The first thing that comes to mind after many hours with Tactics Ogre: Reborn, to roughly remember a knight’s death cry from my first and only run-through, is, ‘my children, I should have seen your face before death!’ Blimey, this game is heavy.
Tactics Ogre is, believe it or not, a tactics game. Reborn is a remake of 2010’s Let Us Cling Together which is itself a PSP remake of 1995’s original, also titled Let Us Cling Together. (As producer Hiroaki Kato put in a note to us reviewers, “developing the same title three times is… unusual”).
When it comes to the game bit, you have troops on a grid, enemies to defeat, various elemental attacks intertwining, different weapons and classes, ranged attack line-of-sight, dozens of consumables, levelling up, and probably a bunch of other stuff I’ve missed in the melee of it all.
You also have a character to roleplay: Denam. You’re the leader of a group of soldiers in the fight against the occupying, totalitarian regime. With a wide range of motivations swirling around within the party and around its influencers, this story is just as key a part of Tactics Ogre’s magic as its mechanics.
This thing is dense on both a mechanical and narrative level, and unpicking its knots is like diving into the most meticulous admin you’ve ever seen. Neither story nor gameplay is very easy to talk about. One is rife with twists and turns that would make spoiling it all too easy, and the other doesn’t exactly sound thrilling on paper. Let’s try the latter and see where we end up.
The sheer depth of mechanics can feel like a bit of a tsunami at first. Things as fundamental as deciding what class a character should be, how these different classes should be made up in a party, or what weapon they should wield can take ages. This is before even going to battle.
So, seeing the admin before me, I chose to ignore it and get straight in. Which was fine, at first. Battles are gorgeous little playset grids with changes in height and terrain displayed in an isometric view. Most battles have a simple aim: kill this person. Then, the game can throw all manner of spanners in the works, like counters, resurrections, elemental clashes, and so on.
Spanners in the works can be tricky too. I had multiple ‘game over’ screens on my slightly-too-rushed way through. This game is hard, and there’s no chance of mainlining it. You have to dumpster dive into the menus and get your hands dirty. That’s where the fun lies… if you find that sort of thing fun.
So, realising I have no choice, I dumpster dive. The menus are snappy enough, but the thick layer of icons, sub-menus, and equipment changes are bound to put people off. Reborn is not some playschool re-creation for modern-day players accustomed to clarity. Like, the tutorial is still just reading words, y’know?
Still, all this harshness combines to create a vibrant atmosphere. Your enemies heal their allies with the same battle cry your allies do. This isn’t dry recycling, this is a magical reminder of the complex nature of Tactics Ogre. One that flies far beyond mechanical complexity.
And, uhh, if I were to overextend myself, I would say this expresses war. People die who you, the overruling leader, have to not care about. Assumedly, unless you use a guide or have some praeternatural ability to hold all these moving parts in your head, death is a guarantee.
Gameplay-wise, then, this is for those of you who played Fire Emblem: Three Houses on the hardest difficulty and thought there wasn’t enough time spent in the menus. The modern-sensibility concessions are maximal visually and minimal mechanically. This is still the same, decades-old game, fundamentally.
Beyond gameplay and general mechanical density, the story is also a thick web of politics between different races and factions. There’s a backstory here, threaded through neatly to teach us why certain people hate each other. It’s all presented with excellent, grandiose voice acting for the first time, bringing these cute little sprites into a more desperate and grim reality.
There are too-brave hotshots thirsty for blood, stolid defenders looking for peace, and wisened old beard-havers wielding staffs. This is a fantasy of great seriousness, with genocidal rulers and downtrodden underclasses, and it doesn’t ever feel shallow. The web intertwines within itself in a very impressive way.
The great drama of the voice acting helps bring the isometric sprites to life. That’s not to say that, visually, this game isn’t characterful and expressive. Reborn is truly beautiful, with the smallest of animations expressing a bunch. Rain falls, characters cry out in pain, light shines through stained glass, and everything feels perfectly expressed.
Then the music turns all this drama up even further, with grand, crushing strings. Combining all these aspects together is enough to pull you through at least half the game. I’m still gawking at the flourishes put in to make this as expressive as possible. It feels dynamic, alive, real.
Still, this is a matter of personal taste, moreso when this game costs the same as most actually-brand-new Nintendo games. I don’t like reviewing Tactics Ogre: Reborn as an object, as a thing to be purchased. Am I reviewing its presence in and of itself (within its own context and current cultural context), or am I just reviewing it for what it is: a videogame? Either way, this thought also clashes with the reality for many people.
The reality is, that many have already played Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together on the PSP. Many already know how good it is. So many will question the game’s pricey existence when they have to consider their bank balance before buying it. That’s all I can say really, because I think it’s worth it, but I also got it for free and am playing the game for the first time ever, so think of that what you will.
So, time to reconcile… Tactics Ogre Reborn is, as I think about it, too hefty with the weight of history to satisfy all. New eyes, seeing its Reborn rejuvenation, can’t fully rip apart its magic. Unlocking its back door feels like trying to load a gun. It’s heftier and more mechanical than I expected.
Old eyes may shudder at the price tag, the smoothing of the pixel art, or any number of things that to their eyes are a bad change. However, we don’t need hypothetical eyes, because we have me. And for me, this game is gorgeous, visually and aurally, and nearly unmatched in its genre when it comes to the story.
The best bit about Tactics Ogre: Reborn is the fidelity with which its excellent story is displayed. The combo of text and art and voice acting brings this heart-wrenchingly, unflinchingly dark story to life in such a magical way. And the visual tweaks help all of this come flying to the foreground.
Just take the first chapter: “There is blood on hands, how long till it lies on my heart?” This, of course, sounds so overdramatic. But when combined with the delicate, changeable, multiple paths of the storyline, it feels completely natural. And this drama is only made more accessible in this latest iteration of the legendary TRPG.
‘My children, I should have seen your face before death,’ I hear again, late in the game, but instead of surprise, I feel a sincere sorrow.
Tactics Ogre: Reborn doesn’t have to justify its existence. A better looking, grander sounding, easier-to-play version of one of the best TRPGs of all time? Sign me up! But still, this extra beauty doesn’t mean it differs that drastically from its 1995 original, so unless you’re new to the series, you may need it to justify its existence. Either way, it’s good. But then again, it always has been.