From the archives: Tactics X-COM: Jagged Ogre Chronicles, or a guide to squad-level strategy/tactics/RPGs

I originally wrote this post in 2012 during the lead-up to Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown, proposing a classification system for squad-based games and tactical RPGs across PC and consoles. Since then, to my delight, the genre has gone from strength to strength. XCOM: Enemy Unknown turned out to be superb – it was definitely a hybrid, by the way, combining the lethality and dynamic campaign of Type 1 games, the Type 2 emphasis on careful movement and not triggering too many enemies, and the soldier customisation of Type 3. XCOM 2 is due out next year for PC. The Fire Emblem series is posting strong sales on 3DS, and Valkyria Chronicles has been ported to PC. Indie titles such as Expeditions: Conquistador have added spice. Welcome back, old friends – we missed you.

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Guide to TRPGs - Matchsticks for my Eyes

This is a good time to be a fan – as I am – of games that mix squad-level strategy and RPG mechanics. Last year saw the PSP release of the excellent Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, a labour of love that blended fine-crafted gameplay, a mature story, and gorgeous production values. This year won’t lack in quantity: it’s already seen a Jagged Alliance remake for PC and the recent PSP launch of Gungnir. Two more titles are due out in a few months (Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown for PC, and Atlus’ Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time for PSP) and we may well see a third soon, Goldhawk’s Xenonauts (PC).

The above names suggest this is a pretty broad genre, and in fact, I don’t think there is a single squad-level strategy/RPG genre so much as there are several distinct subgenres, spread across PCs and home and portable consoles. As such, this is also a good time to review each subgenre – which games it contains, what makes it distinctive, how it compares to the others, and how it’s faring.

Read more here.

Musical Monday: “Restriction” (Tactics Ogre), composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto

Tactics Ogre might just have my single favourite soundtrack of any game. This week, I present the hero’s theme, appropriately heroic. Enjoy!

Continue reading “Musical Monday: “Restriction” (Tactics Ogre), composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto”

Musical Monday: “War Situation” (Tactics Ogre), composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto

This week’s song I’ve known and loved for years — it plays between chapters of Tactics Ogre, as the narration explains how the characters’ actions have affected the broader war raging around them. Quite simple, but catchy and effective. Enjoy!

 

Continue reading “Musical Monday: “War Situation” (Tactics Ogre), composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto”

Musical Wednesday: “Fight It Out!” (Tactics Ogre), composed by Masaharu Iwata

This week’s song is another great battle theme from Tactics Ogre, “Fight It Out!” I love the little discordant clash at the start of the song — it makes me envision everyone pulling steel before (at 0:15) the battle is joined. Enjoy!

 

Musical Monday: “Blasphemous Experiment” (Tactics Ogre), composed by Masaharu Iwata

In my review of Tactics Ogre last year, I praised its music as a “labour of love”, and now it’s time to highlight it. I had a hard time choosing a track for this week, but I eventually settled on “Blasphemous Experiment”, the theme that plays whenever you fight a certain powerful necromancer. Enjoy!

 

 

Details

Track: “Blasphemous Experiment”

Source: Tactics Ogre: Unmei no Wa OST

Composer: Masaharu Iwata

Tactics X-COM: Jagged Ogre Chronicles, or a guide to squad-level strategy/tactics/RPGs

 

This is a good time to be a fan – as I am – of games that mix squad-level strategy and RPG mechanics. Last year saw the PSP release of the excellent Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, a labour of love that blended fine-crafted gameplay, a mature story, and gorgeous production values. This year won’t lack in quantity: it’s already seen a Jagged Alliance remake for PC and the recent PSP launch of Gungnir. Two more titles are due out in a few months (Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown for PC, and Atlus’ Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time for PSP) and we may well see a third soon, Goldhawk’s Xenonauts (PC).

 

The above names suggest this is a pretty broad genre, and in fact, I don’t think there is a single squad-level strategy/RPG genre so much as there are several distinct subgenres, spread across PCs and home and portable consoles. As such, this is also a good time to review each subgenre – which games it contains, what makes it distinctive, how it compares to the others, and how it’s faring.

 

 

Type 1: the “squad-based strategy game with RPG elements”

 

 

Typified by the Jagged Alliance series and the first three X-Com games, this subgenre is largely PC-based (notwithstanding the odd console port) and driven by Western developers. These games share two overarching attributes. First, they emphasise the “strategy” part of “strategy/RPG”, and second, they’re closer to the “realistic” than to the “cinematic” end of the spectrum (at least compared to the other categories!). These manifest in a few ways:

 

  • There isn’t much in the way of character customisation or special abilities. Different troopers have different statistics – marksmanship, strength, etc – and, in Jagged Alliance 2, different passive bonuses (e.g. night operations or automatic weapons). However, soldiers lack RPG-style active abilities, and they usually don’t have classes – they certainly don’t in X-Com and JA. What does distinguish soldiers is their equipment (which, in the absence of classes, can usually be freely assigned). You won’t mistake a rifleman, a machine gunner, and an anti-tank specialist!

