Square Enix has caught a lot of flak over the last few years for milking Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest dry, but they’ve lately begun to revisit their rarer classics, much to the elation of fans. One such title is Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. Originally developed at Quest, it is the spiritual predecessor to Final Fantasy Tactics and its progeny. This version of the game has re-imagined nearly every aspect of the original to produce the best possible presentation of a masterpiece. With its superbly delicious cornucopia of content, Tactics Ogre is like Thanksgiving for gamers.
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix / Basiscape
Genre: Machiavellian Chess (AKA Strategy RPG)
Release Date: February 25, 2011
ESRB Rating: Everyone
It’s hard to talk about Tactics Ogre without mentioning the team behind it, which is made even more difficult because there’s no easy name for them. This is the seventh chapter in the Ogre Battle Saga, a product of the imagination of Yasumi Matsuno, of which only two entries have been made under his supervision. After establishing the series with Episode Five, Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen, and Episode Seven, the title at hand, he and his key designers left Quest to join Square. There, they forged the Ivalice chronicles: Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story, and most notably, Final Fantasy XII. Despite occurring in different worlds, these two series are almost identical. The settings are of the same medieval flavor, the stories center around political turmoil, and the themes largely focus on how a group of heroes is able to rise above the moral ambiguity that plagues their homeland and do the right thing. Tactics Ogre bears a strong similarity to Final Fantasy Tactics in particular, in both story and gameplay; it’s a wonder how Square was allowed to make the latter game without being sued for copyright infringement before they owned the rights to the Ogre Battle series. The takeaway from all of this is that Tactics Ogre comes from a family of RPG royalty, and this is the first time the team have all worked together since Final Fantasy XII.
I can’t emphasize enough how big of a deal that actually is: when these guys get together to make a game, you know something magical is about to happen. If we can separate a video game into its aesthetics and its gameplay, then when it comes to the creative side of things, it doesn’t get much better than this. The characters, the story, and the messages conveyed to the player all clearly demonstrate that this is one of the premier development teams in gaming. The artwork is charming, but the more detailed illustrations and character portraits denote such a distinctive and elegant style that can only come from the passion of an exceptional artist. The composers in this series have gone on to become the go-to guys for strategy RPGs, having worked on GrimGrimoire, ASH, and Valkyria Chronicles, but the new arrangement of the classic melodies may be their best work yet. Every song juxtaposed with its scene is essentially Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata showing other composers how you’re supposed to score a video game, instead of just providing a collection of video game music. These incredible elements intertwine to take you on an emotional rollercoaster. If this video game can’t be art, then not much else can.
The story chronicles the Great Valerian War, a brutal power struggle amongst and within clans for dominion over the much-coveted Valerian Isles. After a string of ill-fated events culminating with the death of each royal family member, the heads of the disparate clans scrambled to carve out their own nations. The aristocratic Bakram ruled in the north, the overwhelmingly populous Galgastani dominated the south, and the Walister minority was relegated to whatever small provinces the Kingdom of Galgastan allowed for them. The game focuses on Denam Pavel, a young Walister who joins the Resistance, seeking to suppress the conflict that has torn apart the region and/or claim revenge against the perpetrators who committed war crimes against his hometown. I say and/or because Denam’s motives are essentially left up to the player.
In many ways, Tactics Ogre stands as the answer to a lot of the criticism that has come up as of late against Japanese RPGs: that they’re not really role playing games since you don’t make decisions that ultimately impact the story. Not only does the dialogue in the game change depending on what the player declares his or her motives are, the game occasionally presents a monumental decision that determines the events for the next chapter. All roads lead to the same sequence for the final act, but the sidequests you can take and the characters you can recruit are different depending if your alignment is lawful, chaotic, or neutral. Your decisions in both battle and conversation also have tremendous implications for how the final chapter plays out, and the various endings are radically different depending on how you play. Upon completing the story, the player may use the World Tarot system to jump back to decision points or lost opportunities and see what would have happened as a result of a different choice. Luckily, you can still keep features which are unlocked later, such as crafting items. This is a completionist’s game and it knows it; the entire experience has been put together to keep you exploring every nook and cranny of the story. It’s hard to turn down the offer, considering how powerful the plot is and how drastically distinct the scenarios can be depending on your choice.
Given how beautiful all the artistic elements are in the game and how intricate the storylines can be, it’s much appreciated that all of it is collected in a kind of in-game encyclopedia, the Warren Report. Named after the Xenobian Star Seer from the story, who may or may not be the advisor from the original Ogre Battle, this cache of information contains the timeline of your exploits, a replayable directory of story events, the gossip around Valeria, a list of the dramatis personae and their backstories, the entire soundtrack with notes on every song from the composers and arrangers, and a collection of tutorials. Navigating this menu is made immensely pleasurable from one of the best songs in the game, which arranger Noriyuki Kamikura says in the notes was intended to be “a calmer piece that gave players a break from the hectic pace.” Combined with the wonderful artwork and eloquent writing characteristic of the rest of the game, you really just want to lose yourself for hours exploring this amazing world through the Warren Report.
If there’s one aspect of the game that absolutely cannot be downplayed, it’s the localization of the text. Ever since Alexander O. Smith began working with the Ogre Battle/Ivalice team on Vagrant Story, the collaborators have been known for producing some of the most captivating and erudite English scripts to come out of the video game medium. I once read that the difference between fiction and literature is that literature has at least five words you need to look up in the dictionary. If this half-hearted joke were true, this game is certainly worthy of that title. Many times playing through the game I not only had to look up words, but was absolutely stunned at how a specific metaphor or group of words was used. Smith and his partner Joseph Reader told me at PAX East that Matsuno himself knows English, and it’s usually just a matter of finding the right words to express his ideas. I believe they were being humble, as the writing in this game rivals Shakespeare. I say that with no exaggerated fervor.