Turn-Based Tactical RPGs, or Simulation RPGs as dubbed in Japan, is my favourite video game genre, no questions asked.
There is just something about methodically ruining an opponent’s army without the stress that comes with the genre’s Real Time counterparts.
The 90s saw the genre’s establishing fathers: Shining Force, Fire Emblem, Front Mission, Final Fantasy Tactics, and my personal favourite, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together.
From there, we were treated to other successful IPs such as: Disgaea, Valkyria Chronicles, XCOM, and other great titles.
But this isn’t about the “greats” with a million follow up installments; this is about the hidden gems.
Or rather, the gems still worth playing despite some bad features.
STRATEGY GAMES VS TACTICAL RPGs
But in deciding what games qualify for this list, one must ask, “What exactly makes a Tactical RPG?”
A question better discussed in its own space, and as discussed here, I took games that would fall under the TBT (Turn Based Tactics) sub-category.
What the following Tactical games have in common is in their micro objectives—the player must develop the best tactics to achieve victory, from battle to battle in order to progress a storyline… Whereas other Strategy games such as Might and Magic Heroes and Civilization have more macro objectives where the player is also required to manage resources, diplomacy, and other facets necessary to run an empire.
That said, first up…
VANDAL HEARTS: FLAMES OF JUDGMENT
Platform: Xbox 360, PS3
Developer: Hijinx Studios
A prequel of sorts to Vandal Hearts I and II, Flames of Judgment was only available as a digital download via Xbox Live or PSN.
Best Feature: The game retains the two things that made Vandal Hearts unique: 1) the fact that you customize your units into certain party roles via the weapons with which they are equipped and 2) the blood geysers that signal a unit’s defeat.
Customization + Blood Geysers, come on!!!
Worst Feature: The artistic design veers far away from the conventional Vandal Hearts aesthetic, looking more like what one would see from a Free to Play, such as Sardonyx Tactics.
All in all, despite lacking a hardcopy, can you really go wrong with the $10-$20 price tag?
LA PUCELLE: TACTICS
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Before Disgaea, there was its much less-known cousin, La Pucelle. The two games share some commonalities: the artistic presentation, the role environment plays in shaping your strategy, and the possibility to grind long enough to rack up insanely large damage numbers.
But that’s not all.
Best Feature: As if the title didn’t already give it away… Girls, girls, girls!
This game is very female centric, which was unheard of in its time. This is NOT to be confused with a harem game, where a predominantly female cast surrounds a male lead, often serving him up their contested affection. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for some), a female lead combined with a respectable amount of playable females means a developmental and artistic direction on gigantic breasts and their physics. Luminous Arc and Record of Agarest War both say hello!
Worst Feature: The localizing publisher, Mastiff, and their voice actors. Perhaps it is because I speak French that I found the voice acting and pronunciations very cringe worthy.
Developer: Flight Plan, Artpresto, Brain-Navi
Eternal Poison delivers a world that one might expect from its title—a world with a Gothic sensibility fraught with secrets and betrayal.
And demons. Can’t forget the demons.
Beast Feature: The replay value, à la Odin Sphere. To experience the game’s full story, players will have to play through each of the three main characters’ scenarios and unlock two more! With a fairly large pool of characters to recruit and differing paths to take, players should enjoy a degree of customization and control.
Worst Feature: Battle Animations. Every time a unit engages in battle in the tactical map, the game loads an interlude where the units’ 3D counterparts would fight. This isn’t a game-breaking feature in itself… but the loading times in between each interlude are atrocious and very disruptive. Sure, this can be turned off, but then what would players be left with? 2D sprites bumping into each other like action figures?
MERCENARIES SAGA 3
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Developer: Rideon Inc.
Publisher: CIRCLE Ent.
A straight to download game, Mercenaries Saga 3 offers 3D isometric battlefields strikingly similar to Tactics Ogre’s.
VERY strikingly similar.
Best Feature: The Class system. Borrowing from Final Fantasy Tactics’ job system, each of Saga 3’s 12 characters has divergent class paths, each with its own set of purchasable skills to acquire and upgrade. Naturally, the currency used here are skill points, which are only obtainable through battle participation. Switching classes are never permanent (skill points permitting), allowing players a regret-free playing experience.
Worst Feature: Lack of balance. Although there has been a vast improvement in the balancing from Mercenaries Saga 2 to 3, some skills are STILL way too strong, such as those that increase agility, thereby allowing the use of dodge tanks with 100% dodge rates as early as mid game. Consequently, some skills are way too useless, thus absolving player dilemmas when choosing between skills or classes.
Developer: Sting Entertainment
The fourth installment in the Dept. Heaven series (after Riviera, Yggdra Union, Knights in the Nightmare), Gungnir has the distinction therein of looking and feeling the most like a traditional Tactical RPG. But when the battlefield is heavily influenced by the game’s own systems of environment and time, it is easy to merit Gungnir for originality.
Best Feature: This one was hard. With so many great aspects from which to choose—the battle system, the rewards, the many classes to use—ultimately, I would have to give props to the story. Every story character is uniquely motivated and although they all fight on the same side, they do so with a baggage of mistrust and even disdain. Many Tactical RPGs fall into the trap of resolving a character’s story arc as soon as they join your party or shortly after; Gungnir offers the opposite. By the conclusion, the story characters will have been transformed in one way or another.
Worst Feature: Like with other Dept. Heaven games, Gungnir has a very strenuous difficulty. Are you the type of player who: 1) likes collecting every rare item, 2) aims to achieve the best battle ratings, and 3) goes through the game without a single casualty?
