Over a decade ago, Tactics Ogre for the PSP combined a branching story, a serious, low fantasy setting, beautiful art, and engaging battles to become one of my favourite games.
Triangle Strategy, I think it’s fair to say, aspires to succeed Tactics Ogre and the genre’s other classic, Final Fantasy Tactics. It takes many of the same elements and adds its own twists, such as a morality system and more intricate rules for positioning, while simplifying others, such as character classes. So far, it’s very good; after 12-13 hours, I’m up to chapter 7, the sequence featured in the game’s first demo, last year. Whether it achieves greatness will depend on how the story plays out.
Here’s what I like, and here’s where I see room to improve:
Art, aesthetic, atmosphere — The beautiful, moody art of Triangle Strategy is integral to the experience. Character portraits are striking and evocative. The sprites and the overall “look and feel” call to mind Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre, and make the implicit promise that this will tell a similar story.
Tactics matter — This includes positioning and using character abilities to support one another. For instance, one fairly tight map channelled combatants down three paths, with a group of enemies along each path. I held one flank using an ice mage and a durable melee fighter: I ran the melee fighter at them, used his special ability to draw the enemies’ ire, and had the mage retreat while lobbing ice at enemy soldiers who had bunched up to attack his friend.
Difficulty feels about right — Playing on Normal, I’ve never been stuck. I did lose a couple of battles as a result of becoming careless; afterwards, it was obvious what I did wrong (rushing a mission-critical character into positions where he could be swarmed). I may even turn up the difficulty to Hard, and see what happens…
Not grindy! — There is hardly any grinding in Triangle Strategy — a big change from the very grindy Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre. Enemies’ levels are fixed, under-levelled characters are very quick to gain experience, and conversely, over-levelled characters gain very little experience. Thus, there’s no need to spend too much time in practice battles.
How will the story develop? — One of Triangle Strategy’s headline features is the branching story, with decisions settled by a vote among the party members. The player can try to persuade other characters to change their minds, but may not succeed. It’s even possible for persuasion attempts to backfire — I once saw a previously “undecided” party member do the opposite of what I wanted, after my dialogue choices fell flat. I’m interested in what the game will do with this system — can its narrative live up to the classics?
Voice acting — This isn’t a blanket case of English vs Japanese voices (I’ve listened to both):
In both languages, the heroes sound pretty good.
I think the female characters generally sound better in English — a couple of the Japanese VAs sound a bit too girlish. Conversely, some of the male characters sound too hammy in English and better in Japanese.
I am not a fan of the exaggerated voice acting for the villains, who range from “cartoon supervillain” to “oleaginous, obvious traitor”.
Save game slots — Triangle Strategy has 10 save game slots. I’d like more, especially so I can explore different dialogue choices while preserving old saves.
Did the otherwise good English localisation have to owe such an obvious debt to ASOIAF? — I am heartily sick of “sers”.
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I’m about halfway through Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia, which released for Switch in June 2020. At the time, its reviews were good rather than great, and its price tag was rather steep. I kept an eye on it ever since being intrigued by the demo, and my patience was rewarded with a recent sale. I’m glad I took a chance on it.
Brigandine takes place on two levels: a strategic map and tactical battles. The strategic layer is rather light, and resembles a simplified version of a KOEI grand strategy game. There is no base or city building — rather, the focus is on managing Rune Knights and their squads of monsters, sending them to train or quest, moving them between bases, and attacking enemy bases. The key is to carefully manage borders, to avoid having to spread the limited pool of Rune Knights amongst too many fronts.
The game’s main focus is the tactical battle layer, which plays out on a hex grid. The goal is to either defeat all enemy Rune Knights, or to control the objective hex (the local castle) when the turn count runs out. Generally, I try to bring a balanced force that includes tough melee monsters for the front line, together with ranged or support monsters which can safely hang further back. Terrain adds a further wrinkle, as some units specialise in certain terrain — for instance, mermaids and giant snakes do best in the water — and incur penalties on other terrain. Victory involves grinding down the enemy front line, clearing a path to attack vulnerable rear-line monsters or Rune Knights, and, often, concentrating fire on the enemy Rune Knights — forcing a Rune Knight to retreat will also remove his or her entire squad from the battle. When up against very tough Rune Knights, sometimes it’s better to go for their monsters instead, as the AI will retreat its remaining Rune Knights when sufficiently outnumbered.
