Within the Final Fantasy brand, one of the most famous sub-series is the Ivalice Alliance. Set within the fictional land of Ivalice, the handful of projects that comprised these games were marked by their focus on a more grounded setting that explored the dramatic politics of a magical medieval world. However, before Ivalice came along, its creator—Yasumi Matsuno—originally worked on another unrelated series called Ogre Battle that featured an early version of the setting. Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together on the Super NES was the second release in this series and was largely seen as one of the greatest SRPGs ever made, but it never quite garnered the following many believed it deserved. Now nearly 30 years later, Square Enix has decided to give it another crack at finding a broader audience with Tactics Ogre: Reborn, a remake of the PSP remake they made about a decade ago. Though it still shows its age in some ways, Tactics Ogre Reborn does a great job of cleaning up this SRPG classic and presenting it to a new generation.
Tactics Ogre places you in the role of Denam, a Walister teen living under the bootheel of the ruling Galgastani in the wake of a civil war that took place a few decades ago. Sick of living in oppression, Denam ropes his sister and best friend into joining a resistance to overthrow the ruling regime. As more allies join and the resistance escalates into a full-scale war, Denam is tested as he navigates the political and moral landscape while staying true to his original ideals.
It's a gripping and dark story all the way through, though it does feel a little dense at first. The greater focus on political squabbling here is welcome, but the lack of introduction to major names and events can make it feel like you’re watching season 4 of Game of Thrones without any of the context. Eventually, you get a sense of it but it can be a lot initially to track all the relationships and motivations going on.
Once you do get into it, there’s plenty of plot to get drawn into, especially given the presence of multiple routes and endings depending on key decisions you have Denam make at certain points in the story. Regardless of what you choose, important characters will die or abandon you, and if you’re ever curious how things might’ve gone if you chose differently, there’s a helpful feature to go back in time to major plot points and play out the other path.
Gameplay in Tactics Ogre takes the shape of a standard isometric Strategy RPG, wherein you give orders to a crew of around a dozen warriors to achieve victory over a similarly matched enemy team. Every character has a small collection of weapons, skills, attacks, consumables, and magic at their disposal, and they can each move a short distance every turn and take (with some exceptions) one action. If someone dies, you usually have three turns to hustle someone over to them to issue a revive; if they don’t make it in time, the incapacitated unit is dead for good and takes all your hours of hard work and investment with them.
As far as this genre goes, Tactics Ogre is about as simple as the setup gets—none of the relationship shipping of Fire Emblem or character stacking ridiculousness of Disgaea to be seen here—but it clearly has the fundamentals down well. It doesn’t take long before you get a grasp of the basic flow of a typical battle, and there are plenty of interesting variables thrown in to keep every fight feeling interesting.
For example, not only do terrain types have different effects on your stats, but one must take elevation into account when moving and attacking units. Firing an arrow at an enemy at too high a position may only result in you hitting a wall, or worse, an ally who was standing in the way. There’s also an extensive elemental system at play, wherein every character belongs to an element that’s weak to some attacks and strong against others. Factors such as this mean that sending in your Berserker to clean house isn’t always a viable option, you have to consider how your decisions may have consequences.
Fortunately, Tactics Ogre: Reborn isn’t punitive in how it treats your decision-making skills. There’s a helpful new feature called the Chariot Tarot that allows you to roll back to previous turns if you don’t like the outcome of a choice you made, and doing so will even create a branching timeline so you can return to the initial choice if your redo turned out even worse. Indeed, this Chariot Tarot feels a little broken—Fire Emblem’s Divine Pulse, for example, felt like it couldn’t be used nearly as much as a crutch—but we appreciate how it allows for a much more dynamic kind of difficulty scaling. Those of you who want that old-school challenge can simply not use it, while players who want to maximize their efficiency in a battle can cling to the ‘Golden Path’ they make by continuously finding the best outcome.
Another new change for this remake is the introduction of Buff Cards, which are randomly spawning collectibles in a battle that can give you a massive edge. Each card will boost a stat for the character who picks it up, and that buff will stick with them for the remainder of the battle. Often, you have to go a little out of your way to pick one up, but these cards can completely turn the tide if you’re smart about who you send to grab one and when.
Plus, things are made a little more interesting by the fact that enemies can be equally buffed by them, which introduces a defensive element to snatching up cards before your foes can power up too much. Though we felt sometimes these buff cards were a little too powerful for their own good, they nonetheless add a welcome dynamic element that fits quite well with the already deep combat system.
