There are some video games that show up late in a console generation that push boundaries and defy preconceptions on what was considered possible. Resident Evil 4 immediately springs to mind, not only pushing the series to a point Capcom that hasn't been able to match since but also serving as a template to every other game in the genre. These are games which were one generation ahead of their peers. Quest's sequel to Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen (the developers are big fans of the British band Queen, if you hadn't noticed) is exactly that: Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Togetheris a game whichpushed the Super Famicom's graphic and audio capabilities beyond their perceived limits and laid down the template for pretty much every isometric strategy RPGs for decades afterward. Sadly, like far too many other examples on the Super Famicom, this release never made it to Western shores - on Nintendo hardware, at least.
Much like the first game, you'll create your character by answering a series of questions - but this is where the similarities end with Ogre Battle. Like the name implies, Tactics Ogre is all about turn-based movement and combat rather than a "true" sequel to Quest's previous effort. Think Front Mission minus the technology and instead set in a high fantasy medieval society (Fire Emblem with an isometric view, if you will) and you're almost there. But do not be misled about the lack of originality, for it is abundant here. Yes, the gameplay mechanics are exactly what one would expect from a turn-based strategy RPG, but the execution here is simply flawless. With over two hundred individual battles spread thought the story's main, nonlinear four chapters, this certainly offers excellent value for money.
Tactics Ogre takes place in the continent of Valeria, locked in a dreadful civil war. You start out with a party of three: the main character Denim (you can rename him to your liking), his sister Kachua and family friend Vice. They plan to assassinate the Dark Knight Lans who was responsible for the death of their family. Cliché yes, but everything beyond this opening act is anything but. The gameplay is made up of three distinct phases; the Regional Map is where you will spend quite some time, deciding where to move your army around Valeria, customizing your troops, assigning training, shopping for supplies or reading the ever-growing Warren Reports for latest news of the land. Secondly, the Attack Team Edit Screen that allows you to pick your party (comprised of up to 10 individuals) to deal with your current mission. As you might imagine, it is extremely important to make the right decisions at this stage before setting foot onto the third element: The Battlefield. Because there are dozens of different unit classes and random battles it is quite possible you will never replay the exact same game twice, but make sure you always keep saving before committing to anything because our old friend the Grim Reaper makes himself a permanent resident during your time with Tactics Ogre - this game is a perfectionist's worst nightmare.
Death is an inescapable truth on the battlefield, so be prepared to be frustrated when your favourite unit buys the farm mid-battle and you won't ever see them again (their equipment is returned to the army's supplies, but this is often little consolation). It's a harsh but realistic mechanic, and is in line with the game's grim premise and also furthers the similarities with Fire Emblem's own permadeath feature. It is possible to revive fallen comrades by deploying a Priest class unit with the Revivify spell, but it takes a while to unlock this which means early on it's preferable to play safe with your army instead of taking heroic risks. Needless to say, getting your main character getting killed equals instant game over.
If you're worried about losing vital units, then you can always rely on those who cannot be killed. Along your regular human companions, it's possible to employ skeleton warriors and ghosts to do your bidding. Once depleted of HP, they will lay dormant in the battlefield until rising back up again with some HP returned. But before you start planning an unholy army of the undead to lead your way to victory, be warned that such units do not carry items or amour and are easily outclassed by enemies with decent gear.
With this in mind, you might want to invest in recruiting Beasts instead. Like the undead they are unable to use equipment and can get killed, but they are strong and some are even capable of flight, removing terrain obstacles as a limiting factor. Get a Beast Master to go along with them into battle and they will be even stronger, thanks to the fear of his whip. This is why you spend a lot of time in Tactics Ogre micromanaging your units; the number of ways you can tackle this quest is almost limitless and you won't begrudge random encounter battles because you never know when the opportunity will arise to capture a powerful Earth Dragon beast. You might expect with so much going on, the player would get overwhelmed by all the complex micromanagement the game requires, but a great ten lesson tutorial and a "Online Help" feature means that explanation of what a command is always a mere "Select" button push away.
The game does not skip on graphic detail. The stages on which you fight are made of neat building blocks in pastel colors that often make the game look like a painting, but the real stars are the unit sprites made with CGI models, not unlike Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. Varied, filled with detail and incredibly well animated, you won't have problems distinguishing your regular Soldiers from a Ninja squad. The distinguished look of the game is thanks to Akihiko Yoshida, responsible for the Tarot Card designs in the previous game but also responsible for character and background designs here. The sound effects are a bit spartan but the beautiful soundtrack of about fifty compositions by Masaharu Iwata and Hitoshi Sakimoto more than makes up for that. Add Yasumi Matsuno in the director's seat and it is quite clear that the staggering amount of talent at Quest in 1995 is directly responsible for the quality of the finished product.
We would love to discuss the game's plot but doing so we would end up inadvertently spoiling the experience for first time players and as such we leave with just a single word that best describe the whole experience: epic. It is a long and solitary endeavor but one very much worth experiencing. There is also a small social aspect; Tactics Ogre is one of the few games that supported the ASCII Turbo File, a device that could be plugged onto the second joypad port to allow for save game storage outside of the game's battery backup, allowing the player to keep a redundant backup of his game progress and quickly take their custom army to a friend's house. Sony's PlayStation would take the idea of removeable save data to the next level of course, but it's fascinating to see that devices existed that offered very much the same function.
Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together is an incredibly polished experience and will provide any tactical RPG enthusiast with incredible gameplay and replayability value thanks to its plot, several different endings and nearly endless customization possibilities for your personal army. It is amazing how much Quest has managed to squeeze out of a regular SNES 24mbit cartridge. This game set the template two years before Final Fantasy Tactics (which was made by many of the same staffers) turned Western gamers into fans of the genre. As such, it is a shame it was never officially released on the SNES in the west - although later ports to the PlayStation and PlayStation Portable did see a release outside of Japan, which softens the blow a little. Thanks to Aeon Genesis' efforts, in 2010 a patch containing the PlayStation version English script was released making the Super Famicom game fully playable to English-speaking gamers via a RetroN 5 or Retro Freak system. Tactics Ogre remains a true classic and an essential undertaking for strategy RPG veterans everywhere, despite the passage of time and advancements in technology. While no game is truly faultless, this vintage masterpiece comes very, very close, and if you've recently been exposed to the genre sparked via the likes of Fire Emblem Fates, then you should seek this out at the earliest possible opportunity.