Q: What do Guns n’ Roses, Breaking Bad, and Yasumi Matsuno all have in common?
A: They’re all incredibly overrated, but at least had one highlight of their career. (In Breaking Bad’s case, Season 1; in GnR’s case, Appetite for Destruction; in Matsuno’s case, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together.)
For a little bit of background, Tactics Ogre is the second installment in the “Ogre” series, the first being the dreadful Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen – a game which features a terrible storyline, terrible pacing, terrible lack of control, a terrible fanbase which functions as one of the best examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect I’ve seen, and an overall terrible mix of ideas that didn’t mesh well together. It’s also among the worst balanced strategy games I’ve played, seeing how easily Tarot card spam can trivialize the entire game and render all of its systems pointless. (It at least had great music though!) Fortunately, Quest got their act together (sort of) and produced a far superior sequel with 1995’s Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. Unfortunately, Tactics Ogre isn’t that much better in the gameplay department.
The game has problems. A lot of them. Where do I even begin?
- Grind. Every new unit you recruit from the barracks starts at level 1. Geez, this won’t get old at all, will it?
- Sluggish pace. You could run a marathon, make yourself a wok-seared flank steak stir fry, file your taxes, tuck your kids into bed, and your enemies in Tactics Ogre still won’t be done moving. (I may or may not have exaggerated a tad bit on this point, but you get the idea.)
- Horrendous unit balance which rivals Ogre Battle. While Tarot Cards were the gamebreakers in OB, Wizards are the gamebreakers here. At least in this game, you need to grasp the fundamentals of the battle, whereas in OB you can could clear the entire game while having no clue how the hell any of it works.
- Grind. There’s permadeath here, and every time one of your units dies, you’ll want to replace them with a new unit, which means more grind.
- Minor camera issues (see above picture). If one of your units is obscured by something in the foreground, e.g. a house or tall cliff, there’s absolutely no way to rotate the camera. This wasn’t an issue in Front Mission due to that game actually planning around this and consciously avoiding tall terrain. What’s sad is that Front Mission came out several months before Tactics Ogre, was the first isometric SRPG, and still Tactics Ogre managed to screw up.
- Poorly executed “persuade” system. In theory, you can recruit enemies by talking to them, but there’s no way to see your % chance of recruiting them. (Thankfully, this is one of many issues that the GBA Tactics Ogre would go on to fix.)
- Poorly executed difficulty curve. Enemies start to vastly outlevel you, and given how important levels are in Tactics Ogre’s damage calculations, this begins to unfairly turn the tables against you. This of course leads to:
- Grind. Yes, I know I’ve repeated this point twice now, but it’s such a huge problem in this game that it deserves the repeated mention. Especially because Tactics Ogre is a strategy RPG. Grind is antithetical to strategy for many reasons.
- Weird controls. Essential functions are mapped to the X button, where they could’ve been mapped to the A button. Seriously, what other SFC/SNES games use the X button for basic functions?
- Filler. There’s no shortage of battles in Tactics Ogre which contribute nothing to the narrative.
- Primitive interface with its accuracy display. There are countless places in the game where you can miss an attack with a displayed accuracy of 100%.
- Clunky WT system. WT stands for “weight.” Counterintuitively, not equipping any armor makes your units more powerful because it means they can take their turns faster. WT is simply too cumbersome a burden for most units to bear. The vast majority of equipment in the game is invalidated because of how clunky this system is.
- Did I mention grind? There’s lots of it.
You know, the more I sit here typing out the many problems with Tactics Ogre, the more I realize that how fucking bad the game is. It’s honestly kind of disgusting. And this really speaks volumes about how good the story is if it allowed me to stomach all of these numerous flaws. There’s an argument to be made that Tactics Ogre had the best storyline of any SRPG in all of the 1990s, even when considering games like Langrisser 3 and Fire Emblem 4. I won’t be the one to make that argument, but I recognize that it’s a convincing one. This is all the more remarkable when considering how bland Tactics Ogre’s story sounds on paper: a boy, his sister, and their best friend want to rebel against evil empire; story ensues. It’s standard JRPG faire, and yet it’s executed with such stunning finesse that you can’t help but find yourself engrossed in the geopolitics of Valeria, the personal struggles of Vyce/Kachua/Denim, and the antics of Lans Tartare.
