By Matthew Emirzian / Originally published on Tactical Insights on October 30, 2011
Tactics Ogre is an SRPG released in late 1995 on the Super Famicom. Claims that Tactics Ogre "invented", "innovated", or "is the grandfather of" the SRPG or turn-based tactics genres are false. Series such as Fire Emblem, Front Mission, Super Robot Taisen, Langrisser, Daisenryaku, X-COM, Shining Force, Nectaris, Jagged Alliance, Panzer General, Famicom Wars, and well over 200 other SRPGs and turn-based tactical videogames were released earlier than Tactics Ogre, and did just about everything first. Nothing important about Tactics Ogre's mechanics was particularly new or innovative in 1995, and what's more the game was vastly inferior to most of its contemporaries in its combat pacing, tactical variety and content, strategically meaningful depth, user interface, and difficulty.
Tactics Ogre's campaign is sorely lacking in tactical variety. Almost every mission is completed by killing the enemy leader with a few token trash mobs strewn about. Almost every map is a hill gradually rolling from bottom to top with a few randomly placed obstacles. The strategy for almost every mission in the game is to build up your units' TP meter, which allows you to use powerful special attacks, then dump TP attacks on the boss while working to negate their own TP abilities. It gets worse later as even trash enemies start using TP skills, so it's always in your best interest to finish the mission quickly before someone gets one-shot by a TP skill. You'll end up sniping off countless bosses and watching their allies fade into nothing as the battle automatically ends. That's literally the extent of the game's strategy in almost every mission. Almost all of the game's depth — its physical attack and element types, skills, stats, statuses, spells, races, tarot signs, terrain, height, directional facing, finishing moves, battlefield conditions, etc. — can be soundly ignored in favor of a few simple strategies that are repeated ad nauseam.
Tactics Ogre's depth is strategically meaningless in the face of TP attacks. For example, in one Chapter 2 mission you're (optionally) tasked with defeating a fleeing enemy with above-average stats. Is there any use for all of the debuffs and dozens of items/spells you can pile on him? Nope, he's practically immune to all of it and takes almost no damage from spells. The only strategy is to surround him and beat him down before he gets enough TP to unavoidably one-shot one of your units. The only guide I looked at suggested skill- and level-grinding to unlock your own TP-consuming attacks to accomplish this. It's a similar story for most bosses you'll run into. In the same mission, you're tasked with taking out a bunch of priests who will constantly heal each other. Yes, I really wanted to watch 10 priests slowly cast Heal on each other over and over for the next 10-15 minutes while I slowly kill them, thanks.
It doesn't get any more difficult or complex further into the campaign, either. You'll be cruising through chapter 4 using the same TP-building and -dumping strategies that won you battles in chapter 1 against similarly generic and easy opposition. Even if you avoid all random encounters, the main story content is so repetitive, uneventful, and full of filler battles that you might feel like the whole campaign is a bit of a chore. A quality tactics campaign will have interesting things happening in each scenario, whether it's reinforcements, varied objectives, mission-specific AI scripting, a wide variety of terrain, etc.
Much of TO's depth is needlessly convoluted, contrived, and confusing, on top of being mostly useless in favor of TP- or damage-boosting skills. Learning and casting spells is a convoluted process involving scrolls, skills, and "arcanas". Making one skill per enemy race and status effect only serves to intimidate players with a long yet almost entirely useless list of skills. The insistence on naming every spell some sort of pseudo-Latin gibberish is particularly ridiculous. It feels like an attempt to browbeat and befuddle the player with similarly strategically meaningless options that have little applicable effect on the game. Many times the shop and crafting list will flood with items and gear for classes you can't even use yet. It's telling that mid-way through the game the developers give up and hand you spells that cure all buffs/debuffs instead of creating an individual spell for each effect. The "Tactics Ogre is so deep!" emperor has no clothes.