 

  • The same applies to the enemies you fight. In JA2, a black-shirted commando will be both better armed and a better shot than a yellow-shirted militiaman, but actual boss enemies and special abilities (with the exception of a handful in X-Com – psionics and Chrysalids) are rare.

 

  • In the absence of “gamey” levels of health, life is cheap. X-Com, where the most heavily armoured veteran could die to a single unlucky shot, took this to extremes – but even in JA2, a single turn’s volley fire could be lethal. Conversely, the lack of character customisation means that losing one trooper is not the end of the world – especially not in X-Com, with its never-ending pool of recruits! (I seem to recall JA2 was a bit harsher on this front – not only were there finite mercenaries available, but losing too many would make it hard to recruit more. As such, X-Com was best played without reloading, but I doubt JA2 would be so amenable.)

 

  • In the defining games of the genre, there is no scripted campaign – in X-Com and Jagged Alliance, you choose where and when to take the field. This fits with the conceit of these games – you’re the overall commander, in charge of far more than just battle tactics.

 

  • Combat typically requires you to kill/capture every enemy present. However, the battlefields are large, what you can see is limited to your soldiers’ line of sight, and the enemy could be anywhere. As such, battles tend to unfold as a sweep of the map.

 

This subgenre has never regained its 1990s glory days (hence PC gamers lamenting the “death” of squad-based strategy/RPGs), notwithstanding the odd 2000s release such as Silent Storm. However, signs of life remain. As a largely faithful remake of X-Com, Xenonauts falls squarely in this category, and if it lives up to its promising alpha build, that would deliver a welcome breath of air.

 

Type 2: the “tactics game with RPG elements”

 

Fire Emblem (various Nintendo platforms) and Valkyria Chronicles (PS3 for the original game, PSP for the sequels) form a second subgenre, console-based and driven by Japanese developers. (I suspect Jeanne d’Arc for PSP would also fall into this category, but I haven’t played enough to be sure.) What sets these aside from Type 1 games is that they’re a little more stylised, a little more “game-y”, a little more RPG-like. Specifically:

 

  • As with Type 1 games, there still isn’t much in the way of character customisation or special abilities. However, in RPG fashion, realism now plays second fiddle to game logic. FE/VC characters are much more distinct than X-Com troopers, and their abilities and weapons are delineated by class. A “shock trooper” in Valkyria Chronicles will always use a submachine gun rather than a rifle, an engineer will never be able to use a grenade launcher, and so on. Fire Emblem even cheerfully throws in a rock/paper/scissors dynamic between axe-, sword-, and spear-wielding classes.

 

  • Meanwhile, much like trash mobs in an RPG, individual enemies in Type 2 games tend to be clearly weaker than the player’s squad members. However, watch out for bosses!

 

  • In Fire Emblem, characters can still die easily in the hands of a careless player. However, as with Type 1 games, the lack of character customisation means that the loss of one character is not the show-stopper it might otherwise be. (Valkyria Chronicles is a little more forgiving – it gives you a three-turn grace period to call in a medic.)

 

  • Gameplay consists entirely of a scripted campaign with set battles – no strategic metagame here.

 

  • Battles still revolve around sweeping a large map, but this plays out slightly differently. Your objectives are different – most levels require you to capture a specified piece of turf, rather than just clearing out the enemy. However, since enemies typically don’t “wake up” until you move close enough, this encourages you (especially in Fire Emblem) to play slowly and carefully, so as not to trigger an overwhelming enemy response. The result, in Fire Emblem, was precise, meticulous gameplay as I checked enemy characters’ movement ranges, lined up the party in safe areas, and then quickly moved in for the kill. (Valkyria Chronicles was a little different in that its scoring system worked by speed, so it was often “optimal” to run past enemy soldiers and beeline for the objective, but I tended to only play this way when I knew a map very well.)

 

This genre is doing a bit better than Type 1. Valkyria Chronicles never saw a PS3 sequel (2 and 3 came out for PSP, and 3 never made it to the West), but Fire Emblem: Awakening has been announced for 3DS. With luck, we’ll see more of these games in the future.

 

Type 3: the “role-playing game with tactical elements”

 

 

A third subgenre, also primarily console/Japanese, includes Final Fantasy Tactics (PSX/PSP), Tactics Ogre (originally SNES/PSX, but I’m mainly thinking of the PSP remake), Front Mission (various), and Disgaea (various). The dividing line between this and Type 2 can be a little blurry, but in general, the key feature of these games is that they emphasise the “RPG” part of “tactical RPG”.

 

  • By this, I mean Type 3 games share traditional RPGs’ emphasis on character development. Out of battle, there’s plenty of time spent on allocating skill points, navigating often-baroque class trees (this class guide for FFT says it all), and building a super-team. In battle, where a Type 1 or Type 2 character would be limited to moving, attacking, and maybe unlocking doors, Type 3 characters constantly fire off special attacks and unique abilities. This also extends to enemies – regular enemies, not just bosses, frequently have their own nasty abilities.

