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The Wheat and the Tares

With all the bad that has happened this year, a single ray of black light has melted the cold, evil white snow encasing my enjoyment. There has been something that has given me such happiness, such fulfillment that I have neglected the both on-line and off-line worlds for it. Although there have been some things that have given me a transitional joy, this object has brought a new meaning to my life when there has been none. It gives me a purpose for waking up in the morning, and something to look forward to when going to sleep at night. I hate to admit it, but to be honest, it has become an idol to me, a new god. Yes I sin for worshiping this thing, but I confess it, hoping to be forgiven. However, in order to make my confession complete, I must refer to this thing by the name it is known by throughout the United States.

Yes, I am in love with Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber.

Of all the games I have it is a game I have waited the longest for. I have actively waited five years for this game even before I knew it existed, and while other games have come and gone, my anticipation for this game has never completely subsided. I don't follow video games over the Web as closely as I should, resulting in a tangled mess of broken links, but I kept a lookout for Ogre Battle 64, hoping it would make the trek from Japan to the United States. I became worried when the Neo-Geo pocket Ogre Battle game never made it over here, and wondered if the Nintendo 64 game would meet the same fate. Luckily, Ogre Battle 64 arrived on our shores, translated and ready to play. For the past month I have been absorbed by this game, and now that I have went through it once completely and have almost beaten it again, I feel I can give an assessment of the game. While this is not a review (I can never be a critic), I can put words into my feelings about the game, separating the aspects into the wheat (the good) and the tares (the bad).

The Wheat

It is impossible for me to list all the good things about Ogre Battle 64, partly because it keeps many of the wonderful things from the original Ogre Battle. However, I can limit my comments to the improvements that the game made and hope to prevent this commentary from becoming even more long winded. Perhaps the greatest improvement of Ogre Battle 64 from Ogre Battle is the presentation of the game. Ogre Battle, though having pretty good graphics for a 16-bit game, was an exercise of imagination. When you entered a town in Ogre Battle, the words of the townspeople popped up in a text box on the map. Unless a character appeared on the screen, one could not tell if the words were that of a man or woman, or a child or an adult. However, in Ogre Battle 64, there is not just a block of text that appears on the screen while on the map, but one actually goes into the town or stronghold and speaks to an inhabitant. While the overall idea is the same that one town has one voice, the game gives a face to that voice. It makes the game feel more complete, as though the people you talk to have an importance and are not merely sources on information.

The plot is also displayed in a more cinematic manner, for instead of just having the dialogue between characters advance the plot, there are actual scenes that give depth to the story unattainable in the original Ogre Battle. The friendship between Yumil and Magnus touched my heart in a way that the character interactions of the Super NES game could not, simply because I could actually see the actions being performed instead of trying to figure them out. The game also uses black and white to indicate flashbacks and fleshing them out to color when appropriate. The presentation is as wonderful as I had imagined and fits the game excellently.

But Ogre Battle 64 is more than a pretty package, and the real strength of the game (as with its predecessor) comes from its gameplay. There have been a few alterations but the basic idea is the same, and a few improvements have been made. First of all, the battle animations themselves are quicker in Ogre Battle 64 than in Ogre Battle, meaning that battles take far less time. However, the animation can be turned off, resulting in even shorter battles. Shorter battles mean less time spent in playing the game, which is handy when one only has a few minutes. More importantly, there is a Suspend feature that allows you to quit playing in the middle of the stage. While the Suspend feature is not the same as an actual save, it doesn't have to be since one will use it only to quit in case of emergency and not to create an extra game. It is a nice extra, but not an essential part of the game.

Another important improvement comes in the area of Training. In the SNES game, the only way to gain experience was to kill enemies, which affected your alignment and charisma (the latter eliminated from Ogre Battle 64). However, by relying on enemies for fodder, one could build a bad reputation for butchering opponents. More importantly, a class that was relatively neutral, like a Dragon Master or a Red Dragon II, was difficult to obtain because the alignment could get neither neither too high nor too low. Training helps in this department since you can fight characters just for the experience, with no changes occurring in the characters' alignment as a result, but more is written on alignment below.

