Tactics Ogre

   Tactics Ogre is one of those rarest of gems in the RPG world: a direct port of an older title that never saw the light of day in the US. Originally published in Japan in late 1995, a possible US version fell victim to the closure of Enix's American office, and those few gamers awaiting this sequel to the cult favorite Ogre Battle had to give up hope. Luckily, those always eccentric folks at Artdink saw fit to port the title, which was a fairly big hit in Japan, over to the PlayStation and Saturn in '97. Atlus, with the US re-release of Ogre Battle under its belt, picked up the US rights and quietly brought Tactics Ogre to North American shores with little fanfare and to less reward. Coming a mere four months after Final Fantasy Tactics, the English release probably couldn't have had worse timing. Though both Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics were made by essentially the same development team, this wasn't widely known to the general gaming populous, who only saw TO as a FFT "clone" with sub-par graphics and an eerily similar plot. But gamers lucky enough to snag a copy found an epic that could still hold its own, and in some ways surpass, its unofficial "sequel."
 Title screen
Better late than never

   Tactics Ogre, the seventh episode in the "Ogre Battle Saga," is the story of Denim Powell, a member of the Walstanian ethnic minority. After the death of King Dolgare, the island of Valeria is experiencing a power vacuum, as the separate regions of Gargastan in the south and Bacrum in the north vie for control. Gargastan unleashes a policy of "ethnic cleansing" upon the Walstanians in the far south, moving the survivors into concentration camps. From the town of Griate, Denim and a small group of allies begin an uprising to free the Walstanian leader, Duke Ronway, and bring self-rule to his people.

   It's a simple enough plot for a strategy RPG, where civil wars and evil empires are the clichés of choice. But, by the end of the first chapter, things begin to get a bit messy. It seems that the Walstanian people, beaten down by Gargastan, aren't too keen on revolting. Anticipating this, the Duke has a back-up plan for you to implement: slaughter one of the concentration camps yourself and blame it on the Gargastans, bringing the people past the boiling point of revolution.

Story scene
The path of a leader's never easy.

   A still fairly cliched betrayal, you say? Well, it would be—if it weren't for the fact the game will actually let you do it. Slaughter the town, and Denim will become the Duke's right hand man, leading the battle against Gargastan. Or rebel, and become an outcast, pursued by bounty hunters and the Duke's own men. It's the first of many difficult, morally ambiguous choices that Tactics Ogre will require from you; they never get easier and, just like in the real world, they always have consequences.

   While most RPGs struggle to provide the player with the illusion of freedom or provide a "non-linear" world where tasks can be done in any order, Tactics Ogre actually gives you a world that reacts to your decisions and changes around them. It's not just a simple matter of shuffling around the battles and who you're fighting, but rather what you're fighting for. It's really just an extension of the original OB's innovative, and notoriously fickle, "Chaos Frame" system, which determined the game's ending based on your actions and reputation. But this time around it actually makes a fair bit of sense. The fate of many of the characters, and of the island itself, is changed by your decisions -- not in the way you'd always like, but always in a way that makes you feel you've had your place in the story. In this respect, Tactics Ogre offers that other rarest of gems in the RPG world: actual role playing, combined with a tight, complex, and moving story.

 Class change
TO's class system

   With eight separate endings and numerous permutations in the three basic paths through the game, TO has more than enough story quantity (and quality) to satisfy any gamer. Along the way, you'll recruit an army of up to 30 units, from gunners to gryphons, and numerous other classes and monsters familiar to Ogre Battle fans. TO's class system isn't quite as deep as Final Fantasy Tactics' job system, but there's still enough variety to support countless strategies as you work your way through the squad-based battles that make up the meat of the game. Anyone who's played FFT will have some strong déjà vu while fighting it out in TO, but this is where the developers picked up their strategic chops, and it shows. Despite the simplicity of the class system, TO's battles have a huge amount of depth. The battle engine takes everything from weather and terrain to directional facing and the character's elemental alignment into account. And, because the battles take place on fields almost four times as large as FF Tactics' and allow you to bring in up to ten fighters, there's a level of strategy and scope not possible in FFT's more visually impressive, but smaller, battles.

Warren Report
Advisor Warren's no Daravon -- he actually makes sense

   It's a good thing that the battle system is so entertaining, because the difficulty level is often insanely high. There are almost no "easy" battles in TO, and no T.G. Cid to hold your hand through the final chapter. Add to this the fact that the only reliable way to gain levels is through tedious "training" of your troops, and you have a game that's often harder than it needs to be. Grinding the story to a halt so that your characters can throw rocks at the back of each other's heads for half an hour isn't anyone's idea of a good time, and it holds back an otherwise excellent game.

Ogre Battle's Deneb makes a cameo appearance

   Gamers willing to stick with it, however, will find a strategy RPG of unparalleled depth and replayablity. Tactics Ogre has enough secrets and extras to push that gameplay clock into the triple digits and make even the mightiest FAQ author quiver in fear. Above and beyond all the different scenes and battles offered by the basic routes through the game, there are also countless hidden characters and classes, secret battles, and a 100 level bonus dungeon that makes FF Tactics' Deep Dungeon look like a basement rec room. And unlike many games, where the secrets devolve into a collection of mini-games and out-of-place characters (i.e. Worker 8), almost every scene uncovered in TO adds to the rich story. The characters recruited take their place not only in your battle lines, but within the world of the game as well.

Storming Coritani Castle

   It's amazing it all fit on a 24 megabyte SNES cart—and, of course, that lineage is one of Tactics Ogre's real shortcomings. The graphics, while they do rank among the best of the final days of Nintendo's RPG powerhouse, are still distinctly 16-bit, complete with dull colors and a lot of repetition. They carry the game just fine though, and by the end of the first chapter you'll probably be too engrossed to notice much. The music also holds up nicely, with a lot of memorable themes to accompany your battle across Valeria.

   It's is a shame that Atlus or Artdink didn't do at least a little to spruce it up for the 32-bit crowd -- but only because then it might have seen a bit more mainstream success. Despite the outdated graphics, it's still one of the best strategy RPGs on any platform, and the fact that it finally saw release in the US, accompanied by a far better than average translation, is a minor gaming miracle. With the US release of Ogre Battle 64 now in question, and no announced plans for a Final Fantasy Tactics 2, gamers hungry for more Ogre-style gameplay may have to wait and see if Hoshigami, developed by yet more ex-Quest staffers, makes it to the US. Let's all hope for more good fortune.

Retrospective by Zachary McClendon, freelancer.
Tactics Ogre
Developer Quest / Artdink
Publisher Atlus
Genre Strategy RPG
Medium CD (1)
Platform PlayStation
Release Date

 1995 (SFC)

 09.25.97 (PSX/Saturn)

 05.01.98 (PSX)
Tactics Ogre FAQ
65 screenshots
50 character designs / 7 scenes
U.S. and Japanese packaging / Japanese TV commercial