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A painted illustration shows a man and a woman warrior standing on a cliff with flags and dark storm clouds behind them Image: Square Enix

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Tactics Ogre: Reborn manages to be both timeless and dated

Yasumi Matsuno’s classic story of war can be a slog

Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

There’s no doubting the historical importance of Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. It’s a keystone game — perhaps the keystone game — in a particular and demanding genre, the tactical role-playing game. It’s also the cornerstone of a remarkable, yet sadly not fully realized, career: that of its writer-director, Yasumi Matsuno, who went on to make cult classics Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story before flaming out midway through the tortured development of Final Fantasy 12, a personal and professional setback he seems never to have fully recovered from.

In Tactics Ogre: Reborn, this 1995 game — which often ranks highly in polls of the best games of all time in Japan — receives its second major overhaul. Reborn is, nominally, an updated port of 2010’s PlayStation Portable remake (this time for PC, PlayStation 4 and 5, and Nintendo Switch). But it also makes thorough and careful revisions to that one, tweaking essential design elements, adding features, overhauling the interface, and restoring the artwork. It says a lot about the game’s revered status that it has received more loving care from Square Enix — which bought Tactics Ogre’s publisher Quest in 2002, after hiring Matsuno away from them in ’95 — than Final Fantasy Tactics, a game in Square’s flagship franchise, whose PSP and mobile versions aren’t nearly as well made.

New players should approach Tactics Ogre with caution, though. (I’m one; I knew the game well by reputation, but had never played it before I started this review.) Despite the many thoughtful revisions and quality-of-life improvements, this is still a daunting game that’s slow to reveal itself. As an early masterwork in a highly specialized genre that has seen a lot of innovation since, it can feel dated and inflexible. And it is often just a chore to play.

An isometric battle map from Tactics Ogre Reborn with several units visible, large character portraits on the left and right and a row of many units across the bottom Image: Square Enix

There’s both a simple reason for this, and a less straightforward one. The simple one has to do with party size. This is a turn-based tactics game in which you move characters around a gridded map, playing fantasy combat chess with an enemy force controlled by the AI. The standard party size for an encounter is somewhere between eight and 12 units. Turns take a long time to execute; the opening movement round, when engaging the enemy is usually impossible and you’re simply moving each unit into striking distance, feels interminable. Complete battles often take upward of half an hour, and foregone conclusions (which, to be fair, aren’t too common — this is a well-balanced game) are excruciating.

Furthermore, the number of units makes it hard to keep the status of your forces, and overall shape of the battlefield, in your mind’s eye. Though it’s hardly grand strategy, it’s not an easy game to parse, and fights can feel scrappy and piecemeal. It’s notable that Final Fantasy Tactics, which paired Matsuno with veteran Square designer Hiroyuki Ito, pared the number of units down to the four-to-six range, and gained a lot of focus as a result.

To be fair, Reborn makes quite a few tweaks to speed things up and ease the mental load. You can assign AI to take over party members’ actions; there’s a turn-speed button; the skill and spell systems have been redesigned to provide access to better skills earlier in the game; random encounters have been removed from the world map (and replaced with optional training battles if you feel the need to grind), and so on. Yet despite all this — and despite the 3D map design, which uses verticality to create some interesting spatial challenges — the game struggles to stage the sort of clean, intricate logic puzzles that represent the tactics genre at its best.

A party menu screen from Tactics Ogre Reborn, with a character portrait, attributes, skills and inventory listings Image: Square Enix

Tactics Ogre very obviously traces its design back to the days before Advance Wars — a game in a parallel but very closely related genre — had done so much to clarify the rock-paper-scissors balance and problem-solving joy of tactical combat. These days, indie games like Into the Breach or Invisible, Inc. find ways to present you with intricate strategic challenges far more quickly than Tactics Ogre can manage, while paradoxically overwhelming you far less. But perhaps this isn’t just about age. Perhaps Tactics Ogre is also, by its nature, less of a tactics game and more of an RPG — and what I like to call a backroom RPG at that.

A backroom RPG is a game where the real action happens outside of combat, deep within the party menus. (Final Fantasy 12, with its Gambit programming system and game-like License Board, is one of the best examples.) In this regard, Tactics Ogre is a theorycrafter’s dream, with enormous customizability and depth, which Reborn intentionally does little to streamline. In fact, it even scraps the class-wide leveling of the PSP version to return to individual unit leveling. Party members can be recruited from far and wide, and their classes can be reassigned, as can their elemental alignment, which is important in battle. Skills, spells, equipment, and items are assigned and developed per character, and there are ways to craft and combine more powerful equipment to boost stats.

There’s a vast amount of inventory and unit management to be done here as you develop and refine your favored squad — as well as satisfaction to be had when that squad works effectively in battle. For a particular kind of player, this will be heaven. I’ve been known to love that kind of thing myself. But in Tactics Ogre, it feels like all the menu busywork is draining attention away from a battle system that is already struggling for strategic focus. The combat is inevitably the centerpiece of a game like this, and if it doesn’t sing, all that work in support of it can feel like wasted effort.

An isometric view of a medieval town in Tactics Ogre Reborn. A woman is saying ‘Help... Please, help us!’ Image: Square Enix

But there’s a whole other grand design at work in Tactics Ogre, one that has aged far better and will repay your investment in the game in spades. It’s the story. Matsuno is arguably an even more talented and influential writer than he is a designer. Despite their fantasy settings, his games tend to be grounded, humanist works that lay out intricate maps of political intrigue — which, loaded with filigree naming and fanciful jargon, can seem dry and hard to follow at first. But they unfold into something personal, heartfelt, and engaged with the real world. Tactics Ogre is no different.

Matsuno has said that the game’s devastating branching storyline was inspired by the early-’90s wars in Yugoslavia as that country broke apart in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Tactics Ogre imagines The Valerian Isles, an archipelago riven by ethnic and class strife between its three main constituencies: the Bakram, the Galgastani, and the Walister. After the death of a unifying king, civil war has erupted; during a period of uneasy peace, we join a group of oppressed Walister revolutionaries led by young Denam Pavel, his sister Catiua, and childhood friend Vyce. They’re soon joined by a team of friendly mercenaries as the resistance leader, Duke Ronwey, leads them deeper into a conflict of shifting factions, complex allegiances, and dirty tricks.

This is a branching storyline where the choices — judged on a scale of lawful to chaotic, rather than good to evil — can be agonizing in their moral ambiguity, and the outcomes can be painfully bleak. Denam’s willingness to follow the Duke, and his level of commitment to the Walister cause, are sorely tested. As an exploration of the moral and political quagmire of war, Reborn is pretty sophisticated, and Matsuno’s refusal to describe it in black-and-white terms makes the branching outcomes illuminating rather than reductive. A World Tarot feature usefully allows all branches to be explored in parallel realities without undoing your progress. (There’s a similar rewind function in battle that allows you to redo your choices and switch between different tactical outcomes without overwriting them — a brilliant feature.)

There’s genius and sincerity at work here. Get deep enough into Tactics Ogre and the entreaty of its subtitle, Let Us Cling Together, starts to sound a lot less goofy and a lot more urgent and sad. How deep you will get into the game depends on your appetite for micromanagement and your patience with gameplay systems that, 27 years later, are starting to creak, despite all the judicious tinkering that’s been done to them. Tactics Ogre: Reborn is a welcome, polished, and thoughtful update to a game that defined a genre — a genre that has now left it behind.

Tactics Ogre: Reborn will be released on Nov. 11 on Windows PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation 5. The game was reviewed on Switch using a pre-release download code provided by Square Enix. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.