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Monday, February 21, 2022

Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis

The fifth and final entry in the Ogre Battle series following three low-key releases in the west and one Japan-exclusive entry, Knight of Lodis went largely unnoticed at the time of its release.  But does it retain the series' trademark tactical action and strong storytelling, or is this one sendoff to a niche series that doesn't deliver?

Quest's Ogre Battle (and its turn-based offshoot, Tactics Ogre) remained a cult franchise in the west for basically its entire existence, seeing only limited printing runs and attracting an equally niche audience from a publisher known for exactly that (Atlus).  They retained a strong following, though, for their exceptionally deep mechanics and storytelling that rivaled similar games on the PC platform, as well as their open-ended storytelling - choices you made and actions you took during battles would change the story in a number of ways, even gaining you one of several endings when you made your way to the end, giving them considerable replay value.

The series' fifth entry on the Game Boy Advance would be its last before Quest was bought out by Square Enix, and as a result was not directed by series co-creator Yasumi Matsuno (who had already joined Square to create games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story).  Nevertheless, they strived to create a worthy successor to Tactics Ogre on a portable platform; they did a pretty admirable job, too, as much of the team behind this game would later go on to work on Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and its sequel under Square Enix's banner after the buyout.

While Knight of Lodis game remains recognizable as a followup to Tactics Ogre, retaining many of its familiar classes, monsters and even a very similar visual style, its gameplay is changed up in quite a few ways.  The wide array of statistics in TO is condensed down to three - strength, intelligence and agility - though they also retain the series' trademark of having a lawful, chaotic or neutral alignment, which affects interactions and skills in numerous ways.  Each unit now has one of six elements - Fire, Water, Wind, Earth, Virtue and Bane - which determines how effectively they square off with other units.  Higher-tier classes operate on a principle closer to the Ogre Battle games, having certain statistic  and alignment prerequisites and occasionally requiring specific Emblems to access.  Recruiting enemy units - both human and monster - plays heavily into the game's strategic bent too, and saves you quite a lot of money on recruiting humanoid units over the course of the game (which cost more and more to recruit as you raise their starting levels).

Combat changes things up a bit as well.  Rather than enemy and ally units having intermixed turns, each side takes their turns as a group and in any order they wish.  Skills are largely bound to specific classes (though spells are still learned via scrolls), and there is still a heavy focus on striking vulnerable enemies.  Attacking from the front will give the enemy a much higher chance to block, while striking from the back or side will significantly reduce it.  Striking from behind also negates their ability to counterattack (and yours as well), so careful positioning of your own units is qutie important.

A couple other elements play a major role in battles too.  New to this game is the "Mental Gauge", visible at the bottom of the screen whenever you highlight a character.  This bar ranges from -2 to +2, with positive values granting bonuses and negative values doing the opposite.  Some classes will grant bonuses to allies (the Beast Tamer and Dragon Tamer will give bonuses to their respective monster counterparts), while others can lower it (Vrtras and Ogres will demoralize nearby enemies), while certain Emblems can also affect it - either a temporary bonus/penalty or a permanent one depending on the Emblem.  Another element plays heavily into battles too - each unit has a hidden "biorhythm" stat that will change their effectiveness in battle - at peak they'll have higher chances of success in almost all rolls, while the opposite is true at low points.  These change gradually as time passes in-game, so having a fairly large party so you can swap out temporarily-underperforming characters for more effective ones is a good idea.

Emblems are another new element of Knight of Lodis, and a major component of its gameplay.  Sort of like unit-specific "achievements", they are awarded by hitting certain milestones or taking specific actions over the course of the game, and will grant permanent bonuses or penalties to the characters who earn them, in addition to making specific classes available once they are earned.  For example, having one unit get all the kills in a battle will award them with the Centurion Emblem, which will give a permanent bonus to Strength, and exorcising five Undead units will give the Exorcist Emblem, which gives all nearby undead units a penalty to their Mental gauge.  Negative effects can be things like Animal Hunter (killing at least five monsters), which will greatly reduce that unit's chance of recruiting mounter units in the future, or Broken Heart (a male character failing to persuade a female unit to join ten times), which will cause their biorhythms to cycle much faster than normal.  Each unit can have up to 32 Emblems, and the conditions to earn many are quite difficult to set up in a real battle, adding further value to the game's training mode.  Some are game-spanning quests in themselves - two require a unit to change to all fourteen available classes over the course of the game - but offer suitably high rewards once they are achieved.

Additional challenge can be found in the game's Quest mode.  As one progresses through the story, they will unlock maps to play here, which pit the player against a (fixed) leader unit and a number of randomized units, and they're tasked with either clearing the board of all enemies or just taking out the leader as quickly as possible.  Hitting certain score thresholds will earn them cash and item rewards, some of which can be quite hard to come across in the main game.  If you're just looking to experience the game's story you can safely ignore these challenges, but die-hard completionists will likely have a lot of fun here.

In short, Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis proves to be a worthy entry for the series, changing up the mechanics present in the first Tactics Ogre quite a bit but being no less engaging an experience for it.  While there isn't as much a focus on raw stats as in previous games, you're still given a lot of flexibility to build your characters and shape their abilities, and the setup and management required to attain some of the higher-tier emblems gives die-hard players plenty of challenge.  It certainly doesn't disappoint for those who enjoy the series' rich lore and replayability either, with a strongly-told story containing a lot of complex characters and scenarios, and five possible endings to attain depending on the actions one takes during the game.  A fine tactical RPG that ranks as one of the GBA's best, and one that definitely deserves to be among the many Square Enix IPs that gets more attention, particularly with the amount of focus they've given their back-catalog in recent months.

Developer: Quest Corporation
Publisher: Nintendo, Atlus USA
Platform: Game Boy Advance
Released: 2001, 2002
Recommended version: N/A