It's sometimes easy to get tired of remakes. Products like The Sly Cooper Collection are a welcome way to replay old favorites, but they also make one wish for new entries in the series. Occasionally, you'll get a remake that changes enough that it may as well be a new game. These remakes can even eclipse the original and become the definitive version. On the surface, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together looks like a pretty straightforward remake of the Super Famicom original. Once you get deeper into it, you'll find that it's not just a simple rerelease, but a polished and refined adaptation of an awesome game.
To avoid ruining one of the best aspects of the game, we'll go light on the story details. Tactics Ogre thrusts players into the role of Denam Parvel, a young orphan trapped in the middle of a complex political struggle between warring nations. Denam, his sister Catiua and his friend Vyse formed a rebellion to fight against oppressors known as the Dark Knights, who had killed Denam's parents. The small group of heroes pulls off a spectacular victory and is promptly enshrined after they rescue Duke Ronwey, leader of the Walister Resistance, from execution. They are thrust into a complex plot that we won't spoil, but things are not quite as they appear, and the political complexities go far deeper than expected.
In tone, Tactics Ogre feels a lot like its successor, Final Fantasy Tactics. There's plenty of magic and mysticism to go around, but it's a grounded and political story with a great emphasis on the strengths and weaknesses of humans. It can get grim and depressing, depending on some of your choices. The World system lets you go back and change some of the choices you've made to see alternate timelines; it's a nice feature if you don't want to start over to get a favorable result, or if you simply want to see alternate outcomes. Since a single playthrough can exceed 40 hours, this is a refreshing option, especially since it scales the game to your new levels so you'll still have an interesting challenge.
Tactics Ogre's translation is top-notch. It uses the same Ye Olde Medieval style as Final Fantasy XII and Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions, as should be expected since it has the same translator. It fits the game exceptionally well and lends a lot of atmosphere and style to set it apart from other titles in the genre. However, the translation can be slightly difficult to follow because archaic or unusual phrases are sometimes used in place of simpler terms. It adds flavor, but it is easy to see players wondering what a "Sybil" may be. The game does a reasonable job of explaining terms or making them easy to infer from context, but the combination of fantasy names and old-fashioned terms can be overwhelming at first. The same can be said for the spell names and status effects, which take time to learn even if they're relatively straightforward like Light-touched or Trueflight.
Tactics Ogre's basic gameplay feels a lot like Final Fantasy Tactics, and for good reason: The same director, Yasumi Matsuno, worked on both games. Basic combat is of the straightforward strategy-JRPG variety. Players are given a small army of soldiers and must move them around the battlefield to defeat enemies. Combat is speed-based, with both friends and foes moving around based on various factors, such as weight and character stats. The gameplay is very easy to pick up and learn, and there are no tremendously complex factors at play.
Tactics Ogre is certainly more challenging than a Final Fantasy Tactics title. The game is willing to kill your characters if you step in the wrong spot or do the wrong thing. There's a greater emphasis on weapon selection, positioning and height than one might expect. It's possible to power your way through situations, but it is wiser to pick strategy instead of power-leveling your warriors. For example, an early stage pits you against a bunch of zombies and skeletons aided by a necromancer. The zombies and skeletons will revive after a few rounds if not exorcised by someone capable of using divine magic, but if you exorcise them, the necromancer can summon more. Finishing the stage effectively means finding the fastest way to take out the necromancer or deal with extra reinforcements. Many stages require getting a good tactical position or finding a useful and efficient way to take out a boss character.
Tactics Ogre includes a few new features to make the game more accessible to players. The death system has been toned down so that it's more similar to Final Fantasy Tactics, where a KO'd character has a few rounds of combat before suffering lasting effects and must "die" in multiple battles before it's permanent. Dying in combat is pretty rare, but far more dramatic is the addition of the Chariot Tarot system, which allows a player to go back up to 50 turns and replay the fight. The game keeps a record of every action taken, including branching timelines from previous Chariot Tarot uses, and you can go back as often as you like without punishment. If you decide that your earlier tactics were better, you can jump back to them or keep trying a move until you figure out the right thing to do. Newcomers to the genre will find the Chariot Tarot to be useful because it allows one to analyze or test strategies without risking a lot of work. Fans of the original may be disappointed that the infamous difficulty level of the classic version has been toned down, but the other new features more than make up for it.
