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Tactics Ogre Reborn Review

tactics ogre reborn

Old-School Tactical JRPG Meets Nex Gen Fidelity

We’ve all been there. Oh, the ‘there’ in question changes from person to person, but the anecdotes remain constant, irresistible even. For some, it is proximity to momentous events, the tearing down of walls, freedom marches, and other less savoury pivots of history. For others, it is an emblem of foresight and taste. Watching an as-yet-unknown Nirvana play to twelve people in a dive bar. Sending the world’s eighth tweet. Even eating the world’s first commercially available cronut carries a cachet of sorts. Because being able to say to people, ‘I was there, man,’ still carries weight, even in this digital age of instantaneous gratification and Instagram-pastiche life lessons. To have arrived before the unwashed masses, to have stood apart from the crowd and experienced the soon-to-be popular; such is the irresistible refrain of a well-trodden narrative. Tactics Ogre Reborn is almost as old school as it gets, and whilst it might be nice to semaphore your presence at its opening salvo, the truth is that you almost certainly were not.

(There that is).

Enix Squared

The first game in the Ogre series -- Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen – was released in Japan in 1993 on the Super Famicom. Developed by (now defunct) Quest and published by (now merged with Square) Enix, the game featured real-time tactical RPG mechanics, a breath-taking orchestral score by Masaharu Iwata and crisp graphics presented via a novel isometric perspective. The game opened to favourable reviews and sold over 400,000 copies, twice what Quest had initially hoped for. Over in North America, the reception was less clear. Enix’s decision to limit the print to a mere 25,000 cartridges severely limited availability. It also drove the price up to $150 for an unboxed copy – an eye-watering figure for early 90’s video game connoisseurs. The game took on near-mythological status; everyone you talked to loved it, but nobody seemed to recall precisely where they had played it. A hidden gem, for sure, but one forever out of reach.

Of course, forever is a relative term, and in this case, the forever in question festered in the mind of tactical RPG fans desperate for their next fix.

Until one day, it didn’t.

In 1996 the game was re-released on both the PlayStation and Sega Saturn – with the latter version featuring voice acting over the original’s text boxes. Subsequent releases on the virtual console and mobile phones de-mythologised the game and cemented in the minds of a wider audience a vision of a game that very much lived up to its hype.

The inevitable sequel, titled Tactics Ogre Let Us Cling Together, was released on the Super Famicom in Japan in 1995 and was later added to the Sega Saturn and PlayStation’s game catalogue in 1996. In 1998, Altus released a North American port of the PlayStation version. Saturn fans were left in the dark on this one, but by 1998, that had become an all too familiar feeling.

The Remake Of The Re-released Sequel

To be clear, Tactics Ogre Reborn is a remake of the second game in the series. Though much beloved, the first game suffers from one major flaw, or rather, it suffers in comparison to another much-cherished franchise – Square’s vastly better-known Final Fantasy Tactics.

Final Fantasy Tactics is, after all, the definitive tactical JRPG experience. The reference points drip with familiarity: super-deformed characters jog on the spot across a tile-based battlefield, awaiting their turn as the player peers across a 3D terrain. Roles are chosen, equipment purchased (and plundered,) and as the XP mounts, the opportunity to tweak units in order to build a formidable force takes on ever-more obsessive tones. Between battles, Japanese RPG cliché abound; melodrama plays across blinking text boxes heavy on exposition, soap-operatic reveals, and flashes of white-hot tragedy.

Yet, Tactics Ogre Reborn is no clone, no lesser Hemsfield clinging to the coattails of its flashier, more prosperous brethren. Final Fantasy Tactics was released for the PlayStation in June 1997, almost two years after Tactics Ogre Let Us Cling Together had shown Square how it was done.

First The Worst, Second The Best

So, if Tactics Ogre Reborn owes its pedigree to refining a formula made famous by its better-known imitator, does this make it the superior tactical JRPG experience? Maybe; first is only sometimes best. To be clear, fans of the aforementioned Final Fantasy title will find themselves in familiar territory here. The isometric perspective – a parallel projection that reveals facets of the environment otherwise hidden – provides a nod to the past potentially lost on younger players. Made famous by Sega’s 80’s arcade classic Zaxxon, the isometric landscape adds verticality to tactical considerations in what would otherwise be a flat, top-down point of view.

And that word – tactical – is not just for show. The game is old-school – and old-school games were deliberate gatekeepers of talent. Back in the day, steep learning curves aimed to challenge the skills of a select few and Tactics Ogre Reborn pays homage to that tradition. There are no difficulty settings here; success relies on the three pillars of tactical RPG mechanics: the setup, the execution, and the effective use of terrain.

Set Up To Fail

The downtime between battles – or at least that time not assigned to story beats– forms a crucial part of the gameplay. The buying, selling, and equipping of items – a mainstay of any good RPG – form part of a more complex set of micromanagement options. Spells may be purchased and prepared, skills levelled up, finishing moves assigned, and job roles -- Tactics Ogre Reborn’s version of character classes -- switched in and out in an attempt to stack odds in your favour. New units can be hired to replace fallen comrades or else to fill a chink in otherwise impenetrable defence, and yet at times, all the preparation in the world won’t save you from the battle to come. Perma-death is an option here, and losing a well-trained, much-beloved companion sometimes bites deep enough to force a reluctant reload. Matches that fail return you to earlier saves and, in doing so, present the opportunity to once again tinker with gear, units, spells, and formations. It’s an exciting part of the overall mechanic and one that traverses the fine line between obsession and genius. Some battles –such as assaults on castles or lairs – consist of multi-stage raids. In such cases, downtime between fighting is impossible and even more care and thought must be taken into the who, what, and where aspects of pre-battle loadouts.