Between battles, you travel a world map that allows you to stock up on supplies, follow the main story, or break off for some side plots and dungeons that can net you some tasty rewards. We appreciated the removal of random battles here—any grinding you want to do can now be done via a manually activated ‘training’ battle—though the Union Level feels like an unfair handicap. With this mechanic, your party is given a max level cap until they progress the story further, which can make some of the harder battles feel unnecessarily difficult when you aren’t able to grind a bit ahead of time to level your characters further. Still, even this strictly imposed ceiling is softened a bit given that any experience gained on a maxed-out party is converted into a consumable resource that you can later dole out yourself.
Regarding character growth, one of the largest changes made in this remake is a removal of the former class-based system in favor of one that is much less reliant on grinding. EXP is doled out after the battle is over to all party members equally, with the lower leveled members getting a slightly larger cut. As they level up, characters’ stats will naturally be influenced by the current class they have equipped and they’ll learn new active and passive skills exclusive to that class. You can only equip four of these skills at a time, which can feel rather restricting given how much choice you’re given later, but we appreciated the opportunity to load out characters differently depending on the fight they would next be in.
Perhaps most importantly, reclassing characters now is a simple matter of using a consumable resource to switch them to your preferred class, where they will instantly have all the exclusive skills unlocked for that class and their level. In the last version of Tactics Ogre on PSP, you would have to start over from level one with every reclass, which meant a laughable grind was needed just to get that character to where they were before. Now, the tedium has been removed, but the depth is still there.
It’s quality-of-life changes like these that really elevate Tactics Ogre Reborn, as nearly all the antiquated rougher edges have been smoothed out with well-implemented modern fixes. Scared of making the wrong decisions? Just bail yourself out with the Chariot Tarot. Annoyed by having to micromanage every member of your team? Activate the surprisingly competent AI on most of your team and just worry about a few characters. Bored by the sometimes glacial pace of battle? You can double the animation speed at the press of a button. It’s very clear that the developers of this remake spent an awful lot of time actually playing it; as it feels like nearly every place in the game design that could be a point of irritation has been given a solution.
That said, Tactics Ogre sometimes can’t get out of its own way. Part of this is probably due to the original release launching nearly three decades ago, but there are often points where the game would clearly be a better experience if it was reined in a bit. For example, sprawling vertical battlefields sound like a great idea, until you have to spend two whole rounds individually guiding 12 units up a hill to the center of the battlefield just so they can begin to engage the enemy. This remake does a lot to cut back on the tedium, yet it also wasn’t uncommon for us to spend half an hour playing out a battle that was mostly just going through the motions.
Beyond this, it often feels like major strategic decisions and plays are blunted due to the diluted value of individual units. Having nearly 30 units on the field duking it out doesn’t make you feel like you’re presiding over some cohesive epic battle, but rather like you’re watching a disconnected series of relatively boring catfights between characters trying to cut each other with spoons. In a modern title like Into the Breach, for example, each member of both your team and the enemy team feels like an absolutely critical contributor to the broader battle, which makes each conflict between units nail-bitingly intense. Even titles with larger squads like Fire Emblem still manage to be rife with big plays and key moments that force a change of tack. Tactics Ogre sometimes manages to engineer moments like this, but here the resolutions of most battles felt rather anticlimactic and muted.
As for its graphical presentation, Tactics Ogre: Reborn is rather disappointing, especially when compared to Square’s ongoing usage of HD-2D. The spritework here is fine, but it employs that gross pixel smoothing filter that modern game companies love to use with their re-releases of older games. Most sprites thus have weirdly shaped curves and colors that tend to run together like water was spilled on a painting. Meanwhile, the maps have some nice-looking tilesets and environmental details, but it doesn’t take long before you start noticing just how much assets are being reused. Tactics Ogre’s visuals are at least passable, then, but after seeing how Square’s gorgeous new rendition of Live A Live looked just a few months ago, it’s hard to feel like Tactics Ogre didn’t get shafted here.
Luckily, the audio side of the presentation did pretty well this time around. Not only has the original soundtrack been given an orchestral treatment, but the entire script has been spruced up with a full voice cast. There are both Japanese and English voice performances here, and we particularly liked the somewhat nostalgic way in which they’re executed. None of the actors are bad in their roles, but there’s just a hint of that kind of timeless cheesiness of voice acting that was present in many games in the '90s.
Tactics Ogre: Reborn is a seminal and still-enjoyable SRPG that manages to respectfully hold its own against the many descendants it now exists alongside. Though some elements of its design feel a little archaic, its deeply political and branching narrative, orchestrated soundtrack, and solidly built strategic combat all come together to make for a worthwhile experience. Visually, this version is disappointing, and we wouldn't say Reborn is one to rush out and buy immediately, but if you're a sucker for strategy and want to experience an influential classic with some mod cons thrown in, we'd suggest you keep this on your watchlist.