 

  • Conversely, while some of these games do allow for permanent death (FFT, Tactics Ogre), building up characters takes so much time and effort that I think players would have to be crazy not to reload in the event of their characters dying. (Other games, such as Disgaea, sidestep this problem by not having perma-death in the first place.)

 

  • As with RPGs and Type 2 games, there is a scripted campaign with a set storyline and battles to play through.

 

  • The “tactical” part is still present: battles are played out on strategy-style grid maps and positioning remains a consideration (for example, Tactics Ogre, which encouraged you to use terrain and heavily armoured knights’ special abilities to wall off squishy mages and archers). However, the maps are typically smaller than in Types 1-2, and enemies are typically more aggressive about coming out to meet you. As such, there’s no more “sweeping the battlefield” dynamic.

 

Out of the three subgenres, this one is probably doing the best. While the broader JRPG genre largely disappeared during the HD console era, this subgenre never went away. The PSP in particular is a mecca (FFT, Tactics Ogre, ports of Disgaea 1 and 2…), and new/ported Disgaea games continue to appear (e.g. Disgaea 4 came out for PS3 last year, and Disgaea 3 has made it to Vita). I look forward to seeing, and playing, many more in the future.

 

 

Within these categories, different games have added their own unique twists. For example, the genius of Valkyria Chronicles lay in its control scheme. You didn’t move soldiers by clicking squares on a grid – you took direct control of the selected soldier, using the PS3’s analogue stick to run him or her behind sandbags, into trenches, out of cover and into the open. The camera wasn’t locked isometric – it followed each soldier from a third-person perspective. You didn’t choose targets by selecting them from a list or highlighting their square – you hit a button to bring up a pair of crosshairs, then swung the crosshairs over a selected foe, and finally “pulled” the trigger. Now, VC was still a strategy game, not a shooter – once you lined up a shot, whether it hit was determined by the soldier’s class, equipment and special abilities, not by player skill. Yet, by bringing the immediacy and excitement of an action game, the control scheme contributed tremendously to the overall experience.

 

For another example, consider Disgaea, which relies heavily on terrain and movement. Many battles contain “geo panels” that give a special modifier to anyone standing on them – for example, automatic healing (or automatic damage!) every turn, a bonus to attack, an all-around bonus to enemies, and so on. These special effects are generated by geo symbols, pyramid-shaped objects that also appear on the map. And not only are the geo symbols destructible, but party members can pick other characters (friends and foes) and geo symbols up, then throw them around the map. Many levels rely on this! For example, if 90% of a map is coated in red panels, and two geo symbols placed on the red panels give enemies on red a 6x bonus, trying to play as if the game were FFT would be suicide. The solution: line up a daisy chain of, say, six characters. Have #5 lift #6, have #4 lift #5 (who is still carrying #6), and so on. Eventually, #1 throws #2, who throws #3… all the way to the point where #6 can reach and destroy a “3x enemy boost” geo symbol in one turn, before the computer gets to use those nasty bonuses. Does this make story levels puzzle-like? Probably. But it is an interesting mechanic in its own right, and it does distinguish the game from the rest of the genre.

 

This takes us back to XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which stands out because of the way it blends multiple games and subgenres. The way it breaks down soldiers into classes, with their own equipment loadouts and special abilities, is straight out of Type 3 games. So is the ability to unlock additional, more advanced classes later on. But its frequent use of an action game-style camera reminds me of nothing so much as the intent behind Valkyria Chronicles’ control scheme (or perhaps the Gallop brothers’ cancelled Dreamland Chronicles, which was to have used similar controls), and the frequency of character death is a (key) holdover from the original X-Com. As such, I don’t think it’s possible to draw apples-and-apples comparisons between Firaxis’ XCOM and the originals, or between XCOM and Xenonauts – but this doesn’t bother me in the least. While Firaxis is diverging significantly from the originals’ design, it also seems to be cross-pollinating several excellent strains of squad-level gameplay. We’ll see in a few months’ time how well this works out, but for now I am eager to see what Firaxis can do.

 

And if I had to conclude on one thought, that would be it: eagerness. Whether these games fall into one big genre or three related ones, at their best they combine the strengths of strategy games and RPGs. They offer the satisfaction of out-thinking and out-manoeuvring an opponent; intricate plots – and a focus on named, persistent characters. Just as great characters make great fiction, the stories that arise through gameplay become all the richer when they star characters whom we have nurtured, whom we can identify and remember. I remember the almost-dead warrior in FFT who ended one of the toughest boss fights in the game with one last desperate jump. I could almost feel the desperation in Valkyria Chronicles when three soldiers tried to hold off an enemy tank, and when I got control of my own tank and sent it to their relief, I certainly felt the power. And I remember the fallen heroes of X-Com and Fire Emblem, including veterans who had been with me since the start of the game and who finally gave their lives near the end. I remember these and more.

