Forevermore: The Legacy of the Ogre Battle Saga

The legacy of the obscure game series lives on in the hearts of fans

Forevermore: The Legacy of the Ogre Battle Saga

Queen II is an incredibly strange LP, and it must have been all the weirder for the Queen fans who bought it in 1974. The album's lyrics draw heavily upon mythological imagery with references to faeries and giants, something more associated with Led Zeppelin at that time. The composition was even stranger, with the album divided into the balladic Brian May-penned "Side White" and the dense, proto-metal Freddie Mercury-penned "Side Black," neither of which was anything like the melodic rock from Queen's debut release.

"Ogre Battle," the opening track from Side Black, showcases just how abnormal Queen II was. With its heavy guitars, battle shrieks and quizzical lyrics like "Can't go east 'cos you gotta go south," it certainly sounds nothing like the band that would later reach legendary status on the strength of songs like "We Will Rock You" and "Bohemian Rhapsody."

Source: YouTube.

Queen II received mediocre reviews and was quickly forgotten. To this day, it is widely regarded as one of Queen's weaker albums, though like every unusual work of pop music, it still has its fans.

Yasumi Matsuno, a designer for Quest Corporation, was one of those fans. We can be sure of that because he opted to name his strange, genre-bending TRPG series after that strange, genre-bending song.

On its release in 1993, Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen (the subtitle being another song from Side Black of Queen II) was intended to be the opening act in an epic series known as the "Ogre Battle Saga." Eight years and five games later, it was over. Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis, the last new game in the Saga, hit North American shores twenty years ago, and save a single rerelease, that was it.

The Saga was popular and influential, but not enough to turn into the storied series it could have been. It is now simply another brand quietly gathering dust in the vaults of Square Enix.

Yet traces of the games live on in the industry to this day. Ogre Battle lives forevermore.

Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen. Source: Gaming Backlog.

When Ogre Battle hit store shelves in 1993, no one expected it to sell all that well. After all, a person interested in strategy games wasn't likely to be all that interested in consoles.

The strategy console game wasn't a new concept. KOEI had already broken ground with Nobunaga's Ambition in 1988 and Romance of the Three Kingdoms in 1989. By 1993, these had been joined by Gemfire and Liberty or Death, as well as some non-KOEI games like Shining Force and Langrisser/Warsong. Quest Corporation had even done some work in this area, having worked on an NES port of the strategy game Daisenryaku in 1988.

Precedent or no, Ogre Battle was always going to be a risky proposition - a game trying to create a subgenre from scratch. Quest played it safe, ordering a modest initial run of 200,000 copies, with an even tinier run planned for the 1995 American release. This would prove to be a gross undercalculation. Ogre Battle quickly gained a reputation as the game that everyone wanted and no one could get. In their Ogre Battle strategy guide, the editors at Prima joked that the game should be retitled Ogre Battle: The Search for the Last Copy.

Closer to home, the only copy of the game - one that was in constant demand, even in the middle of nowhere - was stolen from my local grocery store rental outlet. The previous renter hadn't pushed it all the way into the return chute and some passing thief helped himself. I always wondered if the thief knew what he was getting, or if he was just an opportunist who happened to take something worth hundreds of dollars to the right person.

It may well have been worth that money, too, because Yasumi Matsuno and his team at Quest had pulled off a minor miracle - they made a strategy game that felt like it belonged on a console. KOEI's various Romance of the three Kingdoms-based console strategy games certainly played well, but KOEI didn't have much of a feel for interface design and many of those titles just felt like they really belonged on the PC. Ogre Battle's intuitive interface and control scheme, while rarely remarked upon, made the game a lot more accessible than many other comparable titles. It impressed upon the player that consoles could run complex games.

Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen. Source: Pinterest.

Whatever Yasumi Matsuno may have wished for, I can't imagine that anyone at Quest anticipated that Ogre Battle would be successful enough to start a "Saga." Even so, the ingredients for a series were all present from the beginning. Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen introduces a large world with a storied history, ready for further exploration.

Long before the Age of Zeteginea - the time frame of the first game - there was a terrible war that rocked the heavens and the earth, and the scars of that war linger still. Enchanted islands soar through the sky, linked to the land only by ancient sealed gates. Ancient horrors lurk in prison-like forbidden lands, waiting to return. And everywhere you go, you hear dread whispers about the most terrible monsters of the old age: Malformed giants known as ogres.

That answers the "Where are the ogres in Ogre Battle? Hurr hurr" line that every review of the time had. It got old fast, especially since the answer was spelled out in the game's eighth stage with the introduction of the Dark Prince Gares.

