PSP remake, by the way, was the best game I played last year, by some margin. Matsuno built not just Ivalice franchise within the larger Final Fantasy label, but also the Ogre Battle franchise, which is probably the second most illustrious SRPG name behind Fire Emblem.
Unfortunately, SE, in their usual wisdom, has let Ogre Battle lie fallow for years. What I'm reviewing tonight is actually the last Ogre Battle game ever released, a prequel to "Tactics Ogre" called "Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis". By the way, this game was made entirely without input from Yaizmat, so its existence is hope - for me at least - that some new Ogre Battle games can be made. "Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis" came on the GBA some ten years ago, making this my least timely review yet. Since its a handheld game, its basically a microsized adaptation of of the Tactics Ogre/FFT gameplay that I would usually enjoy on my PSP remakes. And it plays just as well as any of its big brothers.
The plot essentially is the story of Lancelot Tartaros, the one-eyed leader of the Lodis Dark Knights in "Tactics Ogre", and by far the coolest character in that game. Tataros wasn't actually fully evil in that game, but he was pretty much the central villain. This game takes place when Lancelot was young enough to qualify as a hero of a JRPG, had both of his eyes, and went by the name of "Alphonse". Alphonse travels to the war-torn island of Ovis, a client state of Lodis, along with his best friend and commander officer, Rictor, in a secret mission. Though the mission seems like a simple mission to stop a local civil war, its actually much deeper. Something evil is afoot in Ovis, and its up to you to stop it. That ultimately makes for a great little video game.
Currently I'm about 2/3rds of the way through "Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis", but I really don't think this game has many more surprises. So there's no problem with writing a review. In my usually thoughtlessness, I spoiled all of the endings. Oh well.
First of all: the character breakdown:
Alphonse Loeher is the main character, of course. Because its tradition, I named him "Blue" for my campaign, but that's obviously non-canon. Alphonse is pretty much a blank-slate character, existing largely for the player to fill in their own morality. He's actually almost exactly the same character as Denam Pavel, the hero of "Tactics Ogre", which is actually a pretty interesting situation. Denam in "Tactics Ogre" hates Lancelot Tartaros, Alphonse's future persona, yet they're a lot more similar than they'd ever think*. They're both serious military commanders, caught in a situation where they have to basically take control. If Denam's were in Alphonse's shoes, he'd end up the same misanthropic Dark Knight. As for Alphonse himself in this game, he's again, the player's foil, so really not much to say.
As a gaming tip, Alphonse is best as a Knight, since that class soaks up damage well while still being crushing in its offense. The enemy AI really loves to take shots at Alphonse since they seem to know that if he dies its an automatic GAME OVER, so he should be strong enough to survive them. Use the computer's stupidity to your advantage.
Rictor Lasanti is the best friend/rival character, similar to Vyce from "Tactics Ogre", only less evil. Rictor is at the heart of the conspiracy looking for a powerful weapon hidden on Ovis, but he's not letting Alphonse in on anything. At first Rictor is extremely fond of Alphonse, but depending upon which branch of the storyline, he'll either be your main ally or main foe for a good part of the story. I didn't get a playable Rictor, so I don't know how he fights.
Eleanor Olato is the main love interest of the game. She's actually the daughter of a mermaid, has a bit of amnesia, and holds a mysterious pendant. In an RPG, always watch out for the characters with mysterious pendants, they'll be central to the plot and probably can blow up the Earth somehow if they really wanted to. I still haven't found a good niche for Eleanor in my army, sadly. Probably best as an offensive mage.
Cybil Alinda is a secret agent of the Pope, of all people. Lodis is actually ruled by the Pope, so that makes Cybil a serious power player, even if she's hiding in the shadows. You can either join with Cybil or Rictor in the game, that divides the entire storyline. I took the Cybil choice, since that's canon with "Tactics Ogre". Cybil is a crazy awesome mage.
Ivanna Batraal is yet another hot chick following Alphonse around. By Chapter 3 of this game I've built up quite a "Tenchi Muyo!" situation. And if I had to choice, it would be Ivanna, since she's by far the hottest. Dark skin and white hair, how exotic. Too bad the only relationship Alphonse can have is with Eleanor. Ivanna is the daughter of the murdered rule of Ovis. In fact, it was her uncle who usurped the throne. Ivanna is a decent Knight, and that's what I've been using her as.
There are a lot more characters in the game you can play as, but they're not particularly plot-important. And the other major characters are all spoilers, so I'll skip them.
Obviously in the game itself, there are two alternate plotlines you can take. Paths A and B. "Tactics Ogre" did a similar thing by giving the player a deep moral choice and then dividing the game into two and then three paths depending on that choice. "Knight of Lodis" just bases it off whether you'll support Cybil or Rictor in their intrigues on Ovis. Depending on that choice, you might find yourself killing off the entire party you fought with in the intro battle, or you'll fight beside them. As always, I love this kind of thing. And there are five possible endings, going from the bittersweet canon ending to a Golden ending where everything works out. So ultimately the player can choose between them, the story changes depending on your own agency**.
