Monday, February 22, 2016

Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber

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Released on October, 7, 2000 by Quest, and published by Atlus for the Nintendo 64, Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber features a blend of RPG and real-time stragedy, as a young soldier attempts to prevent the titular battle...through battle.

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The Personal Story:
It is an ancient maxim: there are no RPG's for the Nintendo 64. This maxim is a lie. While the Nintendo 64 may not feature as many RPG's as Sony's PS1, it does feature a small, yet wholly unique stable. Among others, there's the playful whimsy, and completely original art style of Paper Mario; there's the idiosyncratic, yet terrific blend of classic, dungeon-crawling RPG and 3D-fighter, Hybrid Heaven. Then, there's the hybrid of layered strategy and Japanese-style RPG of Ogre Battle 64. The latter was essentially released as a rumor, late in the Nintendo 64's lifespan. I couldn't find Ogre Battle anywhere, and the few reviews I did find, while glowing, were strangely vague. Here was a game that the few outlets who reported on it deemed, for some reason, one of the best of 2000, if not the very best of that year, and yet the game was nowhere to be found. Long after the fact, I did find it. But is Ogre Battle 64 a largely ignored treasure, or rightfully overlooked?

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Graphics: Ogre Battle 64 has two graphical extremes. The 3D maps the player traverses to reach towns and battles are rendered simply, with low detail. The screen darkens at night, and brightens by day. Whisps of clouds drift above the players at times (see the above photo), but as far as atmospheric effects go, that is about it. However, when the player ventures into a town, or fights a battle, the screen changes to beautiful, colorful, hand-painted environments. During battles, the characters are well-designed, and smoothly animated. Some of the later spells learned in the game feature quite impressive effects: torrents of flame rain down from the sky, blizzards rip through the air, lightning lashes over enemies. There's enough visual variety to ensure that the many, many hours of battles the player experiences remain fresh. 

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Sound: Sound in Ogre Battle 64 is again a study in contrasts. With hundreds of characters spouting countless lines of dialogue, recorded speech is not practical--text boxes are used instead.The sound effects, which are primarily found in the battles, are cartoonish, generally in the vein of 16-bit games. With that said, even if the sound of an enemy death sounds more like an electronic yawn, it it still quite satisfying. The crackling of a good spell may not sound like actual fire bursting in the sky, but it still gets the job done. Ogre Battle 64's music, however, does far more than just get the job done--it's a 64-bit masterpiece. Several pieces, specifically the choral-based "Witches Den," and "Notice of Death" a piano-based track played during the game's most desperate and dramatically intense moments, are system highlights. Also, like any good RPG from this period, the music is able to conjure feelings of nostalgia--not just nostalgia for turn-of-the-century RPG'S, but nostalgia in general. The various pieces that play between missions, in particular, invoke an ancient, sunny day. Meanwhile, battle music is invigorating and blood-pumping, and the game's darker moments are heavily augmented by the soundtrack (particularly by the previously mentioned "Notice of Death"). Perhaps the only chink in the soundtrack's armor is that the game is so long, some repetition is necessary, though the music is good enough to never grow tiring.

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Gameplay: Ogre Battle 64 features a sophisticated blend of RPG and Strategy. These two elements combine to produce the most complex gameplay available on the Nintendo 64. The game drops the player into the shoes of Magnus (you can change his name to whatever you like), a young commander in a war-torn region. The sheer amount of backstory involved in the situation is staggering. Suffice to say, the land is full of history, grudges, and strange alliances. Magnus must attempt to make to best decisions he can, not only in who to fight, but in what to fight for. These decisions are largely up to the player, and they determine which missions will be fought, who will join Magnus' forces (and become party members), and even what ending will be received. 

