Already a highly unique game at the time of its release, time has done little to diminish the quality and innovativeness of the initial entry in the cult favorite Ogre Battle series. Most likely this is due to the influence of key designe Yasumi Matsuno, whose titles have aged with a remarkable grace when compared to many of their contemporaries. While Matsuno’s name would not become well-known in the west until the release of Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story? during the 32-bit era, this earlier bright spot on his resume nevertheless bears all of the classic hallmarks of his work.
The first of these is deep, complex gameplay which is often initially daunting but over time becomes practically second nature. Each mission in Ogre Battle begins with the player deploying his chosen units of one to five characters apiece from his base and sending them out in real time to liberate the various cities and temples captured by the Zetegenian Empire. When the player’s troops encounter enemy units, though, the game switches to a turn-based battle screen in which both sides exchange a number of attacks determined by unit type and positioning. After every character has performed their requisite number of actions, the battle is concluded with the victor being determined by whichever unit dealt the most damage. The loser is then pushed a short distance back and is free to retreat or attempt to reengage their enemy. Of course, achieving victory is easier said than done, and there are dozens of factors canny players must keep track of at any one time. For instance, while certain characters’ moves nicely complement those of other characters, some classes get along better or worse with certain other character classes when the two are placed in the same unit. Obviously, dragon masters get along well with dragons, and beast men get along well with the likes of giants and Hellhounds, but place a cleric in a unit of demons or the undead and you’re asking for trouble. There are a host of other factors which affect unit performance as well, such as terrain and time of day. Mermaids function best in water, and vampires are all but useless during the day. With the incredible number of character classes available to players, it can take considerable time to get a feel for which units perform well under what conditions.
Combat, too, is a complex affair. While the fact that character actions are determined by class and placement as opposed to player input may lead some to believe combat in Ogre Battle is relatively hands-off, it nevertheless possesses a surprising amount of depth. Achieving victory in an individual skirmish is all well and good, but the only way to clear a path to the enemy’s headquarters and the boss of the map is to completely destroy the enemy’s attacking units. Setting a unit to target enemy leaders is the most honorable strategy and usually the fastest way to cripple an enemy unit. Leaderless units will immediately retreat to headquarters to heal and replace their dead. However, setting a unit to pick off the weak and injured is usually the best way to completely destroy enemy units and ensure their complete removal from the battlefield. A winning strategy often involves placing sturdy units as the defenders of cities and towns while sending out a handful of more aggressive units to harry approaching enemies or pick off the injured as they retreat. Of course, slaughtering your enemies outright isn’t very noble, and that can wind up having significant fallout in Ogre Battle.
Just like most of his later titles, Ogre Battle demonstrates Matsuno’s penchant for politically complex and morally ambiguous narratives. The Empire’s ruling elite may be scoundrels through and through, but many of those lower on the totem pole have a variety of complex motivations for aligning themselves with the Empire and may be persuaded to change sides if the player’s goals are the same as their own. There are also plenty of other individuals who hate the Empire but are hesitant to commit themselves to the player’s cause until he proves he has the fortitude to see the job through and the nobility to do it right. And let us not forget how the populace feels about this whole rebellion situation. Just because the player wants to liberate them from oppression doesn’t mean they’re automatically behind his cause. You see, unlike many modern RPGs with “morality” systems that essentially offer the player the choice between being an absolute saint or a raging sociopath, Ogre Battle has a much more nuanced take on things. The most obvious aspect is the reputation meter which forever sits in the upper right hand side of the screen. This gauge represents the feelings of the general population towards the revolt the player is leading and is influenced by a host of different factors. Liberating cities from Empire control generally boosts it slightly, while losing those same cities back to the Empire lowers it significantly, since to the populace this demonstrates a lack of commitment to the cause. Absolutely overwhelming the Empire’s troops with powerful, high-level units gradually lowers your reputation, while giving the people an underdog they can root for by engaging the Empire with low level troops gradually increases it. For new players, the reputation meter is typically the most difficult aspect of the game to manage, as keeping it high often flies in the face of Japanese RPG conventions. It is pretty common for a first-time player to finish the game with an empty reputation meter, at which point their leader is assassinated and supplanted by someone the people have more faith in.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the reputation meter, though, is that it is completely detached from the player’s actual morality. Showing mercy to a despised but genuinely penitent regional governor may be the moral thing to do, but the populace will still have the player’s ass on a platter for doing it. And no matter how black-hearted a fiend the player is on the battlefield and how many unholy monsters he surrounds himself with, as long as angels, paladins, and clerics are the only ones the people see liberating towns they will assume he’s a saint. In fact, obtaining the game’s darkest ending requires the player to maintain an extremely high reputation while simultaneously maintaining a rock-bottom Alignment. After achieving victory, the player then delivers the people of Zetegenia to a fate far worse than anything the Empire had planned.
You see, the player’s inclination toward good or evil is denoted by Alignment, a statistic possessed by all characters and which typically just determines which classes they can promote to and get along with. Surprisingly, the decisions the player makes have very little effect on the hero’s Alignment. Instead, it is primarily affected by how nobly he or she fights (i.e., whether most of his victories are against stronger or weaker units) and the Alignment of the other characters with whom he surrounds himself. The player’s Alignment affects a host of different story events, and while these sometimes have lasting effects on his reputation, overall the two concepts are fairly divorced. Considering Matsuno’s distinctive depiction of morality in later games, it is safe to assume granting the player the ability to have a reputation completely at odds with his actual deeds was deliberate. Unlike modern games like Mass Effect and Fable, where players essentially wear their morality on their sleeves, Ogre Battle gives players the opportunity to be as devious or as misunderstood as they desire. There is also the Charisma statistic, which determines the leadership quality of a given character. Placing a high Charisma character as the leader of a unit guarantees a good performance from that same unit, while the hero’s Charisma affects how successful he will be at rallying others to his cause. You can therefore be an extremely charismatic villain if you so desire, winning over allies even as you plan to stab them in the back, although it is a little tricky to separate Alignment from Charisma.
It may be a little rough around the edges compared to his later titles, and it is certainly nowhere near as accessible, but Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen is every bit as engrossing and enjoyable as any game Matsuno has worked on. For anyone who enjoys his political, morally ambiguous narratives and his involved gameplay systems, the original Ogre Battle does not disappoint.
Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen
Based on: Statistics, invisible gameplay factors, war-torn medieval Europe, and a deep and abiding love of Freddie Mercury.