Often described as a hybrid between old-school table top RPGs and action RPG video games, the subgenre of tactical RPGs is one of the oldest and most popular types of RPG, even by today's standards. Tactical RPGs, while they do share many characteristics with their cousins in the broader RPG category, differ on several specific counts. First of all, rather than discovering or unlocking a world, most emphasis is put on battles and combat strategies. The building of characters often utilizes customizable classes in a similar fashion to other RPGs, but combat almost always takes place on a grid battlefield, as opposed to most real-time fighting scenes, which often do not have a specific battlefield at all.
Because tactical RPGs can be fairly time-intensive and tricky to beat, they tend to appeal to the most hardcore of gamers, gaining particular popularity with many of the titles released on the Playstation and PS2. Here are ten of our favorites!
Front Mission: Alternative – Playstation, PSN
Many of the Front Mission games are excellent, and everyone has their favorite. However, Front Mission: Alternative is sometimes overlooked because it was initially released only in Japan, and did not become available to a larger on the Playstation Network until nearly a decade after its 1997 release.
In the year 2030, Africa has become one united nation, which was initially beneficial to all the former nations involved, but soon devolved into disagreement and outright conflict. Peacemaker factions are sent in to help resolve the fighting, and the player assumes control of one such faction, the Independent Mobile Attack Company, using experimental weapons methodology, referred to as the "Wanderung Wagen".
Led by Earl McCoy, the IMAC is dispatched to various locations in Africa to establish and maintain peace, in spite of many terrorist organizations that appear fragmented. After a while, I deeper connection between the splinter groups is discovered and must be brought to light in order to bring a sustainable peace.
Shining Force – PC, Game Boy Advance, Sega Genesis
In the land of Rune, Guardiana, Max is sent on a quest to protect the world from Darksol and his hordes of Runefaust, who is bent on opening the Shining Path and invoking the Dark Dragon. Max forms the Shining Force when joined by several allies, including the Princess Narsha. Unfortunately, Darksol has allies as well, in the form of King Ramladu, and the warrior Kane.
Combat is turn-based, with the standard one-unit-per-square on the map. Turns are determined by each unit's agility, and there is one action per turn, though certain actions do not constitute a turn, such as equipping and dropping items.
Shining Force is a good choice for any players who wish to experience a very traditional Japanese tactical RPG, and is similar in feel to some of the earlier Final Fantasy games. Also, it may be worth noting that though this title is part of a larger series, not all the games in the series adhere to the tactical RPG style. Several others are of the dungeon crawler variety, which can provide variety in gameplay, but keep to the same universe.
Stella Deus – PS 2
The world of Solum is gradually being devoured by a poisonous mist called "Miasma". Some, like the followers of the Church of Aeque, see this as the natural order of things, and assume that it is the will of the almighty for this to happen. Others, such as Dignus the warlord and Viser the alchemist are more interested in exploiting the situation for their own ends. The game's protagonist, Spero, is second in command to Dignus, and must attempt to navigate his way through a delicate and dangerous situation, while trying to save Solum.
This title is bound to catch me some flak for its inclusion on this list, due some fairly terrible voice acting. Everyone knows that this can be a game-ruiner, even though there are many other titles with equally terrible voicework that manage to achieve popularity in spite of this. However, the visual style of Stella Deus makes it worthy of at least a second glance. Stella Deus is also a good choice for anyone who is new to tactical RPGs, as the gameplay is not as difficult as many of the other titles on this list.
Fire Emblem – Game Boy Advance
The seventh game of the series by the same name, Fire Emblem takes place in the land of Elibe, where man and dragon used to coexist in a generally peaceful manner. However, this was not to last, as a conflict led to all out war, known as "The Scouring". Man eventually trumped over dragon, and took over the land as the dragons vanished through a portal to a new world.
The events of Fire Emblem see Eliwood, Hector, and Lyndis, three humans connected to the ruling family in various ways, encounter a mysterious and dangerous group known as the Black Fang. This group has created humanoid creatures akin to golems, known as "morphs" who serve the Black Fang leader, Nergal. When the main characters discover that the Black Fang's ultimate goal is to open the Dragons' Gate, bringing war Elibe once again, they must figure out to thwart Nergal's faction at any cost.
This is the only title on this list which is exclusive to a handheld platform, and is the first of the larger Fire Emblem series to be released outside of Japan. Fire Emblem includes several game modes, as well as multi-player options. Though the leveling system is simple in comparison with many other RPGs, the multiple modes more than make up for any initial lack of complexity.