Where this becomes interesting is in the variety of monsters (and Rune Knights) in the game, the interplay on the battle map between terrain, armies, and unit abilities, and the interplay between the two levels of the game. As each Rune Knight is a unique character, “A” and “B” teams tend to naturally form: the best Rune Knights and their squads go to the most important fronts and see the most action, which gives them the most experience. Stacking limits — a maximum of three Rune Knights per side can fight in a battle, and each Rune Knight only has a certain capacity to bring monsters — mean that in any given battle, quality generally beats quantity. At the same time, I do try to spread out experience. There are too many fronts for a single doom-stack to cover; and a roster should have enough depth to survive losing a few high-level units (a principle that will be familiar to XCOM players). The trick is to wear down enemy factions by eliminating their high-level monsters, while keeping most of my own alive.
While the game’s AI came in for some criticism at launch, it has since been patched, and I find it’s good enough. The computer tries to keep melee units in front and support units behind, and likes to stack buffs on powerful melee Rune Knights, turning them into wrecking balls. It also seems fond of picking off vulnerable support units if I leave an opening. One weakness is that it sometimes commits forces piecemeal: I’ve seen three Rune Knights and their squads march up separately instead of forming up, which let me defeat them in detail. Still, while I have won every battle, even easier ones (where I have a more powerful army) typically make me work for victory, and some have been utter nail-biters.
The result has been a engaging experience, complete with the kind of unscripted narratives that tactical RPGs and squad-based strategy games can deliver. Here are some memorable moments from my campaign:
Holding the line at Cornwern: The border castle of Cornwern, where I keep a mix of “A” and “B” squads, has repeatedly held out against the best that the neighbouring kingdom can send. Fortunately for me, a river running through the battlefield gives a large advantage to the defender. Even with this advantage, it hasn’t been easy: in two battles out of three I barely hung on until the turn limit (in one case, falling back from the riverbank). Hold on, Cornwern! I’ll send reinforcements soon.
The Shinobi campaign: The forest-dwelling Shinobi, many of whom have bonuses in that terrain, are a pain to invade. To defeat them, I loaded up my Rune Knights with forest-specialist monsters, and attacked on two fronts to take advantage of my superior numbers.
The fall of Mana Saleesia: Mana Saleesia is the resident fantasy evil empire, led by the fearsome Rudo — probably the strongest melee fighter in the game. When he marched into one of my provinces, held by a “B+” squad, I was very glad I had the third-most powerful (behind Rudo!) melee Rune Knight, who could stall him while the rest of my army pelted him with spells. During my grand offensive, I advanced along a broad front, taking care to avoid Rudo himself. And for the final confrontation, I sent in my highest-level, most powerful force. Cornered, Rudo was still dangerous — he one-shotted one of my luckless high-level casters — but even he could not stand before my army.
Now, I’ve defeated two of the five enemy factions, and a third is on the ropes. The main risk, I think, is that the remaining game turns into a slog. Still, I’m looking forward to sending my best troops, fresh from their victory over Mana Saleesia, to lead a counterattack on the Cornwern front. Time to give the computer a taste of its own medicine!
The newly-revealed Project Triangle Strategy is a clear homage to two of my favourite games of all time — Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics. After playing the demo, I’m cautiously interested.
The debt to FFT and Tactics Ogre is clearest in the aesthetics. The sprites look just like those in the classic games, right down to the way mages raise their arms over their heads when casting spells, and the character portraits are also gorgeous.
Based on the two levels in the demo, the gameplay seems solid. Positioning, elemental vulnerabilities, and terrain all matter. I cleared the second level by the skin of my teeth, with only one melee character and a few casters left standing. Using terrain, and a spell that created temporary ice walls on the ground, I was able to channel the second level’s boss into a chokepoint where my last melee fighter could stall her long enough for the mages to bring her down. Disappointingly, mounts seem cosmetic — a horseman can climb ladders (?!) and a bird rider doesn’t seem able to fly over obstacles — but that issue is fairly minor.
