Tactics Ogre is a landmark game in the evolution of the strategy-RPG genre, yet it's never quite received the appreciation it deserves outside of Japan. Part of this has to do with the long shadow cast by its directly-inspired and much-beloved younger sibling, Final Fantasy Tactics. Despite receiving an incredible remake in 2011, PSP exclusivity once again limited the audience for Tactics Ogre. Now, with the release of the HD and massively revamped Tactics Ogre Reborn on every platform under the sun, Square Enix is taking steps to correct a long-standing injustice--though some quibbles with presentation and gameplay changes keep this from being the definitive version of the all-time classic.
Our story follows young Denam and his sister Catiua, two siblings of the Walister clan. The Walister have suffered under the oppression of the ruling Galgastani for years, and a resistance movement has begun to form among them. What begins as a plan to avenge the death of the siblings' father snowballs into a mission to rescue Duke Ronwey, leader of the resistance. But as Denam becomes part of the growing resistance force, he discovers the lengths that Duke Ronwey will go to advance his cause, forcing him to make very difficult choices. As the struggle expands to involve neighboring states, Denam will need to find his own way to put an end to the conflict.
If you're familiar with previous works by director and writer Yasumi Matsuno (Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy XII), you'll find similar themes here: intertwining politics, moral quandaries, class struggles, and idealism gone awry. Depending on the choices you make (including some absolutely gut-wrenching, life-or-death decisions) the story's path--as well as which special characters you can recruit--will change dramatically. There are plenty of twists and surprises to experience, enhanced by a combination of a superb English script from famed localizer Alexander O. Smith and the addition of voice acting for cutscenes. The World Tarot system from the PSP remake also returns, which acts as an enhanced New Game+: Upon completing the game, you can go back to previous points in the story, exploring different outcomes and routes while keeping your current character roster.
Gameplay is similar to other grid-based strategy-RPGs: You cultivate and deploy a carefully selected mini-army to battle against a CPU-controlled squad by moving around the battlefield and using attacks and skills to gain the upper hand. When each character gets their turn and how far they can move is determined by a multitude of factors, including stats, gear, buffs/debuffs, and how many actions they took in their previous turn. The effectiveness of attacks and skills is similarly affected by a wide degree of variables: stats, elemental affiliations, attack type, and even which direction you are approaching from are just a few of the things that factor into crucial decision-making.
What makes combat fun is the sheer amount of options at your disposal and variables to consider--do you go in swords swinging with your big bruisers to draw the enemy towards you, or hold back until your MP resources build up first? Do you go for sustained smaller attacks on a target, or try to weaken your foe with status ailments before going in for a massive killing blow? Should you kill the monsters you encounter to obtain rare items, or attempt to train them to use their unique powers in battles moving forward? Figuring out a way to approach each fight and executing your plans (or at least attempting to) is tremendously rewarding. And if mistakes are made, there's a way to take back particularly boneheaded moves: the Chariot Tarot is an optional feature you can activate to "rewind" turns in battle and try a different course of action.
With the release of the HD and massively revamped Tactics Ogre Reborn on every platform under the sun, Square Enix is taking steps to correct a long-standing injustice
But all the rewinds in the world aren't going to save you if you don't have a strong army to begin with, and building up a platoon of heroes to your liking is one of the most engaging and rewarding parts of Tactics Ogre. There are a myriad of classes to discover throughout the game--from genre staples like mages, knights, and archers to fear-inspiring Terror Knights, undead-controlling Necromancers, and the projectile-specialist Fusiliers. Each class has specific skills they can learn and equip, but only four can be assigned per character. You're not stuck with a specific weapon type in each class, either: all classes have at least a few different weapons they can equip, and specific classes can utilize magic spells, too. This flexibility means it's possible to have multiple units of the same class with wildly different builds--for example, you could make a ninja unit focused on a combination of ranged bow attacks and ninjutsu magic alongside another ninja character built for dealing debilitating damage with dual-wield melee attacks that inflict status ailments. Exploring the classes and playing around with different configurations is tremendously fun, and it's easy to spend hours micromanaging your virtual soldiers.
Adding to this experience are some revamped gameplay mechanics that are brand-new to Tactics Ogre Reborn. The systems for learning and utilizing skills have been streamlined tremendously, making it easy to keep track of what characters have learned and equipped. New skills have been added, such as a skill for some classes that triggers a follow-up pincer attack when an opposing unit is surrounded and attacked. In addition, instead of the confusing and cumbersome class-based leveling system of the PSP remake, characters now gain levels through a more typical individual EXP system where each unit gains levels through EXP that carries over even after changing classes. Another new addition, charms, are single-use items that can boost characters' stats, raise their levels, and change their elemental affiliations, giving you even more control over their customization. And if you want to build up the levels and skills of a few units, you can choose to enter training battles where the risk of permadeath is mitigated. That also means no more random battles when roaming around the map.
There are copious other changes and quality-of-life upgrades to Tactics Ogre Reborn: a trajectory viewer to see exactly where ranged attacks will hit, the elimination of item-crafting failure, a revival system more akin to Final Fantasy Tactics with a countdown timer on fallen units until permadeath, and being able to scout the battlefield before combat. Most of these alterations are for the better, but there are a few that are debatably worse. The addition of randomly appearing buff and debuff cards to collect (or try to force upon foes) on the battlefield is a neat idea, though it can wind up making battles more chaotic (not to mention messy when they’ve sprouted all over the arena). Skills and Finishing Moves that used a resource called TP in the PSP game now all use MP instead. This makes resource management slightly easier, but also makes managing MP resources much more challenging for certain classes like the healing/tank hybrid Knights.
Finally, one of the biggest changes is the introduction of a party-wide level cap that only increases once you've cleared particular parts of the story. This is done to prevent you from over-leveling to beat story battles. While it helps keep the challenge level consistent, it prevents a player that is having trouble in a particular encounter from grinding to help overcome it, which they should have the freedom to do if they please.
The other major issue is the visuals. While the high-resolution character portrait artwork looks fantastic, the upscaling of the sprite art leaves something to be desired as it looks like a particularly bad filter has been applied. I got used to it after a while, but compared to amazing HD-2D reworkings like Live A Live–another Square Enix title–Tactics Ogre Reborn feels plain by comparison. Certain music selections have been redone, as well, but the emphasis on heavy orchestration takes away some of the intense, melodic qualities of the previous renditions. The ability to switch to more authentic, pixely graphics or use previous soundtracks would have been a great addition, but alas.
Tactics Ogre's intense tactical combat, in-depth character-building, and excellent storytelling makes it a must-play for strategy-RPG fans. It's wonderful that this game is much more widely available now, and most of the updates and upgrades make the package even better. While some might balk at the $50 price tag for a remake with an iffy graphical and sound overhaul, the superb strategy gameplay and branching story paths will keep your attention for a very long time. While it might not be a perfect remake, it's a damn good one.