The Modojo Rundown: Handheld SRPGs
Resident SRPG fanatic Louise Yang gives us a history lesson, as we await Final Fantasy Tactic's second coming...
Love 'em, hate 'em, everyone has an opinion on strategy role playing games or SRPGs for short. Me, I'm usually in between but leaning towards the loving them side. I love not having to get lost in a world map, not having to wander around to find some cave that some crystal is in, and I love games that focus on one thing and doing that one thing well: strategy heavy battles. Most of all, I love it when the opponent actually has the upper hand, but in a couple of cunning moves, I demolish the enemy troops and gain victory. Unfortunately, what I love about SRPGs is also what I hate: a reliance on strategy. With the thrilling news of Final Fantasy Tactics being remade on the PSP and Final Fantasy Tactics 2 coming on the DS, I thought it would be the perfect time for a little refresher piece on a few portable SRPG games that we can play while waiting for a stateside release of Final Fantasy Tactics.
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance
I start with FFTA not because it's the definitive SRPG game, which it isn't, but because it's the title that got me into SRPGs in the first place. The familiarity of spells and jobs of FFTA eased my transition from RPG to SRPG. The game takes place in the world of Ivalice, where the player controls Marche and a team of recruited mercenaries. There is a long list of jobs that members of the team can take on, including ninjas, colored mages, beastmasters, mog knights and even a juggler.
Unlike its story-heavy typical rpg brethren, FFTA's focus is more on character development. No, not the "Oh he's such a brave young lad with such ethics!" character, but the "Wow, his stats are perfectly suited to be an assassin" character. Primary jobs affect which stat is boosted during a level up. Secondary jobs help characters by letting them pick abilities from a different ability pool, but don't affect the character's stats. The character-driven nature of FFTA was what impressed me the first time I played it. It feels more satisfying (for me anyway) to see short-term accomplishments in character development rather than something like plot-forwarding events that take an hour or so to get to in a typical RPG.
I'm actually glad FFTA was the first SRPG I played because it meant I was ignorant to all its flaws. What flaws, you ask? Well the most blatant one is the whole law system. Each day has a law associated with it and laws range from barring a particular weapon (no spears!) or some type of magic (no elemental magic!). Breaking the law will earn the player a punishment card (like in soccer). The law system seemed like an artificial way to add strategy to a game, and it was unfair that whenever the enemy broke a law, the worst they would get was a yellow card. If I had known what I know now of SRPGs, I would have quit playing FFTA just because the law system was so ridiculous.
Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis
How can I talk about Final Fantasy Tactics Advance without talking about its direct predecessor on the GBA, Tactics Ogre. It's easy to confuse the two if a screenshot of each was put side by side. Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis follows Alphonse, a knight in the Order of the Sacred Flame through some political drama. If you can't tell by now, I don't pay much attention to plot in SRPGs. The player's army starts of with six troops but more members can be added throughout the game until the maximum of 32 is reached. Tactics Ogre's characters come from a variety of races including humans and the undead. Players also have a limited choice to each character's job. I say limited because essentially, only humans have interchangeable jobs.
The one flaw that always comes up when I think about Tactics Ogre is the battle speed. Sometimes, it just takes excruciatingly long for the computer to move and attack. This is a major flaw for a portable game since no one wants to sit around waiting for the computer to complete its turn. The slowdown during battle is what turned a lot of people off of completing the game. If I wanted to do a lot of waiting around, I'd play a PS2 game.
I debated whether or not to include the Fire Emblem games as SRPGs. To me, they have more similarities to the Advance Wars series, which I think of as tactical games, but since characters in Fire Emblem actually have a history and they gain experience points in battles they would probably fall into the SRPG category. Fire Emblem's battles take place in a grid like combat field where units move toward each other until their opponent is in attack range. Combat balancing is based on a rock, papers, scissors system for melee weapons and magic, which is easy for a new player to pick up.
Don't let the simplistic rock, paper, scissors system trick you into thinking that Fire Emblem is a SRPG noob's game. One of the key differences between Fire Emblem games and other SRPGs is that death is permanent (except for certain cases). A character who dies in battle cannot be revived and will no longer be available later in the game. The permadeath feature in Fire Emblem may turn a lot of gamers off, but I think it's a nice change of pace. While it's annoying to have to retry a mission because a favorite character died, it makes me take each battle more seriously.
