Tactics Ogre ripped its subject matter straight from the headlines. Developed by a team led by a young Yasumi Matsuno, its story of war and ethnic hatred was based in part on the bloody civil war that was taking place in the former Yugoslavia in the early '90s. Its portrayal of political maneuvering, massacres, and the consequences of constant warfare was unusual for a 16-bit console RPG, and is even pretty mature by today's standards.
It followed in the footsteps of Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen, a strategy RPG in which you formed parties and moved around a map in real-time. For the follow-up, Matsuno opted to dial down the high fantasy of the first game in favor of bloody realpolitik, in the process shifting to more familiar (for Japan) turn-based combat. Instead of the top-down perspective used by Fire Emblem and its imitators, Tactics Ogre opted for an isometric perspective while favoring character customization over pure tactics.
It follows Denam, his sister Catiua, and his friend Vyce as they attempt to take revenge on the Dark Knights, who are responsible for the massacre of his home town. They subsequently start a rebellion against the nation of Valeria, but eventually have to decide just how far they're willing to go in the name of their cause. The story hinges on an early decision on whether to carry out a massacre. If Denam does so, he becomes a calculating figure who is willing to put aside his convictions in the name of pursuing his greater agenda. If he doesn't, he becomes an outlaw who is hunted by his former allies.
Different characters suffer different ends depending on the choices that you make, and some of them can be pretty gruesome. Vyce ends up getting hanged in one ending, while Catiua commits suicide in another. Its dense lore; grim outlook, and winding politics bring to mind Game of Thrones at points, which is a remarkable thing to say for a game developed in an era dominated by cartoon mascots.
Despite all this, Tactics Ogre tends to be overshadowed by its better-known successor, Final Fantasy Tactics, which was also developed by Matsuno and company. The two certainly have plenty of similarities: an isometric perspective, dark medieval storytelling, a class system, and an emphasis on min-maxing over tactics. But where Tactics Ogre's initial run never made it to the U.S., Final Fantasy Tactics landed in the heart of Final Fantasy mania, earning it a legion of fans.
Amazing as Final Fantasy Tactics can be, though, Tactics Ogre makes an argument for being the better game in the end. Its case begins with the World and Chariot systems: two clever additions to the PSP remake that let you explore Tactics Ogre's sprawling storyline at your leisure. The Chariot System is likely to be the first system you interact with, and it lets you rewind to the previous turn and beyond, which is a godsend amid Tactics Ogre's sometimes unforgiving difficult. The World System, meanwhile, lets you explore any part of the branching storyline that you want after completing your initial run.
These additions highlight Tactics Ogre's main advantage over Final Fantasy Tactics, which is the grand scope of its route choices and the difficult choices they entail. It also stands apart thanks to its battle system, which receives a massive revamp on the PSP. Classes all share the same level in the updated version, which serves to put a greater emphasis on the acquisition and distribution of skills across different characters. This is accomplished through Battle Points, which are earned by completing battles.
This system encompasses plenty of powerful builds, and classes like the Ninja can be especially strong, but it's difficult to develop straight-up broken characters in Tactics Ogre—a common knock against Final Fantasy Tactics. In the meantime, the PSP also greatly enhances the soundtrack, updates the localization from the Atlus PSX release, and adds new areas, classes, and even a (admittedly underwhelming) crafting system.
The PSP remake elevates Tactics Ogre from obscure forerunner to classic, and is a large part of why I decided to put it on this list. It packs an almost stupid amount of content into one game, encompassing upwards of 300 hours of gameplay depending on whether you want to unlock everything. But even if you choose not to plumb its vast depths, its still a very enjoyable tactics RPG filled with meaningful choices and challenging gameplay.
Yasumi Matsuno has gone on to make several games since 1995, including Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII; but I consider Tactics Ogre his most complete and defining work, and perhaps the best expression of his unique sensibilities and design acumen. It's for those reasons that Tactics Ogre remains in my mind perhaps the greatest tactics RPG ever made, and an obvious choice for a list of the Top 25 RPGs ever made.