 

At the end of the day, it’s no coincidence so many of my favourites fall into the categories described above – PC and console, Western and Japanese. I look forward to seeing more of all these in the future, and I hope that if you’re a pure PC or pure console gamer, if you’re familiar with some but not all of the above games, I’ll have piqued your interest ­in the rest

My Game of the Year – 2011 is…

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series Game of the Year Awards

2011 was a good year in gaming. Just counting new releases, I enjoyed all of:

 

  1. Bastion (PC), an isometric action game with pretty art design and an original world;
  2. Dark Souls (PS3), which (so far – I haven’t played enough to form a verdict) offers a promising mix of finely tuned challenge and great drop-in co-op gameplay;
  3. Frozen Synapse (PC), a stylish and clever squad-based indie strategy game;
  4. Section 8: Prejudice (PC), a bargain-priced team-based shooter. This is a genre I wouldn’t normally touch, but I had a great time roving around Prejudice’s battlefields as an engineer-medic-tank commander, a role that could survive my lack of reflexes;
  5. Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (PSP),  the modern remake of Yasumi Matsuno’s 1990s tactical roleplaying game; and
  6. Total War: Shogun 2 (PC), the latest and – by far – most polished instalment of the long-running historical strategy series.

 

One title, though, managed to stand out from the pack. One title was the best example of its genre I’d seen in years. One title is my Game of the Year. I present to you:

 

Game of the Year – 2011: Total War: Shogun 2 (review here), developed by Creative Assembly and published by Sega. This truly deserves the “strategy” label: it’s packed with interesting and well-executed sub-systems (diplomacy, realm management, campaign manoeuvre, and battlefield tactics), well-paced, and blessed with a clever computer player. With this, CA has addressed every complaint I’ve had – and redeemed its mistakes – as far back as Rome: Total War.

 

And there is one more with a similar appeal:

 

Runner-up: Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (review here), developed and published by Square Enix. This is the pinnacle of the “traditional” turn-based TRPG genre; built around combat that’s fluidly lethal without being frustrating, it then tries to sand away every little annoyance in the genre – from unskippable random battles to unclear camera angles – and tell a story more meaningful and mature than “kill the foozle, save the world”. It doesn’t quite succeed at those two goals, but it aims high and comes close to its mark, something I appreciate all the more after going back to older, cruder TRPGs.

 

Well done, Creative Assembly and Square Enix. And Happy New Year to all of you!

Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together – The Verdict

 

This is the fifth post in my series on Tactics Ogre. Check out my earlier impressions of the game’s character profiles; four things it does better than FFT (and one it doesn’t); how I used different character classes in battle; and an unfortunate mishap later in the game.


 

Introduction


 

Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, the 2011 PSP remake of the SNES/Playstation tactical RPG, is a labour of love, and it shows wherever you look. It shows in the game’s beautiful character designs and in its soundtrack, performed by an orchestra even though players might only hear it through the tinny speakers of the PSP. It shows in the sweep of the game’s plot; in the natural sound of its mock-Shakespearean localised dialogue; in the lovingly written character profiles given to even spear carriers; and in the fluff text accompanying every bit of terrain. And it shows in features such as what is, effectively, an in-battle autosave; a perspective that can switch from top-down to isometric; and the ability to jump straight to important points in the game’s timeline during a replay instead of having to redo everything from scratch, all of which speak to thought and effort put into eliminating annoyances.

 

The gameplay

 

Most importantly, the basic in-game task, moving party members around on the grid so they can attack or use their special abilities, feels satisfying. The balance between offence and defence feels just right – blows do enough damage (generally, squishies will crumple after a few good hits, whereas heavily armoured warriors can keep fighting for longer) to keep things moving quickly and maintain tension, but not so much damage as to turn the game into an exercise in luck or frustration. Positioning matters, too: archers can shoot farther from the high ground; front-line fighters project zones of control to prevent enemies from rushing past to the weaker characters; wizards may be unable to cast spells if friendlies are in the way.

 

In between battles, you’ll choose classes and skills for your party members – in broad terms, knights tank; archers and ninja are the main damage-dealers; and mages are used for debuffs and crowd control. Archers in particular are devastating, but as not even the mightiest archer will be able to stand unsupported, it remains important to maintain a good mix of party members*.  And here, the gameplay’s main flaw reveals itself – the levelling system fails to eliminate grinding. All characters of the same class will share a level, and switching classes will change a character’s level. This works better than the traditional system found in, say, Final Fantasy Tactics, since now you only need to level a class once. Unfortunately, not only do you still need to level newly unlocked classes (of which there are quite a few) from scratch, high-level NPCs in new classes will revert back to level 1 when they join the party! By the end of the game, I was leaving even interesting-sounding new party members on the bench, because my patience for grinding had run out. And that is a frustratingly imperfect element of the system.

