There are two things that are very dangerous to my wallet: after action reports and SRPGs. After reading about this on Quarter To Three along with the praise from various reviewers I broke down and picked Quest/Square Enix's Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together up. What I found is currently my best surprise of 2011 so far and one of the best SRPGs I've played in awhile.
First some back story, back during the Snes era a series called Ogre Battle was released on the system. Ogre Battle was a strategy title in which squads of units fight other squads on a map. Similar to the Shin Megami Tensei series, Ogre Battle had a side story or secondary series released called Tactics Ogre. Of the side story the only games I'm aware of off the top of my head is the game this one is based off of and a GBA title released several years back.
The story is about the political status of the world as nations and resistance armies are fighting to shape it. I'm not going to spoil the story here but I do want to say that it is a fresh change of pace of dealing with a more serious story in a SRPG compared to the Disgaea series.
I did not play the original one so I don't have that knowledge to go on. The first SRPG that I really got into was Disgaea on the PS2. For this one, the designers went back to the drawing board and modernize a lot of the design while adding new mechanics. Just looking at screenshots you won't see anything too ground breaking but the devil is in the details.
First is improving your characters, after a battle is won two types of points are distributed to your party. Experience points are handed out on a class by class basis. Here classes level up instead of individual characters, meaning that if I take a level 7 archer and change them to a warrior that person will become whatever level my warrior class is. The lowest level class in your squad will get the biggest share of the experience allowing new classes to level up quicker. Also the class will level up quicker if you have multiple members of it in the same battle.
The second type of points is skill points or SP which is given to each individual character. SP is used for learning skills that can be equipped to the character. Skills run the gambit of support, weapon enhancing and unique class specific skills. Many skills only become available once the class has reached a certain level and you can only have at max ten skills equipped at once leaves a lot of room for customization.
Depending on what skills you assign to your characters will radically change their utility during combat. For example spell casters can go a jack of all trades route learning the various spells or just use one element and boost that with additional skills. If you decide to change the character to a new class they will retain the SP and skills learned, however any skills that were class specific cannot be equipped to the new class.
Combat also plays out differently compared to other SRPGS. Each unit on the field has an attribute related to how quick their turn comes up. The more actions the unit makes during their turn determines how long they have to wait until their next turn. Meaning someone who just attacks will have their turn come up sooner than someone who had to move before they attack.
The biggest change is the chariot system (named after the chariot tarot card) and how it affects the game. You have the power to rewind time to any of the last 50 turns made during combat. How it works is that if you perform the exact same action on the replay then the game will use the same rolls of the die to determine if all subsequent actions would count. However if you make just one change to your action the game will re roll to possibly give a new outcome.
For example let's say a unit moves in front of an enemy and tries to attack and misses. The next turn the enemy scores a critical hit on that unit. Now if we rewind time and move that unit to the side of the enemy before it attacks this time the unit connects and when the enemy attacks it misses. As you can see this is very powerful and there is no penalty for using it. At this point you are probably thinking that this would make this one of the easiest games out there, well it's not quite that simple.
The difficulty of the game is still high even with the power to rewind time. It comes down to how this game was designed, or in this case redesigned. In most SRPGs the concept is built around the individual units, making them as powerful as you can. In Disgaea you can take one character and build them into obscene levels of power that one unit can just brute force their way through every map. However with Tactics Ogre the game was built around the squad.
How you create your squad of units will dictate how easy or hard the game will be. There is never a point where one unit can be the dominate force on the map. Mages for instance, no matter how powerful they become will still die fast to someone getting into close range to attack. The game is about creating an effective squad of units, customized by you to take on the game's challenges. This concept really threw me off having come from the Disgaea series where the game did not really test your ability at creating units.
With all the re balancing done there is only one part that I think the designers slipped up on: ranged combat. The problem is that in most cases it is too effective against everything else. There are three parts to this problem, first is how accurate bows are. Bows by default receive an attack and accuracy bonus the higher the archer is on the field. Combine with the accuracy up skill and it's very hard to miss an attack. In ten hours of play I think my archer only missed one time.
Second is the damage potential. Against humanoid type enemies an archer can deal anywhere from 50-80 points of damage which to most characters is 1/3 or 1/2 their total health. Against lightly armored units like mages or clerics, two archers can finish them off before they have a chance to respond. The only times where archers are not useful is when going up against monsters like golems or dragons which have higher than normal defenses, however that just means that they can focus on the other enemies on the field.
The last issue is that it is next to impossible to avoid damage from it. With the accuracy skill in place most archers can attack with impunity against targets. Due to how the bows are fired you can't block their arrows with your heavily armored units as they just arc the arrow. This means that your lightly armored units are always at risk and there is nothing you can do about it other than taking out the enemy archers first. There is a skill that gives your units a chance at dodging but the chance of it activating is low.
Does this hurt the game balance, yes but it doesn't ruin the game. There is always a way to get around it and the variety of skills and abilities in game give you plenty of options. Other then that the only other nitpicks I have with the game are UI complaints. There is no try before you buy feature in stores and the interface for crafting items could have used some work considering how useful upgrading items is. You can only forge one item at a time which becomes tiresome when you need multiple copies of materials to craft in order to upgrade.
Tactics Ogre is easily a must play for the PsP; an example of how to do justice to a remake and a different style of SRPG.