OGRE BATTLE 64 / Quest / Nintendo 64

The whole Ogre Battle / Tactics Ogre series never really got a chance to properly sort itself out before Squaresoft bribed all the major talent behind it with Phat Loots and co-opted them into making the Final Fantasy Tactics games instead. Kind of a shame, because it had an unusually fleshed-out world that was developed over the course of all the games, which all had stories that tied into each other.

First of the whole bunch was Ogre Battle, which saw Destin the Valiant (or whatever you named him) liberating the land of Zenobia from the Black Queen and Rashidi and their evil empire of dipshittery. Next up after this is the surprisingly little-known Ogre Battle 64, which was also possibly the only real strategy/RPG ever released for the system. This one starts out in the land of Palatinus, which is just to the north of Zenobia, and is set not too long after the events of the first game. You play as Magnus, recent graduate of the Palatinus military academy and fledgling battle commander. Magnus's dad is a high-ranking general in the army, but was disgraced under mysterious circumstances, and now Magnus has his own mysterious reasons for choosing to serve in the sparsely populated Southern Division rather than in the Central Division which guards the King and all the fun stuff. His life will very soon become full of lulz and drama, however, as a rebel uprising gains traction in his area, and funnily enough a bunch of heroes from the first Ogre Battle game are spotted fighting amongst the rebels' side.

The gameplay is more-or-less similar to the SNES game, but there are a whole lot of tweaks and additions. Some are for the better, and some aren't.

Let's start with the graphics, since those were probably the most visible low point of the original game. The designers really accentuated this aspect here, putting the N64 to good use with a blend of some really lovely 2D backdrops combined with 3D battle and map sprites. Especially worthy of note is the animation of the characters during the (many) cutscenes throughout the game; they are full of little, elaborate gestures that most other games don't bother with, and the game just ends up really being a joy to look at. The backgrounds, too, are full of little details like wind blowing up dust clouds and swaying signs. I think this is far and away the aspect of the game that has most improved from the prequel.

Might as well get the aesthetic trappings all out of the way up front, then - Ogre Battle had a fantastic musical score, and this one is also really good. It has more of an orchestrated style, a bit more mellow and akin to the Tactics games. What songs there are are quite lovely, and the instrument samples are fantastic; however, surprisingly, there are very few actual songs used in the game. For the whole of the game, you hear pretty much the same two battle themes over and over again. The cutscenes also seem to have only a limited repertoire as well - there's one piece for Town Scenes, one piece for Castle Scenes, one piece for Plotting And Scheming, one piece for Meeting With Dangerous Enemies ... you get the idea. As good as the songs are, you do tend to get tired of hearing them over and over again, especially considering how long this game is.

And oh lawdy, is it a long one. It spans 43 missions, and like the previous game, some of those can take 1 to 2 hours on their own to complete. And that doesn't even account for time spent customizing and tweaking units, wandering around finding all the optional weapons and items on the various maps you can revisit, wandering around trying to recruit neutral monsters ... one interesting touch this time out is that there is a regular cycle of days, months and years, and you select a birthday at the beginning of the game, which is observed by people in your party giving you a random stat-enhancing gift each year. In terms of real-time, however, expect about sixty hours as a *minimum* to finish this one!

Though the structure of the battles is similar to that of the first game, the pace is quite a bit slower, and the way that units move around has been changed a bit. Each map still starts you out with a home base on one side, and the enemy with a base on the other, and first to capture the other's home wins. Enemy units don't always just make a stream for your main keep now, however; on many maps they just sit back and play defense. The AI seems to actually have gone down a peg - killing an enemy leader reduces their unit to a panicked mob who just runs around in circles forever until someone chases them down and puts them out of their misery. Movement is also now limited by an energy rating; when you (or the enemy) get too fatigued from marching, you have to either camp out for awhile or rest in a town. Units can also face in eight directions now, making it possible to attack from behind or from the sides (which pretty much just alters the troop formation of the surprised unit, but can be useful for drawing out a unit leader who likes to turtle behind walls of heavy units).