Vandal Hearts – Playstation, Sega Saturn, PC
In Sostegaria, the Ashah Dynasty rules with military force and religious indoctrination. Because the dynasty is directly descended from an ancient holy man named Toroah, they have remained in power for some time, but the people have become discontent in recent times, and have put their faith in Arris the Sage, who has united many dissenting factions into one army. This force has managed to defeat the Royal Army, burning the Ashah Dynasty palace and seizing control of the nation to attempt to install a democracy. Many of the people fighting directly under Arris have gone on to become leaders in this new country, known now as Ishtaria. However, Arris himself has vanished, and no one has managed to find him since the collapse of the Ashah Dynasty.
Meanwhile, the anti-terrorist Crimson Guard has brutalized much of the country, stamping out those who show the slightest resistance to the new Ishtarian government, while bandits and highwaymen roam the land freely, and pirates dominate the seas.
Ash Lambert, a fighter in the Ishatarian Security Forces and his fellow soldiers begin to suspect a conspiracy, which points to the highest levels of the new government. The player must take control of Ash's unit, the third battalion, and try to root out the source of the corruption to restore order to the fledgling nation.
Final Fantasy Tactics – Playstation
Taking place in the same universe as Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII, this title is a throwback to some of the early Final Fantasy games in that it uses many of the original character classes, including black and white mages, summoners, monks, lancers, and thieves. The story revolves around two characters, Ramza and Delita, who have grown up in Ivalice during the Fifty Years War. When a regent is needed, a conflict arises between two members of the royal family, backed by two princes, referred to as the White Lion and Black Lion. The story addresses class issues of surprising complexity quite skillfully, and it was released in 1998, is no less relevant today.
X-Com: UFO Defense – Playstation, PC
Unlike many of the titles in this list which are set in imaginary realms, X-COM: UFO Defense takes place on the familiar territory of Earth. UFO sightings are increasing around the world. There are rumors of people being abducted, and even attacks by aliens in various places. The countries of the world attempt to form military units to defend the world with very little success, and so come together in Switzerland to form the Extraterrestrial Combat Unit, or "X-COM". The player is in command of this unit, battling the aliens as more information about them becomes available over the course of the game. Eventually, it comes to light that the alien threat is based out of Cydonia on Mars, and controlled by the Alien Brain, which the player must then attempt to destroy. With numerous offshoots including novels and board games, this chapter of the X-COM story continues to be popular, and is widely considered to be the best among a very strong series.
Disgaea: Hour of Darkness – PS2
Laharl, a prince, awakes in a coffin, and is informed that his father, King Krichevskoy has passed away. Laharl knows he is the rightful heir to the throne, but unfortunately, it has been usurped by Vyers, a demon referring to himself as the "Dark Adonis". After Vyers' defeat and subsequent renaming to "Mid-Boss", Laharl is joined by Flonne, an angel trainee, and royal advisor Etna. An archangel, Vulcanus, witnesses these events, and is convinced that Flonne is committing treason. Through a fairly absurd series of events, with hidden identities and enemies eventually becoming friends and joining the party, it becomes clear that the Big Bad of the story is actually Vulcanus and the angel government to which he reports.
Combat takes place on a gridded map, with the player controlling a party of humans and monsters alike. Each characters occupies a single square on the map, and can deal damage either to a specific enemy or region of the map. With unique combat and and an innovative map/panel system, this game established itself as a favorite, and continues to have a loyal following.
Valkyria Chronicles – PS3
Developed by the same basic team responsible for Sakura Wars, this title combines the classic "tank/scout" dynamic with a few variations such as assault infantry, engineers, snipers, and "lancers" who concentrate on anti-tank warfare. Set far in the future on a fictional world that bears striking resemblance to WWII-era Europe, Valkyria Chronicles features a variety of charismatic characters. Combat is turn-based, as one might expect in Target Mode, and shifts to real time when in Action Mode. With a satisfying and engaging story arc, this game easily appeals to fans of JRPGs and old school strategy games alike.
Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together – Playstation, Sega Saturn
In the war-torn nation of Valeria, three ethnic groups are at odds: The majority of people belong to the Gargastans, who are split among themselves between moderates and extremists who differ greatly upon how a government should be set up and run. Along with the Gargastans, there are the Bacrumese, who are the upper class and wealthy elite, and the Walstanian, who are an very small, oppressed minority. After many years of strife, King Dolgare comes to power, and the tensions between the ethnic groups appear to cease. However, the Dolgare and his family are soon lost, and because there are no living heirs, the conflict arises once again, and Cardinal Barbatos comes to power. He begins a campaign of ethnic cleansing, with particular attention paid to eliminating the Walstanians.
Denim Powell, a Walstanian from the city of Griate, and his sister Kachua, after suffering the loss of their father to a group known as the Dark Knights, plot revenge and attempt to seize power of the kingdom. Along with them is their friend Vice who, though he is a bit arrogant, has also lost both of his parents to the Dark Knights. The narrative of the game is heavily dependent upon character responses, with multiple endings for the ultimate outcome. Combined with a stirring soundtrack, this game is still enjoyed by many classic gamers.