 

The story

 

As a storytelling experience, Tactics Ogre reaches for greatness, but doesn’t quite get there. This is not because its creators were untalented or unimaginative. Instead of  a stew of quest fantasy clichés, they attempted to give us a tale of ambition, compromise, loyalty, and love, set in a land riven by feuding pretenders – “A Game of Thrones” for the JRPG genre, if you would. The player’s choices will then drive that story down one of three branches that recombine for the game’s final act.

 

At times, this works very well. Some individual moments, in their injustice, left me shocked and appalled. In another scene, a tyrant sounds all too human, all too real, as he attempts to rationalise his misdeeds. And a  dying foe might show a hint of nobility that leaves the question of what could have been. At other times, it doesn’t. One of the two storylines I played is noticeably better than the other, which is more black-and-white and doesn’t hang together very well. Once the storylines do recombine, the plot feels rushed: key characters act on inconsistent or poorly explained motivations, some of the later twists and turns pop up out of nowhere, and good luck getting the desired outcome from one vital story decision without a FAQ. And characterisation of party members suffers as a result of the gameplay format. There are dozens of potentially recruitable characters, so they can’t be given much time in cut-scenes. (While party members do influence the ending, you can only see one character’s epilogue per game, an incomprehensible hold-over from the Playstation version and a noticeable flaw compared to Valkyria Chronicles, a game that was far inferior story-wise.) Party members do get in-battle dialogue, but consistent with other TRPGs, there’s no ability to talk to them in between battles. And this is a pity, because the one brief scene I saw where several party members hang out in town, bantering and enjoying everyday life, was done so well that I’d have loved more moments like that.

 

The verdict

 

All in all, Tactics Ogre is a very good game, and close to the borderline with greatness. Gameplay-wise, this is the highly polished epitome of turn/party-based combat,  for all it ends up too grindy as it wears on. And story-wise, while it suffers from flawed execution, it aims high enough, and gets enough right, to leave me glad that I played it. If you like turn- and party-based RPGs, and you have a PSP, I would recommend this game.

 

* I’ve seen the point made elsewhere on the internet (on a forum or by another reviewer? I can’t quite remember) that this is in contrast to Final Fantasy Tactics, where the key was mixing and matching class abilities to create unstoppable characters.

 

You can buy Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together from Amazon here.

 

I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.

 

The basis of my review

 

Time spent with the game: My playtime clocked in at around 80 hours, though there would have been times when I’d left the game on (either on AI control, or completely idle) while I did something else.

 

What I have played: The Chaos route, most of the Law route, the good ending, the first few minutes of the postgame.

 

What I haven’t played: The last few battles of the Law route, the Neutral route, most of the postgame content.

Tactics Ogre: A tragic misunderstanding

This is the fourth post in my series on Tactics Ogre. Check out my earlier impressions of the game’s (1) character profiles; (2) four things it does better than FFT (and one it doesn’t); (3) how I used different character classes in battle; and (5) my verdict on the game.

 

The legend of King Arthur reaches its tragic end at the battle of Camlann, one that could have been avoided but for a stroke of ill luck. Arthur and his foe Mordred, so the story goes, sat down to negotiate. Their armies looked on, ready to pounce in the event of treachery. Sure enough, one knight pulled his sword – but it was to strike at a snake, not the king. It did not matter. The armies saw the steel, not the snake. And when it was over, Mordred was dead and Arthur lay dying.

 

Certain events in Tactics Ogre, though far, far less drastic, reminded me of Camlann all the same.

 

(Minor spoilers follow.)


At one point in Tactics Ogre, the story calls for the main character to set off on a parley. But I didn’t do this immediately. It took me a couple of hours of real time to get around to it—for one, I had to fight another story battle, and I think I must also have spent some time grinding in random battles, crafting, or rearranging my party.

 

Upon finally making it to the negotiations, up popped the party selection screen – the same one that comes up before every battle. “Hmm,” I thought. After all, Tactics Ogre is a tactical RPG – battles are the meat and potatoes of the gameplay. The obvious implication was that the day would end in bloodshed. So I did what I always do when I see that screen: I sent in the hero plus a full complement of party members, all of them armed like medieval Rambos. Sure enough, the resulting cut-scene showed the situation degenerating into violence. I shrugged, mowed down my foes, and moved on with the story.

 

And then, several days later, I learned from GameFAQs that the bloodshed could have been avoided, had I sent in the hero alone and unarmed.

 

“Wait a minute!” I thought. “How on earth was I supposed to know to do that?!” But something still bothered me. Maybe the game had given me the appropriate hint, and I’d just forgotten about it?

 

So I went back to re-watch the cut-scene before the hero left for his ill-fated parley. And sure enough, he did say that he should go alone and unarmed.

 

Oooops.

