The PSP has been a haven for ports and remakes of varying quality over the years, but the remastered Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together sets a new standard for remakes on any system. It may not look like much has changed at first glance, but dig a little deeper, and it quickly becomes clear just how much thought the team at Square Enix has put into this remake of the 1995 tactical RPG for the Super Famicom.
This is actually the second time that Tactics Ogre has been ported to another system, the first being a disappointing PlayStation remake that was localized by Atlus. That version was plagued by slowdown and long loading times, which are both mercifully absent in this PSP update. Given that even Square Enix's Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions struggled with its share of technical problems, it's refreshing to play a port as tightly coded as this one. It also does much to expand upon the original source material. In the original game for the Super Nintendo, which was never released in North America, enemies scaled with the most powerful characters in the party, making it incredibly difficult to level up the weaker characters. The remake fixes that by having whole classes level up instead; so if a character is struggling to keep up, you can always make them a Knight instead and they'll suddenly jump to Level 14.
The flipside, of course, is that new classes typically begin at Level 1, and the only way to gain experience is to put the character in a corner during a battle while everyone else does the dirty work. The process can be difficult and time-consuming, and not everyone will have the patience to level up the Dragoon or Ninja when they finally become available. Nevertheless, it's a unique approach, and one that alleviates that much of the frustration of the original. The skill system has likewise gotten a substantial overhaul. Now Battle Points are distributed following a battle, which can be spent to acquire skills that augment both offensive and defensive capabilities. There are a multitude of skills to choose from, but the key is that it's extremely difficult to be good at everything. Magic users, for instance, generally have to specialize in one or two types of magic, as each element takes up a precious skill slot. Sure, it's possible to go into battle with a mage capable of wielding every type of magic, but doing so means you won't be able to equip skills that augment your magical powers or stregthen your defense.
This balancing act helps to ensure that no character ever gets to the point that they are invincible, which is all too common in other tactical RPGs. Moreover, Tactics Ogre allows up to 12 characters on the field, meaning that there's a much greater focus on party synergy than in a game like Final Fantasy Tactics, which allows only five characters. You will quickly learn the benefit of having two Mages on the field, each with a different set of skills designed to handle all contingencies.
On the battlefield, the action plays out much like any isometric tactical RPG, which makes sense given that Tactics Ogre helped to define that subgenre in the first place. There are no "Player" or "Enemy" phases; instead, each character moves according to their speed ranking. It remains an interesting approach to tactical RPG design, as it means that time magic (such as haste) factors in much more heavily than usual. Elevation also has a major part to play, as archers and mages with the high ground can pick apart approaching forces with ease. Line of sight comes into play when trying to attack enemies from far away, so it's important to stake out the high ground when you get the chance. Fire a spell with an ally in the way, and they will get pinged in the back for some serious damage. The fixed camera would ordinarily make things especially irritating in that regard, but Tactics Ogre provides an interesting compromise. By holding the square button, it's possible to shift the camera to an overhead view, which makes it much easier to get lined up and hit enemies rather than allies. It is one of the new features that make this update such a stand-out.
Should you make a mistake anyway and accidentally hit a party member with a badly-aimed fire spell though, there's also the new CHARIOT system. This feature makes it possible to rewind as far back as 50 moves, effectively resetting the chess pieces and allowing you to take a new approach to a battle. It's most useful when combat is going badly, as it basically automates the save/load process inherent to this genre. In a game like Tactics Ogre where characters can die permanently, the CHARIOT system is particularly useful given the suicidal tendencies of the guest characters, who will more often than not be cut down because they decided it was a good idea to rush into the middle of a pack of enemies. As certain guest characters need to survive in order to be recruited, the CHARIOT system saves a lot of frustration. The system isn't mandatory, however. It's perfectly possible to play through Tactics Ogre without even using the CHARIOT system once, which will likely be a point of pride among dedicated fans.
Perhaps the crowning achievement is the story. The original game was well ahead of its time in the way it offered players radically different paths to victory; and once again, the remake expands upon those ideas. When the "World" system is unlocked following the game's conclusion, it becomes possible to revisit past decisions and take a different route. Given the complexity of the story--it's a workout just to keep up with all of the factions--the ability to explore the different paths without having to start a whole new game is a welcome addition. It effectively doubles the playtime that Tactics Ogre offers, as different branches offer different missions and different allies, which makes for a vastly different experience.
And this is a story worth exploring. Denam, Catiua and Vyce are all well-defined characters with their own motivations, and there are a multitude of side characters who can become allies or enemies depending on your actions. There are no definitive "good" and "evil" choices; instead, they are mostly there to make you decide whether the ends justify the means. It's remarkable how mature the story is given that Tactics Ogre is actually a fifteen year old RPG. The complex tale of war, rebellion, jealousy and betrayal matches almost anything on the market today.
Regrettably, the "multiplayer" mode is really just a tease. Downloading an AI-controlled version of another player's party is all well and good, but it hardly approaches the suite of options available in War of Lions. Given that it's been done before, it would seem natural to have full-on competitive and cooperative modes for those looking to squeeze every last ounce of enjoyment from this game. It's not a crucial omission, but it is a disappointing one. Really though, the world would be a happier place if all remakes were as well thought out as Tactics Ogre. It dramatically improves on the original by fixing many of the original's flaws and building what was already great, all while adding numerous subtle flourishes to the presentation. Obviously, a complete graphical overhaul would have been more than welcome, but the enhanced spell effects and the fully-voiced story sequences do more than enough to make it feel at home on the PSP.
With its well-balanced party customization and superior story combined with new and interesting features like the CHARIOT system, Tactics Ogre is the best tactical RPG available on the PSP today. Don't let the lack of a flashy, modern presentation turn you off; anyone who loves wading into deep, lovingly-crafted RPGs are truly in for a treat.