My biggest concern is the writing. What made the narratives of FFT and Tactics Ogre so great wasn’t convoluted plots or warring lords. What made them great was the themes and character arcs revealed by those plots — what happens when youthful idealists find themselves betrayed by reality, and how those idealists respond afterwards. In the short demo, I saw nothing comparable, although conclusions will have to wait for the full game.
Overall, I liked the demo enough to keep an eye on this game. Release is set for 2022 — hopefully it will fulfil its promise.
knives — In an ideal world, I
wouldn’t have split my forces. But faced with multiple objectives — rescue
civilians, spread around the perimeter of the map; recover treasure chests; go
after the boss — I’ve had little choice.
My party is split across the entire map: some straggling through a thicket
towards the boss, others flying on pegasus- or wyvern-back towards the
civilians, one man on horseback battling his way up a narrow lane. And now, a
powerful optional boss has thundered onto the field, trailed by several
lackeys. Fortunately, my strongest character is close enough to intercept.
Unfortunately, her best backup – the two people who can hard-counter the new
arrival – are on the wrong side of the map.
It’s time to improvise.
like Fire Emblem: Three Houses’
mission design. The game’s rules are fairly basic: most
battles are won by defeating all enemies or the boss; and enemies usually
activate when someone gets too close. By itself, this produces an optimal way
to play: be cautious, cruise across the map in a giant blob, and pick off
enemies a few at a time. What the game does well is adding extra layers of
complexity, such as mission-specific twists and optional objectives. Here are a
Three-way battles offering a reward if you can defeat more characters than the other two factions, or a race to defeat a specific character to claim a treasure.
Optional bosses with rare drops.
A reward for keeping waves of spawning pirates out of a village, even as your main force presses on to defeat the boss.
A map populated by fast, powerful roving enemies … and a treasure chest in the middle.
This pushes me to vary my tactics, and adds
challenge even when my party is over-levelled. It has also delivered memorable
set-pieces, such as the one at the top of this post.
Firaxis’ XCOM makes an interesting contrast — I think giving the player a risk/reward
decision in Three Houses works better
to shake up playstyles, compared to a hard cut-off such as XCOM 2’s controversial mission timer. The XCOM series itself has been through several approaches — Three Houses is closer to picking up
MELD in XCOM: Enemy Within, although
with greater variety (granted, Three
Houses has the advantage of hand-crafted missions, whereas the XCOM games rely on random generation).
Comparing these three games, I would argue that carrots work better than
Uh oh. I’ve overcommitted. This map has enemies
positioned in a “U” shape, with the party starting on one map edge and the
enemy lining the other three, and I’ve gone for the aggressive approach —
charging straight down the middle. Now I’ve pushed several of my characters too
far ahead — and I’m playing with permadeath on! The mighty Princess Edelgard,
so capable in a clash of arms, has met her match in an enemy mage. Then Petra
the swordswoman goes down, targeted by multiple enemies. Argh.
Rewind one turn. Try again. The advantage of
going down the middle is that I’m fighting along interior lines, and now I rush
characters from one flank to shore up the other with their healing magic. I
pull back my most exposed party members, weather the storm. And lesson learned,
I push onto victory.
tactical RPG so far. I’m 10-15 hours
into Fire Emblem: Three Houses, or up
to the start of the game’s fifth chapter. As a lapsed series fan who walked
away in frustration from Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn on the Wii, I was cautious about Three
Houses. Instead, it’s exceeded my expectations. I am having a great
time with Three Houses’ turn-based
battles, the bedrock of the Fire Emblem
series; I appreciate the new, anti-frustration features; and I like the new Persona-style explorable hub.
intelligent turn-based combat —
Fire Emblem veterans (and XCOM players) will be familiar with the
basic rhythm of each turn: a patient, methodical exercise in determining where
to move each character, who should attack whom, and in what order. The trick is
to minimise incoming damage, both from counterattacks and on the enemy’s turn.
This might include:
Using a ranged character to soften up a melee enemy so a melee character can safely finish them off.
Eliminating enemies before they get the chance to move and attack.
Sending forward one character as bait to lure enemies into range.
Positioning characters where the fewest number of enemies can reach them.
And because this is an RPG, individual
characters’ strengths and weaknesses matter. If there are three magic-users
ahead, then it’s best to bait them using someone with high magic resistance.
