Sunday, October 30, 2011

Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (PSP) Review

Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together for PSP is a remake of the original Tactics Ogre released in late 1995 on the Super Famicom.  Tactics Ogre is not the "inventor", "innovator", or "the grandfather of" the tactics genre. Series such as Front Mission, Fire Emblem, Super Robot Wars, Langrisser, Daisenryaku, X-COM, Shining Force, Nectaris, Jagged Alliance, Panzer General, Famicom Wars, and well over 200 other turn based tactical level video games were released earlier than Tactics Ogre, and did just about everything TO did first. Nothing important about Tactics Ogre's game play was particularly new or innovative in 1995, let alone in 2011.

So how well does this remake stand up to the sleek, efficient, and well designed modern tactics games of today? Not very well. Tactics Ogre fails in its combat pacing, tactical variety and content, strategically meaningful depth, user interface, and difficulty.

Tactics Ogre is lacking in content variety. Almost every mission is completed by killing the enemy leader with a few token trash mobs strewn about. Almost every map is a hill gradually rolling from bottom to top. There are almost no scripted events or interesting things going on to speak of.

Almost all of the games depth - its physical attack and element types, skills, stats, statuses, spells, races, tarot signs, terrain, height, directional facing, finishing moves, battlefield conditions, and etc. can be soundly ignored in favor of a few simple strategies that are repeated ad nauseum. Tactics Ogres depth is strategically meaningless in the face of easy, simple, overpowered strategies. It doesn't get any more difficult or complex further into the campaign, either. As a result most fights are boring, easy, and repetitive.

Due to the poor level design and variety, I don't think TO challenge runs are particularly appealing. Not to mention you'll need to restrict yourself from using almost everything available, and the game will still be pretty easy regardless. Just like there are better tactics games to play, there are better tactics games to do challenge runs on.

Much of TOs depth is needlessly convoluted and confusing, on top of being mostly useless in favor of archers, TP, damage boosting skills, etc. Learning and casting spells is a convoluted process involving scrolls, skills, and "arcanas". Making one skill per enemy race and status effect only serves to pad out skill lists with useless chaff.

The insistence on obscurely naming every spell some sort of pseudo-latin gibberish is particularly ridiculous. It feels like an attempt to browbeat and befuddle the player with similarly strategically meaningless options that have little applicable effect on the game. Many times the shop and crafting list will flood with items and gear for classes you can't even use yet.

It's telling that mid way through the game the developers give up and hand you spells that cure all buffs/debuffs instead of creating an individual spell for each effect. The "Tactics Ogre is so deep!" emperor has no clothes.

The AI is incompetent, coded to run forward recklessly and hit the target that they'll do the most damage to. Even worse, the game constantly saddles you with uncontrollable, badly behaved AI allies. Your guest allies will ignore your own breakable crowd control such as sleep and won't exorcise undead.

When trying to save potential NPC recruits units that prefer to run away from you and not heal themselves, it's completely random as to whether they'll survive long enough for you to rescue them. Not that recruits are particularly valuable since they'll almost always have a worse skill set than what you can build onto the troops you begin the game with.

The developers require the player to grind to experience most of the games famed "depth". Classes all level up at once, but you can't level a class if it isn't used during a mission, and new classes start at level 1. Since level 1 classes tend to be very weak beyond chapter 1 you'll have to cripple your team or start grinding if you wish to bring a new class up to speed. This means any new class you get past chapter 2 is going to be a dead weight on your team unless you spend time grinding.

In addition, any new characters you get won't have the same skill point base or optimal build that you've developed with your older ones, putting them at a significant disadvantage. it's more efficient, in terms of time spent, to stick with your initial roster that you begin the game with.

Playing Tactics Ogre "any way you want" is only possible if you're willing to put in the hours grinding new class levels and new recruit skills. Of course grinding isn't necessary to complete the game, but then you're highly limited in the amount of depth you can explore because grinding is required for so much of it.

Random encounters are frequent and encourage the player to grind, although you can thankfully avoid fighting random encounters and run away. Optional areas exist solely to pit players against randomly generated enemies with no other purpose than more repetitive filler battles. Clearing these areas even once will over level your party for the next story battles. Recruiting units is a boring, repetitive grind consisting of surrounding a weakened enemy and spamming the recruit skill until they yield.

