Lately I’m finding myself less and less excited for almost everything that’s announced in the video game universe. As “cool” as it is to go against popular trends, that’s not really my intent. I just happen to really dislike first person shooters, hyper violent action games and sandbox titles. It doesn’t help that more emphasis has been placed on sequels or remakes as of late…so it’s nice to witness a company doing something right with an existing property. Or just one in particular, Tactics Ogre. And that’s saying quite a bit considering the company at hand here is Square Enix. They have made it their fucking business lately to whore out every single property they currently own, much to my dismay and their monetary benefit. There was once a time when I loved SquareSoft, a consistent provider of RPG works of the highest quality. They used to employ an abundance of creative game designers that lead the industry in not only genre sales but progressive ideas.
Such days are gone of course, and many of the masterpieces of which I speak were the offspring of a single development team. Yasumi Matsuno and Co. were steady providers of the most rich RPG experiences: Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story…Final Fantasy XII. After Mr. Matsuno’s seemingly bitter exit from Square’s employee roster I was worried that I may never see further works of one of this industries most brilliant designers. I was wrong, in a way. Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together for the PSP is an inspired and thoughtful re-release of the original game of the same name. At the helm, none other than its original team…Yasumi Matsuno and friends. As to the how and why Square finally decided to revive this long dead Quest franchise…I have no clue. What’s important here is that it happened, and it happened in the right way. No embarrassing half-assed spin offs or shitty sequels made by new blood. This is Tactics Ogre to its core. And that’s entirely because of the decision to bring the team proper back. If only every franchise resurrection were handled so delicately. Of course, the source material was already a Matsuno game (work of fine art), but that’s besides the point. Matsuno, Minagawa, Yoshida and Sakimoto were back to work and that’s a good thing.
If you’re feeling a positive vibe, that maybe I like this game a lot…your impression is valid. Tactics Ogre is special. My expectations were no less than perfection and the team already responsible for 2 of my top 5 games of all time delivered. I never actually made my way around to the original version, so this remake was something I highly anticipated. It’s hard to draw a comparison that equals a level that this new version brings with it. Imagine if David Lynch were to come out of hiding and somehow be given full control over a Twin Peaks remake or continuation, with every single cast member in place. That’s what Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together is to me.
But the game itself is more than just a nostalgic look back at ‘the good old days’ or a reminder that Yasumi Matsuno still exists. It is legitimately superb and brings with it some game design philosophies that shouldn’t be ignored. But what Matsuno game doesn’t? Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together is more than just a study on how to make a great video game, it’s a post doctorate level education on the past, present and should be future on the fundamental concept of creating a video game. I will not shy away from proclaiming that every single developer in the gaming industry has at least something to learn from TO, and that’s just as much a compliment to its development team as it is a shot at everyone else out there. Including Nintendo and Valve or any other company you believe to be top tier. I have long stood atop my soap box preaching about the brilliance of Yasumi Matsuno’s various visions and Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together gives me another reason to never step down.
Instead of delving into specifics about the battling or strategy like many fans of this genre are want to do, it makes more sense in my mind to explain just what sets Tactics Ogre apart from every other tactical RPG. Let’s face it, I could probably shit out a tactical RPG that was no different from anything else we’ve seen a hundred times. You take turns, you move over squares…people die (usually permanently) and it’s all just filled to the brim with “strategy”. No, I don’t give a shit about Disgaea. Couldn’t care less for Saiyuki: Journey West or ANY OF THAT. If the RPG genre is stale then the Tactical RPG genre is fucking 100 year old Ritz crackers. In fact…I wouldn’t even call myself a strategy RPG fan. I’ve tried them all to some extent and have come away wholly unimpressed. Final Fantasy Tactics and now Tactics Ogre are the only ones that have resonated with me in some way.
And that’s because Matsuno games do almost everything better than other similar games. There are always strong, deep and sympathetic characters. Sakimoto and Iwata’s music is brilliant. Complexity is always a focal point. Matsuno games have the most content I’ve ever seen. The team’s superb writing and translation efforts, of which Alexander O. Smith is usually affiliated, create exceptional storytelling. The visuals are consistently top-notch. You can apply these statements to all of his works and easily justify them, which is why these games stand above and beyond their genre peers. Despite being completely different in almost every aspect gameplay-wise, Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy XII and the two Tactics are without a doubt the absolute best games in their specific categories because of the consistent design philosophy.
