One of the biggest surprises I had after getting a PSP is that long epic JRPGs are the perfect fit for portable gaming. It might be counter intuitive. After all, for a big epic RPG it should be most appropriate to play in front of a large screen in the comfort of your living room, no? But the parameters of my lifestyle have changed and I can't justify hogging the TV like that anymore. And anyway, with the added responsibilities of being a grown up, there's simply not enough time to chomp down on a long JRPG with 5, 6 hour play sessions.
Having a portable though, possibilities open up. You can put that big JRPG in your pocket or bag and have it available if you should unexpectedly find yourself with enough free time to get a couple of battles or quests in. Also, you're not imposing on others, as you can quietly sit somewhere private and dive into some fantasy world with nobody needing to be exposed to it. And lastly, most JRPGs are frankly a bit embarrassing to be seen playing at home. With spiky haired emos and cutesy (sometimes creepily sexualized) anime girls depicted in so many of those titles it can be tough to explain that you're often playing these games in spite of these tropes.
So Tactics Ogre is a game that I have been chipping away on since it released on PSP in 2011. After Final Fantasy Tactics' frame rate issues, Tactics Ogre feels like Square Enix learned from that release and have delivered a technically top-notch product. It isn't just a port of the venerable original, but a full on remaster. The interface is beautifully HD and it's quite stunning how much the developers were able to integrate on a portable device's screen.
Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together for the PSP is a remaster of the PS1 port of the SNES/Saturn original. It's the spiritual predecessor of the venerable Final Fantasy Tactics and really the brain child of Yasumi Matsuno. I previously played Vagrant Story and a bit of Final Fantasy 12. They're strikingly different games in style and feel from other Final Fantasy or even Squaresoft games. He puts emphasis on a greater political struggle between many factions, with no clear cut good guys and villains. Also, dialogue and writing in general tends to be high English.
From the games he directed that I played before, I couldn't get into them. They feel a bit ponderous and unnecessarily heavy, trying to evoke the feeling of a Shakespearean play. The writing is often quite inaccessible and you really need to pay attention to the various nuances and details. So when going into Tactics Ogre, there was already a bit of a negative mindset. What really impressed me though was the sheer polish of this remaster. The UI is really very good. You can immediately see that this is a game brimming with depth and scope. Also, there are a lot of extra features and conveniences built right in. You can listen to the really quite good soundtrack in the game, view every single cutscene and real detailed mini-biographies of even minor characters to read at you leisure. This feature is called the "Warren Report" and rivals the likes of Mass Effect's codex.
But enough of the peripheral stuff. Tactics Ogre is a strategy RPG, where you go from battle to battle, assemble a team of heroes that can be customized and trained in a staggering number of ways. Unlike with conservative JRPGs, you'll most often be commanding 6-12 characters against similarly sized opponent teams. Terrain is an important factor in battles as well, and you'll end up with knights on the frontlines, archers on elevated positions and mages in the back preparing spells. You'll fight groups of enemy faction troops, undead monsters, dragons and other beasts.
The big draw is in seeing your heroes go stronger from battle to battle, learning new attacks and working out ways to effectively use them. The strategy involved in the turn-based battles is also very satisfying and most often offers a good brain workout. You'll need to learn what works and doesn't work against what enemies. The more you understand the strengths and weaknesses of enemy types and your own heroes, the more you can take advantage of the strategic possibilities offered by the game. I felt that in many ways, it feels like a sports management sim, where you go from match to match, fine tuning your team and learning from you mistakes and successes alike.
The drawback though is that this is really a very straight-forward style of game. The pacing is very simple. You'll fight a battle, watch a cut scene and move on to the next battle. Occasionally you'll visit a shop and take stock of what you've got, what you want to buy and what to train you heroes in. There is no light-hearted side stuff you can do as in most other JRPGs to lessen the intensity. If you don't grind, you'll have a big challenge in every single battle. This is how I played it on my first run about 2 years ago, and ultimately I burned out on it as the game got REALLY tough and lost pace.
So let me give a few pointers if you're new to this game as I was:
It took me around 3 years to beat this game. I gave it a go, then stopped playing, then picked it up again only to feel completely disoriented and had to start over again. It's like a heavy meal and it's time intensive. But the fact that this is all portable means it's manageable. Pick it up for you PSP or PSVita. I recommend it.