Tactics Ogre: Reborn Review (Switch)
Final Fantasy Tactics is often touted as one of, if not the best tactical RPGs of all time. Yasumi Matsuno’s 1997 masterpiece was massively successful upon launch and has been beloved by fans of the genre for decades. But what seems to be brought up less is Matsuno’s earlier work, with both Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen (1993) and Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (1995), which served as stepping stones to the widespread appeal of both gameplay and storytelling within Final Fantasy Tactics.
But the lack of popularity doesn’t mean the older stuff isn’t worth talking about, and now that Tactics Ogre: Reborn has been released – a remaster of the 2010 PSP remake of the 1995 original – there’s never been a better time! And truth be told, with the slew of enhancements, adjustments, and improvements made possible by this version, it has easily become one of my favorite tactical RPGs of all time.
The bleak, politically-charged narrative of Tactics Ogre: Reborn is set in the kingdom of Valeria, where three groups – Bakram, Galgastani, and Walister – vie for the vacant seat of power in the wake of King Dorgalua’s untimely death. It wouldn’t be long, however, until the Galgastani would overtake the much smaller Walister region, both of which shared the southern half of Valeria. This is where you come in as Denam Pavel, one of three Walister youths that not only have their sights set on freeing the now-captive leader of the Walister Resistance, Duke Ronwey, but also seek revenge for the sacking of their hometown (and the abduction of his father) a year prior.
The three form an unlikely alliance with traveling mercenaries, and their united front successfully frees the Duke from captivity, which ignites the flames of the Walister banner once more. Although morale amongst the newly-knighted youths is high, it isn’t long before Denam and his companions are faced with the ugly, morally-gray truths to war. And their actions henceforth will shape what the future holds. The narrative is driven by the choices made across four chapters, splintering off into three paths filled with their own decision-based nuances that ultimately drill down to two separate endings. Even though the overall experience has been streamlined to improve the overall flow of play, you’re still easily looking at 50+ hours for a single playthrough and many more if you intend on all facets of the narrative.
Tactics Ogre: Reborn throws you right into the political fray, which might feel a bit overwhelming if it wasn’t for the inclusion of the Warren Report. This living chronicle is updated with every new milestone achieved by Denam and his companions, outlining the events thus far and notable characters met and/or mentioned along the way. Previously shown scripted events can be replayed at will, and character biographies aren’t set in stone, as they will continue to evolve and change based on the actions and decisions made during the story.
The Warren Report, while completely optional, is there for those looking to get the most out of the narrative, as well as those simply looking for a refresher on previous events. And as a decades-long admirer of the Chronicle/Brave Story in Final Fantasy Tactics – inspired by the Warren Report, no doubt – I’m a big fan of it, and honestly wished more RPGs with complex narratives had a similar feature. Regardless, if you’re a fan of deep, nuanced dark fantasy with compelling characters, then look no further.
That said, Tactics Ogre: Reborn does spread itself a bit thin when it comes to the sheer amount of characters introduced. Even though the most important characters are fleshed out well, there are many others that get little screen time but are billed as if they are to play much bigger roles. It’s baffling how many enemies in particular are introduced that have great lines during battle, only to die at the hands of Denam and never be heard from again. In hindsight, I do feel that less emphasis on the number of characters introduced and more placed on recurring characters would have fared better overall. But as it stands, the game still has a great story led by many solid characters, and this particular issue may only be prevalent in the particular path that I had Denam follow for this review.
While Tactics Ogre: Reborn does put its excellent narrative front and center, it does so without being a detriment to the gameplay. Some games in this vein can feel like they take forever to get going, or that there’s too much downtime in between periods of conflict. However, Tactics Ogre Reborn strikes a perfect balance between intriguing story bits (some of which play out in the middle battle) and intensely strategic combat. Battles take place on an isometric grid, where weather effects, elevation, and positioning not only play a role in both attacking and defending, but also just moving around the map in general.