-Strong, deep and sympathetic characters-
Let Us Cling Together might be the best example of this statement out of every Matsuno designed game. Denam is an interesting hero and not necessarily because of the choices he makes in the game or the way he acts, but because of the world he was born into. In fact, it’s impossible to nail this character down to specifics because you as a player make all the hard choices from beginning to end. He could either be a stalwart believer in the law and carry on with his assigned duties, or a chaotic hero whose choices shape the world to his own vision. What’s interesting about him and the way his progression is handled is that no matter where you end up taking him every player starts in the same place and ends, more or less, in the same place. He knows he wants to fight in the war. He believes in the decisions he makes, good or bad (are there even ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in this game?..not really). He is strong-willed, competent and driven to a goal. Almost every single one of these statements is in stark contrast to the RPG genres typical “hero”. He doesn’t waver on decisions, he makes them and takes action. He doesn’t have spikey hair or a huge sword. There’s no “I don’t want to fight. Oh shit, someone close to me just died. OK I’ll fight now!” that permeates JRPGs like a sickness. Denam’s motivation comes long before the first screen of game you ever see, and that’s an interesting device that drives the plot and our main character forward in a realistic way. He has an established personality and orientation in the world before you even take control of him…and that’s a good thing. I’m getting really tired of witnessing every teenagers maturation moment in the middle of a video game. It’s extremely unrealistic for me to connect, for instance, to a character like Cloud Strife that in the span of one day of soul-searching completely reshapes his ideals and suddenly becomes motivated. People just don’t change that drastically. And that’s why I love Denam. He’s the same basic guy on the last day of his journey that he was when he took his first step into battle, yet hardened and slowly molded into your champion by what he’s seen. Does any non-Matsuno game employ anything near this level character integrity? Did anyone get the sense that Cloud Strife was subtly shaped by the events that he endured? That he grew in not-completely obvious ways at any point from A to Z? No. He was emo and indecisive/reluctant, then suddenly The World’s Greatest Hero after a single pivotal moment. And maybe that’s not the mark that Final Fantasy VII was aiming to hit. Perhaps the idea was precisely to show without a shadow of doubt that THIS CHARACTER HAS CHANGED IN IMPORTANT WAYS. An approach that is directed at young people, to be sure. Thankfully, Matsuno and crew create games for mature adults than can read into the suggestive and not just the obvious.
And all that for just one character. To be honest, the other story and party characters might be even more developed and interesting than Denam. Vyce is the complicated Delita’esque best friend whose path splits off from yours depending on an early decision you make. Catiua’s (Denam’s sister) tale and relationship to her brother are both wrought with tragedy and filled with hope depending on the current situation. There are just too many amazing examples to even continue this sad attempt at explaining the depth of Tactics Ogre’s characterization. The bottom line is Matsuno games have a way of gripping you with its characters and that’s not at all by accident.
-Sakimoto and Iwata’s music is brilliant-
These two guys have dual-composed some of my favorite video game soundtracks of all time and certainly not by accident. Sakimoto has earned himself a level of musical pedigree that is mostly unchallenged by most of the industries musicians. I don’t think it would be inappropriate to mention him in the same breath as Yasunori Mitsuda or Nobuo Uematsu. I would probably put Mitsuda atop the list with Sakimoto’s works coming in second.
But about Tactics Ogre. If there are two things I feel Sakimoto’s music is consistently really good at, it’s a sense of the large scale (powerful or epic), and atmospheric or emotional music that plays into the feeling of whatever is happening on the screen. Vagrant Story, FFT and FFXII all have plenty of specific examples that could illustrate this idea, but Tactics Ogre as a game seems to almost be built with these concepts in mind. Which shouldn’t really be a shock because of the way all of Sakimoto’s work flows through the games he composes for. If you are fighting a large scale battle the music represents that almost too faithfully, filling you the player with an added layer of intensity. Quiet and emotional moments are supplemented by affecting melodies. The music box moments with Lancelot come to the forefront of my mind here. Just as poignant are the darker themes that accompany scenes filled with treachery and crooked plotting. While you could classify music as characterization at times, what with all of the character specific themes most games have, Tactics Ogre’s seems more like a significant piece of the design of the game itself.
And that’s really no surprise either. Something I’ve always appreciated about Matsuno and Sakimoto’s approach towards game music is that they DO consider it a pivotal part of the design. I won’t sit here and pretend that I know a single thing about how they make their games but the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. I can’t think of a single moment in any Matsuno game where the music and game itself feel separated, like many games to me often do. My assessment is supported by the neat little descriptions of each track in the music section of the menu in Tactics Ogre. A common theme in those statements is one of trying to reflect mood in the music itself. They really do their best to supplement what’s happening on screen, not overpower it with overbearing “themes” that almost hit you over the head with their bluntness. Another classic OST.
-Complexity is always a focal point-
I guess some might argue that simplicity has more potential to make a game fun. And games are supposed to be fun, right? It’s difficult for me to associate the word “fun” with Yasumi Matsuno’s games, probably because of how complex they are…so I won’t present it as such. Spending almost as much time in a party menu as you would in a battle might not seem like a good time to everyone, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve always been more apt to bust out Risk than Sorry or even Monopoly. Tactics Ogre presents you with the idea that you need to spend a significant amount of time preparing your characters throughout the entire game, and it’s far from straightforward.
Setting aside the simplest decision of which job to assign your characters to (we all know and love the classic formula of tank, damage dealer, healer) you’re left with more variables than one person should ever be expected to keep track of. Here’s a starter list of the things you can be expected to manage:
– Each job class has a unique list of abilities to choose from as your earn ability points. Some of them can be used by other classes, though. Oh yeah…you only get 10 ability slots total, forcing you to prioritize precisely what your character’s strengths will be. My Denam Ninja could be drastically different than yours, for instance.
