I don't like spoilers. I don't even like watching things with people who know them beforehand even if they attempt to keep silent. I never drop spoilers in my reviews, but here I am going to make a very poignant exception. This review will contain spoilers, because without them, you might have your entire experience playing Tactics Ogre: Reborn ruined, like it was for me.
On the surface, Tactics Ogre: Reborn is an excellent game. The original was a Super Famicom (Japanese Super Nintendo) game from 1995 that was ported to the Sega Saturn and the original Sony Playstation. For nearly 30 years it has been considered one of the best tactical RPGs. Reborn faithfully recreates the original Tactics Ogre but adds numerous enhancements, from HD visuals that maintain the classic pixel style to full audio narration, as well as loads of quality of life enhancements like enemy scouting, camera rotation, trajectory predictions to confirm a ranged unit actually has a line of attack, and a reworked tarot card system for buffs. Leveling was also made more streamlined, though a level cap for the entire party was introduced. Overall the changes work to great effect, creating a streamlined battle system and progression through the story and world, a battle at a time. It inspires a verve in the player to "just play one more round" over and again - really the highest form of praise for any turn-based game.
There are some issues. The combat AI was reworked for this modern version and generally does a stand up job, but there are times where it is responsible for some brain meltingly dumb choices. Enemies are pretty good at focusing strategies and picking on a weakened ally until they are downed. I've got nothing terrible to say about the opponent AI, my real issue is with the allies. At numerous points the party you do control is joined by guest forces that fight alongside you, but are under AI instruction. These are typically characters central to the plot or potential recruits you are in the process of winning over to your squad... if you can keep them alive long to do so. Keeping them alive, that's the trick isn't it? Because we got a cadre of healers and archers that for some reason think it's intelligent to go rampaging forward solo like some kind of berserker, despite being equipped with a wand or a bow. And when their hit points do whittle down towards zero, what do they do? They should be running like hell back to the safety of the group but what we get is not even so much as a strategic retreat. Help me help you, new friend.
I should have left the dummy to die, but if I wanted to see their storyline play out I'd need to drastically alter my own approach just to compensate for their idiocy. The rewind feature only takes you back a maximum of 20 moves, perfect for the errant action input or to turn a loss and restart into a reworked victory. But with AI friends like these, you often do need to reload the entire encounter from the start and change your own tactics into one that is much more a sub-optimal, into the breach attack, to provide cover for the gung-ho moron rather than a clever use of distance and space. It's frustrating when the best laid plans are foiled because someone out of your control has a death wish, but forgivable.
What wasn't forgivable was the brick wall I ran into at the end of Chapter 2. Tactics Ogre plays out across 4 chapters. The choices you make at certain story crossroads change subsequent events, enemies or allies, and even the outcome and ending of the game. There are two main endings with multiple variations and a full play through of a single one is about 48 hours. I was playing the "chaos" path. At the end of Chapter 1 a clear moral choice is presented and I chose the only direction I could naturally justify. The commander of the army for which I was fighting was attempting to run a false flag operation and massacre a village of innocent people, blame it on the opposition, and rally the countryside to our cause. I opted instead to betray the commander, try and save the victims caught in the geopolitical crosshairs, and ended up in exile. The massacre was achieved despite my best efforts to prevent it and the blame laid at my feet - making me an enemy of the state and a wanted man.
That's all fine, and a good example of how some of this war torn land plays out its narrative. The gloves do come off and the story is all the better for it. However, the game you actually play as it unfolds is a consistent parade of one tactical matchup on an isometric map of two squads, followed by another tactical matchup on an isometric map of two squads. Rinse and repeat, over and again. Across every map of the two chapters (and optional side quests), every time it is squad vs squad and every time you are rewarded for best utilizing all the units, classes, and talents at your disposal. Use ranged mages and archers to whittle down hit points, matching weakness in magic or physical defense. Draw them in to phalanx of stronger units like knights and soldiers to protect the softer targets safely behind. Use well placed healers to keep everyone on their feet and in the fight. The game rewards you for the interaction of this band of brothers and sisters in every single level. Until that last battle in Chapter 2, where for no reason and without any warning the moment calls for Rambo.
This particular battle is the second part of a dungeon. Dungeons string multiple individual battles together sequentially, without giving you chance to back out to the safety of shops or practice arenas. Previously, these second phases followed the mode of the first - squad vs squad, but not here. Here, the protagonist of the tale walks in alone, and chooses to fight alone, 1 v 1 against a single enemy combatant. There is no reason for them to do this. The rest of your squad are presumably standing just outside the door, but for some reason they don't walk through it. So you're alone and facing a former ally; but one who is now stronger, faster, and literally unbeatable. The battle was impossible to win, and there was no earthly reason for it even to take place.