Conversely, magic may be the best option when attacking a heavily armoured
knight. Attention to detail is important!
mitigate against frustration —
There are two: the ability to rewind to an earlier turn (similar to Tactics Ogre’s Chariot system), and the ability to see which characters
will be targeted by which enemies when previewing a move (a little like Into the Breach). They serve different
Rewinding time is a safety net. I play with perma-death on, so being able to rewind a turn or two is much, much better than having to replay a battle from scratch.
Seeing enemy attacks in advance is a planning tool, making it easier to take calculated risks.
leaf from Persona was inspired — Three
Houses benefits from adding a hub area, where the player can explore and
interact with NPCs between battles. Like Persona,
this runs on a calendar system, with a finite number of actions available each
week. I like this for a couple of reasons:
First, it adds another layer of decision-making — I have to prioritise which characters to recruit and which skills to train.
Second, a large part of my enjoyment of games comes from puttering around well-designed worlds.
vigour. So far, I appreciate both Three
Houses’ execution and its new features. The game has breathed new life into
the series for me — I look forward to playing more.
Arcadian Atlas is an upcoming indie tactical RPG inspired by two of the greats – Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre. Read on for a Q&A with Taylor Bair, one half of the brother-and-sister team behind the game:
Hello, and welcome to the site! Please introduce us to yourselves and Twin Otter Studios.
I’m Taylor, the one typically found at the computer or walking my dog as I think of story details or gameplay tweaks for the game.
And Becca is the one with her graphic tablet working feverishly on art assets for our game.
We’re brother and sister living in Dallas and Austin, TX respectively, and we make up Twin Otter Studios.
Your current project, Arcadian Atlas, is a tactical RPG inspired by Yasumi Matsuno’s 1990s classics, Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre. (The art and narrative themes — ”the choices people make in pursuit of the things they love, and the havoc it wreaks on a kingdom” — give me a particularly strong Tactics Ogre vibe.) What drew you to these titles? Were there any other notable inspirations?
We have a lot of inspirations, probably too many to count, though we definitely played Final Fantasy Tactics like crazy growing up. As kids we were pretty steeped in video games, particularly classic RPGs like Chrono Trigger, Breath of Fire, and Super Mario RPG.
Something about investing in a character is probably what drew us to RPGs most. We love characters, and our story in Arcadian Atlas is very character centered – about how people become saints or monsters because of the choices they make and the ripple effect that has on Arcadia.
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.
This is a good time to be a fan – as Iam – 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.
After finishing The Banner Saga, I thought I’d expand on the conclusions I reached last week. I’m still happy with the game and its tactical battles, which become deeper and richer with each new character introduced. I do want to revisit story, an area where Banner Saga is ambitious, inconsistent, but ultimately successful, notwithstanding flaws in its narrative structure – specifically, its use of two distinct stories told from two main points of view.
Now, I should stress that the problem is not with multiple storylines or multiple POVs. The idea itself is great, one I’d like more RPGs to adopt – it works in other media, it works in books and TV, it works in the handful of other games to use it. The problem is Banner Saga’s implementation: one is clearly the main story, with the other being a sideshow. The former is a video game example of an epic, a term wonderfully defined by the Encyclopedia of Fantasy:
An epic is a long narrative poem which tells large tales, often incorporating a mixture of legend, myth and folk history, and featuring heroes whose acts have a significance transcending their own individual happiness or woe. The classic epic tells the story of the founding or triumph of a folk or nation…
This gives the main story a purpose, escalating tension, an arc. The side story lacks these, and isn’t even well integrated into the larger tale. From a mechanical perspective, I like the side story – it was there that I got the hang of the battle system. But it drags on narrative pacing, and should have been either plotted better or else cut down to brief interludes.
As for the main story itself, it’s good. It is clearly part 1 of an intended trilogy, all but screaming TO BE CONTINUED, and suffers from several niggles. At times, characters will say something jarringly modern (1), or Abruptly Drop Proper Nouns. The characters themselves are tersely introduced, with the non-plot characters only receiving a single conversation to flesh them out. But Banner Saga redeems itself with moments of emotional power – desperate, heroic, poignantly beautiful.