Perhaps the greatest improvement of all is the number of new classes and the flexibility to change between them. No longer does one have to be of one specific class to become another class. As long as a character meets the statistical requirements, has the required equipment available, and is part of the proper subset (Like Fighter, Amazon, etc.), he, she, or it can change classes has desired. While certain classes prepare one to become another class in the future, it is not necessary to follow the traditional paths. For instance, I often have Sorceresses who gained so much alignment that before the halfway point of the game that they were ready to become Priests while my clerics still needed two or three levels. Alignment is also a more dynamic aspect, it being raised or lowered more by fellow unit members rather than killing the enemy. This is especially important since Clerics and Priests no longer have the ability to instantly destroy the undead and gain alignment. Also, one can have a low alignment or neutral Priest if one desires, giving healing to even the most Chaotic of units.

As for the new classes, many of the new classes are on the female side, allowing Amazons to upgrade to more than the batches of Clerics, Valkyries and Witches. As I had wished for in the SNES Ogre Battle, there is now a Sorceress class that can cast spells just as well or even better than her Wizard counterpart. Dragon Tamers are also female, meaning that this once "special" class has both opened a new realm of versatility to female characters and gives dragons an even larger role in Ogre Battle 64. Dragons have access to their special abilities earlier in the game and there are several new types of dragons. There are other new classes as well, many of them not human and having abilities far more powerful than those of before, and in fact I have not yet acquired all of them in my army. One can be certain that like the SNES Ogre Battle, no two games will ever be the same, simply because of the almost infinite combinations of characters.

And there are two more improvements of note. One, it costs nothing to deploy units, so making units as powerful as possible is must, not a privilege. Two, damage is done like in other RPGs, where the blow that kills a character can do more damage than the remaining HP of the character. This makes winning the battles less of a hassle, since a unit near death could win a battle even if many of its members were killed.

The Tares

Ah, with so much good, I wish I could say Ogre Battle 64 is perfect, but while this game is excellent and though I am in love with it, there are characteristics that either disappoint me or get on my nerves. Just about all of these concern changes made from the original for while some of the changes are welcomed, many of the alterations have taken away from how powerful the game could have been.

My first gripe is the removal of Tarot Cards from the game. I admit Tarot Cards could be cheap, and in my first time playing the game, I used them extensively. However, as I learned more about the gameplay I used them less and less, only to get myself out of a tight spot. Sometimes, I used cards such as the Fool and Fortune cards so that I wouldn't have to obliterate enemies, and sometimes I used Tarot Cards to ensure that I would be able to kill a specific enemy. Besides, there was a penalty if you used Tarot Cards to actually kill enemies instead of softening them up...less experience.

The alterations to the battle screen do not stop with the removal of Tarot Cards as an option. Although you can still interrupt the battle scenes, instead of getting a menu with four options, the number of options you get depend on when you interrupt the battle. As the battle progresses, this bar fills, in accordance to how long the battle is and how much damage one takes. When the gauge fills up once, a second option becomes available, then the bar resets. If this meter is left alone, it will fill up again, allowing the player to access a third option. The option to change battle tactics is always available, but selecting it or any other option resets the bar to only having one option. To retreat and to use Elem Pedra are the second and third options respectively.

I can understand the need for a meter such as this, but there are many problems with it, such as the order of the options. The option to retreat should be the first option, not the second, since you will only retreat when you are in trouble. The way the system is set up now, one cannot retreat until the meter has filled up once, giving the enemy enough time to destroy a defenseless unit. The Elem Pedra, the replacement for Tarot Cards, do not do much damage and their only purpose is to finish off an enemy that the unit cannot because it has run out of attacks. Worse yet, Elem Pedra can only be accessed after either a very long battle or lots of damage has been done to a unit, so if you need to do some quick damage to kill the enemy unit's leader and run away, you can't do that. It would be different if the Elem Pedra had the power of a Sun card, or if you had an emergency healing device such as an Empress card, but forcing you to choose between the lesser of two evils becomes an even more difficult task, and either choice you make will likely blow up on your face.

Retreating in of itself or losing a battle in Ogre Battle 64 is not as harmless as it was in Ogre Battle. In Ogre Battle, if by chance a unit lost while on a stronghold, the unit was knocked back, but not far enough to prevent it from returning to the city and fighting the enemy again. However, in Ogre Battle 64, if a unit loses or retreats, it is knocked back unbelievably far and if it was previously on a stronghold, 9 out of 10 times the enemy will take it over. Also, in Ogre Battle, leaderless units could not take over abandoned strongholds. In Ogre Battle 64, a leaderless enemy unit can take over a liberated city, making liberating and holding towns so much more difficult than necessary.

