The original Tactics Ogre proved that RPG chess was not only fun, it could also be morally ambiguous, beautifully written, and deeply compelling. Nearly 30 years later, Tactics Ogre: Reborn has managed to safely transport a masterpiece into the modern era while sprucing it up enough so that it’s still a joy to play. I was worried the remaster, with its smoothed-over pixel art and other tweaks, would tarnish what I love about the classic tactics game. Instead, I’m hooked all over again.
Tactics Ogre: Reborn, out Friday on PlayStation, PC, and Switch, is the grittier, more granular predecessor to Final Fantasy Tactics (both were directed by Yasumi Matsuno of Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII acclaim). Where Final Fantasy Tactics—released in the U.S. in January 1998—focused on manipulating an over-powered job system to break the game with dual-wielding ninjas and massive summons, Tactics Ogre (which hit U.S. shores soon after despite first releasing in Japan a few years earlier) reveled in slower-moving battles of attrition where positioning and terrain matter as much as character classes. And while both offer surprisingly mature tales of class politics and the corruption of power, Tactics Ogre lets players make a handful of choices along the way and then sit with the consequences at the end of the game. It’s not as approachable as Final Fantasy Tactics, but its Realpolitik approach to war and revolution resonate as strongly as ever.
If you’re completely unfamiliar with the game and the tactical RPG subseries it hails from, Tactics Ogre spends most of its time on isometric battlefields divided into squares. Units on one side, consisting of knights, archers, wizards, dragons and other classes, fight against enemies on the other. You play as a trio of downtrodden youths trying to take back their land from neighboring occupiers, tinkering with your roster of troops and feasting on wonderfully written scenes in-between battles as dukes, kings, and other leaders decide your fate like pawns on a chessboard.
You would have gotten most of this from the original game as well, but Reborn is a remaster of a remaster, building on the improvements that were already made in the PlayStation Portable version released in 2010. Each scene is fully voiced now, and with minimal cringe as well. While I ultimately preferred to stick with the Japanese voice acting, the English cast is surprisingly excellent and a worthwhile addition that helps add a whole new dimension and emotional subtext to the story.
Reborn also introduces orchestral arrangements of all the original music. On paper that seemed like a neat addition, but in practice it’s transformative. As with the voice acting, it brings out a whole new level of depth in Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata’s fantastic score. Each battle feels heightened, each betrayal more sinister. The returning Wheel of Fortune system, meanwhile, let’s you revisit earlier points in the branching story.
The remaster makes a number of other changes and additions as well. Unlike in the PSP version, characters level up rather than their classes, freeing you to play around more with different party compositions and loadouts. Random encounters on the map while traveling from one story beat to another are gone. Instead, the training mode has returned where you can set your troops to spar on auto-pilot. But don’t think you can grind your way to success. A “party level” limits how far any one unit can level up until you progress further in the game.
Another big departure is the tarot card system. In addition to vanquished enemies dropping green cards that permanently boost a unit’s stats, blue and red cards also randomly spawn throughout a battle. The blue ones bestow buffs like higher critical hit rates, stronger magic, or higher defense, while the red cards remove them. The card bonuses only last as long as each battle, and can swiftly turn the tide depending on who gets them first.
It’s a way to help make Tactics Ogre’s combat hit heavier and resolve more quickly, helping you dispatch an enemy in three hits rather than six (unlike, say, Fire Emblem where it almost never takes more than two). On the whole, it can help cut down on some of the game’s more tedious moments as you try to break an enemy’s hold on the high ground or take down an especially powerful boss unit (a turn do-over system and fast-forward option also help). At the same time, as a purist with a soft spot for Tactics Ogre’s slower pace and longer battles, I wish there was a way to turn it off, as you have the choice of doing with the voiceovers.
Most of the changes are clear improvements though. You can now scout battles ahead of time to see what units and terrain you’ll be facing and how best to counter them. You can also customize up to five battle rosters, letting you easily swap from one team to another depending on the situation. Character customization has also been streamlined, with each unit allowed to equip four items, four skills, and four magic abilities depending on their class and repertoire (character stats have also been rebalanced to scale more rewardingly). The equipped items even automatically restock from your reserves after each battle. It sounds small, but it’s a huge time saver that lets you spend more time focusing on the cool stuff rather than constantly fiddling with healing herbs and resurrection stones.
The only part of Reborn that doesn’t feel like a coup is the pixel art, which was notoriously lampooned when it first leaked online. This is the first version of the game in HD, and the sprites and environments have been blown-up to compensate. The result is a “smoothed over” look that can make things look slightly muddy or washed out. The effect is especially noticeable at close range. Zoom in and things will occasionally look, at the very least, not great. I don’t know how feasible it would have been to try and give Reborn the Octopath Traveler or Triangle Strategy HD-2D pixel art look, but I wish the game felt as beautiful to look at as it is to play and listen to (or at least included the option to revert to the old look).
Fortunately, I spent most of my five hours with the Switch version so far easily overlooking it. In motion, it’s hardly noticeable, especially when you’re busy calculating hit percentages and damage tradeoffs. As with everything else on the OLED screen, the colors really pop, and the package as a whole feels meaningfully improved from the PSP version in every other way. Some old games take you back to the past, but Reborn feels like it’s transporting Tactics Ogre into the present, where it belongs.