Tuesday, July 30, 2013
Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (PSP) (Square Enix, 2010)
Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together for the PlayStation Portable (released in Japan as Tactics Ogre: Wheel of Fortune) is a remake of Quest's seminal Super Famicom (1995) and PlayStation (1997) tactical RPG. The PlayStation port (previously, the only version of the game available in North America) was one of the gems of the PS1 library, much lauded by genre enthusiasts and very hard to come by, regularly fetching high prices on the secondhand market. Finally, more than a decade later, Square Enix has made the classic much more widely available, and, for this PSP release, they've produced not just an enhanced port but an extensive remake on a par with the DS remakes of their Final Fantasy games.
Square Enix managed to reunite the original creative team of art director Hiroshi Minagawa, character designer Akihiko Yoshida, composers Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata, and, most surprisingly, writer and designer Yasumi Matsuno. Matsuno, you may recall, had last worked with Square Enix as director on Final Fantasy XII (2006), before the company released a cryptic statement announcing his departure midway into the flagship title's much-troubled development. When a Japanese publisher "relieves you of your duties" under such mysterious circumstances, and in the middle of such a high-profile project, it is a typical outcome for you to never work in the industry again, let alone for the same company. But, although still neither side has ever elucidated the deterioration of their working relationship on FFXII, they are apparently on good enough terms that Matsuno was able to return to work in a freelance capacity on remaking the game that perhaps got him and his team onto Square's radar in the first place—ironically, the last game he ever worked on before joining Square, now the first Square Enix project he has worked on since leaving the company.
With Matsuno and his original team back in charge of the game that once catapulted their careers, this canonical remake is vastly more impressive than 2007's disappointing Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions for PSP, which was essentially a straight port by an outsourced B-team of a PS1 game with some added cut scenes. Visually, Tactics Ogre has been overhauled, with brand-new, high-resolution menus, text, and character portraits. Although the character sprites and maps, which still look 16-bit, are what players will spend the most time looking at, this is, after all, a genre where the action involves little sprite-people taking turns moving around on an isometric grid, and even recent original productions don't offer much more in the way of visual panache. The much sharper dressing on this remake, meanwhile, goes a long way toward making it feel like a modern release.
The game has also seen the addition of numerous playability enhancements. One thing that distinguished the original game from earlier tactical RPGs, such as Fire Emblem, was that, instead of the player and enemy sides taking turns moving all their units at once, the order of movement in Tactics Ogre was determined by each individual character's speed. To help players best take advantage of this, the remake has added a handy turn order chart visible at the bottom of the screen at all times during battles. I wish so badly that they could have added this feature to Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions. You can, of course, bring up the turn order list in that game with a few simple button presses, but it's these little conveniences that make Tactics Ogre for the PSP feel so modern, despite it being founded largely on the DNA of a fifteen-year-old game.
The most significant such addition is the "Chariot Tarot"—essentially, an "undo" function—which, during battle, allows you to rewind up to fifty turns. Fifty turns is not nearly so many as you might imagine, but if you find yourself making a move you regret, perhaps only realizing a few turns later how crucially it screwed you over, you can go back and give yourself a chance to fix things, instead of having to replay the entire fight over after you lose. The Chariot Tarot can be used as many times as you like, and there is no penalty, other than the game recording how many fights you win with the aid of it. It can even be manipulated to make sure your attacks never miss and that you deal as many critical hits as possible. Normally, as in a typical tactical RPG, you base your decisions on predicted outcomes that the game provides. For example, it might report that an attack at an enemy from the side will have a 70 percent chance of landing for 20 damage. Of course, that means there's a 30 percent chance that the attack will miss, and if it does land, the damage inflicted might not be exact; it might be slightly less, slightly more, or, in the case of an unpredictable critical hit, significantly more. At any rate, you take your chances based on these projections. That is, unless you use the Chariot Tarot to take chance out of the equation. Making the same choices will result in the same outcome, you see, so, no matter how many times you attempt that attack with the supposed 70 percent chance of success, the result will actually always be the same. In other words, rather than landing 7 times out of 10, in actuality, if it lands even once, it will land every time. Likewise, if it misses even once, it will miss every time, despite the favorable odds. In that case, you can use the Chariot Tarot to attempt the attack from a different angle. You can do it as many times as you like, until you get the result you want. Even if the attack lands, you can try different angles just to see if any of them yield greater damage.
The potential is there for abuse, and, even if you don't check it every turn to optimize your results but only use it as needed to fix crucial mistakes, one might argue that the mechanic robs the experience of a sense of consequence. So much of the thrill and tension of these strategy games devoid of conventional "action," after all, is in the risk/reward factor—gambling on a ballsy and/or desperate move, knowing that its success or failure will make or break you. It's true that some of the thrill is lost, but gone with it also is the frustration of having to replay a difficult fight simply because a reasonably high-percentage attack ended up missing at a crucial juncture. In any case, it's entirely up to the player whether and to what extent to take advantage of it. Personally, I think this one of those cases where, although it may at times leave me reflecting on how games used to be harder and more "real," I ultimately don't ever want to see another tactical RPG released without this convenient feature. And, hey, sometimes rewinding thirty turns to see where exactly things went wrong can be an enlightening experience, granting one a larger perspective on the long game.