The pace of combat is slow and tedious for no good reason, with no way to skip any animations. There are additional, intentional delays when the AI targets something or moves or performs any action at all. The slow combat speed makes an already repetitive and boring game even worse.

Moving on to the user interface, it's outdated and lacking features. There's no L/R function to switch between viable enemy or allied targets in target selection mode. There's no way to rotate the camera to anything but an overhead view - a huge issue for an isometric 3D game.

The menu tree is a UI disaster. Instead of a context sensitive cursor that intuitively speeds up the battle flow by allowing you to move, attack, etc. without going into a menu, you'll have to have to select move, attack, or wait every time. A common series of actions like moving then waiting takes 4+ extraneous button presses due to the poorly designed menus. Abilities, skills, and items are inexplicably split up into different menu trees for no particular reason. Multiply that by the tens of thousands of times you'll have to navigate the menus to perform the simplest action and combat speed is significantly slowed down.

The shop and party management screens are similarly cumbersome. There's no way to see a spreadsheet list of character stats, instead you're forced to view one stat at a time. You can't check whether your classes are at a given level to wear a piece of equipment or learn a spell from inside the shop - meaning if they're unable to equip a piece of gear, it doesn't tell you what level they have to be in order to equip it. Nor can you compare shop items and currently equipped gear.

The description text in the shops scrolls by at an agonizingly slow pace. Having to jump back and forth between the shop and party management screen when you're trying to outfit 12+ units is tedious.

There's no indication of what's new in a shop as the story develops, forcing you to scroll through absurdly long item lists hoping that you spot what's new mixed in with the old. This of course ties in with the attempt to befuddle the player with long lists of mostly useless items, gear, and skills.

On to the battle preparation interface, there's no way to preview the upcoming battle during preparations or see how your unit placement grid relates to their positions on the map, nor can you save during the placement grid screen. You're unable to change the battle party grid on the world map. You can't save during preparation while doing a series of linked missions inside a fortress, forcing you to do your party management all over again if you want to restart.

There's no button to immediately remove every person on the battle party grid, instead you have to do it manually. The skip cut scene button(s) are annoyingly inefficient. You'll need to use it multiple times times just to get through what should be a single cut scene. Post-battle results features a distracting and annoying flag waving around - seemingly a symbol of how little thought was put into the user interface in general.

The crafting system is tedious, obtuse, and needlessly time wasting. First, you can't check the stats of anything you want to craft, so you won't know whether it's worth the time and effort. Most materials needed to craft items are found in the store, which then need to be synthesized into more refined items. Why bother making the player combine base items into refined items when they could just sell the refined items instead? Although there are certainly some materials that are only obtainable from random encounters (read: more grinding).

After an eternity of repetitively clicking and watching a little jar shake around turning your store bought materials into refined materials and combining those refined materials together to finally make an item, you'll usually find out it wasn't even worth crafting in the first place. Even worse, there's a chance your crafting effort will completely fail. You can save/load until you succeed, but then why bother with a sadistic failure rate in the first place?

There are a series of mostly meaningless "titles" added to the remake, most of which are vapid "gimmie" awards and have little or no relation to the players skill level. The ever present level and skill grinding makes any sort of challenge completable by patience instead of skill.

An autosave system going by the gimmicky acronym of "chariot" is present in TO, along with unlimited quicksaves that make the autosave system fairly meaningless. There's a title for not using the autosaves, but then you can use quicksaves to achieve the same effect, so why bother with a "no autosave" title in the first place?

Some of the titles are more a reward of patience than skill, such as "Finish the game without ever retreating." Not retreating from optional battles makes the game easier to complete due to higher party stats. It's ironic when it takes more skill to deliberately avoid getting an "achievement" than it does to earn it.

Like most RPGs it's so riddled with flaws and loopholes that allow the player to avoid difficulty that it's pretty much useless as a measure of player skill. Tactics Ogre is useful as an emotional experience only.

