Everyone's got that game they used to love but nobody else seems to remember it. This site it dedicated to those games. Check in each week for a fresh look at another hidden gem and weigh in on whether it should be remembered as a classic or not.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen

Year: 1993
Developer: Quest
Publisher: Enix (originally); Atlus (PSX)
Platform: SNES (originally); later Sega Saturn (Japan-only), Playstation and Virtual Console
Metacritic score: Not available
VGChartz sales to date: 200,000 (data available for PSX version only)

As gamers we owe quite a lot to Japan.  Much of the technology consoles and computers depend on grew out of Japan's tech boom in the 1980's.  When U.S. companies triggered a gaming apocalypse through inundating the market with crap shovelware (best epitomized by 1982's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial), Japanese companies stepped in to give us new consoles with quality games to play on them.  Perhaps there's no better example of the flow of games and ideas from East to West than the JRPG.  RPG's were born in the West with the rise of table-top games in the 1970's, most notably Dungeons & Dragons whose success would make fantasy setting a staple of the genre for decades.  When PC gaming began to rise to prominence in the 1980's the RPG genre rose with it, particularly the Ultima series which would become the foundation for many elements of RPG videogames.  These games had a tremendous impact on Japanese developers and Enix put themselves at the epicenter of the boom by publishing Chunsoft's Dragon Quest (known as Dragon Warrior stateside) which became the standard for JRPG's.  By the time these games began to arrive in the West during the waning days of the 1980's, features like top-down views, streamlined combat that hid statistics in the background, non-linear gameplay, in-depth stories and character relationships, anime-style designs and many more features first introduced in Dragon Quest had become staples of the genre.  

Later many would criticize the strict adherence to these foundations as the primary reason for the decline of JRPG's due to staleness, but Enix and it's stable of developers displayed a willingness to venture away from the rules they had established.  Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen was a JRPG through and through, but it mixed up the formula by including a tactical strategy element.  The game's title comes from the titles of two different songs on Queen's second album owing to lead designer Yasumi Matsuno's love of the band, but the game itself was inspired by the Yugoslav wars.  The first in what would become two companion series (the Tactics Ogre game having a stronger focus on tactical RPG gameplay) it was actually designed to be the 5th game in the series although the previous entries were never created.  You could say a confusing chronology is yet another staple in the JRPG genre.  

Telling stories through breathlessly delivered text boxes (sometimes poorly translated) is clearly a genre staple

The story follows a group of revolutionaries battling against the Zetegenian Empire ruled by the evil mage Rashidi through his possession of a powerful magical artifact.  The goal is to build an army of distinct units, each composed of up to five different characters, and move these units across tactical maps in order to liberate towns and defeat the boss unit controlling that section of the map.  You play as the Lord of this revolution, but your particular attributes are determined by your answers to a Tarot card reading at the start of the game.  While the subset of questions you're asked are randomly chosen at the start of each playthrough, the three possible answers all vary between neutral, righteous and evil.  Your answers affect your starting alignment, one of the most important stats in the game.  Alignment of individual characters can change up or down based on the actions your perform, such as killing characters with higher or lower alignments then yourself, and other random factors such as bonuses attached the Tarot cards you acquire.  Whether a characters alignment is high or low will affect whether they receive a combat bonus at night or during the day, which attacks are more or less effective, whether or not a character can evolve to a new class and how your reputation is affected when that character liberates a town or temple.  The other main decision to make when starting a new game is picking your gender.  In a uniquely Japanese display of sexism, your character's gender determines which class trees are available to your character and while there are a large number of classes available, each is only available to one gender and there are far fewer classes open to female characters.  But worry not, no matter which gender you choose to play as you'll acquire a large number of additional characters giving you a chance to experience most classes within a single playthrough.

Some Tarot cards actually decrease your stats when you get them, causing the affected unit to voice their displeasure.  Or they stubbed their toe.  Or maybe they're just fans of Honey Boo Boo. 

In fact, you'll end up building quite an army over the course of the game such that your Lord may not end up playing a large role in his own revolution.  By the end of the first tutorial map you'll acquire a number of units but a max of 10 can be deployed in each battle.  It costs goth (the in-game currency) to deploy units and you'll be charged for every full day cycle they remain on the field.  You can edit each unit to change up the character classes and battle formation during the world map screen, but once you select a battle map to play you are stuck with the units you've got.  There are a large number of human character classes such as wizards, fighters, samurai, vampires, knights, angels and clerics as well as animal types like griffons, dragons, krakens or giants.  These are just a small sampling of the numerous class types, each having their own attack types, bonuses, evolution trees and necessary tactics.  Managing your forces is a major part of the game because there are so many variables that affect combat performance.  If all your units are made up high alignment characters you'll get your ass kicked during the night, but low alignment characters will hurt the reputation of your rebellion if they liberate a town.  You'll also want units that can move quickly to cut off enemy units flowing out from the boss unit's position and mountain units to hold key choke points on the map.  Units move around the map in real-time, but you can pause the screen while you issue orders to give yourself a chance to position units or use items.  Items can be purchased through units positioned in a liberated town and the inventory is shared between all your units, so it's a good idea to keep one unit in a town with a store as the rest of your units push towards the boss.  Enemy units will also try to retake anyplace you've liberated which will seriously harm your reputation so it's a good idea to maintain a defensive line to protect your gains. 

