Tactics Ogre: Reborn manages to be both timeless and dated

Tactics Ogre: Reborn manages to be both timeless and dated

The historical significance of Ogre Tactics: Let’s Hang Together. It’s a keystone game – maybe the keystone game — in a particular and demanding genre, the tactical role-playing game. It is also the cornerstone of a remarkable career, but unfortunately not fully realized: that of its screenwriter-director, Yasumi Matsuno, who will chain the cult classics. Final Fantasy Tactics and Wandering story before fading away midway through the tortured development of Final Fantasy 12a personal and professional setback from which he never seems to have fully recovered.

In Ogre Tactic: Rebornthis 1995 game – which often tops polls of the best games of all time in Japan – is getting its second major overhaul. reborn is, nominally, an updated port of the 2010 PlayStation Portable remake (this time for PC, PlayStation 4 and 5, and Nintendo Switch). But it also makes deep and thorough overhauls to this one, tweaking essential design elements, adding features, overhauling the interface, and restoring artwork. It says a lot about the game’s revered status that it received more attention from Square Enix – who bought Tactical Ogre‘s Quest editor in 2002, after hiring Matsuno away from them in ’95 – that Final Fantasy Tacticsa game from Square’s flagship franchise, the PSP and mobile versions of which aren’t as well done.

New players should approach Tactical Ogre with caution though. (I am one; I was familiar with the reputation game, but had never played it before starting this review.) Despite the many thoughtful revisions and quality of life improvements, it’s still a game intimidating that is slow to reveal itself. As the first masterpiece in a highly specialized genre that has seen many innovations since, it can feel dated and inflexible. And it’s often just a chore to play.

An isometric Tactics Ogre Reborn battle map with several units visible, large character portraits on the left and right, and a row of many units at the bottom

Image: Square Enix

There is both a simple reason for this and a less simple one. The easiest has to do with the size of the group. This is a turn-based tactics game where you move characters around a grid map, playing fantasy combat chess with an AI-controlled enemy force. The standard group size for a meet is between eight and 12 units. Turns take a long time to execute; the opening move, when it’s usually impossible to engage the enemy and you’re just moving every unit within striking distance, feels endless. Full battles often take over half an hour, and early conclusions (which, to be fair, aren’t too common – it’s a well-balanced game) are atrocious.

Additionally, the number of units makes it difficult to keep in mind the status of your forces and the general shape of the battlefield. While it’s not great strategy, it’s not an easy game to analyze, and combat can feel disjointed and sketchy. It is remarkable that Final Fantasy Tacticswhich paired Matsuno with veteran Square designer Hiroyuki Ito, reduced the number of units to the range from four to six and thus gained focus.

To be fair, reborn made a few tweaks to speed things up and lighten the mental load. You can assign AI to support group member actions; there is a rotation speed button; skill and spell systems have been redesigned to provide access to better skills earlier in the game; random encounters have been removed from the world map (and replaced with optional practice battles if you feel the need to grind), and so on. Yet despite all of this – and despite the 3D map design, which uses verticality to create interesting spatial challenges – the game struggles to stage the kind of clean, intricate logic puzzles that represent the tactical genre at its best. better.

A Tactics Ogre Reborn party menu screen, featuring a character portrait, attributes, skills, and inventory lists

Image: Square Enix

Tactical Ogre obviously traces its design to the time before Advanced Wars – a game in a parallel but very closely related genre – had done so much to clarify the rock-paper-scissors balance and the joy of problem-solving tactical combat. These days, indie games like In the breach Where Invisible, Inc. find ways to present you with complex strategic challenges much faster than Tactical Ogre can manage, while paradoxically overwhelming you much less. But it may not just be a question of age. Maybe Tactical Ogre is also, by its nature, less of a tactics game and more of an RPG – and what I like to call a back room RPG.

A back room RPG is a game where the real action takes place outside of combat, deep within the party menus. (Final Fantasy 12with its Gambit programming system and game-like license card, is one of the best examples.) In this regard, Tactical Ogre is a theoretician’s dream, with enormous customization and depth, which reborn intentionally does little to rationalize. In fact, it even removes the class-wide leveling from the PSP version to revert to individual unit leveling. Party members can be recruited from anywhere and their classes can be reassigned, as can their elemental alignment, which is important in battle. Skills, spells, gear, and items are assigned and developed per character, and there are ways to create and combine more powerful gear to improve stats.

There’s a great amount of inventory and unit management to do here as you grow and refine your favorite squad – as well as the satisfaction to be had when that squad performs effectively in battle. For a particular type of player, this will be heaven. I’ve been known to like this sort of thing myself. But in Tactical Ogre, it feels like all the menu work is distracting from a combat system that’s already struggling to focus strategically. Combat is inevitably the centerpiece of a game like this, and if it doesn’t sing, all that work supporting it can feel like wasted effort.

An isometric view of a medieval town in Tactics Ogre Reborn.  A woman says 'Help... Please help us!'

Image: Square Enix

But there is a whole other grand purpose at work in Ogre Tactics, one that has aged much better and will repay your gaming investment in spades. It’s history. Matsuno is arguably an even more talented and influential writer than he is a designer. Despite their fantastical settings, its games tend to be grounded, humanistic works that feature intricate maps of political intrigue – which, laden with filigree names and whimsical jargon, can feel dry and hard to follow at first. But they unfold into something personal, heartfelt, and engaged with the real world. Tactical Ogre is no different.

Matsuno said the game’s devastating branching storyline was inspired by the early 90s wars in Yugoslavia as that country broke apart following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Tactical Ogre imagine The Valerian Isles, an archipelago torn by ethnic and class struggles between its three main constituencies: the Bakram, the Galgastani and the Walister. After the death of a unifying king, civil war broke out; during a time of difficult peace, we join a group of oppressed Walister revolutionaries led by young Denam Pavel, his sister Catiua and his childhood friend Vyce. They are soon joined by a team of friendly mercenaries as resistance leader Duke Ronwey drags them deeper into a conflict of shifting factions, complex allegiances and dirty tricks.

It’s a branching storyline where the choices — judged on a scale from lawful to chaotic, rather than right to wrong — can be agonizing in their moral ambiguity, and the results can be painfully bleak. Denam’s will to follow the Duke and his level of commitment to the Walister cause are put to the test. As an exploration of the moral and political quagmire of war, reborn is sophisticated enough, and Matsuno’s refusal to describe it in black-and-white terms makes the branching results illuminating rather than reducing. A World Tarot feature usefully allows you to explore all the branches in parallel realities without canceling your progress. (There’s a combat-like rewind feature that lets you redo your picks and switch between different tactical outcomes without overwriting them – a brilliant feature.)

There is genius and sincerity at work here. Immerse enough in Tactical Ogre and the supplication of its subtitle, Let’s hang together, starts to sound a lot less awkward and a lot more urgent and sad. How deep you’ll get into the game depends on your appetite for micromanagement and your patience with game systems which, 27 years later, are starting to crack, despite all the sensible tinkering that has been put into them. Ogre Tactic: Reborn is a welcome, polished and thoughtful update to a game that defined a genre – a genre that has now left it behind.

Ogre Tactic: Reborn will be released on November 11 on Windows PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5. The game was reviewed on Switch using a pre-release download code provided by Square Enix. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased through affiliate links. You can find additional information on Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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