It’s those moments that stick in my mind as I write, moments that made me breathe “wow”, and “this is awesome”, and “that was perfect”, and my complaints pale next to that. Taken together with the very good battle system, The Banner Saga is an impressive outing by Stoic Studio, and I look forward to the next in the series.
The basis of my comments: I finished the game after 17 hours, per Steam.
So opens Stoic Studio’s The Banner Saga, a low-fantasy tactical RPG with a cool and unique combat system. It’s so different as to be divisive; but the more I play it, the more I like it.
By way of overview, Banner Saga follows two separate groups as they trek across a land ravaged by shadowy, armoured monsters called dredge (second from the right). Between battles, the current group’s caravan rolls through the countryside (see below), banner streaming behind, and gameplay consists of text events: how do you respond to stubborn villagers, or a troublemaking drunk, or a fire in the distance? These choices affect caravan morale and hence stats in combat, but more importantly, party members can join, leave, or permanently die in these events. And clearly, the developers meant decisions to have consequences, a la XCOM ironman – there is only one quicksave slot, and save ‘checkpoints’ are widely spaced. This is perhaps too effective: I’ve started looking up guides after discovering that I neither enjoy character loss, nor have the time or patience to reload. The actual writing is clunky at first (why are quasi-Vikings saying “OK”?), but picks up steam. As at the 60% mark, I find the story interesting, albeit not the main draw.
When I made my last move, I thought I’d seized an opening. The pirate had his back turned; and when I saw I could take him down with one attack from Kyril, the game’s young hero, I couldn’t resist. But now the shoe is on the other foot. In my haste to push Kyril forward, I’ve left him standing alone on the deck of the pirate ship. And before any backup can reach him, several pirates have their turns coming up…
The first pirate attacks. Kyril’s health plummets. Next pirate’s turn. I grit my teeth – only to watch, impressed, as the boy’s father leaps in to protect him from the blow. Kyril took only half damage from that hit, and the pirates’ opportunity has passed. It’s Andarc the mage’s turn next, and he opens up with a barrage from his Lightning rune, killing one pirate and wounding another. Then it’s the turn of more and more of my characters, and as they run up to join Kyril, the danger is past.
I’m several hours into Suikoden Tactics, a 2005 spinoff from one of my favourite RPG series, Suikoden. As its name suggests, it’s a grid- and turn-based tactical RPG in the vein of Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre, and Disgaea (in other words, in my classification scheme, it’s a Type III game). From a mechanical standpoint, it is reasonably straightforward: different characters have different strengths and weaknesses, and while characters’ classes appear to be effectively preset – for instance, Kyril will always be a melee fighter – there is some scope to customise them by choosing which skills to prioritise. The actual combat is standard TRPG fare, though with a couple of quirks: characters have elemental affinities with particular tiles on the map, and tile elements can be changed by items and spells. That said, so far this seems to be good standard TRPG fare. Combat feels intuitively fluid in the way that the best tactical RPGs do: characters go down in just the right number of hits (too many would lead to tedium; too few would be frustrating), move far enough for squishy characters to be vulnerable, but not too vulnerable; and so on. Aesthetics are a mixed bag; the in-game sprites have not aged well, but character portraits are crisp and attractive. Storywise, no spoilers, but I’m definitely intrigued.
Banner Saga, a Norse-themed tactical RPG trilogy from indie studio Stoic Games, was one of the early titles to ride to prominence on Kickstarter this year. Now Nathan Grayson of Rock, Paper, Shotgun has posted a monster three-part interview/preview, and it’s fascinating stuff — especially the third part, in which the developers explain how the single-player campaign will work (in summary, “it’s a bit like of King of Dragon Pass meets Oregon Trail. It’s King of Dragon Pass on the road.”) While not quite a full branching campaign a la The Witcher 2, the player’s choices will matter, both from a gameplay and a story perspective. Characters will join or leave the party based on their satisfaction with the player; the player will have to juggle the party’s endurance and morale against the need to stay ahead of an all-consuming wall of darkness (this actually put me in mind of FTL), and there will be multiple endings. If that sounds interesting, it’s well worth heading over to check out the full article.
Meanwhile, we’ll get our chance to evaluate the core gameplay next month when a spin-off F2P multiplayer game based around the battle system, Banner Saga: Factions, is due out. This is one project that I’ll keep an eye on.