The floor of the battle screen indicates the terrain you're fighting on.  Most classes suffer a damage penalty when fighting over water, but krakens and mermaids receive a bonus to both offense and defense. 

Combat plays out from a more hands-off, tactical vantage giving you the ability to choose an attack strategy or play Tarot cards that have a huge effect on battle, but you don't choose specific attacks or enemies to target.  This makes force management even more important because the positioning and composition of characters has a bigger influence on the outcome of a battle then just how strong each character is.  Each character has a set number of attacks they can make and combat ends when all those moves are used up with the winner decided by whoever dealt more damage.  The loser is forced to retreat a few spaces but if an enemy is killed you'll be awarded with extra money and a random item.  If all the characters in a unit are killed, that unit is wiped out but killing only the leader sends them into retreat to the boss.  If they make it back, the leader will respawn so it's critical to chase down and wipe out any retreating units.  Once you reach the boss unit you'll battle him until he's defeated, but this may take launching repeated sorties by your units until they can take him out within their set number of attacks.  When the boss is dead you've beaten that battle map, but you can still return to find hidden items and units.  You'll fight through around 30 battle maps of increasing size and complexity before you reach the final stage and the ending you receive is influenced by the path you've taken to get their, your character attributes and the hidden items you've collected.  Given the massive number of character classes, the various endings you can achieve and the sheer enormity of the scale of tactics at your disposal it's possible to sink hundreds of hours into this game across multiple playthroughs and still not experience everything it has to offer.

Japanese companies have an intuitive understanding of their own market, but when it comes to the rest of the world there's little effort to read or react to consumer demand.  In North America JRPG's were popular and their appeal was growing, but they didn't dominate the market the way they did in Japan.  While today Dragon Quest/Warrior is universally regarded as a huge step forward in RPG's, during the time of their release the North American market gave them a fairly cold reception with review scores well below what the Japanese review magazines awarded.  Those reviews rose with each successive release, nearly matching the acclaim received in Japan by the end of the NES lifespan, but global sales still did not come close to what was achieved at home.  It's likely that these factors are what led to Enix publishing a mere 25,000 copies destined for the North American market, making this one of the rarest and most expensive SNES games to track down.  The sequel, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (another Queen inspired sub-title) didn't see a U.S. release at all until years later.

It's a liberation, bitches!
Once again the reviews from U.S. gaming magazines was just average, but even despite the limited number of copies available the game built a cult following.  Battle Ogre arrived just before JRPG's really exploded in popularity when Square's Final Fantasy III (actually the 6th iteration in Japan) and Chrono Trigger hit shelves and created mainstream interest in the genre.  Once the floodgates were open, people finally recognized that Ogre Battle was a great game with a unique real-time strategy hook and the hunt to claim a copy was on.  The game remains a sought after collector's item to this day and copies in good condition with the original box and manual go for well over $200.

Thankfully Quest and Atlus ported Ogre Battle (with 'limited edition' on the cover) along with the Tactics Ogre sequel to the PSX in 1997.  Even though this was just a straight port with no graphical tweaks or updates (and they lacked the voice acting present on the Japanese Sega Saturn ports) the limited run of 200,000 copies sold out.  Copies of this version can be found for $50-$100 but sealed copies are still considered a collector's item and can easily approach the $500 mark.  Fortunately for Wii and Wii U owners, you can download the original SNES version from the Virtual Console for a very reasonable $8.  A mobile port of the game is also available, but only in Japan.  

Units can move over any terrain but receive substantial speed bonuses on roads, making bridges important choke points.

There have been a handful of other Ogre series games released over the years, the most recent of which was Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis for the Game Boy Advance in 2001 (the North American localization came out the following year).  Remakes and ports still trickle out on new systems and remain highly popular.  A PSP port of Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together was developed by the original team and released in 2011 to highly positive reviews.  While no new games in the series have been announced, fan support for a return of the series remains high.  Given that much of the series lore has yet to be fleshed out, there's still plenty of stories left to tell.  Since the merger the series is now owned by Square-Enix, probably the foremost RPG studio in the business, but they've been content to leave the development of the Ogre series in the hands of Quest and hand most of the publishing responsibilities to Atlus.  Even though Square-Enix has been silent on the series, there have been rumors that series creator Yasumi Matsuno is interested in a revival.  As a freelancer he helped develop the PSP port of Tactic Ogre, but when he took a position with Level-5 it seemed to kill any speculation that he could return to the Ogre series.  But this past Novemeber Matsuno revealed he has left Level-5 and plans on taking a break before returning to game development.  Is it too much to hope he will reunite with Square-Enix and bring back the Ogre series?           

There's a big empire out there to explore with epic stories told throughout the ages.  Hopefully we'll get a chance to play what so far has only been hinted at.
Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great that no one else seems to have heard of?  Sound off in the comments below, and be sure to Like us on Facebook or Follow us on Twitter!   

No comments:

Post a Comment