But before crossing swords with the enemy, there is the deployment screen. You can view the win condition(s) for the upcoming battle, scout the map ahead of the real fight, and arrange/deploy your units according to your needs. Once satisfied, a battle ensues. In lieu of concrete player/enemy phases, all units instead perform actions based on their overall recovery time (or RT) determined by each unit’s current class, equipped gear, and the actions they perform each turn. This means that it can sometimes be advantageous to “do nothing” for a turn with a certain unit, as their next turn will come up faster and be more beneficial as a result.
When it comes to story battles, most only require taking out the enemy commander, but this is generally not the best solution due to how looting works and the economy in general. Virtually all enemies in story maps drop a bag of loot when they die, meaning the more enemies that are defeated on the map, the more loot you’ll receive at the end. On the other hand, clearing the entire map of enemies is obviously a much longer, far more dangerous prospect, but the rewards are generally worth it. These loot bags will be rewarded to you after completing a map even if you don’t pick them all up, with the exception of bags that enemies pick up and then aren’t vanquished beforehand.
The unit order is always visible at the bottom of the screen, which helps you make more informed decisions with every turn. And just when you might think that too much information is readily available, buff cards are introduced that add a dynamic twist to battle. As combat progresses, buff cards will begin to litter the battlefield at random locations. The first unit to walk over a card will receive one of the following buffs: increased physical attack, increased magical attack, increased critical rate, or increased auto-skill activation. These buffs stack and last for the duration of battle, though each unit is limited to carrying four at a time and can ultimately lose them if slain or pushed into a red buff removal card by the enemy.
The end result demands you to think hard on each combat decision since a newly-spawned buff card can throw a wrench in your current plans. Do you finish off that wounded enemy, or do you instead scramble to pick up that ill-placed buff card that could make certain enemies even more dangerous? This doesn’t even factor in differences in unit affinities, where elemental strengths and weaknesses depend on whatever god each unit is aligned with. For Denam, this affinity is selected based on choices in the tarot card reading during the introduction. Story-based friendly units will have specific predetermined affinities, while other units will have randomly assigned affinities. Although there’s nothing stopping you from having one unit attack an enemy unit that has an elemental advantage over them, the potency of the attacks can be drastically reduced because of it. Regardless, affinities aren’t permanent and can be changed later on with certain consumables. Altogether, these are things that must be considered each battle, and as a result it feels both satisfying and rewarding to be a shrewd tactician.
Upon being victorious, all units that are alive and have participated in battle will receive a share of the party’s overall experience, which makes it much easier to level up characters even if they don’t contribute a whole lot to the overall fight. This is in stark contrast to the original game and many other tactical RPGs of that era, such as Final Fantasy Tactics, where units often received the most experience by dealing lots of damage or performing meaningful actions, making it difficult for low leveled units and especially healers to keep up with the rest of the crew. Moreover, a level cap that gradually rises as the main story progresses ensures that every battle requires at least some semblance of strategy to complete, and whatever experience is accrued while the party fights at level cap is converted to experience charms that can then be applied to either a low leveled unit or a high level unit once the level cap is raised again.
While some may take issue with the inability to infinitely powerup characters because of the level cap, I find that it only strengthens the appeal of combat in Tactics Ogre: Reborn. Remember how Thunder God Cid could one-shot multiple enemies in a single turn in Final Fantasy Tactics? Extremely unlikely for that to happen here with the exception of stacking buff cards (which takes time) or when facing certain boss enemies that already come with buff cards assigned (they can HURT). Battles are much slower paced without uber powerful characters, which better suits a genuine strategic battle rather allowing single OP units to clear maps by themselves.
Although this means that many fights can take 30 minutes or more to complete, the sound play-by-play decision making and eventual payoff is well worth the struggle. Don’t get me wrong, I think that the Thunder God and other mage knights of Final Fantasy Tactics are awesome, and being overpowered has its benefits, but it’s also like putting on cheat codes and then expecting genuine satisfaction out of cleverly outmaneuvering the enemy forces. Speaking of cheat codes, Tactics Ogre: Reborn features a Chariot Tarot system that allows you to rewind time and essentially redo any unit’s turn from a couple dozen turns in the past. While there are some limitations to this system, it does allow you some freedom to revert mistakes or simply to see how a different chain of events in battle could play out. While I personally did not use the Chariot Tarot for any drastic measures, it absolutely came in handy when accidentally fumbling a unit’s turn on occasion, such as accidentally targeting your own units with a spell and so on. It’s up to you how – or even if – you use it, but it certainly opens the doors even more for those that may be intimidated by tactical RPGs.