Many of Ogre Battle's villains are depicted as more misguided than evil, but Gares is an utterly irredeemable figure with a farcical list of misdeeds. His greatest hits include having the paladins of Zeteginea executed for refusing to do his personal bidding; killing the head of the Roshfallian faith and then summoning undead all over their holy land; personally murdering the rightful king of Zenobia and then framing the king's most loyal retainer for regicide and treason, and driving non-combatants before his forces in a level that manages to be both narratively and mechanically sinister.

Gares first appears as a boss on a stage called Island Avalon. After liberating a particular town, someone will remark that Gares, with his wicked armor and the spirits surrounding him, is reminiscent of the ogres of old. So there you have it - "Who are the real monsters here?" was too subtle a message for game reviews in 1993, it seems. But let's be fair: Given Ogre Battle's savage difficulty curve, they may have never reached stage eight. I know I didn't.

There was a lot wrong with Ogre Battle, of which the game's difficulty is one of the less remarked upon aspects. The seventh stage - roughly one-third to one-quarter of the way through the narrative - is easily the hardest in the game. It makes narrative sense - stage seven is the old Zenobian capital, so you've gone from fighting a motley assortment of irregulars to the imperial army proper - but it's also a stumbling block that tripped a lot of people.

Whatever missteps Quest might have made, they had the start of something great. A few years later, it would get even bigger.

Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. Source: PlayStation Lifestyle.

Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (another Queen reference, this time to a track from a better-known album) came out in 1995, though Western audiences would have to wait three more years for the PSX rerelease. While parts of this game may have been familiar to Ogre Battle fans, the whole scope had shifted. Rather than being the tale of a struggle between mighty empires, Tactics Ogre focuses on life in a tiny, remote imperial client state during a time of crisis.

The groundwork for the story had been laid out, though only players dedicated enough to finish Ogre Battle would have known about it. At the end of the game, Empress Endora says that she had only started her campaign of conquest to rally all of the kingdoms in defense against a greater threat - Romanized as "Rodisti" in the first game, later changed to Lodis - which she describes as a powerful cult. As it turns out, she was right, for the theocratic Kingdom of Lodis begins its own campaign of conquest not even a generation later.

Tactics Ogre is the story of a proxy war. The island of Valeria is an ethnically diverse place held together by King Dolgare. The succession crisis following his death plunges the island into ethnic warfare. Lodis capitalizes on this crisis, creating a puppet state with a king drawn from one of the minority ethnic groups (something which has never caused problems in real life). Some familiar faces from the Kingdom of Zenobia find their way to the islands as well, determined to end Lodis' meddling. But the player doesn't control them - rather, the main characters are refugees from the tiniest ethnic group who are about to be unknowingly dragged into a brutal, complex civil war.

That's a very nuanced plot, which is why it's a shame that Tactics Ogre falls prey to a presumption that afflicted not only the entire Ogre Battle Saga, but most JRPGs of the era: the belief that politics can't sustain a plot. Game writers of the era understood that games needed to end with the characters killing the devil or something similarly grandiose. After dozens of hours of shifting alliances, betrayals, war crimes, and shocking personal revelations, Tactics Ogre ends with the player killing a ghost to protect a magical artifact. Brilliant.

The real development, though, was in the gameplay. Rather than the grand field battles of Ogre Battle, Tactics Ogre focused on small-scale skirmishes with far fewer units on the field. This let the player take a more personal approach to his forces, adding more RPG elements and changing the whole focus of battles. It was a breakthrough - the developers had created the TRPG as we now know it.

Being the first did mean that Tactics Ogre was...let's say a little rough. The addition of permadeath and the lopsided battles against enemies that can two- or three-hit anyone in the player's army makes it even harder than Ogre Battle. This also means it can be very grind-heavy, though this can be reduced once the player learns how unbalanced the classes are (Protip: Make all your male characters Ninja and all your female characters Archers and you'll be running rings around the enemy by the end of the game). Add to that the terrible translation on the original North American release that made the complex plot that much harder to follow, and you have something that's hard to love at times.

But sometimes, you have to give credit for being willing to blaze the trail and make mistakes. Were it not for Tactics Ogre laying down the basic design rules for the TRPG, we never would have had the refined masterpiece that is Final Fantasy Tactics. Quest deserves a gold star for that alone. They ended up getting that and more, as Tactics Ogre (across its various ports and versions) remains the best-selling title from the series.

Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber. Source: LaunchBox Games Database.

It's at this point that Yasumi Matsuno leaves the stage, or at least leaves Quest for greener pastures at Square. Back at Quest, this is where things get busy. Besides porting both games to the PSX, they released three entirely new Ogre Battle Saga games in the space of just a few years.

