus and handy controller functions allow you easy access to the game's functions and let you issue complex orders to your units. Units do move in "real time," but you can pause the action to issue commands whenever necessary. This unique gameplay system will be an interesting variation for many gamers and a welcome return for vets of the series.
When two units meet, a skirmish ensues, and the game switches to an isometric view of the prerendered battlefield. Characters make their attacks in semireal time, meaning that multiple characters act at once, which is a bit more exciting than turn-based battles. A high frequency of parries, misses, and critical hits make the battles more interesting and less predictable, and the animation and spell effects are well done. There are other touches, like two magic users combining spells to create impressive hybrid spells with unique effects. As in the original Ogre Battle, you don't have direct control during combat; instead, you direct the battle by deciding on your unit's formation and issuing commands. A unit's strength, number, and method of attack are determined by its placement on a three-by-three grid, and you can interrupt battle to issue different commands to the attacking team. As the battle wears on, the option to retreat becomes available, and eventually the option to call for the help of one of the four elemental goddesses is provided. This is just the beginning of Ogre Battle 64's attention to detail. Each character has its own individual stats, equipment, alignment, and gender. All these factors affect various nuances of combat and determine the unit's class-change options. There are around 50 classes for human characters, including paladins, wizards, and valkyries, as well as special and secret classes. In addition, a variety of monsters can join your army, many of which can also change class. There are 13 types of dragons alone, as well as hawkmen, griffins, and deadly gorgons. Most of these characters can be outfitted from the huge selection of equipment and weaponry you purchase from shops and win from defeated enemies. Because you can rename and equip the characters in your army as you see fit, you'll soon develop attachments to certain characters and find yourself cheering when they parry a potentially fatal blow or scream in anguish when they fall unexpectedly.
While gameplay is by far the most important aspect of a strategy game, presentation always counts for something. Quest has made a great effort here, but some shortcomings can't be helped when squeezing a game this large onto cartridge format. Generally speaking, the prerendered backgrounds used for battles and conversations in various town locales are well done. Every possible type of terrain has been modeled along with bars, town squares, and modest mountain dwellings. Small details, like dust blowing down a street and plants gently swaying in the wind, make up for the slightly blurry look that results from heavy data compression. The units themselves are also slightly blurry but still have personality. Characters have nicely done portraits for speech and status screens, and most main characters carry their own signature sword, which is sure to have slain countless enemies. The 3D maps can be a bit bland and get somewhat repetitive by the end of the game, but several stages that involve breaching the outer walls of an enemy castle and making your way through the enclosed town to the inner gate look rather impressive from the multiple viewpoints. Much of the game's soundtrack consists of music by Sakimoto and Iwata, whose credits include Final Fantasy Tactics and the two previous games in Ogre Battle Saga. Unfortunately, much of the music is lifted from previous Ogre titles, but new composer Hayoto Masuo adds some original music to the game. Overall, the soundtrack is full of dramatic intensity and power.
Perhaps Ogre Battle 64's greatest strength lies in its replay value. Because of divergences on the world map and decisions you are forced to make, there is no way to get every major character and see every event by playing the game through only once. Additionally, how you play will affect your reputation. Some characters simply won't join your cause if you haven't gained enough support from other characters and earned the trust of the masses.
North American gamers should be grateful to Atlus for taking special pains to bring this epic across the ocean. Aside from securing rights to the game from Nintendo (who lost the rights to publish the title), Atlus undertook a dauntingly huge translation project. Being a little on the complex side, the game is accompanied by a very thorough and competent manual. Game text and dialogue might lack a bit of polish in places, but they are very strong in most cases and do well to move the story forward and reveal the emotions of the characters.
The huge amount of customization possible and the ability to shape the involving story unfolding before you make the game a very enjoyable experience for any RPG gamer willing to venture into the realm of challenging strategy and micromanagement. Although Ogre Battle 64 will be limited at first, regular distribution will commence in the week following the initial date.