Outside of story battles, Denam can dive into training battles through some previously cleared maps. Even though these aren’t completely randomized, they can have enemy unit variances and placements. Furthermore, since enemies scale to your level, and there are generally multiple training maps available at any given point, grinding out maps never really gets old. Speaking of the grind, although the level of the party is capped and determined by story progression, you can still opt to grind out weapon skills for units (though they are still capped at the party level).
Most classes can equip an assortment of different weapon types, and leveling up their appropriate skills not only increases the damage dealt and accuracy of those weapons, but also grants powerful “finishing moves” at certain skill levels to use while that particular weapon is equipped. They can also be used with any class that can equip the same type of weapon.
Tactics Ogre: Reborn features a relatively simple and straightforward class system, which may be off-putting to veterans since there used to be more complexity with it. But some simplicity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A unit’s class level is directly tied to their character level, and various skills will be unlocked at certain thresholds. Every unit can equip a maximum of four class skills, four items, and where applicable, four class spells. Unfortunately, there is no sub-class or cross-class system, but it’s extremely easy to swap any character’s class at any time by expending the appropriate class tarot card.
And best of all, you don’t have to worry about leveling up that class since its progression is tied to the unit’s level, meaning you can instantly take advantage of character skills and spells that come along with it. The caveat here is weapon skills, but there’s enough overlap between the weapon offerings for each class that most of the time, you don’t have to worry about leveling up new weapon skills either. But even if you do, they don’t take a very long time to level in this version. While a sub-class or cross-class system could have made things more interesting in this regard, the alternative is by no means bad.
New gear is acquired by looting dead enemies or from local shops. Eventually, shops also allow the player to use various materials to upgrade existing gear into more powerful versions. And though the amount of materials needed to craft upgrades for your entire party is staggering, Tactics Ogre: Reborn makes the process of buying the necessary missing materials directly from shops a completely painless process. Upgrading currently equipped gear even automatically re-equips to characters as well.
In a nutshell, Tactics Ogre: Reborn looks and sounds great, but the nitty gritty reveals one particularly unsightly and unfortunate truth. There’s been an ongoing trend amongst pixel art remakes and remasters where developers believe that old, dare I say “outdated” visuals are “enhanced” to better package them for the modern era. Myself and others would not subscribe to this necessity, as solid pixel art almost always ages well without any sort of intervention. Tactics Ogre: Reborn isn’t the most egregious example of using “enhanced” visuals, but it’s still not as good as the original in my opinion (with the exception of character portraits and spell/ability effects, which do look nice).
Even though the developers suggested these enhancements were actually done by hand, you’re never going to convince anyone that a quick filter wasn’t haphazardly slapped on. Worst of all, you can’t turn it off, and while I can sort of understand them wanting to “improve” the graphics, there’s simply no reason not to include a toggle for the original visuals either. Regardless, the grandiose, sweeping remastered soundtrack by Sakimoto and Iwata-san has fortunately never sounded better.
Matsuno-san’s 1995 classic tactical RPG has been trimmed up and repolished for the modern era, and remains an essential part of any TRPG fan’s collection. The broad changes made to various gameplay elements have cleaned things up, leaving lean gameplay systems that ultimately feel challenging and rewarding to experience. While I still feel that there could have been a place for the sub-class or cross-class system of yore, there’s still enough depth present to keep things interesting.
Tactics Ogre: Reborn doesn’t allow you to turn off the “enhanced” visuals, and I certainly wish they did, but the remastered soundtrack is easily among the best in the genre. The story is mature and thought provoking, and while it does go a little overboard on the sheer amount of “throwaway” characters, it’s still well done. Regardless of flaws, Tactics Ogre: Reborn provides an engaging story and meaningful gameplay that will easily take you upwards of 100 hours or more to fully experience, and all the changes within are an overall net positive. If we ever get Final Fantasy Tactics on Switch, I hope that the same love and care (minus the visual enhancements) is shown for it as well.