What makes the narrative of Tactics Ogre so effective is precisely what critics laud about Shakespeare’s works: the story’s ability to accurately capture the human condition. Vyce is an absolute jerkass, but he has understandable reasons for being that way. Similarly, the main bad guys of the game, like Brantym and Lans Tartare, have realistic and well-developed motives for their actions. Along the way, you’ll meet plenty of minor characters such as Selye, Forcas, or Aloser (yes, that’s her actual name) who are pretty likable too.
Possibly the most epic moment of the game comes if you manage to recruit Kachua. I won’t spoil her character arc, but good lord, was this satisfying to see after everything she went through. Not only this, but she’s an awesome unit too:
Between recruiting Kachua and traversing the game’s uber-dungeon, Eden, the game all comes together in the final act. If you’ve played your cards right, you probably won’t need to do much grinding in the final act, and can instead play the game at a reasonable pace while fully enjoying the story. I won’t lie: the final battle was a tad bit disappointing, but everything else about the story was so damn good that I’ll let that slide.
Oh yes, one more thing to mention before we wrap up: Tactics Ogre does feature multiple paths, although this isn’t as extensive as in Der Langrisser. Here, your chapters 2 and 3 can change depending on your path, but chapters 1/4 remain unchanged; the game, in other words, mostly begins and ends the same way, irrespective of route choice.
Some people believe this game to be a masterpiece.
If you were to evaluate Tactics Ogre solely on its merits as a game, then it’s probably one of the worst SRPGs in existence. In addition to all the problems I listed earlier, it’s a fairly derivative game: mechanically, it’s just Shining Force in the graphical style of Front Mission, but with 5000% more grind and inferior controls. Thankfully though, the story is just that great. Personally, I consider it to be a very good game. This is almost entirely due to the story, and this brings me to Yasumi Matsuno once more.
Of course, I have nothing against the guy personally. I have never met him, I probably never will, and I have no reason to think he’s anything other than a nice guy. But I’m here to talk about his merits as a game developer, and on that subject, I have this to say: the dude was in the wrong profession. His greatest strength was storytelling – it’s a strength which shines through here and in the PSP remake of Final Fantasy Tactics. Here’s the problem though: as a game developer, he’s downright awful. Every single one of his strategy games (Ogre Battle, Tactics Ogre SNES, Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre PSP) has the exact same problems. Too much grind. Lack of actual strategy. Poor pacing. Lack of balance. Cursory “customization” options which don’t really do anything meaningful (e.g. the laundry list of skills in Tactics Ogre PSP, 90% of which are useless). That he still made the exact same mistakes in 2011 (Tactics Ogre PSP) as he did 16 years prior in 1995 (Tactics Ogre SNES) shows me that he was unable to learn from his mistakes as a developer. What Matsuno should’ve done was go into screenwriting, or fantasy fiction novels, or something like that where his talents could’ve been better put to use. Alternately, if he stubbornly wanted to stick with being a game director, what he needed was someone like Shouzou Kaga, Hiroyuki Takahashi, or Shinjiro Takada by his side. Someone who actually understood game design. Balance. Map design. Difficulty curves. You know, stuff that makes games fun to play. The unfortunate reality is that none of his games are enjoyable to play, even if some of them are effective narratives. This is all the more tragic because imagine how great a game could result from the storytelling of Matsuno, married with the game design of someone like Kaga!
As it stands though, Tactics Ogre SNES remains the highlight of Matsuno’s SRPG career. To return to the Guns n’ Roses analogy, Tactics Ogre SNES is like Appetite for Destruction. Not a perfect album by any means, but a damn solid release for its time which still holds up today. Unfortunately… what the hell has GnR accomplished since then, some 30 years later?
…Yeah, get back to me on that one if they ever release anything halfway decent. I’m not holding my breath because I doubt it’s ever happening.
Console: SNES (JP only, has a patch), Saturn (JP only, no patch), PS1 (English). Remade completely for the PSP, which is a distinct enough game to merit its own post at a later time.
My video review
This site is a great resource for Tactics Ogre
Translation patch for the SNES version