While the first Ogre Battle was a familiar fantasy story with some interesting subversions of player expectations, it was its sequel, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, which pushed those themes into the forefront of both story and gameplay, as well as placing more power into the hands of the audience to ascribe meaning. Tactics Ogre is still a war game, and you will still have to kill pixelated people in exchange for playing the game, but Tactics Ogre ultimately delivers a lot of power to the player in giving them the tools to ability to think about what is happening. These tools are all woven into the gameplay, rather than outright stated as dialogue, which in turn subverts the audience’s expectations.
Both the Alignment and Reputation mechanics return, but are made more complex. Alignment is no longer a simple “good/evil” axis but rather describes a character’s attitudes towards authority. “Law” characters believe in being a part of a group and the importance of obeying society’s rules for the greater good. “Chaos” characters believe in individual freedom and are less likely to care about following rules that go against their own beliefs. The alignment of your army is no longer a deciding factor in gameplay or which ending you get upon completing the game. Instead it helps decide how your army thinks of you. Throughout the game you will be asked many different questions, and how you answer may endear you to one philosophy but not to another. Answering in a way that offends a character decreases their loyalty to you, and if it falls low enough they may abandon your mission entirely.
The alignment of Denim, the main character, is determined by several key points where you are asked to do some heinous act for the greater good of your cause. Early in the game this takes the form of deciding whether to follow the orders of your superior when he tells you to massacre an innocent town and make it look like it was the enemy’s doing. Doing so will mean you get promoted highly and have an easier* time in the beginning chapters of the game, while going against these orders means that you become hunted as a traitor and used as a scapegoat for the massacre you tried to prevent. While the moral choice is obvious from our perspective, standing by your principles isn’t easy. On the other hand, taking the easy way of “just following orders” doesn’t protect you forever. Later choices don’t have the same obvious moral implications, and no matter what your choice you will have to face repercussions.
Unlike the silent war leader of the previous game, Denim is not simply an avatar for the player. He talks quite a bit, especially in the PSP remake which adds additional dialogue and scenes. While you get to control his choices at those key moments in the story, he will justify those choices on his own terms. Like in the past game, no one thinks of themselves as evil. Even if you choose for Denim to commit atrocity after atrocity, he will find his way of maintaining its rightness. Likewise, even if you choose to have Denim stand by his convictions of peace and equality, the stress of public perception and being an outcast may lead him to some unexpected outbursts. You may not end up agreeing with or even liking the Denim that emerges from your choices for him.
The scope of the game is much smaller than before, but much more complicated. The action takes place on the island nation Valeria caught in a struggle between three ethnic groups. The majority of the island is Galgastani who have historically oppressed the lower class minority of the Wallister. In turn, both are largely oppressed by the wealthy minority of the Bakram. To complicate matters, two foreign powers have designs on Valeria. The imperialist Lodis is helping prop-up the Bakram nobles, while Zenobia (the setting of the previous game) seems to be covertly aiding Wallister while pursuing its own ends. Reputation is no longer as simple as what the whole world thinks of you. Every individual belongs to one of these ethnic groups, and each soldier you recruit will belong to one based on where you recruited them (that and good old random chance). You start out with an all-Wallister army and fighting mostly Galgastani, which leads to the Galgastani disliking you while the Wallister approve. But stand by your convictions and suddenly you are fighting Wallister troops who believe you betrayed them or led a massacre. Your Wallister army is now killing their own people to protect you, and this may not sit well with them.
Fighting through armies of identical sprites of knights and wizards may seem at first glance to dehumanize the conflict and the moral choices the player is making, but the game has an interesting way of dealing with this and subverting expectations. The Warren Report is a collection of information you gather throughout the game, including information on many of the random, seemingly pointless and identical enemies you fight. That Galgastani nationalist you just killed may actually be a celebrated artist and loving husband back home, while the Wallister headhunter might just be trying to avenge his family, or the Bakram bandit may only be robbing people because economic sanctions have destroyed his ability to make money any other way. You can justify it however you want (after all, if you DON’T kill these people then you can’t beat the game), but the game still forces you to examine and live with what you’ve done. Even on the “good” path you will be forced to kill people who simply believe you did something horrific. You may also find yourself allied with extremely bigoted people who believe in the same ideals you do otherwise. Nothing is justified easily in this war.
Forcing the player to examine what they are doing and make decisions on what they have done is what separates Tactics Ogre from the countless war-glorifying strategy games and RPGs. The player may be forced to question themselves not only on what choices to make, but also why they make certain choices.
*easier in terms of how Denim is treated in the story itself, in terms of game-play or challenge there isn’t a huge difference between the two paths.