Perk up, strategy fans. GBA now has two fantastic war sims: Advance Wars and the new Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis.
Being a huge fan of Quest’s Final Fantasy Tactics for PSX, I knew early on that I was interested in Tactics Ogre for GBA. What I couldn’t have imagined is how completely the gameplay and entire experience have been brought to a handheld platform. The Knight of Lodis actually looks better than FF Tactics, if you can believe it. You can’t rotate the field, but in exchange, the poorly textured polygonal landscape has been replaced by a beautiful hand-drawn one. Meanwhile, the characters are the same type of sprites as on PlayStation, but they look higher-res because of the GBA’s small screen. And so far even the most basic spell effects that I’ve seen look great. The music is beautiful, and even the sound effects are awesome; in the very first cut-scene, you can hear people chatting and chickens squawking as you stroll through a lively town.
The gameplay is essentially unchanged from what I remember of FF Tactics, except that the truly genius Job system has been replaced with the Ogre Battle franchise’s more basic class system. Sadly, this means you can’t take abilities from one type of character to another, like a Knight who casts Black Magic. Fans of Ogre Battle 64 and other games in that series will be able to jump right in with the classes, but I personally much prefer the Job system. Oh well, you can’t have everything.
Speaking of Ogre Battle 64, we’ll use that for a few handy comparisons. Tactics Ogre absolutely carries on the Atlus tradition of high-brow translations and ridiculously complex storylines. I enjoy some plot, but I can already tell that The Knight of Lodis is going to leave me in the narrative dust before too long. You can also count on the gameplay being rather complex…how many GBA games do you know of with an instruction manual approaching seventy pages? Thankfully there’s plenty of in-game help so you can just keep the manual for reference, but know that Tactics Ogre isn’t the sort of game you can just pop in and start playing successfully. The learning curve is pretty high, and if you’ve never played a Quest strategy game before, you can expect to spend the first several battles just figuring out what to do.
In stark contrast to Ogre Battle 64, Tactics Ogre focuses almost entirely on combat itself (plus lots and lots of storytelling). Anyone who doesn’t care for OB’s automatic battles will be in heaven here; you have utter control over practically every aspect of combat, and you issue direct orders to each character individually. Battles are absolutely the meat of the game, and depending on your style, they will sometimes last for an hour or more. Even random battles in the “field” are complex and often long affairs, and you’re in for a surprise if you think you can just walk all over those guys just because they aren’t part of the story. Tactics Ogre is mentally engaging at all times, and if you get lax and start giving dumb commands, you’ll pay for it dearly. The stakes are always high: once a character dies, he’s gone forever. Youch. (On a side note, it’s kind of a funny contrast to my last game, Breath of Fire II, in which I could often just zone out during battles because they were so easy and automated.)
So far I’m absolutely loving Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis. Its production values are extremely high, especially for a portable game, and the gameplay is every bit as good as any other Quest game I’ve played. Before you get too excited though, keep this in mind: Tactics Ogre is most definitely a hardcore game. It’s complex, it’s difficult, and it’s demanding. Don’t think it’s some kind of RPG that you’ll just waltz through. This is strategy gaming in its purest form, and if you’ve never given that genre a try, you should seriously rent this game or test out one of its console brethren before dropping your forty bucks. Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis is a niche game for a traditionally hardcore audience, but if you fall into its target audience…rejoice. This is the real deal.