The first few turns of a Tactics Ogre battle are uneventful. Wizards, Clerics, and Sibyls are empty on Mana Points and must either choose to throw a potion or simply keep their little sprite bodies jogging in place. Heavy melee classes such as Knights and Berserkers cannot move enough tiles to greet the enemy on the first turn, or the second, and many times the third and fourth. Their mauls, flails and zweihanders must remain patient, because the opposition experiences the same tedium. Maps are large, often separated by varying levels of terrain or even impassable rivers, swamps, or lava. While both front lines inch forward, then, I spend the time pondering why  maps aren’t half the size.

As you’d guess, this makes ranged units invaluable. Archers already dish an absurd level of pain, but can also activate a guaranteed critical shot every two turns worth of Technique Points (TP). They earn TP so quickly because it’s got through dealing damage, and so the rich get richer. This means that by the time my melee units have barely gotten their trousers off, Gillian, my Archer girl, and Canopus, my birdman creature who can fly to any elevation on the screen, have done and killed two units themselves.

This isn’t a terrible concept just yet. Because when the melee forces do clash, things get dicey and strategies naturally form. Surround dangerous units such as elemental Dragons or Golems of muscular granite, and pummel them before they unleash multi-tile attacks like Flame Breath or whirlwinds. Ignore heavily armored units who hit like wimps, and get at the ones who fall faster. Use the healers in the back, now with MP pools to use, and cast refreshment or support spells on the winded front line. Also keep an eye on undead units who will revive themselves unless properly exorcised by a Cleric. Any error made can be revisited with a tap of the shoulder button, rewinding past turns — a creative crutch.

All the while, enjoy the volleys of insults, philosophical rambling, and pleas between ideologues as the battle progresses. The writing is both intense and refined, not quite Middle English but just enough to sound Shakespearean, and a choice structure that molds both the narrative and protagonist has the player in the thick of it. Recruit characters met along the way, and witness special interactions between them and certain enemies, declaring your own judgments and mercies too. These personalities often take a turn for the melodramatic. Some are even written to artificially spite whatever choices you make. It isn’t the cleanest storyboard — really just a merry go round of castle sieging — but damn is it ever fun to read.

Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together plays to this described intensity about, say, 20% of the time. The more usual — and unfortunate — circumstance occurs just before the front lines meet. This flaw is a condition for victory upon slaying ‘Targets’, that is, a unique enemy character: A leery pirate or loyal knight, a stubborn captain or sacrilegious ruler. They all provide a riveting start to each battle, especially if you play the Chaos route, where Denam, the main character and leader of an oppressed people, is met by empathetic enemies and an abundance of gray morality, both of which he promptly spits upon. However, these ‘Targets’ tend to go down in 2-3 arrows, meaning my birdman is halfway to ending the battle with a crossbow before the first sword is swung by a major character, and well before there is any actual strategy to relish.

It’s a buzz kill, quite literally, and Tactics Ogre can only hope to rekindle an occasional flame with battles that condition victory on slaying all units, and not just one. Rewards and army management are there but can’t be depended on for relief, partly because units gain experience for their classes, not themselves. For example, all Terror Knights in my army share a level, as do all Beastmasters and Rune Fencers. If this is to remove focus on individual characters and concern of permanently losing one, it is perhaps well conceived. Just hire a new recruit and I’m where I left off! However, a unit’s value in Tactics Ogre is still valued on its unique base stats. Dexterity, Strength, Mind, etc….They matter a great deal. Individuality is as strong as ever, then, and the stats of most story characters trump any recruits paid for at taverns.

The whole ‘Class leveling’ system is a wash, then — both useless and hugely tedious, since acquiring a new class means grinding its level up from 1. Does a Ninja sound fun or interesting as a class design? I thought it did. But before he becomes an effective tool, he’ll have to spend several battles taking up the slot of a good soldier. He’ll instead just sit at the back of the field leaching experience points and praying not to get one-shot

This is all atop an already unbalanced number of classes, where a select few prove much more powerful than others. I’m lenient on such matters, since experimentation with gimmicky kits is a fun part of the genre, yet Tactics Ogre just doesn’t invite real motivation to pursue it. A shame because it didn’t need much to add to its beautiful interface of tea brown menus, hand drawn portraits by Akihiko Yoshida himself, and a Sakimoto soundtrack worthy of all the grandiose dialogue. In these elements, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together already sits near to my heart, yet somehow manages to pierce it a second later with an arrow and a premature pain of ‘victory.’