Of course, one would not have to retreat if items were handled in the same manner that they were in the SNES game. Alas, this is a crucial blow, one of the most difficult adjustments I have had to make. While you have a general pool of items, it cannot be accessed from the field as in Ogre Battle, although it can still be accessed from the Organize Screen. Instead if you need a unit to use an item, the unit must be carrying it, and the types of characters in the unit determine how many items you can carry, with a maximum possible number of ten for any unit. Another complaint is the price of items, since the items cost relatively more than they did in the prior game. Heal Leafs are cheap, but for items that heal more HP or heal more than one character, the price is too high. Also, a new feature is a fatigue meter that fills as a unit travels. Thus you must buy items that reduce fatigue, items which cost significantly more than the healing items. Petrification, now a more permanent condition, is also costly to cure, whether one goes to a Witch's Hut (the equivalent of a Roshfallian Temple) or uses a Revive Stone. You cannot buy Altars of Resurrection (the equivalent of an Ethereal Flute) at the normal shops, but you have to be at one specific location in the game at the right time to purchase one. Also, at 1500 Goth a pop, they are expensive, especially since you only get tribute after you beat a stage and often the tribute is less than 10,000 Goth!

As for equipping items, you can only remove and equip items in the Organize Screen. Oh boy...

So, seeing that you are limited to ten items at maximum per unit, opportunities for healing are very few and must be used wisely. If you run out of items, are attacked from behind (yes, in this game it matters how you approach the enemy or how the enemy approaches you), or just forget to heal you are in trouble, as you cannot retreat until you take a certain amount of damage. This results in characters being killed and there are three possible options. One can use a rare Altar of Resurrection to bring the character back to life at full health, or one can go to a Witch's Hut, and for a (high) price one can revive the character with 1 HP so that it can get killed again if you are out of items and about to enter into battle. The third option, one that happens often in earlier levels, is that you leave the character dead because you can't afford the price of resurrection or are unable to revive the character, and if the character was human, he or she will become a Zombie, and all the time spent on developing the character becomes a waste of time.

Developing the characters themselves is a tricky process, and one can find it difficult to create new additions to the army. Recruiting characters is no longer an option, and you must develop even your Amazons and Fighters from scratch. In order to get Amazons and Fighters, one must use Soldiers, groups of weak, annoying little characters that take up one tile -- more about the changes in unit formation below. Since they are a group of three, if enough damage is taken, one of the three is killed and can only be replaced...yep at the base through the Organize screen (see a pattern, here). After many, many victories, the Soldiers finally change into one Amazon or one Fighter. Then you can do with the character as you wish, but only if the Amazon or Fighter's statistics warrant a change in class.

As for the non-human characters, you have to depend on neutral encounters to get these, meaning you will spend a lot of time simply walking around. Of course the Water class does not exist in Ogre Battle 64, and movement type is handled by general priority. For instance, if you have a unit made up of two Wyrms and a Beast Master in Ogre Battle 64, instead of being a sky unit (because the Wyrms are the biggest creatures), it will be a Mountain unit because the Beast Master's movement type is Mountain, and Mountain is a higher priority than Sky. And since Sky movement is the lowest priority, one must have a unit comprised entirely of flying creatures in order to have a Sky unit. Sky creatures are generally weak with the exception of the hard to get Cockatrices and Sphinxes, so in short, the sky unit has no attack power. While Sky units have great mobility, chances are the unit will fight an enemy which will kill one of the characters and thus one will have to make a trip to the friendly neighborhood Witch's Hut.

Unit formation is also more complicated than ever, since now there are three rows instead of two. However, instead of having five slots in a row in which to place characters, there are only three. One character, not even a big one can protect two characters. Since it is a 3 x 3 grid, this means that one cannot have three protected characters in the back or middle row under any circumstances. Since your leader should be in the back or middle row, this means that there can either only be one other character in the back or middle row, unless you want a very lopsided unit that you have to reposition for just about every battle. Add to this situation that magic can no longer target an enemy character regardless of position and it means one has to reposition for just about every battle. To fail to do so can mean a trip to the Witch's Hut and money out of the army's pocket.