For the remake, the designers thoroughly overhauled the game's systems as well, and every story battle from the original has been revisited and retuned. For those for whom the PSP remake is their first time playing Tactics Ogre, this won't mean much. The gameplay should be instantly familiar to anyone who has played Final Fantasy Tactics (1997), originally developed by the same team, or to anyone who has played virtually any tactical RPG released since. Even with the reworked systems, this isn't the deepest tactical RPG ever crafted. The selection of skills your characters can learn is nowhere near as robust as in Final Fantasy Tactics and, overall, never very exciting. Nor can you mix and match skills earned from different classes, so usually the only reason to switch to a different class is if it is newly unlocked (which happens as you progress through the story, not as you advance through other classes) and preferable to a character's current class. Mages aside, most of your characters will be performing the basic "Melee Attack" almost every turn for the entire game. On the bright side (or not, depending on your perspective), most story battles in Tactics Ogre allow you to field up to twelve characters—about double what Final Fantasy Tactics allows—which can make for battles of impressive scale. If the gameplay maybe feels a step behind the game that was Tactics Ogre's own spiritual successor from the same team, its carefully balanced and addictive combat nevertheless outclasses that of any other imitator.
As much a part of the game's identity is the story. Set amid a backdrop of strife between ethnic groups, the narrative was supposedly inspired by Matsuno's perspective on the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. If you've played Final Fantasy Tactics, Final Fantasy XII, or even Vagrant Story, you'll find the story here to be typical Matsuno. There's a war of succession, a long-lost true heir to the crown, political backstabbing, multiple antagonists vying against one another for power, and some sinister gods and demonic forces lurking in the background. The parallels with Final Fantasy XII in particular are, in hindsight, shockingly numerous, with parts of that game even seeming like recreations of scenes from Tactics Ogre.
It's a compellingly dark and intricate war narrative, serious in tone and refreshingly free of many of the fantasy cliches that typify a lot of Japanese RPGs. It doesn't just build predictably toward a final showdown with the fate of the world at stake, but rather the story is as much a chess match as the gameplay, as the key players wage battles that are as much ideological as physical. And, even with as many soul-deadening war shooters as I've played, this game managed to crush me with one scene in particular that I felt captured the true toll of war better than any other video game I've ever played.
As with many of Matsuno's stories, it does open more strongly than it finishes, owing to his peculiar predilection for loading the back end with inane sidetracks (see also the Beowulf/Reis/Worker 8/Cloud side quest in Final Fantasy Tactics). In fairness, these sidetracks are optional, and I suppose there's no place more appropriate to slot them than toward the end of the game. On the whole, Matsuno manages probably to sustain the drama in Tactics Ogre longer than in any of his other stories, even if the ending is far less memorable than that to Final Fantasy Tactics, and a major thread is left hanging, apparently in anticipation of a sequel that, more than fifteen years on, still has yet to arrive.
One aspect of Tactics Ogre that originated with its predecessor, Ogre Battle (1993), but which didn't carry over to Matsuno's later games, is a morality system. Broadly, a player's decisions affect how other characters perceive protagonist Denam, which may determine which characters join or desert your party. In practice, the player's actions during battles have limited repercussions. Much more significant are the player's decisions when prompted at key points in the story, with each choice leading the narrative down a completely different path. The decisions are weighty, and the divergences in the story branches are appropriately drastic. The best part is that, thanks to the new "World Tarot" feature of the remake, you can go back after beating the game once and warp back to key points in the story, allowing you to play through the other paths without giving up any of the items you acquired or the characters you recruited along the first path you took. As the Chariot Tarot does for the battles, the World Tarot grants you a larger perspective on the story, allowing you to see how deeply events can be influenced by decisions made much earlier.
That said, when I actually went back to see how differently things might have gone, I found some of the results rather contrived. At the end of the first chapter, you're presented with a major decision. Pick one path, and—SPOILER—one of your allies will unexpectedly turn on you. Pick the other path and you'll be betrayed by... the exact same ally, only for the opposite reason. This is already silly, but what's worse is that, although the game itself never frames your options as such, one of the choices is clearly evil by my reckoning. If you make the logical "good" choice, the traitorous ally reveals himself to be a total bastard, which kind of comes out of nowhere. If you make the "evil" choice, that same character becomes a heroic figure, which seems to make more sense... except that you've made the evil choice, which itself doesn't make sense. *Sigh* END SPOILER
With substantial, if not altogether organic, repercussions on the story, the branching narrative remains far less gimmicky than the binary morality systems found in many other games, and the new World Tarot makes it even less so. In keeping with the Japanese release's "Wheel of Fortune" subtitle, the designers likely intend for players to contemplate the theme of fate this time by considering the divergences themselves, rather than simply committing to one path, as the World Tarot allows you to explore all three major story paths in far less time than it would take to actually complete the game three times.
On the merits of both its gameplay and its writing, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together stands alongside Final Fantasy Tactics (or, at worst, just slightly behind it) as one of the greatest tactical RPGs I've ever played. The deluxe treatment Square Enix has given to this remake of a game not titled "Final Fantasy" is a pleasant surprise. It's the most—actually, pretty much the only thing—they've done with the Ogre Battle series since purchasing the IP. Dare we hope that this release signifies an intention to resurrect the franchise with even perhaps some new games? Well, three years on and not another peep since, so probably not. Then again, this remake was allegedly three years in development, and contingent on the staff members' availability amid other projects. Maybe they're just waiting for Yasumi Matsuno to free up his schedule again. One can only hope.