Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis

Year Released in US: 2002
System: Game Boy Advance

I think I actually picked up Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis a long time before Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, but it languished in my backlog partially because I had heard the reviews only rated it an average experience and of course I always have other games to play. Finally I was in the mood for giving it a try. I would have to say that it's overall a more enjoyable experience than FFTA. I'm not sure I would rate one story better than the other, but I just felt that the game system was more balanced. For one thing, the amount of side quests did not utterly overwhelm the main story, but that's not to say that this game was without flaws.

Probably the first thing that struck me is that money is incredibly hard to come by in this game. Players pretty much have to rely on treasure earned on the battlefield to support them for the first half of the game, because every coin earned for victory is going to go either to buying new troops, equipment, or spells. When a player earns 200 Goth at the end of a battle and new troops cost 1000, armor 1500, or even spells 400, a player can get downright miserly. Occasionally a player gets 1000 or more for a battle, but in the early stages that money is all too easily spent just keeping everyone equipped. Though the player does start with a few fully equipped units, they may not necessarily be of the right alignment or element that the player wants (or in the case of my wizard--simply be too weak to survive on the battlefield in comparision to a player-grown wizard). Also, considering that hired soldiers and the starting units are just random characters with no name or purpose to the story other than to serve in Alphonse's army, it's nice to be able to hire a character and name him yourself. I've found I cared more about a unit if I had some say in hiring or persuading them into my party. Of my starting group, I kept only my archer.

The people who started the Ogre Battle/Tactics Ogre series eventually were hired by Square to create Final Fantasy Tactics so it perhaps comes as no surprise that the class system is somewhat similar. After meeting a set of requirements, a new class becomes available, but unlike FFT where once you got a class it was pretty straightforward how to ensure everyone else got it too, Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis has a rather obscure emblem system. After fulfilling a particular requirement a character can earn an emblem that will allow them to become a certain class. Some of them are pretty easy to earn over the natural course of gameplay, but the player is never dirrectly told what those requirements are. A few are fairly obvious. Dying and then being ressurected gives you the Archangel's Feather necessary for becoming an Angel Knight. But even though one of my characters earned Pen and Sword by accident, I wouldn't have known what caused him to get it, because quite frankly four physical weapon kills and four magic kills all done outside of training is pretty random if a player doesn't know what to look for. Not knowing any better I probably would've assumed I earned it just for killing things, not how I killed them, and then I'd wonder why my other characters weren't getting it. Also, just getting the emblem doesn't mean that a character can immediately change into it. They also need to meet certain stat requirements, which they won't be aware of until they're actually eligible.

Given how specialized some of the emblems are, I probably would've missed a vast majority of them until late in the game if I hadn't been using a guide, which actually results in weaker characters at end-game because a character's class determines his/her stat growth and the early classes are clearly inferior to the later ones. Obtaining the two transcendent classes (Angel Knight and Lich) is so convoluted I'm not sure how people ever figured them out. By the time someone is able to get a Lich they're in the third of three chapters in the game and the fights are easy enough by then that the chances of a player having the Ring of the Dead equipped on the character who meets the requirements and having that character die in battle are incredibly low. The Angel Knight is even nuttier since it's chance-based and even knowing how to create one it still took me some dozen tries of killing the same guy over and over again (and reloading when I failed) in order to get him to transcend. At least someone who meets the Lich requirement transforms instantly the moment he/she dies.

Another thing I had issue with is the equipment in this game. On the good side, all the stores stock the same equipment, so there's no reason to run all across the island looking for better goods. On the other hand, any hired help other than humans varies depending on where you recruit. After plot events the stores sometimes get new stuff, but the vast majority of equipment is gained as either treasure from enemy kills, trophies for completing a battle, or are earned from playing quests. This made the game a little annoying because even though I collected everything dropped in the main game and had the best equipment money could buy, my characters often did not do as much damage as I wanted them to. We were in no danger of dying due to being of the right level for the job (most times we were the same level or one under out opponents), but it would just take a while to slog through everything. I only did quests two times. The first time gave me some random object I don't even remember. The other I only did because I knew if I completed it under a certain time limit under a certain condition I would get a really good weapon for my Valkyrie. Since the average player is not privy to web charts detailing the exact item drops for quests this makes quests at best a dubious chance of getting new equipment.

However, I have far less complaints about the story--aside from the token girl who appears to be a love interest (or at least wants to be one since I get the impression that it's a little one-sided). Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis initially deals with the unrest of an island split between two warring factions complicated by the fact that the island was ostensibly conquered by the Holy Lodis Empire fifteen years ago and its inhabitants forcibly converted to Lodisism. What's interesting though is that the player does not play as a character from one of those former countries, but a young knight from Lodis.

Alphonse has to be one of the most mature teenage leads I've seen. Though he doesn't always know what's going on, he's quick to understand things as they are and wastes little time on self-doubt. He's a confident commander and for once it's easy to see why he's a knight at his age instead of some kind of pageboy. The decisions Alphonse makes determine the end of the game, and by playing to the choices I felt best suited him I wound up with the "real" ending. In what is perhaps an odd choice for a side story game designed to explain the backstory of a character in Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (which I have not played), there are multiple endings, but only one of them correctly leads into Let Us Cling Together. I guess because in the other endings Alphonse either dies or Eleanor (token love interest) lives. It's only when Eleanor dies and he lives that Alphonse doesn't have anything else to do with his life (since Eleanor is gone) so he goes and swears his alligeance to the Pope.

When the story changes from the political conflict on the island of Ovis, we learn that the real evil is a fallen angel who is bitter about his thankless service to God. While that by itself is not remarkable, what I do like how the designers handled it. The God in this story is quite obviously the Christian God, given that the fallen angel wonders if God likes humans so much because they were created in his own image, but instead of having God turn out to be some divine bastard, God is still the benevolent entity most Christians are familiar with. When Shaher, the fallen angel, is defeated in the Path A ending (the one I received), Eleanor reveals to him that God sealed him away because it was the most He could do for him, that God still loves him and has always loved him only Shaher was too blind to see that. In the end, with Eleanor's sacrifice, Shaher returns to heaven. How many games can claim the redemption of a last boss in the victory of their protagonists? How many games have a major character willing to come out and say "God loves you" to the defeated villain after he was ready to turn her homeland into a cursed island?

While I wouldn't go about touting the merits of this game on the basis of its protrayal of a more or less Christian god, it's uncommon enough that I wish it happened more often. I'm glad that for once, the church isn't same crazy evil front and the religion is not a sham.