The developers require the player to grind to experience most of the game's famed "depth". Classes all level up at once, but you can't level a class if it isn't used during a mission, and new classes start at level 1. Since level 1 classes tend to be very weak beyond chapter 1 you'll have to cripple your team or start grinding if you wish to bring a new class up to speed. This means any new class you get past chapter 2 is going to be a dead weight on your team unless you spend time grinding. In addition, any new characters you get won't have the same skill point base or optimal build that you've developed with your older ones, putting them at a significant disadvantage. It's actually more efficient to stick with the initial roster that you begin the game with. Playing Tactics Ogre "any way you want" is only possible if you're willing to put in the hours grinding new class levels and new recruit skills.
Random encounters are frequent and encourage the player to grind, although in what I can only call a minor miracle of design decisions, you can avoid fighting them and run away. Optional areas exist solely to pit players against randomly generated enemies with no other purpose than to grind. Clearing these areas even once will over-level your party for the next story battles. Recruiting units is a boring, repetitive grind consisting of surrounding a weakened enemy and spamming the recruit skill until they yield. The only positive point is that you can still dominate the game without grinding or getting into random encounters, owing to how easy it is.
The AI is incompetent, coded to run forward recklessly and hit the target that they'll do the most damage to, with no regard to focus fire or even the simplest of strategies. Even worse, the game constantly saddles you with uncontrollable, badly-behaved AI allies. Your guest allies will ignore your own breakable crowd control such as sleep and won't exorcise undead. In one mission, I successfully slept a hostile enemy that you're supposed to leave alive to recruit later, only to have guest/NPC Catiua attack her and wake her up. This led to the hilarious solution of attacking guest/NPC Cautia with one of my own units so she would prioritize healing herself instead of attacking the sleeping target and breaking my CC. Trying to save potential NPC recruit units that prefer to run away from you and not heal themselves is ridiculous as it's completely random as to whether they'll survive long enough for you to rescue them. Not that recruits are particularly valuable since they'll almost always have a worse skill set than what you can build onto the troops you begin the game with.
The pace of combat is slow and tedious for no good reason, with no way to skip any animations. There are additional, intentional delays when the AI targets something or moves or performs any action at all. These delays aren't the SFC slowing down or processing AI code, but pauses deliberately designed into the game so that slower players can follow what's going on. Any experienced tactics gamer will be bored to tears watching the poorly animated sprites target something, slowly use an item, cast a spell, or make an attack for the umpteenth time with no way to skip it. As a result, Tactics Ogre's combat progresses at a slug's pace and is irritating for players who don't want to sit through it. As badly designed and boring as the rest of the game is, the sluggish combat pacing is what will irritate skilled and experienced tactics gamers the most, as it's an unbearable, complete waste of time and drags down my score for the game.
Moving on to the user interface, it's awkward and lacking features. There's no L/R function to switch between viable enemy or allied targets in target selection mode. There's no way to rotate the camera to anything but an overhead view — a huge issue for an isometric game. The menu tree is a UI disaster. Instead of a context-sensitive cursor that intuitively speeds up the battle flow by allowing you to move, attack, etc. without going into a menu, you'll have to select move, attack, or wait every time. A common series of actions like moving then waiting takes 4+ extraneous button presses due to the poorly-designed menus. Abilities, skills, and items are inexplicably split up into different trees for no particular reason. Multiply that by the tens of thousands of times you'll have to navigate the menus to perform the simplest action and combat becomes an unnecessarily laborious chore.
The shop and party management screens are similarly cumbersome and borderline useless. There's no way to see a spreadsheet list of character stats, and you're instead forced to view one stat at a time. You can't check whether your classes are at a given level to wear a piece of equipment or learn a spell from inside the shop, nor can you compare shop items and currently equipped gear. The description text in the shops scrolls by at an agonizingly slow pace. Having to jump back and forth between the shop and party management screen when you're trying to outfit 12+ units is tedious, to say the least. There's no indication of what's new in a shop as the story develops, forcing you to scroll through absurdly long item lists hoping that you spot what's new mixed in with the old. This of course ties in with the attempt to befuddle the player with long lists of mostly useless items, gear, and skills. The only saving grace is the auto-equip button, which kept me from going nuts trying to deal with the interface.