Battles are nearly identical, though now each unit has three rows to place troops in instead of two. Just about all of the units from the first game have been retained, and function pretty much in the same way, though there is a bit of nerfage here and there (and, inexplicably, Pumpkin Heads now dish out incredible damage). Instead of the ubiquitous Fighter and Amazon as the base class, however, they are now the first promotion level, and the lowest tier of your ranks is made of a new unit type called Soldiers. This gaggle of little munchkins is reduced in effectiveness as they lose hit points, and have to fight in a certain number of battles before they upgrade automatically to either a Fighter or Amazon (determined by the gender of the unit leader at the time they promote). The major addition here is that spellcasters who have fought together in a unit for a few maps can do tandem magic attacks that usually hit an entire row of enemies for very big damage. There's also an option to create Legions, which are two units clumsily welded together, but still only one unit fights at a time, and you are forced to use a lot of Soldiers to make them, so they end up being almost useless for practical purposes.

I would have to say combat is a bit more fun in this one, given the greater degree of options, and the Soldier system makes you really appreciate and be careful with each troop down to the lowliest Fighter, as they are suddenly a bit scarce and hard to replace (there's no Recruiting in towns like there was in the first game - new troops come only from promoting Soldiers, finding wild monsters and gaining new commanders through the plot). Being able to flank and surprise enemies while they are camping also adds some depth to the strategy of the game. You can now also do Training in between maps to raise levels (costs some money, however, keeping you from power-levelling too much), and there's a great Tacticians Report that keeps track of all the characters you have met so far and what is currently going on with them (something I wish all in-depth SRPG type games would implement).

There are only two real problems here, unfortunately, they are pretty big ones. The first is that the game's pace is just so glacially sloooooow. Movement on the map takes forever as compared to the previous game. Battles could also stand a fast-forward or auto-skip to clear out the more tedious ones, but no such luck here. The second problem is that the janky Alignment system, which determines whether or not you get a satisfactory ending to the game and what characters you can recruit, has returned, and it is even more finicky and hard to manage here than it was in the previous game. At least in the SNES one, you had a Popularity meter that showed where you stood at all times. Here, it is completely invisible, and a lot of players probably didn't even know it existed until it was shown to them at the end of the game. As with the previous game, plot decisions and capturing towns determines where you stand, but there's very little feedback throughout the game to tell you where you are at. As with the previous game, the better endings and some of the most interesting characters can only be had by having a high rating, so this comes across as at least a little unfair. The system for raising your rating is also way more stringent here, too - you have to calculate the average alignment of your unit's members on your own, then check the alignment of each town you liberate, and make sure they are reasonably close. Too high or too low and you "capture" instead of liberating, which really hurts your rating. It's a pain in the butt system, and basically forces you to play in a really inefficient and tedious way in order to see much of what the game has to offer. I recommend cheating with a Game Shark or something to get around this.

The story was also a bit disappointing. At first, it seemed really great - the focus is on this rebellion to abolish the class system, and you see these cut scenes of like villagers organizing at secret rallies and raising improvised weapons in the air and stuff, and I was like, "Great, this is material that doesn't get covered much in console games". Unfortunately, this only lasts for about the first ten missions of the game. Then, Destin the Privileged decides he doesn't want to support the rebellion anymore because they are worried too much about social equality rather than Evil Lodis Empire, and the game turns into stereotypical "Religious Nuts Try To Revive Evil Foozle Demon To Kill World, Go Stop Them" type of story. The game is still better than average as far as depth of plot and characters goes, however, and has a fascinating amount of cussing and sexual innuendo for a game on a Nintendo console.

On the whole, there is really a lot to like here, but you are going to have to be pretty hardcore to get into this one, given the overall length and the fact that each session is going to require a minimum of one to three uninterrupted hours. Thus, I don't think it's going to be accessible to the majority of gamers, and the gradual drop-off in the story combined with the very slow pace of the battle maps frequently makes it a bit turgid going.

Links :

* Ogre Battle Art Book (scans)
* Ogre Battle 64 Soundtrack (MP3s)

Videos :

* Gameplay Video