Tactics Ogre: Reborn is a return to the golden age of isometric strategy RPGs, which, paradoxically, it helped to create. Building upon the rock solid foundations of 1995 Super Nintendo release Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, and the 2011 PSP remake of the same name, Reborn, in turn, makes everything old new again. With gorgeous visuals, streamlined quality-of-life improvements and other enhancements, this is the definitive Tactics Ogre experience fans have been waiting for.
Set in the blood-soaked Kingdom of Valeria, Tactics Ogre: Reborn tells a tale of civil war, replete with enough betrayal, posturing, and back-room politicking to make George R.R. Martin blush. Once unified under Dynast-King Dorgulua, the Kingdom of Valeria was riven into three separate groups following his death: the aristocratic Bakram, the more populous Galgastani, and our hero's own decidedly underdog faction of Walister. Players will find foreign superpowers like the Holy Lodissian Empire getting involved, two different guys named Lanselot working to their own advantage, and dissension amongst their own ranks to deal with — and that's just in the opening hours.
The game follows protagonist Denam, his sister Catiua, and their childhood friend Vyce, through the fury and the flames of revolution, taking up arms to fight for a better future. Tactics Ogre takes its setting extremely seriously and throws players into the deep end, which can sometimes be overwhelming. But while it can be dense and overwrought at times, if you can hang in there, you are likely to find one of the most thoughtful and mature storylines out there.
The story at hand is excellent, and it's shocking how deep the rabbit hole goes. It features branching storylines and meaningful decisions which have both narrative and mechanical consequences, depending on whether or not you choose to bring law, chaos, or neutrality to the land. Even the stereotypical good guy playthrough will present the player with morally grey, thought-provoking situations, which, quite frankly, puts most modern RPGs to shame, even if the decisions themselves are often binary.
Be prepared to go from a long-winded soliloquy on the nature of imperialism to tense strategic combat so fast you are likely to get digital whiplash, with characters conversing throughout and trading banter between sword blows. Players will spend the majority of their playtime on the battlefield (or preparing themselves for it), and combat is a turn-based tactical affair of the finest vintage, outfitted with modern timesavers that elevate the experience. Like Final Fantasy Tactics (which was itself developed by Yasumi Matsuno, the creator of Tactics Ogre), it focuses on a system of classes, each with its own strengths, weaknesses, and role on the battlefield.
Outfitting your Knights and Archers is just the beginning; before long, you will be debating which is statistically superior, the Rune Fencer or Valkyrie (it's the Valkyrie), and agonising over every equipment slot. As you progress through the game, you'll earn "classmarks", which let you change a character's vocation, giving them access to different gear and allowing your small army more tactical flexibility. In most engagements, you can deploy up to ten units, and the enemy can often field more, making later battles a surprisingly epic affair.
As a returning player, what is especially fascinating is the ways in which Tactics Ogre: Reborn differs from Let Us Cling Together. Already a stone-cold classic, messing with the game at all was a risky endeavour likely to make purists nervous, but we are happy to report that Square Enix knows best. Changes, like the streamlining of equipment requirements, the addition of new skills and items, optional battle objectives, and the removal of random encounters, are all for the betterment of the game, making the experience more palatable and doing away with some of its rough edges.
We suppose the only change that might prove controversial is the addition of a party-wide level cap, which was ostensibly added to reduce the need to grind before battles, and gates the maximum level a unit can achieve behind story progression. Tactics Ogre: Reborn remains a tough game, fear not, but without some of the more egregious difficulty spikes in previous incarnations. Still, for a certain kind of damaged individual (ourselves included), the grind was part of the fun, and training battles could be automated, meaning that it could be done in the background if so desired. Your mileage may vary on this particular quibble.
Character artwork is stellar throughout, as is the musical accompaniment both on and off the battlefield, and in terms of presentation, Reborn really lives up to our remembrance of the original, which time and playing through dozens of similar games have done little to erase. While it's true that admirable imitators like Fell Seal: Arbiter's Mark are deserving of attention, this genre really peaked with either Let Us Cling Together or Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions (depending on your preference), and for better or worse, Reborn reaches the same lofty heights.
It's not all smooth sailing, though. While much has been done to enhance the experience in terms of usability, the UI definitely feels like a relic of a bygone age. Outfitting your warband, which can swell to be dozens strong if you want it to, can be an exercise in tedium. Considering you are likely to spend about a quarter of your total playtime in menus comparing, contrasting, purchasing and equipping every last item, we wish this aspect could have been automated in some fashion. Again, this might be a matter of personal taste, as we are certain the type of player exists that loves to tease out every last statistical advantage, and we wish more power to them.
For the uninitiated or those of us of more tender age, Tactics Ogre: Reborn will likely feel like a revelation, providing a level of complexity and depth that can be overwhelming, especially at first. It asks a lot of you upfront but is likely to convert you to the church of the SRPG if you weren't already an adherent.
But for returning players, the experience will feel like a long-anticipated homecoming and one that was well worth the wait. The nostalgia you felt for earlier incarnations will return in strength, and you'll be reminded of that golden age of gaming from so long ago. But unlike the memories of those halcyon days, imperfect and half-remembered, Tactics Ogre: Reborn is a tangible experience, here and now, and it's better than you remembered.
The strategy RPG genre owes a lot to the Tactics Ogre franchise, which is filled with lesser titles trying to recreate even a fraction of its winning formula. The experience that lies at the heart of Tactics Ogre: Reborn has stood the test of time admirably and, thanks to the swathe of intelligent tweaks and quality-of-life improvements introduced, will likely remain at the head of the pack for years to come.