While the GameBoy Advance (GBA) is better than its predecessor (the GameBoy Color, or GBC) in just about every way imaginable, one of the most impressive things about Nintendo's newest handheld is the selection of games in genres that were poorly represented on the GBC. The category that's benefited the most on the GBA is the role-playing game (RPG), a genre with very few good titles on Nintendo's earlier portable systems. GBA owners have already been treated to several high quality RPGs (including Golden Sun and Mega Man Battle Network), and the future looks bright too, particularly with Square on board to bring some of their classics to the little system.
One of the more impressive RPGs to appear recently has been Atlus' Tactics Ogre: The Knight Of Lodis, a strategy role-playing game that serves a gaiden (or side story), separate from the main game's story arc (which spans multiple chapters).
For those who are unfamiliar with the Ogre Battle series, here's a brief breakdown: Ogre Battle is comprised of two different kinds of games—the Ogre Battle titles, and the Tactics Ogre titles. The Ogre Battle games have appeared on the Super Nintendo, Playstation, and Nintendo 64. The games are essentially real-time strategy games where the player commands units in battle. Rather than control the individual characters, the player spends most of his time micromanaging or issuing generalized battle orders. Battles are turn-based, waged on large maps, and require a great deal of strategy (and time) to win. Basically, they're medieval war simulators filled with fantasy elements like magic and whatnot.
The Tactics Ogre games are slightly different. The titles in this series have appeared on the Super Nintendo, Playstation, Sega Saturn, and now the GBA. These titles are strategy RPGs, much like other games in the subgenre such as Shining Force, Vandal Hearts, and Final Fantasy Tactics. Battles are waged on small isometric maps, and instead of commanding units, the player controls each individual character. Through a series of menu interactions, the player manipulates his characters around the grid-based map, commands them into action, and tries to fulfill a preset condition of victory (which generally vacillates between 'kill everything' and 'kill the leader'). Both series require a great deal of thought and strategy as well as a fairly serious time investment.
Tactics Ogre: The Knight Of Lodis is your standard strategy RPG, complete with the isometric battlefields, the labyrinthine plot (full of political intrigue, backstabbing, and more), and the slow paced game mechanics. However, it does have the distinction of being one of the first truly deep strategy RPGs to appear on a handheld—which is part of what makes it so impressive as a game.
Boasting some nicely detailed 2D graphics (which are on par with games from the SNES era), Tactics Ogre is certainly easy on the eyes. Character sprites are small, but not impossible to see, and animate nicely. A few more frames of animation might have been nice in spots, but overall, there's not a lot to complain about in terms of the game's visuals.
Environments are also quite nice, and feature a fair degree of variation. Players will wage battle on a variety of different maps, including rivers, fields, towns, and more. This keeps the game feeling fresh by not forcing the player to continually fight on the same maps. Granted, everything on the maps is a little blocky overall (which is necessary because of the isometric movement requirements), but that's a standard in this kind of game.
While the graphics are certainly pleasant, the gameplay is the real draw of Tactics Ogre. Battles are the equivalent of a chess match; the player has a certain number of characters that he can use, and the computer has some as well. Strategy is vital, because choosing a team will generally determine the outcome of the battle. Characters are all ranked by class and level, and each distinction is important when choosing troops. Characters gain levels by earning experience points in combat; earn enough and they gain a level. They can also earn emblems, which are rewards for committing certain deeds in battle. Earning emblems and levels will allow for characters to change classes at certain points. Sometimes changing class can be looked at as an evolution, other times it's merely a side-step. Planning ahead and considering each move is vital even outside of battle.
Each class has strengths and weaknesses. Ninjas can move about quite freely, but they don't have good armor. Hawkmen are tough against knights and the like, but archers can take them down from a distance. The player has to learn what classes work best against other classes, or end up restarting battles with regularity.
One of the game's more interesting touches is that for much of the game, reviving characters is a difficult undertaking. It can be done, should one of the soldiers fall in battle, but if it's not done before the victory condition is met, then that character is lost forever. It's a great idea, really, and ups the ante of each battle. Losing a powerhouse character that's at a high level is enough to have gamers hitting reset and fighting the battle again.
Because characters can be lost forever, the game has several ways of making your army stronger. First off, characters can be purchased in shops. Buying soldiers seems like the way to go, at least until you get higher in levels. Any soldier bought is at level one when purchased. There's an option to increase his level, but unfortunately, the price goes up for each increment. The easier approach is to persuade enemy soldiers in battle. A successful persuasion means that the enemy character will join the player's side and become a usable character from that point forward. This is the better way to increase the number of characters available to you, particularly because the characters are already leveled up.
Unfortunately, the gameplay is not without a few flaws. The most notable is the amount of time a battle can take. Some of the game's battles can last for well over an hour, which makes playing on the fly quite difficult (luckily, the player can save at any point, as long as it's his turn).
The reason the game seems to take so long is because the actions take forever to execute. There's no option to skip the game's animations, so the player must watch each character move out to their new location, execute their attack, and suffer a counterattack as well. Do this for eight characters and it takes awhile. It's even worse because the player will have to sit through the computer doing the same thing. I could literally put the game down, walk to the kitchen, poor myself a drink, and come back to the game before the computer's turn was over. This is part of the reason Tactics Ogre can take 40 hours to beat.
The other flaw is that the missions themselves rarely change the conditions of victory. Terms are almost always 'kill all the enemy soldiers' or 'kill the leader'. It would have been nice to see the game offer up some more imaginative objectives for the player—something like the scenarios in Vandal Hearts where the player was supposed to keep the zombified townsfolk alive or prevent the enemy from escaping the screen, for example. As it is, the game gets a little repetitive as the player progresses simply because he's always doing the same thing.
Still, even with the flaws, this is a very good game. The sheer number of battles, along with the multiple endings (the story branches at several points based on the gamer's selections), extra maps with hidden treasure not found in the main quest, and the multiplayer function that allows players to put their squads head-to-head make Tactics Ogre: The Knight Of Lodis a game with a lot to offer in terms of gameplay. That they managed to cram it all into one tiny GBA cart is impressive.