Another picky point, it seems that not only is area affect magic confined to a four square block instead of hitting all enemies, but that with the exception of Ninja Master spells, spells only change when you equip or de-equip a spellbook (deep breath) the Organize Screen! And Doll Masters don't even cast spells anymore...go figure!

And, of course, everything seems to take much longer in this game, even when you put the game speed on Fast. It takes 12 game hours to go from one town to the next. It only took 12 game hours to beat the early stages in Ogre Battle!

Note: The following section has been darkened so that the spoilers have been easier to avoid. If you want to read, then highlight the text, but doing so may ruin the story.

Now for the plot. In my opinion, the story in the game is pretty good, but nowhere as good as it could have been. Part of the problem is that the game is so male-centered, I really wanted to scream. Just about all of the main characters are male, while most of the women are relegated to supporting roles. Aisha returns from Ogre Battle, but instead of seeming like a determined monk who is willing to stand up to evil in the name of the gods, she is instead an angelic, softer character who simply tends to the injured. On the other hand, Saradin, Gilbert, Debonair all get many more lines and do more than any of the female characters, even the wannabe-Rauny Leia. More importantly, even though in Ogre Battle you chose the main character's sex, in Ogre Battle 64 you have to play as the male Magnus. To make matters worse, the story also assumes the hero from Ogre Battle was male (I wanted to kick the writers' rear ends at that point) and gives him the name Destin Faroda (So apparently, Lexar is only a legend, I see). Only Danika was strong female with a central role and yet she (like Ultmecia in Final Fantasy 8) is talked about more than actually shown performing any actions until the end. Put on top of this a very sexist comment by a member of the Revolutionary Army ("I didn't think a woman could escape") you can see why I'm pretty angry about this.

It doesn't help when the story starts and ends weakly. First of all we know that Magnus is going to switch from the sides from the beginning, since it is repeated constantly about how bad the conditions are in the region. Also, there is quite a bit of cursing in the beginning, although as you progress, the curse words become less prolific. After the first chapter, the story picks up a bit, with the second and third chapters being the strongest. Toward the end, though, it got ridiculous with everyone succumbing to the Infernal Aura. At one point it sounded like The Crucible when the people were accusing each other of witchcraft. Some of the death scenes were screwy and some of the plot points just didn't add up for some reason. In fact, the game makes more sense (and has less translation errors) when you play the bad route than when you play it using the good route.

Also, part of the problem with the plot is that many of the elements seem to be taken from other video games. At one point I'm sure Yumil was either quoting Rinoa from Final Fantasy VIII when talking to Magnus. And Baldwin says, "I will become a god" twice. Even Danika looks like Jedah! (There has to be a cultural explanation, right?)

As for the music…the music was okay, but misplaced at times. Sometimes a sad theme should be playing, in the tactics section of each stage to indicate a heavy mood, but instead we get that stupid brass!

However, my main complaint is in regard to the Chaos Frame, the indicator of how good or bad you are doing. Although it is still in the game, it is no longer displayed on the screen. Thus is you are making a bad decision or a series of bad decisions, there is no way for you to know this unless you take the clues given to you from the populace. Since there are those who will praise you if you slaughter your enemies and those who will curse you even if you act in an angelic fashion, it can be difficult to get an accurate assessment of your performance. This is especially detrimental if you intend to pursue a path of goodness, as one key decision can wreck your chances of a good ending. This in a way, was a problem of Ogre Battle, but not an insurmountable one. While there were more decisions to make in the game, at least there was a visible Chaos Frame to guide you. The absence of this important feature in Ogre Battle 64 means you have no idea how well or badly you performed until the end, and with only two save slots, it means that one may have to erase a beloved game in order to see another ending.

And lastly, there are no Seven League Boots to buy in order to move from liberated town to town. Bummer...

In conclusion, while I have many complaints about the game, Ogre Battle 64 is a wonderful game. It's just that it has its points which don't quite sit well with me, and prevent my joy from completely overwhelming me. I suppose that is good in a way, since if I ever did experience something so wonderful and perfect, I'd have nothing to look forward to in the future.

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