First out of the gate was Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber (not a Queen song, as you might have guessed) in 1999. The intent of this game was to refine the gameplay of the first title, removing some of the more needlessly obtuse mechanics, balancing and expanding the character classes, and making the whole thing more accessible. It would also grow the setting yet again, focusing on another client state of Lodis (now known as the Holy Lodis Empire following a power grab by the heads of the Church of Lodisism) and a more direct struggle between that country and Zenobia.

I was really anticipating Ogre Battle 64 as a child and was sorely disappointed by the result. It is not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, but it felt like it was inching in the wrong direction. The choice to remove the first game's distinctive divination imagery - replacing the tarot deck motif with the generic JRPG classical elements - made it feel generic from the start. The new mechanics - including a very strange army formation system - were awkward and useless. Most of all, the game overcorrected on the difficulty curve. Whereas Ogre Battle and Tactics Ogre were both arguably too hard, Ogre Battle 64 is laughably easy.

Also, they went and put ogres in Ogre Battle 64. I guess that was the only thing the developers could do to stop the bad reviewer jokes.

While it was a bit of a letdown, Ogre Battle 64 is still a solid title and much-needed addition to the N64's RPG-starved library. And as with the first game, it hinted at things to come, teasing an entirely new threat to Zenobia's east in both the ending and the game's one genuinely hard level. It's a shame that Ogre Battle 64 was the last full story in the Saga.

The dawn of the millennium saw the release of the Saga's most obscure title - Ogre Battle Gaiden: The Prince of Zenobia, following the adventures of Prince Tristan prior to his appearance in the first game. Released only in Japan on the Neo Geo Pocket Color, it represented an ambitious attempt to transplant Ogre Battle's complex gameplay onto an underpowered handheld console. If an official worldwide release ever surfaces, perhaps we'll all know how that turned out. What I've played of this game wasn't exactly impressive, but fans of the series still deserve to have some closure here.

The Saga's swan song was the GBA title Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis, released in 2001 in Japan and in 2002 elsewhere. From a gameplay perspective, this was a fantastic conclusion. The Knight of Lodis represents an extraordinary improvement over the first Tactics Ogre, with more balanced gameplay, fewer unfair levels, and an interesting and intuitive badge system that enhances characters based on their individual achievements. If you are interested in Tactics Ogre, I would almost recommend skipping Let Us Cling Together and going straight to The Knight of Lodis, which is simply much more fun.

From a story perspective, it's hard to give it as much praise. The Knight of Lodis is set prior to Tactics Ogre and, as the game suggests, it follows several members of the antagonistic Kingdom of Lodis - a perspective rarely taken in games of the era. While visiting yet another of their client states, the group is ambushed by an unknown force and must figure out what's going on. In the process, Alphonse, the protagonist, learns of a conflict between the secular monarchist and religious factions within Lodis and must decide whom he can trust. The game avoids the usual "imperial stooge sees the light" trope (last seen, regrettably, in Ogre Battle 64) in favor of something a lot more nuanced.

Alas, The Knight of Lodis almost immediately abandons this intriguing plot thread. Instead, the balance of the game involves messing around with mermaids, a Chosen One love interest who may as well have been named Maeris Lainsborough, and a big bad who's pretty much Lucifer with the serial numbers filed off. The internal conflicts serve as little more than an excuse to introduce a branching path, and when the branches finally reunite the central mystery and overarching conflict are barely mentioned. If nothing else, it is on-brand.

Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis. Source: IGDB.

Thus was the quiet death of the Ogre Battle Saga. It did live on in certain ways. Members of the Ogre Battle team later ended up at Square-Enix working on, among other things, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. Yasumi Matsuno was even able to reunite some members of his old team for a remake of the first Tactics Ogre, dubbed Tactics Ogre: Wheel of Fortune, in 2009. But the story of the Saga proper was over.

Could Ogre Battle come back? It's a question that many people have asked over the past twenty years. Every so often, we pull the Saga back out of the cellar, reminisce over better days, and hope that someone at Square Enix throws us a bone. It's not outside of the realm of possibility - in recent years, SE has shown some interest in producing smaller-scale games of the type they were known for in the 90s. Possible doesn't mean likely, though, and Ogre Battle has become another of SE's forgotten franchises.

Even so, one hears stirrings from time to time - tiny campaigns trying to raise awareness of Prince of Zenobia, pushing for an official translation that may well raise awareness of the series enough to start the ball rolling again. Maybe it will come out one of these days - and if the gods of copyright favor us, it might even have that Queen flavor again.


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