The plot is a JRPG take on medieval history and legends, with the typical teenage melodrama, ham fisted morality, and evil villains you'd expect from a JRPG. The faux-olde English translation seems like a desperate attempt to give the plot some sort of authenticity and hide its JRPG trappings. I happen to like my medieval fantasy without the JRPG conventions.

Tactics Ogre is a traditional RPG shoehorned onto a turn based grid while failing to take advantage of the added potential depth that the turn based tactics genre offers. If all turn based tactics started playing like Tactics Ogre/FFT/Disgaea, the turn based tactics genre would be almost entirely pointless, and all that would be left is a lot of RPG-esque, grind heavy "sandbox" games. For that reason, Tactics Ogre is a series that would be better off as a traditional RPG, instead of making a mockery of the turn based tactics genre.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Namco-Bandai announces SRW Masou Kishin II for PSP

In the newest Famitsu magazine (Scan 1, Scan 2, Scan 3, Scan 4), Namco-Bandai has announced a new Super Robot Wars entry titled Masou Kishin II. It's a sequel to the original Masou Kishin released on SFC and recently remade on the DS, which I recently reviewed. It's being developed by Winkysoft, who last made SRW F/FF and Complete Box for the Playstation. Hopefully they figure out how to add animation skipping this time!

Masou Kishin II will also come in a limited edition bundle with Masou Kishin DS remade for the PSP. They're taking the DS version and adding additional voice acting and better animations. Masou Kishin for PSP will only be available in the limited edition bundle, not standalone.

Release date is Jan 12, 2012. Trailer coming on Nov 1, 2011. Official website here.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Super Robot Wars F/FF (PS) Review

Super Robot Wars F/FF is the final entry to the classic SRW storyline, meant to replace 4th SRW. It's loosely based on the plot of 4th SRW, but is otherwise an almost entirely new game. SRW F and FF have a combined 78-80 scenarios per playthrough and over 100 total scenarios. It was longest continuous SRW campaign at that point and isn't for the fainthearted.

You can again create your own main character, although you have less control over which seishins they can use. The disparity between real and super MCs is quite large, which leads to super MC having a far easier time in F compared to real MC. The affinity mechanic makes its first appearance in SRW F, allowing two pilots who are friends or lovers to gain a stat boost when standing close to one another. While it's undocumented and fairly useless in practice, it shows how SRW continued to progress even in the classic series. Not to be left out, several mechanics from SRW Gaiden reappear in SRW F. This includes EXP for unused seishin points at the end of a mission and EXP for healing. Items are dropped by enemies instead of being hidden on the map, a trend that thankfully continues into modern SRWs.

A couple new seishins are added to mix things up such as Taunt and Dream, while other favorites like Rage have been removed. Formerly exploitable seishins in 4th SRW like Ressurect and Re-Enable are extremely rare and cost far more SP. There aren't nearly as many scenarios that can be finished by killing a single target like in 4th SRW, either.

Newly added series such as Ideon, Gunbuster, Gundam Wing, and Evangelion come with their own unique mechanics and abilities that help to add some much needed variety to the otherwise familiar classic roster. The Evangelion pilots have AT Fields to absorb damage and if Shinji's health is reduced to 0 his Eva will go berserk with a heavy case of the munchies. The Eva series also gets its own ending route, although it's more of a bad ending that skips the final 15 or so scenarios. Ideon is an extreme super robot that can wipe out entire maps with its Ideon Gun, or go berserk and aim at your forces instead. Gunbuster and Gundam Wing are more traditional robots and pilots without much in the way of unique mechanics, but it's still nice to see some new faces and units.

SRW F is one of the most difficult SRW campaigns, especially if you chose a Real pilot main character instead of a Super pilot. You'll frequently find yourself facing high armor, beam shielded L-Gaim, Guest, and Dunbine enemies, often on difficult terrain like forests, bases, and underwater. The two part scenarios where anyone used in the first scenario suffers a morale loss in the second scenario if their morale was over 100 are particularly brutal. In addition, you'll frequently be hounded by extremely powerful Evangelion angels and Guest bosses that are usually only possible to defeat with copious upgrades and lucky hits/critical hits. Sometimes it can get boring or annoying waiting around for these bosses to retreat if you don't feel like defeating them.