So let's talk gameplay. "The Knight of Lodis" deviates in a few ways from "Tactics Ogre", which I feel is mostly better, actually. I loved "Tactics Ogre", but there were a few things that really annoyed me about that game, mainly the Job System.
"The Knight of Lodis" uses the Final Fantasy Job System, while "Tactics Ogre" uses the "Dragon Quest IX" Job System. The difference is that in the Final Fantasy style, your character has just one set level, and their Job Class only changes some stats and abilities. While in the "Tactics Ogre/Dragon Quest IX" system, Job Levels are shared amongst the entire party. So if one of your Ninjars is level 9, all of your Ninjars are level 9. I happen to prefer the individual model, because the "Tactics Ogre" system just makes trying out new jobs a painful days-long process of endless level grinding. Yeah, a Beastmaster might be nice to have, but my party is on level 30, using them would take weeks of work. In the post game, I wanted Denam to be a Lord, the most powerful class on paper, but since training that class would take forever, I just gave up and stopped playing the game. The Job System was endlessly annoying. By far the worst part of "Tactics Ogre". This is better. Class Marks are gone too, which is thankful, but in there place is this Emblem System. Basically, Emblems are these awards you get for accomplishing some kind of battlefield feat. Unfortunately, you don't know what the Emblems do, how you got them, and you don't know that some Jobs need you to have a certain Emblem, so its just as bad as the Class Marks.
Unfortunately, the Job System in "The Knight of Lodis" might be a tad simplistic. Ultimately characters really only have three abilities in total: attack, use magic, recruit characters, and use items. That's it, and they all can do this. In "Tactics Ogre", there were all these special Job-specific moves. Archers could Double Shot to strike twice. Knights could Phalanx to block nearly all damage. That's not the case here. "The Knight of Lodis" has a much less colorful battle system, since there are also no more Limit Breaks. Another positive, however, is that offensive magic actually deals damage this time, instead of doing next to nothing. Since almost everybody can use magic, you Knights can heal themselves, making them extra deadly. And you don't really need a dedicated Black Mage since any light attacking Class can learn some kind of magic. I'd keep around a White Mage though.
Two things I really love about "The Knight of Lodis": recruiting and training. Training is this extra system you can enter where your characters fight against each other to gain EXP, without any threat of dying. In FFT I used to force this by keeping one monster alive in the Mandalia Plains, then just play around while it hid in a corner. It really only makes sense that you'd have the training option. If you know you need to hit two characters with a spear to become a Valkyrie, why wouldn't you do that under controlled circumstances instead of in the wilds of battle? Do boxers train by punching lions in the savanna? No. The other big thing I love is recruiting, since every character can now recruit any enemy. In FFT and "Tactics Ogre", only certain classes had this option, and since they existed only to recruit, I never used them. Thus, I never had any monsters. But in "The Knight of Lodis", I got my mighty Dragons. I want to collect a rainbow of dragons of every element and have them feast on my foes. Recruiting is never easy, but its nice to have the chance.
Beyond that, its typical epic turn-based strategy RPG fair. Surround your enemies and destroy them. Force your way up the hill to take down the commander. Heal your wounds and exploit the wounds of your enemy. Life is never sweater until you've destroyed an entire field of foes, who are all roughly equal to your power, thanks to the brilliance your party and your strategy skills.
Just know, of course, that "The Knight of Lodis" is hard. Really hard. Man, I really got used to that Chariot system from "Tactics Ogre PSP" as a crutch. Not being able to time travel past when you lost your Angel Knight really hurts. But should that surprise you? Its a strategy RPG! Its never unfair or downright evil in its difficulty, though you might curse up an unholy storm when that dragon you're attacking somehow manages to dodge you thanks entirely to the evil of the Random Number Goddess. At the end of chapter 2, I had to split up my entire party into two groups. That was really annoying since typically you only need to have eight characters on the field, and there are four you pretty much always use. I wasn't ready for a divided force like this - I only had one White Mage! Let's just say that the poor characters in the backrow, like that Fairy I forgot I had recruited, were utterly decimated.
I commend their courage. And I'll remember their sacrifice for me. Generic Soldier Girl #64, you will live on forever in my heart.
So to wrap things up, "Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis" is an awesome game for awesome dudes. If you want to be an awesome dude, you'll dust off your GBA or DS and play this. But if you don't want to be an awesome dude, you can go do other things. Your loss.
* Though this all depends on the player's choices. My Denam was a generally good man who fought evil at every turn and eventually became King of Valeria... and then was assassinated. Somebody else's Denam might be a vile monster who massacres friendly villages for the political bonus and yet still somehow manage to have a happy ending. That's totally awesome in my opinion. I really do love this franchise, by the way.
** Lately video game companies seem to be failing the seemingly basic idea of multiple endings. "Final Fantasy XIII-2" had one shitty ending and like twelve open-ended scenarios that don't actually count as conclusions. And "Mass Effect 3" had three shitty endings, when the fanbase - and not unreasonably I think - just wanted a happy ending. Why this is so hard?