Now that I’ve finished Jeanne d’Arc (PSP, 2007), I can give my verdict!
This post is really an addendum to Monday’s discussion of Jeanne’s gameplay. There’s not much more I can say on that subject! It’s “lighter” – easier, less complex, less time-consuming and grindy – than the typical tactical RPG, but that’s an observation rather than a criticism. From a mechanical perspective, Jeanne is well-designed and largely well-executed (although it does seem a bit laggy compared to its peers), and that forms its main draw.
I do want to talk a bit about story, which is what so often elevates tactical RPGs from “good” to “great”. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do that for Jeanne. The plot is a mishmash of competing and often incoherent plot elements, populated by characters who wander on- and off-stage with little rhyme or reason. What partly redeems it is that, after a slow start, some bits of that mishmash become much better than others. There are some clever twists on history, some very striking individual moments, and one subplot steals the show with its character development (both in the sense that the characters involved change over time, and in the sense that they make painful decisions that reveal their true selves). The net effect is that while the story as a whole is not good, enough of it was for me to stay interested.
At the end of the day, then, Jeanne is a good game rather than a great one. It doesn’t quite match the genre’s two pinnacles, Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre, which coupled great gameplay with powerful, meaningful stories. But its gameplay riffs effectively off the greats, and there are enough worthwhile ideas buried in the story to offer a nice bonus on top of that. A worthy “honourable mention” in genre history.
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I often praise the PSP as a mecca for turn-based tactical RPGs – Disgaea! Final Fantasy Tactics! Tactics Ogre! – and over the past few months, I’ve pencilled another name onto that list: Jeanne d’Arc, a 2007 title from Level 5 (very!) loosely inspired by the historical Saint Joan. It starts off rather generically, but now that I’m close to the end, I’m glad I gave it a second chance.
By way of introduction, Jeanne plays out like a cross between Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy Tactics. You command a squad of characters, each of whom belongs to a set class and has his or her own strengths and weaknesses. Notably, characters cannot permanently die! Between missions, you assign equipment and special skills (the two work a bit alike; a finite number of skills are available at any one time, and you acquire new skills via crafting and enemy drops). Some skills are class-specific, while others can be assigned at will. For example, Jeanne and her friend Liane both wield swords, so they have access to the same pool of class-specific skills. However, Liane trades off durability in exchange for stronger magic, suggesting players should assign melee boosters to Jeanne and magic spells to Liane. Combat plays out similarly to other tactical RPGs: park sturdier sorts at the front and mages/archers at the back, advance methodically, and heal as needed. So long as the party is adequately levelled, the game is reasonably easy, and since it’s also not very grindy, that’s not a hard condition to meet.
Jeanne’s appeal stems largely from how it gets the basics right.. The levels are creative, both in their layout (the maps are a nice mix of wide, narrow, flat, and steep) and in their objectives: most are simple sweeps, but some require you to make it to an escape point, or defend a key location. One, notably, is an imaginative riff on a certain infamous boss battle from FFT. The pacing is just right: combatants hit hard enough to keep the pace brisk, but (a single annoying escort mission aside) not so hard that the game turns into an exercise in luck-driven one-hit KOs. And while it’s easy in the sense that I’ve rarely seen the game over screen, that doesn’t mean it’s boring: I still reach for the grey matter in every battle.
This by itself would be enough to make me recommend Jeanne to genre fans in need of a fix, but on top of that, Jeanne adds several interesting little gameplay mechanics. While they aren’t hugely significant, they do keep the game feeling fresh. One is positioning: keeping characters next to each other gives them a defensive bonus, and the bigger the clump, the bigger the bonus. Striking an enemy will “power up” the tile on the victim’s other side (visible in the above screenshot – note the glowy yellow rings at the upper left and at the far right), but someone standing on the powered-up tile might be away from the group and hence vulnerable. (One tactic I like: run a hard-to-hit character, say the nimble thief Colet, around the back of the enemy line to power up a tile on the front. My slow-moving characters approach the front in a clump, and one stands on the powered-up tile; Colet, meanwhile, can happily look after himself.)