If so, best to lower your standards or look for something else to play because even in the easiest difficulty, Gungnir is still harder than the majority of Fire Emblem games.
TEARS TO TIARA II: HEIR OF THE OVERLORD
This one came as a surprise, as I had no idea there was even a Tears to Tiara I upon release. Saw it in my brother’s library, unopened and neglected, and gave it a shot. A well-rounded, more conventional, and light-hearted experience awaited.
Best Feature: Accessibility. If Gungnir were too complicated for some, then Tears to Tiara II would be the opposite. If you know what “Attack”, “Skill”, and “Wait” commands do, then that’s pretty much the extent of what you need to know to succeed in this game.
Worst Feature: Hardcore Tears fans would probably disagree, but I HATE the visual novel storytelling. Yes, I understand, the series started out as a visual novel but the cut scenes are just too long. Every time I thought a strong quote would end a scene, some BS, “That’s so funny, Hamil,” would ensue, followed by several elongated monologues outlining the female (and one male) characters’ insecurities in competing for the main characters’ affection. Yes, this would be classified under the “Harem” genre.
HOSHIGAMI: RUINING BLUE EARTH
Platform: PSX (Later, NDS as “Hoshigami Remix”)
Developer: MaxFive (Barnhous Effect, Arc System Works)
Publisher Atlus (Aksys Games)
Yes, the reviews for Hoshigami have been nothing but horrid. From these, a common criticism emerges— to succeed in Hoshigami is to grind.
Thankfully, I learned to love grinding, so long as I get to deploy an all-female army. Needless to say, without the will to grind, it would be near impossible to go through the game just for its story. How impossible? We’re talking 7 VS 30+ units in some battles. Chew on that.
Best Feature: Music. Despite some gameplay and difficulty improvements in Hoshigami Remix, the NDS re-release, many of the original music scores were removed. For that reason, I would give the original PSX version proper recognition, simply by having such a fascinating musical soundtrack.
Worst Feature: Micromanagement. Hoshigami follows a leveling system where your units’ stats develop according to the deity whom they worship. Each deity has its own stat they prefer boosting to the others (Fire god boosts Strength, Water goddess boosts Luck, Wind goddess boosts Agility, etc.). To create an efficient army, one must spreadsheet the number of times units have leveled with a deity and track these to the tee in order to arrive at a desired result. Needless to say, this can get daunting.
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Jeanne D’Arc is a prime example of what the Japanese tend to enjoy doing—re-imagine historical figures or iconic literary works into a fantastic setting. Ever seen the animes, Romeo X Juliet, Le Chevalier D’Eon, Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo, Anne of Green Gables, just to name a few?
Here, our Maid of Orléans leads a crusade that includes a lion man, a dog man, and elves.
Best Feature: Story. Jeanne D’Arc recreates the Hundred Years War and the major historical figures with which it was associated into a griping narrative. Moreover, let’s not forget the characters—each has a distinct voice when it comes to dialogue.
Worst Feature: Having to choose between recruiting Rose or Claire. If one of them were male, then the choice would have been easy. ALWAYS TAKE THE FEMALE!! Seriously though, both would have complemented the party nicely—Rose has the distinction of being the only whip user and Claire would have risen to become a secondary mage. But alas, the fact that the player cannot have both women is a salty source.
Suikoden Tactics acts almost as a complementary piece to the travesty that was Suikoden IV. Tactics takes place in the same geographical region and ports many of its loveable characters.
Best Feature: The 60 playable character roster. I kid you not. A cast this big offers a lot of variety for party customization and interest sustenance. After all, who wants to play the same units over and over from beginning to end?
Worst Feature: Story. Konami’s Junko Kawano tried to enhance the Suikoden IV experience with Tactics, she really did. Unfortunately, the story was far from engaging and ultimately, akin to a story that one would expect from an All-Star RPG. Stick around for the gameplay and enjoy the story for what it is and nothing more.
KING’S BOUNTY: THE LEGEND
Platform: PC, Mac
Developer: Katauri Interactive
Publisher: 1C Company, Atari, Nobilis Games
King’s Bounty is one of those games that begs the question: Is this a Tactical RPG or a Strategy game? Many of you will not give a rat’s toss, but since the game’s objective is not to ensure that an empire or nation comes out victorious, this would fall under the Tactical RPG sub genre.
Best Feature: Gameplay. In a nutshell, the player’s objective is to travel the world of Endoria, choose from a variety of quests, gain experience and money doing so, and use said resources to amass an army strong enough to prove oneself worthy of the King’s service. Players will find that each region will tend to feature units belonging to a specific fantastic race (elves, dwarves, etc.) and that there are endless unit combinations for players to find their own tactical style. Ultimately, this is the source of addiction that would make players want to explore and fight more.
Worst Feature: Marriage. Probably one of the most sexist features I have ever had the displeasure of using. The player character will eventually come across women who, if married to, will provide bonuses to the army and even bear children. Getting tired of parenting or interested in using a different army composition? Simply divorce the wife and remarry, and you may recycle as many times as your heart desires, leaving the divorcees to their miserable thoughts on having been discarded without any agentive input. Thankfully, the marriage system was altered more appropriately in the subsequent King’s Bounty games, all of which are infinitely better than Legend. But always good to start from the beginning.
LET US CLING TOGETHER
And with that, our list has ended. In no way is this a be-all-end-all list, as there are many that I have yet to play (Grotesque Tactics and Hellenica, here I come).
But if you have exhausted your list of popular, well-received Tactical RPGs, let us cling together and give some of these decent ones a shot!