One of the biggest surprises I had after getting a PSP is that long epic JRPGs are the perfect fit for portable gaming. It might be counter intuitive. After all, for a big epic RPG it should be most appropriate to play in front of a large screen in the comfort of your living room, no? But the parameters of my lifestyle have changed and I can’t justify hogging the TV like that anymore. And anyway, with the added responsibilities of being a grown up, there’s simply not enough time to chomp down on a long JRPG with 5, 6 hour play sessions.
Having a portable though, possibilities open up. You can put that big JRPG in your pocket or bag and have it available if you should unexpectedly find yourself with enough free time to get a couple of battles or quests in. Also, you’re not imposing on others, as you can quietly sit somewhere private and dive into some fantasy world with nobody needing to be exposed to it. And lastly, most JRPGs are frankly a bit embarrassing to be seen playing at home. With spiky haired emos and cutesy (sometimes creepily sexualized) anime girls depicted in so many of those titles it can be tough to explain that you’re often playing these games in spite of these tropes.
So Tactics Ogre is a game that I have been chipping away on since it released on PSP in 2011. After Final Fantasy Tactics’ frame rate issues, Tactics Ogre feels like Square Enix learned from that release and have delivered a technically top-notch product. It isn’t just a port of the venerable original, but a full on remaster. The interface is beautifully HD and it’s quite stunning how much the developers were able to integrate on a portable device’s screen.
Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together for the PSP is a remaster of the PS1 port of the SNES/Saturn original. It’s the spiritual predecessor of the venerable Final Fantasy Tactics and really the brain child of Yasumi Matsuno. I previously played Vagrant Story and a bit of Final Fantasy 12. They’re strikingly different games in style and feel from other Final Fantasy or even Squaresoft games. He puts emphasis on a greater political struggle between many factions, with no clear cut good guys and villains. Also, dialogue and writing in general tends to be high English.
From the games he directed that I played before, I couldn’t get into them. They feel a bit ponderous and unnecessarily heavy, trying to evoke the feeling of a Shakespearean play. The writing is often quite inaccessible and you really need to pay attention to the various nuances and details. So when going into Tactics Ogre, there was already a bit of a negative mindset. What really impressed me though was the sheer polish of this remaster. The UI is really very good. You can immediately see that this is a game brimming with depth and scope. Also, there are a lot of extra features and conveniences built right in. You can listen to the really quite good soundtrack in the game, view every single cutscene and real detailed mini-biographies of even minor characters to read at you leisure. This feature is called the “Warren Report” and rivals the likes of Mass Effect’s codex.
But enough of the peripheral stuff. Tactics Ogre is a strategy RPG, where you go from battle to battle, assemble a team of heroes that can be customized and trained in a staggering number of ways. Unlike with conservative JRPGs, you’ll most often be commanding 6-12 characters against similarly sized opponent teams. Terrain is an important factor in battles as well, and you’ll end up with knights on the frontlines, archers on elevated positions and mages in the back preparing spells. You’ll fight groups of enemy faction troops, undead monsters, dragons and other beasts.
The big draw is in seeing your heroes go stronger from battle to battle, learning new attacks and working out ways to effectively use them. The strategy involved in the turn-based battles is also very satisfying and most often offers a good brain workout. You’ll need to learn what works and doesn’t work against what enemies. The more you understand the strengths and weaknesses of enemy types and your own heroes, the more you can take advantage of the strategic possibilities offered by the game. I felt that in many ways, it feels like a sports management sim, where you go from match to match, fine tuning your team and learning from you mistakes and successes alike.
The drawback though is that this is really a very straight-forward style of game. The pacing is very simple. You’ll fight a battle, watch a cut scene and move on to the next battle. Occasionally you’ll visit a shop and take stock of what you’ve got, what you want to buy and what to train you heroes in. There is no light-hearted side stuff you can do as in most other JRPGs to lessen the intensity. If you don’t grind, you’ll have a big challenge in every single battle. This is how I played it on my first run about 2 years ago, and ultimately I burned out on it as the game got REALLY tough and lost pace.
So let me give a few pointers if you’re new to this game as I was:
- Take your time and figure out the skill system. It’s hugely important that you spend your skill points for each hero as it suits their use in battle. It doesn’t make much sense to give a mage better physical damage over magic accuracy for example.
- There’s no shame in grinding. Over the course of the entire game, I had spent a good amount of time grinding out XP for my team three times. To make matters easier, assign AI scripts for your heroes and just let the battles play out. Of course, you’ll need to be reasonably confident that your heroes have enough survivability on their own. When things go awry, you can interrupt at any time using the triangle button. Also…
- …make good use of the chariot tarot system. This allows you to rewind battle up to 50 turns and is basically better than a quick save mechanism. You can’t actually abuse it as the chances calculated for a turn’s action will always be set in stone. This means that the failed attack from behind will always fail, no matter how often you try it. You’re forced to think of another approach. But it allows you to fix tactical errors. Of course, if you’re hardcore, you don’t want to use it as a crutch. It can be a real prevention for frustration though. It’s the best feature of the remaster in my opinion. Every SRPG of this kind should have this feature.
- Seriously, get a ninja or two and (maybe have the main character become one) have them learn “Double Attack” and “1H Katana”. Then equip two 1-handed Katanas and level them up. They’ll be you main damage output all the way to the end of the game. Until you can get the Ninja/Kunoichi (the female term for ninja) at around the beginning of chapter 2, you’ll be well served with using two or so archers. They’ll get lots of kills from range.
- Give a good number of your heroes at least “Field Alchemy 1” and always have a good amount of health and mana replenishment items. Use the mana on the first turn for you magic users (mages, priests etc), as they start out with no mana whatsoever and thus would be useless for the first 2 or 3 turns.
- Don’t skip the cut scenes. While the style isn’t as cutesy as other anime JRPGs, it still looks a lot like some kid’s game, which is misleading. The story is actually rather grim, with lots of characters doing despicable things. Also, I recommend reading up on side characters in the Warren Report. A lot of them have interesting background stories that aren’t conveyed during the short dialog sequences before or after battle. You’ll often find that the enemy isn’t always a bad guy/gal. They have their reasons for opposing you, which can even cause you do empathize with them. Sometimes, it made me feel a bit regretful even after slaughtering an honorable foe.
- There is actual choice and consequence. While not on the level of larger RPGs, it’s more than what you’ll usually find in JRPGs, which are often very linear affairs. In Tactics Ogre, you can totally be evil and make some really despicable decisions. There are 3 different endings, I believe.
It took me around 3 years to beat this game. I gave it a go, then stopped playing, then picked it up again only to feel completely disoriented and had to start over again. It’s like a heavy meal and it’s time intensive. But the fact that this is all portable means it’s manageable. Pick it up for you PSP or PSVita. I recommend it.