Tactics Ogre: So Far, So Clinging Together

I missed Tactics Ogre on the Super Nintendo when it came out in 1995. I blame PC games. I was already on to stuff like MechWarrior 2: 31st Century Combat, X-COM: Terror From the Deep, and of all things, Bethesda's Elder Scrolls followup, The Terminator: Future Shock. Come on--that versus strategy gaming on a TV with a d-pad?

Which means I'm making up for lost time with Ogre Battle: Episode VII. I mean Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together for Sony's PlayStation Portable. Ogre Battle's the series name, and Tactics Ogre comprises its seventh chapter. I know, Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen, the first game in the series, starts at chapter five. The prior four episodes don't exist yet.

What to make of Square Enix's rethink of a putative classic? So far, so enjoying it, while working to make sure I fully understand it. It's complex enough to convince me I missed something, well, complex for a console 16 years ago.

I'm only a few battles in, hovering over Krysaro, about to march on Qadriga Fortress and The Necromancer Nybeth. I have a party of 12 and the game's letting me juggle up to eight in battles. After 14 days on the road (comprising just five battles, but "14 days" sounds livelier) I've slain 19 bad guys. That's without using the Chariot Tarot, one of the new PSP version features that lets you rollback the clock, one turn at a time.

The learning curve's notably lower than Final Fantasy Tactics (technically Tactics Ogre's descendent) and that's not a bad thing. Battles feel less like collating swarms of feuding digits and symbols before clicking "next turn," and more like fast-play chess.

Battles move, in other words. When you maneuver your little sprite knights, warriors, wizards, and rune fencers around the game's Q-bert-like battlegrounds, you can sight things tactically. Head-on assaults are bad, sidewise better, and from behind, best. Concentrated fire gets faster results than dispersed. Fighting from above is better than below. Battlefield conditions and terrain types dictate movement rates. Element-based magic hews to classic this-beat-that tropes. The only stat that'll draw your attention away from the battlefield is recovery time (RT), which determines who goes next.

If I had to complain, it'd be about what I'm doing between battles. Tactics-angled games emphasize what goes on off the battlefield, sometimes forcing you to pore over reams of data before the game takes off. It can feel like charging a forcefield, and it's the case here. Tactics Ogre holds your hand (actually, your arm behind your back) the first battle or two, then drops you out in the world with upwards of a dozen characters and twice as many travelogue, shop, and stat screens. That's a big party and a lot to think about just getting going. Figuring out who does what and why, what's best assigned there, or where that thing goes, takes hours after you've only just started. I'm all about climbing the mountain, but it's a minor buzzkill after years of smarter game design (see Level 5's Jeanne D'Arc) that ramps up gradually.

So be it. Five hours in, the between-battle stuff's coming together. I get who's best with what and how to tap the square button and use the d-pad to cycle through tiny screens with teeny icons to check item-class compatibility. I'm ready for finishing moves, auctions, class shifts, crafting, to build out skill slots, and fiddle with arcana. And I'm going after Nybeth with everything I've got. The guy doesn't stand a chance.

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