It’s the dead of night and my soldiers are hunkered down between two mausoleums, bottlenecking the enemy necromancer’s forces into a single-file charge. The plan works for the first few turns, with undead troops falling before my line’s spears and swords, until one of the skeletons breaks through and brings its bony mitts down on one of my brave spearwomen. An ominous countdown appears above her prone body. This was how long I have to finish the battle before she bleeds out, dying with no hope of revival.
At this moment, I have to change my plan; I can no longer exhaust the necromancer’s army in drips. I charge my troops up the map, into the thick of her forces. With steel, sweat, and sinew, we turn the battle and end the necromancer’s sorry life with only one turn to spare. This is the magic of Tactics Ogre, so effectively and lovingly rendered in Tactics Ogre Reborn for Nintendo Switch.
Tactics Ogre is almost as old as I am, released back in 1995 (the game, not me). Yet its emphasis on player actions, and their permadeath-laden consequences, is just as powerful today as it was in the mid 90s.
You take on the role of a young, partisan leader called Denam in a battle to liberate his people from the yoke of oppression. For this, he needs an army. However, there’s much more to Tactics Ogre Reborn than the trials and tribulations of rank-and-file soldiery. Every decision you make takes place against the backdrop of a wider tale: a sprawling fantasy epic with branching storylines and weighty player choices. My fraught battle against the undead didn’t take place in a vacuum; rather it was one of the first steps of a prolonged campaign.
To take up arms
You start your journey by recruiting your first crop of followers, outfitting them with the best equipment you can. As one of the Duke’s knights says early on: the difference between life and death can be as simple as the canny purchase of a “magicked ring”.
That plate-clad busybody wasn’t wrong. Tactics Ogre uses permadeath to punish your missteps. If any of your soldiers are left incapacitated for three turns, they die. It really crept up on me, how invested I became in my army. It started small, but even in the early stages of the game, I’d invested time and resources into levelling and equipping my spearwoman – of course I didn’t want her to die.
Our fight against the Necromancer didn’t come out of the blue. Denam was tasked with dealing with the local nuisance by Duke Ronway, leader of the resistance, as a part of his wider plan to emancipate the people. As the campaign continued, my spearwoman began to feel indispensable. I lost track of the times her savvy combination of healing magic and spear work had broken the charges of our enemies. I would (and did) throw my whole army into danger to save her.
This kind of investment adds a fraught layer of emotional calculus to an already complex and challenging tactical melange. In deciding to push toward the necromancer in the hope of saving my dying comrade, I took a risk. I not only risked the lives of other soldiers, but also the integrity of the Duke’s mission. Had the risk been greater, had we been outnumbered or on the back foot, I may have left her to die so that the mission could be a success.
Tactics Ogre blends the small-scale and the large-scale beautifully. Thanks to the overarching story, the lives of the soldiers are simultaneously made so much smaller and so much more important. You’re forced to weigh the lives of your soldiers against the lives of their comrades, as well as the greater cause for which you fight.
Despite having gone to extreme lengths to save my spearwoman, my experience fighting the necromancer made it clear that I had to make peace with the possibility that any of my soldiers might not make it back. The title of Tactics Ogre’s first chapter says it all: “There is blood on my hands, how long till it lies on my heart?”
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Cat Bussell is a Staff Writer at TechRadar Gaming. Hailing from the crooked spires of London, Cat is an experienced writer and journalist. As seen on Wargamer.com, TheGamer.com, and Superjumpmagazine.com, Cat is here to bring you coverage from all corners of the video game world. An inveterate RPG maven and strategy game enjoyer, Cat is known for her love of rich narratives; both story-driven and emergent.
Before migrating to the green pastures of games journalism, Cat worked as a political advisor and academic. She has three degrees and has studied and worked at Cambridge University, University College London, and Queen Mary University of London. She's also been an art gallery curator, an ice cream maker, and a cocktail mixologist. This crash course in NPC lifestyles uniquely qualifies her to pick apart only the juiciest video games for your reading pleasure.
Cat cut her teeth on MMOs in the heyday of World of Warcraft before giving in to her love of JRPGs and becoming embedded in Final Fantasy XIV. When she's not doing that, you might find her running a tabletop RPG or two, perhaps even voluntarily.