Points: 5
1UP E3 2011

by Jeremy Parish  05.31.2006

actical RPGs have been gaining popularity in the United States since a PS1 game called Final Fantasy Tactics introduced a legion of gamers to its detail-oriented strategy. But if FFT is all you've played, you've been missing out on some of the most intense games the PS1 had to offer. Here are a few gems that no RPG fan should be without.

Ogre Battle & Tactics Ogre
RELEASE: 1998 | CONSOLE: PS | PUB: Atlus | DEV: Quest

Although FFT is often praised for giving birth to the tactical RPG genre, that PS1 masterpiece would never have existed without this classic pair of Super NES ports. They have not only a good amount of gameplay in common with FFT, but staff as well--most notably their director, Yasumi Matsuno (Vagrant Story, FFXII), who created the Ogre series for Quest before moving on to the more lucrative pastures offered by Square.

Ogre Battle is a more sweeping take on the concept, giving players indirect control of entire armies of fantastic creatures. The player is more of a battle coordinator, selecting combat units and issuing orders--not to mention managing all the army's mundane details. Simply winning battles isn't the point, though; the real goal is to win well, fighting nobly by using "good" units and never beating up on weaker armies. Players are judged on their morality and sense of justice, and the best ending is difficult to come by indeed.

Tactics Ogre, on the other hand, could well be FFT's ugly twin brother. While it lacks some of the later game's technical niceties, like rotating battlefields, the differences are largely cosmetic. In some ways, TO is quite a bit more sophisticated than its more popular relative; battle parties are capped at 10 characters rather than FFT's five, and the challenge level is considerably higher. Defeated units are more likely to stay dead, and no one gets a health recharge between consecutive battles on a single map point.

More importantly, TO spins a spectacular tale. Though cut from the same cloth as FFT with its two young friends who find themselves at odds in the midst of an epic war, Ogre gives players the freedom to choose their own destiny. Should you uphold your oath of loyalty and slaughter innocent villagers on your lord's command? Or is it better to follow your sense of justice and rebel? Whatever the choice, players get no easy victories--but the excellent gameplay and gripping story make every grueling fight worthwhile.

Kartia: The Word of Fate
RELEASE: 1998 | CONSOLE: PS | PUB: Atlus | DEV: Atlus

Kartia's big selling point was that it features art by Yoshitaka Amano--you know, the guy who did Final Fantasy's artwork before the PlayStation era--and it's clear that Atlus was aiming for superhardcore Square fans who had been disenfranchised by the anime-inspired look of FFVII. In fact, Kartia's two main characters, Toxa and Lacryma, look exactly like clones of FFVI characters Gau and Celes.

Beyond the superficial similarities to more popular series, though, Kartia is its own creature. Far more straightforward than the competition, it is nevertheless an engrossing game whose battles stand apart thanks to their reliance on "phantoms," summoned creatures that can flesh out a party and help even the odds. Phantoms are no match for the human combatants, but against their own kind they're incredibly effective, especially when used in the proper rock-paper-scissors combinations.

Another unique facet of Kartia is that it's divided into two chapters, each starring a different character. Only by completing the game from both Toxa's and Lacryma's perspectives does the full tale unfold. Unlike most other PS1 tactical games, Kartia sells for reasonable prices these days--so it's definitely worth tracking down.

Front Mission 3
RELEASE: 2000 | CONSOLE: PS | PUB: Square EA | DEV: Square EA

The Front Mission series has been around for a while, but it wasn't until the third chapter that it arrived in America. This is your quintessential tactical roleplayer, but its futuristic setting gives it a different feel than the usual fantasy fare. Its complex story line is cleverly augmented by the ability to research on the Internet--and best of all, the stars of the game are glorious, wonderful, giant robot suits. Of course, the pilots are at the heart of the story, but they're mostly on hand to advance the plot (and get squished when they're forced to eject from a ruined mech suit). FM3 can feel a little drawn out in places, but fans of hulking battle bots will be too blissed out to notice.

RELEASE: 2000 | CONSOLE: PS2 | PUB: Atlus | DEV: Atlus

In all fairness, Rhapsody isn't quite "great." The gameplay barely qualifies as "tactical," the quest is brief, and the difficulty is practically nonexistent. It mostly sells on its novelty--what other game stops for Disney-esque musical numbers and lets you annihilate enemies with a full stack of pancakes? But what makes it truly valuable is the fact that it was the first Nippon Ichi game to come to the United States. Those brilliant PS2 RPGs like Disgaea and Makai Kingdom have their roots here...in fact, Phantom Brave even has some Rhapsody cameos. Rhapsody briefly commanded insane prices on eBay, but a recent reissue has helped tone down the gougery. Which is good, since it's a charming little RPG but hardly worth a hundred bucks.

Vandal Hearts I & II
Konami's Vandal Hearts netted a fair amount of attention by virtue of being the first PS1 tactical RPG to reach American soil. While the graphics are absolutely god-awful, the action is pretty solid, falling firmly into the mold cast by the Shining Force series. The sequel isn't quite as good but is much easier on the eyes.

Hoshigami: Ruining Blue Earth
Hoshigami is Japanese for "star god," just like Stella Deus is the Latin translation. It's not a random coincidence--the two games are incredibly similar, having come from the same creators. Reactions to this one tend to be mixed, but it's worth a look if you dig its PS2 counterpart.

Another game based loosely on the Journey to the West legend, Saiyuki mercifully has nothing whatsoever to do with the pretty-boy anime by the same name. It's generic but reasonably entertaining.

Vanguard Bandits
This unusually ho-hum game from the late Working Designs is far from worthless, but it didn't really stand up to its competition.

Arc the Lad Collection
The Arc games straddle the line between standard and tactical RPG, but the second game in the series is so fantastic that we're going to allow it. And since it comes with both its predecessor and sequel in a single package, it's hard to pass up.

Eternal Eyes
Sunsoft released this one as part of its $10 software line, and it plays like you'd expect a $10 RPG to. Avoid!

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