On to the battle preparation interface, there's no way to preview the upcoming battle during preparations or see how your unit placement grid relates to their positions on the map, nor can you save during the placement grid screen. You're unable to change the battle party grid on the world map. You can't save during preparation while doing a series of linked missions inside a fortress, forcing you to do your party management all over again if you want to restart. There's no button to immediately remove every person on the battle party grid, and you instead have to do it manually. The skip cutscene button(s) are annoyingly inefficient. You'll need to use it multiple times just to get through what should be a single cutscene. Post-battle results feature an annoying flag waving around maniacally, a perfect way to distract someone actually trying to read whatever info the game is trying to present.
The crafting system is tedious, obtuse, and needlessly time-wasting. First, you can't check the stats of anything you want to craft, so you won't know whether it's worth the time and effort. Most materials needed to craft items are found in the store, which then need to be synthesized into more refined items. Why bother making the player combine base items into refined ones when they could just sell the refined items instead? (although there are certainly some materials that are only obtainable from random encounters — read: more grinding). After an eternity of pointlessly and repetitively clicking and watching a little jar shake around turning your store-bought materials into refined materials and combining those refined materials together to finally make an item, you'll usually find out it wasn't even worth crafting it in the first place. Even worse, there's a chance your crafting effort will completely fail. You can save/load until you succeed, but then why bother with a sadistic failure rate in the first place? I guess this mechanic is part of the game's legacy, now continued by Korean MMOs, as this sort of nonsense only appeals to gamers for whom grinding, spending hours crafting, watching progress bars, and item failure rates are a way of life.
An autosave system going by the gimmicky acronym of "chariot" is present in TO, along with unlimited quicksaves that completely negate the purpose of the autosaves. The quicksave and autosave features reduce the game's difficulty for several reasons. First, it's worth noting that Tactics Ogre's quicksaves and autosaves preserve the RNG (random number generator) table that is used to decide if an attack hits, misses, is a critical hit, etc. If you were forced to replay the mission, you would have to deal with a different RNG table, which would cause different events to occur, forcing you to alter your strategy. Reloading from the same RNG table avoids this challenge as you only have one RNG table to worry about. You can reload multiple times to figure out the RNG table, then act in a way that is best suited to whatever the numbers are. It is in a sense no longer random as you know what the numbers coming up are, even if you can't directly control them. The player's execution skill, which is their ability to consistently perform actions without making a mistake, is completely nullified with unlimited quicksaves to make up for unlimited mistakes.
And I haven't even touched much on the plot yet. It's your standard fantasy tale liberally borrowed from the superior Western mythology and fantasy classics that set the standard for the genre, with the typical added melodrama, ham-fisted moralizing, evil villains, false dilemmas, the "violence to end violence" motive, the teenaged cast, saving the world plot, etc. The faux-olde English translation seems like a desperate attempt to give the plot some sort of authenticity and hide its JRPG trappings, but it's all there for anyone who sees past the medieval fantasy veneer. While it's better than your typical JRPG dreck, it's clearly a JRPG at heart with many of its standard cliches. Suffice it to say, there's a reason Tactics Ogre's story isn't regarded outside of anime/JRPG circles as some sort of masterpiece.
The music has a few catchy tunes, but quickly gets repetitive. The one- or two-minute battle loops are repeated so frequently that I quickly tired of them and wanted to play my own music. There's no option to turn the music off, so the only option is to mute the game entirely.
Tactics Ogre is more oriented towards people who like easy, simple, repetitive, and grind-happy "sandbox" style games such as Disgaea, Final Fantasy Tactics, or traditional JRPGs. Tactics Ogre's customization and combat are mostly designed for players who want to spend dozens or hundreds of hours grinding up a dream team of ninjas, faeries, dragons, and busty witches then steamrolling the campaign's meager opposition. It's more like a traditional JRPG slapped on a grid that rarely takes advantage of the increased strategy and skill that a turn-based tactical level game can offer. Players who want fast-paced, varied, strategic content that takes advantage of the genre's format should look elsewhere.
If all SRPGs started playing like Tactics Ogre (and by extension, FFT and Disgaea), the SRPG genre would be almost entirely pointless, and all we'd be left with is a lot of JRPG-esque, grind-heavy sandbox mush. For that reason, Tactics Ogre is a series that would be better off as a traditional JRPG, instead of making a mockery of the superior SRPG genre.