Encounter Culture

Specific encounters determine the number of units that can be taken into battle, but once your squad is selected, you are committed to the fight. Regardless, an attempt to overwhelm forces by sheer weight of numbers is doomed to failure. Verdun-style frontal assaults might work for some of the game’s opening set pieces, but later missions demand more finesse. Position is critical; the AI is sophisticated enough to target squishies (clerics, magic users and other cloth armour-wearing denizens,) but a headlong rush into the fray with armoured knights leaves such units starved of precious healing magics. Archers operate in mid-field position, picking off stragglers and providing much-needed artillery support to retreating or advancing troops. Meanwhile, magic points – a metric also used for skills—start at zero and build over time. Spellcasters can meditate on their turn in order to artificially inflate their pool early on, but they do so at the cost of any other meaningful action.

Entering combat, then, is a question of timing. Planning moves to coincide with a usable skill often provides the kind of coup de gras that can tip the battle in your favour. Blunders can prove fatal, although thankfully, a do-over via the game’s Chariot Tarot mechanic helps lessen the pain. Selected with a squeeze of the right trigger, it allows players to take back moves in order to try a different tac. It provides welcome relief from the need to reload because of a single catastrophic point of failure though even here, the options are limited. During the initial stages of the game, you can only replay the last ten moves you made; as you progress, this increases to fifty.

See No Evil

The last skill to master is the map itself. Topography – as you’d expect -- blocks line of sight, forcing archers to duke it out over the higher ground. Flying units can flank enemies by crossing obstacles such as rivers or hills. Vulnerable units can seek shelter behind obstructions. Such nuance works both ways, and knowing how to find an advantageous position is one of the foremost tactical elements of the game. At least the devs were somewhat forgiving in this regard; players may move to test whether an attack is likely to hit with an option to cancel the move and try something else if they no longer fancy their chances. Still, temptations litter the battlefield in the form of randomly spawning cards. These cards offer myriad benefits – buffs to attack, magic points, improved criticals and so on – but to gain the effect, units have to end their turn on the same square as the card itself. Doing so sometimes leaves teams vulnerable to a counter-offensive that might leave you reaching for the Chariot Tarot mechanism more often than you’d like.

Each map presents unique challenges that keep players on their toes. Fighting in mountainous terrain might require a fast-moving squad rich in ariel support. Meanwhile, a movement point-sapping quagmire probably lends itself better to ranged assaults. Regardless of the strategic obstacles thrown your way, the level of player engagement remains deeply satisfying. A well-fought victory feels like a genuine accomplishment, and as you share the spoils of battle amongst favoured units, the temptation to play just one more round is as palpable as it is irresistible.

Reborn Again?

Graphically, the game is gorgeous. The Ps5 version runs everything at 4k 60fps offering a muted, near-watercolour pallet that pays homage to its earlier pedigree. Still, this is a reworking of an older gaming style; this is pixel-based stuff at its most polished, but if the 16-bit retro look isn’t for you, then neither is this game.

The story is typical JRPG fair; civil war, a brave band of resistance fighters, love, loss, sacrifice, and enough alternative endings to warrant repeated playthroughs. The voice acting is superb, as is the aforementioned orchestral score. But it is the battles themselves that draw you in, almost unwillingly at times, considering the learning curve. Indeed, hitting one of those difficulty spikes is part of the fun.

Taking squads out on training exercises to grind for XP, swapping out units to change the line of attack, using the terrain in novel ways to achieve a stunning victory that once felt impossible? Such incessant tinkering is the stuff great games are made of. There are thirty-eight classes to choose from, and that is without figuring in some of the beasts, dragons, and golems that can be recruited along the way.

All of which begs the question, is this the definitive tactical JRPG experience?

Well, frankly, yes. Purists may baulk at the notion that such a game might out ‘Final Fantasy’ Final Fantasy Tactics, but the truth is Square emulated Tactics Ogre for a reason. The game resonates with the exciting pulse of a revisited classic. It offers tense story beats, plot twists, achingly difficult fights, moments of genuine shock and, oh, the endless nerd-porn of creating a perfectly balanced squad of well-seasoned warriors.

Tactics Ogre Reborn is no reimagining of a classic brought back to life with a lick of paint. This is the classic, presented with the kind of care usually reserved for restoring a Renaissance painting. Its character and charm remain in situ, but the quality-of-life improvements and graphical fidelity help it rise further than before. The moist-eyed remembrance of a grey-haired veteran is not always a barometer that one should pay attention to, but in this case, those lucky few who got to play this title back in the day really were there for something unique.

And now, you can be too.

That concludes our thoughts on Tactics Ogre Reborn. Do you agree? Let us know your thoughts and tag us on social media @zatugames. To buy Tactics Ogre Reborn today click here! (Version tested PS5)