 

The game’s developers had indeed given me a hint about what to do, and I had indeed forgotten during the time it took me to get around to the parley. But even if I had remembered that line of dialogue, it would have been undermined by the game having conditioned me, by that point, to expect a fight after seeing the “party selection” screen. So moral of the story #1 is to reaffirm the hidden danger to taking time off from a game’s plot. Moral of the story #2 is, when gameplay mechanics train the player to do X in a given situation, designers should be wary about then expecting the player to do Y instead. This would all be small comfort to the generic enemies who lay dead in the snow. Sorry, guys, I’ll be sure to spare your lives on my next run!

 

At least I got an in-game title, “Bloodstained Hero”, out of the affair…

Tactics Ogre: the building blocks of an unstoppable army

This is the third post in my series on Tactics Ogre. Check out my impressions of the game’s (1) character profiles; (2) four things it does better than FFT (and one it doesn’t); (4) an unfortunate mishap later in the game; and (5) my verdict on the game.

 

In party-based RPGs, half the gameplay typically consists of combat and the other half consists of preparing for combat by designing an effective party. With its plethora of classes, skills and even non-human units, Tactics Ogre is no exception: party-building starts to feel a little like making a house out of Lego. 26+ hours in, I’ve built my team into the proverbial well-oiled machine (or should that be a Lego machine?), complete with a standard operating procedure that handles most foes without too much trouble.

 

The basic building blocks of my party would be familiar to any RPG player. Building block #1 is a row of heavily-armoured knights, projecting zones of control that slow enemy movement. But my real killing power lies with element #2 of my team, a row of archers. Ninjas rushing at me? Use archers to shoot them to bits before they can get off too many deadly melee attacks. Enemy knights? A little trickier due to their durability, but I’ve worn down many a level-boss knight with a rain of arrows.

 

One battle last night momentarily took me aback. This time around the boss was a terror knight, a sinister-looking melee class that specialises in inflicting debuffs. But they trade off durability to do so, making them much more vulnerable to archers compared to plain old knights. No, the issue was the other enemies. The shock troops leading the enemy charge weren’t knights. They weren’t ninjas. They were not human at all – they were dragons. And you won’t be surprised to hear that dragons are distressingly arrow-resistant.

 

Fortunately, I was prepared. Situations like this call for the next building block of my team: the mages whom I’ve built as debuffers par excellence. In short order, the nearest dragon was (temporarily) petrified. The second, and its javelin-lobbing handler, took a snooze. My knights and archers moved around their forms, and took up position ready for the boss. And when he came charging across the causeway, I had a mini-Agincourt waiting for him.

 

Oh, the resulting engagement didn’t go 100% according to plan. There was a moment of panic when one of the incapacitated dragons (‘temporarily’ petrified indeed!) blasted my back-row wizard and archer with a gust of flame. But it was simple enough to put the dragon back to sleep, and after that, my archers (and one crossbowman) could return to the boss. Soon enough, it was mission accomplished, using more or less standard RPG classes and tactics.

 

But Tactics Ogre offers more choices than just standard RPG classes and tactics. Here’s one example – that crossbowman I mentioned? He’s a member of a winged species, and his ability to fly around the battlefield makes him an indispensable party building block all by himself. On urban stages, he can just drop down on a rooftop vantage point, or get around a corner to take aim at an enemy from behind. Even in the open field, it’s invaluable to have someone who can quickly reach the mages and clerics in the enemy back line.

 

Then there are various support classes I’d neglected at the time of that battle. One class in the game, “dragoons”, has a special anti-dragon skill, which presumably would have let me tackle the dragons head-on instead of putting them to sleep and bypassing them for the boss.

 

But wait, why would I want to play the dragon-slayer when I could recruit the dragons? That’s exactly what another class, beast tamers, can do. Sadly, I only had one beast tamer at the time, whose level was too low to recruit dragons (and probably so low that she’d have lasted about 10 seconds on the field). But given how much hassle dragons cause me every time they show up on the enemy side, I think it’s about time I add one to my own party.

 

There are so many more classes and units available, and I’m not even up to the endgame. Berserkers, hand-to-hand classes with a splash damage special ability, appear from the start of the game. I’m still levelling a katana-armed sword master, but so far his damage output is promising. If I added a golem to my team, it’d be well-nigh invincible against physical attacks, so that could allow it to replace my knights in the front row. Rogues… well, I’m not exactly sure what rogues do, but they’re there. Tactics Ogre gives you all these potential building blocks to play with, and more.

 

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to level up my beast tamers. I wonder how to say “if you can’t beat them, join them” in dragonish…

Four things Tactics Ogre does better than FFT (and one it doesn’t)

This is the second post in my series on Tactics Ogre. Check out my impressions of the game’s (1) character profiles; (5) how I used different character classes in battle; (4) an unfortunate mishap later in the game, and (5) my verdict on the game.