– New characters added through the story will not necessarily start at level 1 (like FFT) but if they bring a new job with them that you want to use…it will be at 1. Getting that character up to speed, especially later in the game, is definitely a task. And you will want to use those new jobs because they’re cool and strong.
– There are what seems like a twazbillion characters. And they, again, are all COOL and STRONG. Choosing who to boot out of your current party to make room is heart wrenching. You’ll never use more than 12 people in a fight, which might seem like a lot, but considering just how many characters there are to recruit…it’s still a difficult decision.
– There are many types of magic, all with strengths/weaknesses and unique spell sets. If you don’t care to asses the nuances of each you may just blindly pick an element or two to have your mage specialize in, but the nuances are still there to figure out if you wish. Giving one mage a bunch of different elements would be an option were it not for the 10 ability slot limitation.
– Equipment and stats are a doozy. There are many factors to consider. Elemental and physical defense and attack. And then every other stat you’ve ever seen before. There’s a wonderful optimize system (optimize defense, optimize attack… etc) but if you’re anything like me you’ll want to equip most items manually to see the affected stats individually…which takes time.
– Rare item drops. Get your masters, bro.
And this isn’t even touching on the battling, storyline decisions to make (and their ramifications), the World Tarot, allegiances, recruitment…hopefully you’re starting to get the point. What this all means is that Tactics Ogre is a game more ready to bend towards the players will, and that’s unique considering the strength of its narrative. I understand that this mentality may not resonate with all players and sometimes I just want to play Dynasty Warriors and kill 1,000 guys by pressing one button over and over, but it is no bad thing to challenge yourself mentally. I applaud Matsuno’s games for giving me the chance to put more thought into a video game than anyone really seems to want to.
-Matsuno games have the most content I’ve ever seen-
I won’t spend too much time here wasting my breath trying to explain just how much fucking content Tactics Ogre has. There are probably more rare drop items total than what you can buy in the item shop total. There’s the Palace of the Dead. The fucking strategy guide doesn’t even have the locations of all of the rare drops for fuck’s sake. It reminds me of the mention in the FFXII guide where the developers admitted that they weren’t 100% sure of everything that was actually in that game. Fucking psycho shit. The World Tarot allows you to travel back in time and replay any battle in the game, choose a different path and follow it to the end without sacrificing anything to recruit the boatload of secret characters. It’s all cumulative. Talk about the ultimate New Game+.
-The team’s superb writing and translation efforts (of which Alexander O. Smith is usually affiliated) create exceptional storytelling-
I guess I won’t say too much here either. If you’re reading this you’ve probably been through my Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII reviews, which detail at length the kind of storytelling you can expect in TO. The translation (or re-translation for the new version) is probably one of the best I have ever seen period. There are subtleties everywhere, nuanced character distinctions in their speech and animations…the list goes on. And the story is itself is spectacular, touching on all the similar themes you’ve come to know and love from Matsuno’s previous works.
-The visuals are consistently top-notch-
I suppose I might have to argue this one a bit considering all 14 year olds think about graphics is how shiny and brown they are. Yes, TO is a SNES game. No, the graphics haven’t really be revamped in any significant way, but that’s why I used the term “visuals” in this category title…not “graphics”. If you just started playing video games post PlayStation 2/Xbox then much of what I’m about to say will be lost on you. Then again, if you’re one of those people there’s literally zero chance that you’d ever play or appreciate Tactics Ogre. Oh well!
Sprite work is a funny thing. In many occasions I find sprites and 2d models to be more attractive than 3d models. I think Super Mario World has better graphics than Mass Effect, for instance. If you’re pickin’ up what I’m puttin’ down then you won’t have a problem with me saying I also think Tactics Ogre has better visuals than Gears of War 3. It’s the implementation, artistic styling and cohesive design of the graphics that affect how a game looks…not how many polygons or what resolution a game runs at! For fuck’s sake man.
Every weapon in Tactics Ogre is individually rendered. Every character has little visual quirks to them even though most of them are the EXACT SAME MODEL. Every battleground is ridiculously varied. The sprite work in Tactics Ogre is so superbly filled with character that it makes me want to vomit rainbows. Matsuno’s team has this weird ability to endear us as players to these little nothing sprites as if they were family members, and it’s hard for me to put my finger on precisely how. Final Fantasy Tactics is the same way.
Because of this I would say that Tactics Ogre for the PSP is one of the most visually impressive games I’ve ever seen. The game world really comes to life through smart use of a world map, perfect sprite animations and subtle character design differences (as subtle as the color of a shirt being different yet that character “feeling” utterly different).
I know of at least one person who bought a PSP just to play Tactics Ogre without having played a single second of it beforehand. That’s a good way to describe how I feel about a new Matsuno property. If he announces that his next game as a newly crowned developer for Level-5 is on the 3DS (which he did) I will go buy one for that game alone. If playing Tactics Ogre has done anything for me it has proved that Yasumi Matsuno is THE elite designer in the industry. He has simply never made a game anything less than absolutely amazing. As hard as I tried to describe at length how good Let Us Cling Together is, the only real way for you to understand what I’m talking about is to go play it yourself. Please do.