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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Retro Review: Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen (Wii Virtual Console)

The Tactics Ogre series has been a bit of a hidden gem over the years. Overshadowed by the likes of Final Fantasy Tactics, the GBA release; Tactics Ogre: the Knight of Lodis and the PSP remake of the original Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together have been real gems, offering up deep gameplay and quality stories.

Even less known are the two RTS games set in Quest Software's little universe: Ogre Battle. The first was a release back in the SNES era, the sequel, one of the few N64 RPGs worth buying. Both are now available on the Wii Virtual Console, and given the RPG section of WiiWare remains so weak, these are worth looking at instead. We'll review one this week, and one next week.

Yes, he does look like a leader



Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen (SNES)

Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen pushed the SNES about as far as it could be pushed. It was a long game, a complex game, and a game that made use of huge maps to fight over. As such, it's probably the most epic game you can find on Nintendo's 16-bit console.

It didn't do a great job of explaining the plot in a cohesive way, utterly lacking cutscenes and limiting dialogue to mere snippets, but if you paid attention, it was a story with surprising depth for a SNES title. In essence it tracked the career of a warlord (your main hero) through a resistance to an evil empire and subsequent war of conquest. The depth comes from the sense of morality in the game - decisions made affect the "alignment" of your army, and there are 16 different endings based on how moral you've ended up.

The overworld map looks limited, but there is a charm in watching the "pieces" slide over the battlefield. Real time Chess!


Being both good and tyrannical has its own set of rewards - there's no real sense of punishment for misbehaving, so really the alternative endings are just there as an encouragement to play through the game in different ways - lending an already lengthy quest additional potential play time.

The gameplay itself is where Ogre Battle shines, however. It plays out in two ways - for each battle there's an overarching strategic map. Here, you'll move your units around in real time, directing them to capture cities and monasteries and hold down key choke points.

One of the difficulties in following the story are the insane names for power groups, cities and nations


Thankfully given how clunky and slow the controls are, it's also possible to pause the action while you assign commands to your units. As such, this part of the game plays out quite slowly and requires a methodical mind to get through. It's entirely possible for a battle to take upwards of an hour to complete.

The second phase of the action occurs when one of you units runs into an enemy unit. Like a RPG random battle, the two forces are transitioned into a separate playing field, where they duke it out. This part of the game is very hands off. Though you have a limited supply of "tarot" cards, that can have a huge effect on the unfolding battle, the rest of the time you'll watch the AI do its work for both sides.

If that sounds limited, it's not. There are a massive number of units to choose from in this game, and the key to success is building effective units with a wide range of complementary skill sets before battle. It's also possible to buy (or find) better equipment to improve their survivability, and they do also gain experience levels - so you'll need to make sure each units does enough fighting to stay competitive as the enemy units become more powerful.

The triplets lay down their lives to guard the hero


There's a couple of archaic systems in this game that developers have since dropped. It's difficult to gauge at a glance the positive or negative effect a new piece of equipment will have on a solider. More experienced RPG veterans will be able to guess from the name of the weapon or armour which are standard RPG fare, but it'll be intimidating for newcomers. Likewise, a lack of in-game tutorial means figuring out how all the game's systems come together takes some doing early on (alignment and unit fatigue are especially confusing). The first time I played this game I needed to restart from the beginning about 10 hours in, because I found myself in an impossible position.

That said, it was a joy to start again and play around with a different strategy. Ogre Battle remains, even now, incredibly playable and entertaining. It's not as good as its N64 sequel, but it's well worth getting into after you've finished that game. Just jump online and read a FAQ or two on the more obtuse systems, and you'll find yourself hooked in no time.




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Retro Review: Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen (Wii Virtual Console)
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