 

I came straight from a three-quarters-finished play-through of Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions to Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. And while I haven’t finished Tactics Ogre, either, I have played for long enough (15 or 16 hours) to see what Tactics Ogre does better – and what it doesn’t. How do these two classics of the tactical RPG genre stack up?

 

1. Class abilities make it easier to set up proper party front and back lines – The knights should be up front, the wizard and cleric should be in the back. RPG Tactics 101, right? But in FFT, there was theoretically nothing (terrain aside) to prevent making a beeline for the squishies. Now, in Tactics Ogre, certain melee classes – such as knights! – can project a one-square zone of control around themselves that prevents enemies moving past. The usefulness of this ability guarantees several knights a role in my party – and as a gameplay feature, it ensures unit positioning is of proper importance.

 

2. Debuffs are more practical – In FFT I rarely bother with debuffs and status effects. FFT usually requires the player to kill every enemy on the map to win the battle, and debuffs are so inaccurate, I might as well just go for a damage-dealing attack instead. Of course, there are exceptions – I wouldn’t have won certain rock-hard battles near the end of Chapter 2 in FFT had I not prevented some of the most powerful characters on the enemy team from attacking – but the general rule remains. But in Tactics Ogre, most battles are won by killing the enemy leader, and there are often horrifyingly resilient enemies (from armoured knights to dragons in the way). Solution: start dropping debuffs left, right, and centre! That dragon isn’t so scary when it’s asleep. And the debuffs’ decent chance to hit (so long as you invest in the appropriate skills) means that you can use them without frustration, or resorting to abusing the Chariot system.

 

3. The Chariot system reduces frustration – Tactics Ogre’s Chariot system, which allows you to rewind a battle by up to 50 turns, is basically a legitimised save/reload. Most of the time, I don’t (ab)use it. But when a story character permadies halfway through a pitched fight, then I thank heaven that I can just fire up the Chariot instead of having to restart the battle from scratch.

 

4. The levelling system is less grindy – Tactics Ogre’s levelling system is halfway between a classic RPG and the innovative system we saw in Valkyria Chronicles: experience is awarded on a class-wide basis, and every unit of the same class shares the same level. If you’ve ever spent time bringing Ladd, Alicia and Lavian in FFT up to the same level as the starting characters, or grinding multiple Arithmeticians, you will appreciate the Tactics Ogre system immediately. The Tactics Ogre system isn’t perfect – training a new class up from Level 1 is still a hassle, which makes me wish they had gone whole hog and adopted the Valkyria Chronicles system whereby all experience goes into a common pool, to be allocated between classes as the player sees fit – but it’s a big step forward from FFT.

 

Now, given that Tactics Ogre’s gameplay was remastered for the PSP version whereas FFT: War of the Lions is basically a straight port with a few frills attached, it’s not terribly surprising that the former benefits. After all, both games came out in the 90s, and a lot of water has flowed since then.

 

That said, there is one area of gameplay in which FFT does better…

 

Map variety – Whether it’s scaling hills and rooftops in a street fight, storming a fastness, picking my way between lava flows at Mount Bervenia or crossing the forks of a river, FFT has  ample map variety. In contrast, Tactics Ogre has recycled several maps so far, and several more (e.g. hilltop fortresses where you start at the base of the map and have to fight your way higher) are awfully similar.

 

For all that, both games deliver from a gameplay perspective.  Each features fast and fluid combat. In each, there’s a rush of satisfaction in first building up my characters – A learns how to be a tank par excellence, while safely behind him, B becomes a one-woman army with her bow – and then unleashing them on the battlefield. And each is good at tempting the player with just-out-of-reach toys. Right now, Tactics Ogre is making me wonder: are Ninja as good in this game as they are in FFT? What could a Witch or a Warlock do on the field of battle that my existing Wizard can’t? I look forward to finding out.

Tactics Ogre: the heroes of their own truncated stories

This is the first post in my series on Tactics Ogre. Check out: (2) four things it does better than FFT (and one it doesn’t); (3) how I used different character classes in battle; (4) an unfortunate mishap later in the game; and (5) my verdict on the game.

 

One hour into Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, the PSP tactical RPG, and I’m already impressed. I like its art and its music, but production values are never the be-all and end-all. Its gameplay has made a good first impression, but one hour is nowhere near enough to get a feel. And the game’s protagonist, Denam Pavel, so far is a blank slate.

 

No, what impressed me so much was how the game fleshed out the most minor of its characters.

 

 

 

(Spoilers for the first few battles of the game follow.)

 

 

 

Your very first real opponent during the game’s tutorial is Bapal the Mercenary, who threatens the heroes in decidedly non-standard English (“There’s two thousand Goth on that one’s head, boys! Half the purse to him what brings him down!”) and who claims to know “a man from [your homeland] when I see one!”… only to completely mis-identify the person he’s referring to. I wrote him off as a none-too-bright thug – suitable fodder for a tutorial battle – and soon enough, my NPC allies wrote him off the face of the earth.