Before battles, Magnus is briefed by his strategist, and then the game moves to the previously mentioned fully-traversable 3-D maps. The player is given an objective, generally that to win the mission, enemy headquarters on the map must be conquered or liberated. The death of Magnus, or the loss of the player's headquarters leads to a game over. 
Magnus is given control of several battle units to start the game, and he can add many more as Ogre Battle 64 moves along--up to nine of those units can exist on the map screen at one time. The player's units travel across the maps at a relatively slow speed, draining a stamina bar that can only be raised by camping out, or visiting a town. If the stamina bar is not raised, the player is forced to camp. Meanwhile, enemy units populate the map as well. Some wait at various towns for the player's arrival, and some will aggressive attack the player's units no matter where they are. The strategy elements here involve deciding what units are best dispatched to which areas. Different units may be a better match for certain regions or enemies. Likewise, strategy is involved in putting together units, placing them in formation, and choosing their leaders (only humans can lead a unit). Ogre Battle 64 features a multitude of character classes, from archers or spell-casters better suited to the back, shielded phalanxes better suited to the front, or a large variety of sword-wielding characters that split the difference wherever they are placed. These character classes, which are expertly designed, can be changed as the game progresses. In addition to human characters, there are nearly countless beasts and humanoid monsters to be utilized. There are even dragons--six kinds, and they can all be leveled up into even more powerful dragons...which leads to Ogre Battle 64's RPG elements. 
Every character in the player's units has a huge variety of stats that are leveled up in victorious battle, or when an enemy is defeated. Certain characters, like the aforementioned dragons, can be leveled into more powerful creatures altogether. Humanoid characters are equipped with weapons, shields, and badges, most of which can be upgraded when better ones are collected. These more powerful items are found by exploring maps, defeating enemies, or visiting a shop, as well are basic health and stamina-filling items. There are also rarer pick-ups, such as stat-raisers, and weapons and armor that can only be found by completing vague fetch-quests.
A surprising amount of Ogre Battle's fun comes from the between battles "Organize Screen," where the player can form and modify units, equip and switch out characters, and designate which unit will get which items. This area of the game offers so many options, and so much freedom, the player may find themselves spending as much time tinkering around the Organize Screen as they do fighting battles. During these breaks between fighting, the player can also revisit past locations to search out new monsters to join the battalion, to seek out information, and to shop. The player can also talk to their strategist/adviser Hugo about past events, basic game strategies, and tutorials. The break also provides players an opportunity to train and further level up characters (at the cost of some of the money earned by winning missions), and most importantly, to save their game (two save files are allowed). Saved games remain until the player saves over them, but there is also a second save option--"Suspend Game." A game can only be suspended during a battle (but can be suspended any time then, with the exception of during a fight),. The only downside is that when the player loads a suspend state, it is erased, and there can only be one suspend state at a time. There is no going back to that point again, though the game can be suspended as many times during a battle as the player likes.
The battles themselves are turned-based RPG style, but unique in that once two units clash, the attacking is completely out of the player's control. Units trade blows two to three times on their own, and then the fight is over. When the battle ends with both units still-standing, the screen flashes from the battle screen back to the map--and the units can fight again. Players do have a few choices during battle--of running away 1/3 of the way into the fight (which is great when Magnus' side is overmatched), changing unit battle strategy (choices are limited to "attack leader," attack weakest," and "attack strongest," though character position can prohibit attacks on certain enemies), or unleashing a Pedra. Pedras are special elemental magic attacks, which can be used late in a battle. One is learned early in the game, and the others can be found...with the aid of a strategy guide. Finding them is not an intuitive process. Pedras can generally be used only once or twice in a mission. The Pedra bar takes quite a while to charge. It is best left to emergencies.
Further complicating Ogre Battle matters are character and unit alignment. Certain characters (like knights) are considered "lawful" and have a high alignment, while others (like Beast Tamers) are considered "chaotic." Place lawful characters behind a chaotic leader in battle, and they will slowly become more chaotic. This ends up subtly becoming one of the most important factors in the game. For one thing, character alignment is key to changing class. If the player wants to upgrade their wizard to the more powerful archmage, who just happens to be one of the game's most chaotic characters, they must not only level up that wizard, but work like crazy to lower the wizard's alignment. This is a very time-consuming process. Also, the game secretly keeps tabs on something called a chaos frame. Each town the player takes from the enemy has a morale level. If the morale is low, and a "lawful" unit invades it, the town (or stronghold, in Ogre Battle vernacular) is  "captured." A more chaotic unit must invade the town so that it can instead be "liberated." The game keeps track, but does not tell the player, how many towns have been liberated, and how many have been captured. Capture more than liberate, and the player is sure to get a lousy ending--no matter how well they have performed in Ogre Battle's other arenas. 
Finally, it should go without saying: this game does not include, nor does it need, a multi-player mode.   

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Lasting Value: If this all sounds like a lot, it is. With 40 missions, Ogre Battle 64, if rushed, can be beaten in about 50 hours. More than likely, it will take the player closer to 70, and maybe more. Playing through the first time, and realizing all too late that the Chaos Frame is too low, and a lousy ending has been unlocked can be quite soul-destroying. There is no way to get a better ending (of which there are many), than to play all the way through the game again. This leads to Ogre Battle 64's greatest quality. It is addictively fun. Building units into world-beating juggernauts is incredibly satisfying. Raising a dragon over 60 hours from a baby to a monstrous creature who can reduce an enemy unit to ashes is transcendent. Learning the intricacies of this elegantly complicated game is extremely rewarding. The strategy and RPG elements come together so serendipitously, the gameplay ends up being so seamless, the Nintendo 64 controller is almost impossible to put down. In the case of Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber, the journey really does end up being the most important thing. Mastering the complexities of the game, then learning there are even more elements to master is strangely hypnotic--in order to keep a player going through a 70-hour campaign, it has to be. This really is a singular experience. There isn't another game for the system that is this involving, and that isn't an insult to the Nintendo 64. It is a compliment to Ogre Battle. Even if one were to unfairly dismiss the Nintendo 64's other RPG's as oddities, Person of Lordly Caliber can in no way be dismissed. Ogre Battle 64 covets the player's time, and if the player gives it, the game does not let go.  

The map, while serviceable, is barely above 16-bit quality. The hand-painted towns, battle scenes, and spell effects, however, are beautiful.

Music and Sound
Sound effects are also close to 16-bit level, and the game includes no recorded speech, but the soundtrack is an engaging work of art.

Strategy and RPG elements are mixed expertly, creating an unparalleled and satisfying experience. The game is nearly too intricate.

Lasting Value
Ogre Battle takes so much time to beat, one campaign lasts long enough to satisfy, but there is so much more to experience, one campaign is not enough.