It's surprising that the PSP doesn't have more SRPGs on it, considering its older brother, the PS2 has a healthy collection of SRPG goodness. When news came out that SRPG giant Nippon Ichi was going to publish Spectral Souls in the US, I was ecstatic. Oh, how wrong I was! The story in Spectral Souls isn't really that bad. It's a classic battle of good vs. evil, but the twist is, the player has the opportunity to play as characters from three opposing sides. This sounds great until you realize you probably won't have time to actually play the game because 75% of the game is taken up by loading. The other 25% of the game is playable, if you like slowdown. This isn't so much an RPG with a focus on strategy. It's more of an RPG with a focus on the patience of a monk.
Rebelstar Tactical Command
What's that? An SRPG that didn't come from Japan? Color me shocked. Jokes aside, Rebelstar Tactical Command is actually a decent SRPG, which isn't surprising considering it came from the same guy who designed the X-COM games on the PC. The sci-fi story involves alien invasion and abduction. Our protagonist, Jorel, joins a rebel force and together they try to throw off the aliens' grasp of Earth and restore the human race's independence.
Battle takes place once again on a grid where the player is given a squad to control. Action including shooting and movement is determined by a limited amount of action points which gets refreshed every turn. Rebelstar Tactical Command differs from previously mentioned SRPGs not only because of its sci-fi setting, but because players can pick up weapons such as sniper rifles and grenades from downed opponents. Players can customize their troops when they level up by assigning skill points to different skills such as proficiency as a medic or hand to hand combat.
This game might throw some people off, especially those who grew up playing mainly Japanese SRPGs, but for people who want to relive the X-COM series in portable form, it's a perfect addition to the GBA library.
Yggdra Union is another game I had some doubts about with regard to calling it an SRPG since it's part card battle, part SRPG. I guess you could call it a card based SRPG. Battles take place on a grid and before each battle, players have to choose a limited number of cards from a deck. The cards govern how many moves a unit can make, how powerful the unit's attack is, if there's a weapon-type affinity, and if there's a special skill to be used. Running out of cards or having a main character die is an automatic game over.
Two things attracted me to Yggdra Union. The first was the combination of card battle and SRPG elements. The second was the amazing visuals. The game is the perfect example of visual overload, but in a good way. The massive amount of stat information on screen can be a bit daunting at first, but the mandatory tutorial missions should make players feel more at home by the time they recruit another member into their team. The game boasts over 30 hours worth of playtime, which is pretty decent for a portable game. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much replayability since the story is strictly linear and every battle in the game is mandatory and plot-forwarding.
Shining Force: Resurrection of the Dark Dragon
This remake of a classic Genesis game may have been overshadowed by Final Fantasy Tactics Advance in the SRPG arena, but that doesn't mean the game should be overlooked. The story starts off with our hero, who just so happens to have amnesia, and an army of troops who must overthrow the power of the dark dragon. Yes, the story is generic, but hey, this was originally a Genesis game. Like the usual SRPG, players have to move their troops over spaces on a terrain and attack using melee, long range, and magic attacks. The gameplay is a pretty stripped down SRPG, which makes Shining Force the perfect game for someone new to the genre. When Atlus brought this over, they also added a few features that improved on the original. Three new characters have been introduced to the series and a card dealer appears early in the game that introduces a new card battle aspect. Cards can be found on battlefield, which can be used to summon another warrior to the battlefield or give particular characters special abilities.
My main gripe about Shining Force is that there's little in in the way of character customization. Players don't have the choice of selecting which ability to develop for each character and characters' skills just level up automatically. Don't despair, because players at least have the ability to choose and upgrade equipment for their troops. While Shining Force may seem simplistic compared to Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, it's still an excellent starter game for someone who just wants to learn what SRPGs are about, and it holds nostalgic appeal to those who want to relive their old Genesis days.
Well there you have it folks, a brief breakdown of SRPGs to tide us over until the next wave of them hits. I know there will be some readers who will be outraged that I didn't include any of the Advance Wars games here. I don't really think of them as SRPGs since there's not really any actual advancement of characters. You can't really level up your characters and there's no exp gain other than going forward in the plot. I would say that calling Advance Wars an SRPG is like calling Castlevania an RPG but that's a whole other can of worms I don't want to open.