The game’s signature mechanic, however, is that Jeanne and several of her allies wear magic armlets that let them temporarily transform into super-soldiers – and if they kill an enemy while transformed, they get another turn. If they score another kill, they get another turn. And another. And another. The video below (starting at about 1:15) shows this in action:
This has a couple of implications. It changes the ideal tactics: while most games encourage players to focus fire so as to completely eliminate enemies and reduce incoming damage, in Jeanne it’s often preferable to bring a whole host of enemies down to low health (leaving them vulnerable to a single transformation rampage) instead. As with positioning, this isn’t a revolutionary feature in and of itself, but it is a nice point of differentiation relative to Jeanne’s peers.
More importantly, it helps give Jeanne a particular kind of fun. The joy of strategy games lies in reading the situation, crafting a plan, and finally seeing it come together (and generally, the deeper the game, the more profound the delight – anyone who’s played Dominions 3 will know what I mean). The drawback is that it can take a lot of time and effort for that plan to pay off! Puzzle games compress that into a single “aha!” moment and are quicker to play, but typically just have One True Solution. The transformation mechanic gives Jeanne a bit of the best of both worlds. Working out how to bring down a mass of enemies down to low health, then actually doing so, is quick and relatively simple – far simpler than orchestrating victory in Civilization or Dominions! But the basic skills – analysis of a fluid situation, thinking ahead, allocation of scarce resources – are the same. And the moment of triumph, when Jeanne carves her way through four or five enemies in one round, is real.
That, in fact, is almost a metaphor for the gameplay as a whole. By genre standards, Jeanne is relatively short (I’m at 38 hours and could probably finish before 40), simple, and easy. But that doesn’t make it mindless – either on the developers’ part, or on the player’s – or boring. Jeanne’s designers clearly put love and thought into their work, and it shows. This is one title genre fans should check out.
This is a good time to be a fan – as Iam – 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 Timefor 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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…
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 systemreduces 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Famitsu magazine has confirmed we’ll see a Valkyria Chronicles 3, apparently for the PSP. On the one hand, I’m glad: the world can always use more TRPGs, and I love the hands-on unit control that is the selling point of the VC series. Running a soldier out of harm’s way or lining up a shot with the joystick adds so much to the experience, compared to the “click on square to move, click on rifle, click on target” of other games in the genre.
But on the other hand, I do wonder if they’ll address two of the glaring gameplay issues with the original game. (Note: I have not played VC2 beyond the demo, so I only have word of mouth to rely on with regard to that game, and I can’t testify as to whether these issues have already been fixed.) First are the balance issues, :an overpowered class, scouts, and such as overpowered unit buffs. Second, and linked to the first, is the game’s scoring system, which is dominated by the speed taken to finish a level. The combined effect of the two is that, while the first game gave us so many tactical tools to play with – five classes, two tanks that could be customised, support weapons ranging from flamethrowers to rifle-grenades – it rewarded a madcap dash by your scouts for the other side’s flag.
Now, this was not a game-breaker for me. I really enjoyed VC nonetheless; I could regularly post decent (if unspectacular) scores by playing a methodical, combined-arms game; and I treated the speed-driven scoring system as a fun way to challenge myself when I replayed levels in skirmish mode. But a flaw is a flaw, and anecdotally there were people who were bothered far more than I.
However, the interesting thing is the development team’s rationale for focusing on speed. You can see it on page 3 of this Gamasutra interview. My interpretation is, the developers wanted you to take a ruthless, damn-the-casualties approach to promptly achieving your objectives. This is a good, or at least an interesting, idea on paper. In practice, it falls flat for the reasons discussed above.
But there’s one more design feature which obviates the need to even be ruthless in the first place. Similarly to Final Fantasy Tactics, VC gives you a three-turn grace period to call in a medic for a fallen party member before he or she is killed off for good. Story characters escape even more lightly – they’re simply immune to perma-death. There are exceptions – if an enemy soldier reaches your fallen squaddie first, that will also lead to perma-death*. But by and large, this is no X-Com, a game where horrific casualty rates were the price that had to be paid for defending Earth against a technologically superior, vastly powerful foe. And while I certainly appreciate the fact that VC is a pretty forgiving game, it does undermine what appears to have been a goal of the designers.
* Which gives me the rather chilling mental image of enemy soldiers finishing off wounded PCs with a bullet to the head…