Tactics Ogre: The Wheel begins to turn…

It’s clear from the moment you begin that Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together is a far more extensive remake of the original Super Famicom game than PSP stablemate Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions is of its equivalent PlayStation progenitor. Even those fateful opening questions on faith, family, and friendship have been reformed into something new, and from that moment on the game never stops introducing differences large and small, all making it obvious this isn’t any of the previous Super Famicom, PlayStation, or Saturn versions of the game faithfully ported to a modern format.

Is that a problem? In some ways, yes. This remake’s different enough purely on a mechanical level for it to not represent the old 16-bit (or 32-bit) Tactics Ogre experience, and that becomes an issue for those on the English-speaking side of gaming seeing as the only official non-Japanese release of Tactics Ogre was a US exclusive PlayStation affair; and even then a game rare enough to be extraordinarily difficult to find even if you were very interested in buying a copy at the time (and afterwards a title forever doomed to fetch painfully expensive second hand prices). It was – and still is – virtually impossible for anyone to legitimately buy an English version of the original-style Tactics Ogre without it costing them an arm and a leg, and to have it missing on a format that made official PlayStation emulation look so effortless can only feel like an easy sale lost (as if to rub salt in the wound the front of the UK packaging proudly displays a sticker advertising 50% off a digital copy of Vagrant Story).

However as sad as that it is it’s ultimately nothing that can’t be quickly fixed with internet access and a search engine, and all the good contained within this UMD soon causes those initial quibbles about the game’s perceived authenticity to fade away: The PSP’s take on Tactics Ogre may be different, but it’s also exactly what Tactics Ogre needed.

Considering this is not only a remake-port of a Super Famicom game released well over a decade earlier but also one part of a sprawling multi-format series telling an epic albeit unfinished story out of chronological order, a series that – as good as it may be – has never really set the charts alight, there’s no doubt an extraordinary amount of effort has been poured into this project. Many key staff members were brought back and then given the money, time and the talent to extensively rework the game while still retaining the original Tactics Ogre’s core: Character portraits weren’t just tidied up but completely redrawn in Akihiko Yoshida’s unmistakeable style. Every menu screen and interface had been altered to not only take full advantage of the PSP’s beautiful screen but also flow better in battle, making for a more pleasant user experience. A brand new translation was written, stylistically slotting in perfectly with Matsuno’s other works and in isolation an absolute joy to read. There’s really nothing more that could have been done here without pointlessly twisting the already excellent foundations laid out by the Super Famicom release into something completely different; and everything that could be reasonably hoped for or improved upon was made a reality.

This balance is where the remake excels, always preserving enough of its namesake’s broad strokes – good and bad (if I ever have to protect one more lemming-like NPC in my entire life it’ll be too soon) – to poke all the nostalgic parts of your potentially hazy memories of the old game while carefully smoothing out most of the bits you’d rather forget at the same time (and throwing in a few new characters and events while it’s at it). The most straightforward way to summarise the changes is to say “It’s a lot easier than it used to be”, although this isn’t a simple case of supressed attack values or inflating party member hit point totals to help them absorb a few more critical blows. Allies now get three “lives” to lose in battle rather than permanently dying at the first fatal mistake and experience points are now distributed per class rather than per individual character action, allowing you to focus on making tactical moves that assist your overall victory rather than hanging back and causing more trouble for yourself just so a weak or non-combat unit can safely throw a rock at someone and gain a handful of precious experience points. Larger mistakes can be rectified using the Chariot tarot card, a new feature that grants the ability to view and optionally revert back to any of the fifty most recent moves (yours or the enemy’s), saving you from having to choose between a trip back to the title screen to reload or spending far too long making up for an honest error caused by moving your healer slightly too far to one side, putting them in range of the enemy ninja/octopus/dragon waiting just around the corner (the new overhead view helps you to avoid these sad situations too).

With these tweaks and with the game running on what has always been a comfortably pocketable format Tactics Ogre is transformed into an engrossing experience that always has just one more important thing for you to do, whether you’re out on a rain-lashed battlefield or deep in party member skill lists. There’s a magical combination of the tactical and the tactile at work here, a game where simply interacting with your units, seeing them hop around exquisitely solid tile-based scenery and execute those weighty swing-block-counter animations, is just as much a part of the pleasure of it all as intelligently using a hand-picked team to decimate all challengers (or at least not get wiped out by a group of archers with terrain advantage before you get anywhere near them). The combination of style, format, and relatively easy-going attitude towards human error is nothing short of magnificent, as though Tactics Ogre finally found its one true home.

In hindsight – and especially in light of some of the changes made to character growth in this PSP remake – it’s easy to take this as a sort of “Final Fantasy Tactics Zero”, even down to the potentially deadly rivalry with a former friend and a plot that refuses to definitively paint almost anyone as a righteous hero or an evil villain, immersing players instead in a world of tough choices where there is no truly honourable path free from regret or bloodshed. In the wrong hands revisiting the same general themes in the same style and the same genre would come across as a brainless reheating of an already familiar idea (especially as Final Fantasy Tactics’ remake debuted on the same handheld), a creator with only one thing to say in one very specific way. But after all this time, and at this level of quality? How long have people been begging for more games like Ramza’s? How lovely is it to see a group of people passionate about bringing one very particular idea to life and actually getting multiple chances to make it a reality? In this new form Tactics Ogre’s lenient enough to give people a chance to strategise from the get-go rather than hopefully survive, a chance to learn a class on the fly rather than from a FAQ, a chance to fall in love with the game before it pulls out the really big player-beating sticks. It isn’t perfect but then again it doesn’t have to be – because a perfect game wouldn’t be a perfect Tactics Ogre.

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