SRW FF is the direct sequel to F, allowing you to use your F save data to continue where the last game left off. SRW FF's campaign is significantly easier, with the exception of a few scenarios. Your Gundam pilots will reach double act, learn Spirit seishin, and get some decent robots with funnel attacks. Your super robots in FF are incredibly powerful and make most of the F supers look poor in comparison. Your other pilots learn a wide variety of seishins that make combat much easier. You'll often be fighting in space and not dealing with difficult earth terrain. Once you have full access to Ideon, it can make quick work of the last 10 or so scenarios.

Despite the huge number of scenarios, there is little empty filler. There's usually always some kind of reinforcement, event, retreat, or objective to keep things interesting. Most scenarios usually have multiple reinforcements and events that need to be carefully considered in any kind of efficient playthrough. There are two end game route splits of 10-11 scenarios that are both worth playing through.

4th SRW certainly had its game breaking combinations, and FF is no different. Late in FF, you gain full access to the robot Ideon which has two MAP attacks with infinite range and the maximum possible damage of 9999. On top of that, the Ideon pilots have both Strike and Spirit which guarantees the attack will always land and deal 3x damage. However, in order to use the MAP attacks Ideon needs to get attacked by enemies to raise its Ideon Gauge, and if it gets attacked too many times it will go berserk and start firing its MAP attack at anything it pleases, including your own units. In addition, if Ideon dies or is attacked too many times while berserk, you get an immediate game over.

While it's a double edged sword and requires careful management of the Ideon Gauge, the Ideon Gun can wipe entire maps clean of all enemies due to its enormous radius, infinite range, and extreme damage. The Ideon Sword is just as damaging, but is much more difficult to aim since it only fires in two straight lines instead of a huge cone. While building up the Ideon Gun or Sword isn't nearly as easy as the 4th SRW tactic of spamming Resurrect, Ideon Sword/Gun can still one shot any enemy in the game when combined with a Spirit seishin, final bosses included. Even when using Ideon to its fullest, though, the end game of FF is still more difficult than 4th SRW's endgame as the situation can quickly go bad when using Ideon.

F/FF uses the same engine as Shin, with a near identical UI. Sadly the feature from Shin where you could activate the same seishin across multiple pilots is not in F/FF. Animations are still unskippable so you'll want to use a speedup toggle to avoid sitting through them.

Overall F/FF is a great SRW entry for veterans, although a nightmare for the inexperienced. The only issues are balance between real and super type MC, Ideon being overpowered, and the usual unskippable animations.

Reviewers experience: Completed with no upgrades, no units destroyed, low turn counts, and no save/load spamming for low %. (Space/DC): 401 turns / 79 scenarios = 5.07 avg, (Space/Guest): 403 turns / 78 scenarios = 5.16 avg

Guide here!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

October 2011 Update #1

What's good folks? We have a few bits of news in turn based tactics land.

New trailer for SD Gundam G Generation 3DS and 3DS bundle. If the bundle is cheaper than a plain Japanese 3DS + game, it's probably worth it if you plan on playing other Japanese Region Locked 3DS games like Fire Emblem, Super Robot Wars, and anything else that happens to be published.

A Sega rep confirmed what we already knew, that Valkyria Chronicles 3 will not be seeing an official English translation.

Touch Arcade review of a new iPhone/iPod Touch strategy game called Squids. In this game you take turns ricocheting sea life into enemies, a bit of a departure from the usual grid based format.

Panzer Corps expansion pack announced. This is an excellent turn based strategy game for PC that has drawn a lot of comparisons to Panzer General.

I was made aware of a card based tactics game called JollyGrim. While this isn't exactly a turn based game, it's grid based, tactical, and features a lot of strategy, so you may want to check it out.

I'm still playing through the Super Robot Wars series. I've been playing through F and F Final which combined is a 79 scenario campaign, so it's quite a long haul. Looking forward to getting into the more modern games in the series, especially animation skipping. If you would like to read my current playthrough log for Super Robot Wars F/FF check out this in progress text here.