At first, I assumed this was just a narrative device. Surely losing this battle would lead to another tumble in fate, just like Chapter 1's end where you reappear a wanted man, hounded by armies and bounty hunters alike. But no, losing this battle just results in a Game Over screen. Well over 20 hours into this game, the journey was over with the most unsatisfying outcome possible. I had not even acquired an ending. I was just facing a battle my lone character was incapable of winning because there was never an indication I needed to be prepared to fight it. I had done nothing wrong but follow the rules the game presented to me. I was rewarded at every turn for clever tactical moves of a unit only to have the rug pulled from underneath me with a completely different challenge - almost a different game. This was the cheapest way to foil a run, the most unfair outcome that I can actually recall in my entire gaming life.
Because you see the trick to winning this battle, really the only way to overcome it, is to know that it's coming and prepare for it. The game, however, never gives you fair warning. It's only after you fail, realize there is no path forward in your current state, and start Googling solutions that you are given any clue that the key to victory lay hours before when you needed to craft your character and skills with choices that otherwise make no sense in the context of the game. The only way to survive the fight is to know it's coming. Once you're up against it, it's too late. I hope you have an earlier save handy, and God forbid you saved mid-dungeon like I did and overwrote your outlet back out into the shops and practice area to level grind. You could be looking at the full 20+ hours needed to be rehashed to get back to this crux.
I entered the battle a bit under leveled, but also with the default class assigned to my character at the start - a soldier. Soldiers cannot win this matchup even if I grind out the last levels to match the opponent. Look it up. The question has been asked for as long as there have been Tactic Ogre players and the internet to support them. The battle in question is the Almorica Passageway. The advice employed: be a ninja and keep your distance, make sure you're a counterattacking knight, spam healing items. Even if its sage advice, it's too late unless you know it's coming. Just swapping classes last minute and jumping back in doesn't mean you've leveled up abilities like your weapon to counterattack with or even unlocked the finishing moves needed to deal out the big damage and survive. Spam healing items? In this version you are only given four item slots per character, and whatever definition you use for "spam" it surely includes more than four actions. Without the hours prior to prepare your 1v1, hours that must be undertaken antithetical to the otherwise virtuous feedback loop of team play, you're just a very movable object against an unstoppable force.
We play games as they are presented. You get rewarded in Tactics Ogre at every turn for clever team strategy. You build a squad of interworking components, a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Unless by chance or illogical premonition you had been fiddling your character to be just the correct antidote to a troublesome poison, you get sucker punched by a single, impossible mission. The rest of your squad sits idly by for no reason, just to artificially muster a challenge that was never foreshadowed and cannot be overcome. I cannot recall every feeling so cheated by a game in my entire gaming life.
I had a wonderful time playing Tactics Ogre Reborn up until the Almorica Passageway. I was ready to give this game a 9 or a 9.5. It is an amazing re-creation of a bit of gaming history. It tosses you headfirst into a full world with a rich backstory. If you do play, be sure to linger on the title screen long enough to trigger the cutscene that delves into the history and politics of the land. I was ready to sing this game's praises to the high heavens, then ran into a brick wall that felt so unfair that, with this review wrapped up, the only joy left is when I turn my PS5 back on to delete the game form my hard drive and never think of it again.
All that said, I'm not going to overly punish the score. The game is otherwise such a triumph, but is so let down by a single, terrible, isolated design decision which traces back to the original release. This is not a new phenomenon specific to this version (which is remarkably well done), it's an issue with a level that has persisted throughout versions of this classic tactical RPG. A single mission, but one that has ruined an otherwise incredible gaming experience for me. That's the necessary spoiler, chose the chaos path or the lawful, enjoy this game for yourself, but be warned - if you want to spare the lives of innocents at Balmamusa either start building you main character up as a counterattacking knight or a ninja or start building up your resolve for great despair. A better game would prepare you for this twist, but this one seems to think 20 hours of wasted time is a small price to pay for such a valuable life lesson.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
First picked up a game controller when my mother bought an Atari 2600 for my brother and I one fateful Christmas.
Now I'm a Software Developer in my day job who is happy to be a part of the Gaming Nexus team so I can have at least a flimsy excuse for my wife as to why I need to get those 15 more minutes of game time in...