 

Next up is a knight named Sir Agares, who blusters about “rebel swine” and how “a craven who would choose lucre over loyalty deserves only one reward”. I dismissed Agares as a pompous fool, and sent him to join his mercenary compatriot.

 

Once the battles were over, and I was back on the world map, I took a look at the in-game character profiles. There were heroes and heroines, lords and kings and knights. And right at the bottom, there were entries for Bapal and Agares. Hmm, what could they say?

 

Bapal the Mercenary

 

At the start of the war he led a group of bandits based in the Phorampa Wildwood, but a desire to defend his homeland prompted him to enlist as a man-at-arms.

 

Though an experienced fighter, he lacked an understanding of the art of warfare, and was often mocked by other soldiers. In an attempt to prove himself, he led an offensive against partisans at Almorica Castle.

 

However, his poor reputation was only compounded when he was slain by those he sought to bring to justice. He met his end at the hands of Denam, the Hero of Golyat himself.”

 

Fodder for a tutorial battle, yes, but now Bapal seemed more pathetic than contemptible. What about Agares?

 

Sir Agares

 

He was brother to Baronet Bazin of Auslan, a town in the Coritanae marches. Sir Agares was sent to reinforce the Almorica garrison, who were struggling to hold off attacks by the Duke’s men.

 

Despite his noble upbringing, he was an approachable and well-respected commander.

 

He led the defence of Almorica Castle in the place of the absent Consul Obdilord, but was slain by Denam Pavel.”

 

I did not feel quite so smug after reading that.

 

My next battle was against Orba Brondel, the wizard. As he lay dying on the grasses of the Tynemouth Hill, his last words were a lament: “This is not the place to die.” After the battle, I checked his profile:

 

The Magus Orba

 

He was the son of renowned architect Selba Brondel. Selba created many famed buildings, such as Hellingham Palace, also known as the Hanging Gardens. Orba taught at the Coritanae Academy of Arts while painting numerous works in his spare time. One of these, named ‘Opalescent Clouds,’ was presented to the late King Dorgalua and now hangs in Helm Castle.

 

Orba was a major proponent of the nationalism espoused by Hierophant Balbatos, and he volunteered to take up arms soon after war broke out. He encountered Resistance forces at Tynemouth while en route to Almorica, and was slain by Denam Pavel.”

 

Now, from the viewpoint of the player and the heroes, these characters are utter non-entities. From a gameplay perspective,  their only function is to give you a not-particularly-tough leader to target in each battle. From a plot perspective, they may as well have been nameless red shirts: they appear once each, get two or three lines, and then die at the player’s hands. You can play the game without ever needing to learn about Orba’s hobby for painting or the esteem in which Agares’ soldiers held him.

 

But these characters do matter to the overall storytelling experience. Take the time to read the profiles, and you’ll discover three patriots willing to fight for their country, who lived three distinct lives to varying degrees of fulfilment – ex-bandit, lordling, amateur but accomplished painter – until the respective days they met Denam Pavel. From a thematic perspective, this serves two purposes. One, it reinforces that each of us is the hero of our own story. And two, it’s a subtle way to hint at the pity of war, which brings those stories to such sudden ends. (I strongly suspect that the tragedy of war will end up being a major theme, in which case this is one way the game brings it across.) Not too bad, for a bunch of one-off foes who don’t even get their own character artwork! My hat is off to the game’s creators for their attention to detail here, and I have high hopes that the rest of the game will live up to this promising first impression.

Tactics Ogre – European release only a month away

To my pleasant surprise, Square Enix has announced that Tactics Ogre for PSP will come out in Europe on 25 February, a little over a month away and only ten days after its US release. (press release courtesy of Gamershell). As an added bonus, it’ll come in a “premium edition” with an artbook and a mini-soundtrack CD. As I plan to import the game from a UK retailer (assuming, of course, favourable reviews and/or word of mouth), it’s encouraging to hear I won’t have to wait too long.

Only a few months left to wait for Tactics Ogre PSP (in the US)

Square Enix has scheduled the US release of Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (PSP) for 15 February! A quick Google search couldn’t turn up any information on a European or PAL release date, but hopefully it will follow shortly thereafter. I look forward to the release!

New trailer for the forthcoming PSP Tactics Ogre

There is now a trailer available for the forthcoming PSP remake of Tactics Ogre. Apparently, it’s a translation of a trailer that was showed at TGS. The actual in-game dialogue in the trailer is still in Japanese, so no glimpses, as of yet, of how dialogue will be localised. However, it looks like the PSP remake has done an FFT and renamed the characters; the surnames in particular sound now more Central or Eastern European (Denim Powell -> Denam Pavel, Kachua Powell -> Catiua Pavel).

I’m looking forward to this game when it eventually comes out in the West; Tactics Ogre has a sainted reputation in the TRPG genre and I liked what I’ve played of it, despite its brutal character permadeath. Hopefully the re-release won’t disappoint.