Tactics Ogre uses an unusual leveling system to cut down on the grinding in previous iterations. In the PSP version, levels are determined by your class instead of each character gaining a level. At the end of a match, the total experience is divided among each character class in the fight. Levels are persistent, and any unit who joins your party will be at the same level as every other unit. This means that you don't have to be as hyper-focused on your favorite units. The only catch is that characters who have leveled up in a class seem to have a permanent bonus to some stats when compared to those who have freshly joined. Nurturing characters for a while makes them stronger than they would be by default, but there are ways to get around this with items and enemy drops.
There are other elements of customization available. Each class levels up individually, but characters earn skill points after each mission. Like levels, the skill points are divided evenly among everyone who took part in the battle, regardless of what they did. Each class has a large list of skills that it can learn and equip to add special benefits and powers. Some of the powers let characters specialize in certain weapons or items, but others are unique to certain classes. For example, the knight class can activate a phalanx mode, which disables counterattacks but dramatically reduces the damage it takes from attacks. The berserker can gain the ability to turn his attacks into powerful area-of-effect smackdowns that hit friends and foes alike. You're limited in how many skills you can equip by available skill slots, but you can spend SP to unlock additional slots.
The customization in Tactics Ogre is different from Final Fantasy Tactics in that there is less focus on multi-classing. Each class is self-contained and functions well on its own. If you use one of the Valkyries that you get at the outset, you can pretty much use it until the end. Many abilities don't carry over to other classes, so if you turn your dark magician into someone who can't use dark magic, you just can't use that skill unless you change the class again. This allows for less customization, but on the other hand, you don't have to worry about spending time leveling up in a class that you dislike to get to a useful class.
In the long run, it's more preferable than the grinding or training necessary in the original Tactics Ogre, but it does have its downsides. You'll have to be careful about how and where you level, as getting the most from characters involves having them in your army. There's still some annoyance involved in getting new classes up to snuff as well, even if you go out of your way to power-level them. It's certainly not a perfect solution, but I found it preferable to the more tedious elements of the original. I didn't like how the new class system impacted equipment, though. Since characters are divided by classes instead of individual levels, managing equipment is rather tedious. You can buy weapons and armor and see what classes they're for, but it's frustrating to personalize your purchases because it involves a fair amount of switching back and forth. It's a minor gripe, but it made me want to buy the most expensive equipment instead of customizing my characters to their strengths and weaknesses.
If I had one complaint about Tactics Ogre, it is that the visuals are not as impressive as they could be. There are certainly some updates, but it feels dated. Fans of the original can see where new artwork has been added or things have been cleaned things up, but newcomers will probably see the sprites as small and simplistic. They look outdated when compared to those of the Final Fantasy Tactics PSP port, although the game does run smoothly. It's a shame, as there are some nice character designs, but everything could have used some more polishing. Getting a good view of the battlefield can sometimes be annoying; the best you can do is change the camera to an overhead view, which makes it harder to judge the relative height of objects. With the rest of the game having received so much refinement, it's a shame that this aspect of the game didn't.
The soundtrack is absolutely top-notch and contains some of the best work by renowned game composers Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Itawa. Some of the tracks are the best work from the composers and fit the mood of the game wonderfully.
Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together may be a remake, but it's one of the best remakes out there. Every element of the game has been reexamined, polished and revitalized. Since the original game was a masterpiece in its own right, the new version goes above and beyond. Almost every change is for the best, and the result is one of the best strategy-RPGs on the market. It's not perfect, but most of the complaints are minor. The visuals could have used more updating, and the refined level mechanics are a step up from those in the original but could've used some further polishing. None of the problems detract from the fact that Tactics Ogre is a true classic and a must-have for any PSP owner with a fondness for strategy RPGs.
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