In all my years I can honestly say I’ve never played another game quite like Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen. From its tarot-reading introduction (which determines the stats and attacks of your Lord character), it’s clear that this isn’t going to be just another fantasy spells-and-swords affair. In fact, when I first picked up Ogre Battle in the late ’90s, it was so different to other strategy games and RPGs I’d played that I was actually put off. But after playing the excellent later games in the series, I decided to give it another chance, and despite a few niggles, I’m very glad I did.
The first potential drawback for players is the pacing; this game can be slow. You move units around the world by selecting them and choosing a destination, and an entire in-game day and night can pass before they reach it. You can speed up the game somewhat using the in-game settings, however. To be fair, this sluggishness is most apparent in the first mission where you only have the one unit to command. Once I had multiple units to manage, I actually found myself making frequent use of the pause button to ensure that I could react to enemy movements in time.
In fact, the world map requires a significant amount of strategy to succeed. All units have a preferred terrain, so parking Hellhounds in a mountain pass or Octopi by a bridge are great strategies for fighting the enemy on your own terms. Flying units such as Gryphons and Hawkmen are highly maneuverable, making them essential for chasing down fleeing enemies, bolstering multiple defensive points when needed, and whittling down approaching units with hit-and-run attacks before they reach your main forces. Some maps are set on floating islands that require you to watch your step, as losing a battle makes a unit flee a short distance, which could send you or your enemy to an instant death if you don’t have a flyer in the unit.
Additionally, characters fight better during the day or night depending on their alignment, so it pays to evaluate your enemy’s units (and infer their alignment from their class; e.g. Knights have high alignment and Evil Ones low) and strike when fortune favours you the most. A midnight hit squad of Ninja and Sorcerers can be devastating to a holy order of angels that would have wiped the floor with them during the day. Such multi-layered strategy means that there isn’t one approach suited to every situation, requiring flexibility and re-evaluation to succeed.
Automated battles also initially made me feel like I was watching rather than playing the game. Combat is turn-based, but rather than issue direct orders to individual units, you issue a tactic to the whole party. For example, the “Strong” tactic will have them target whichever enemy has the highest HP, while “Best” will have each character attack the enemy that will take the most damage from their specific attacks (e.g., a Wizard’s magic will do more damage against a high-defense Golem than would a Knight’s slash attack). While not being able to micromanage your units can be a little frustrating, feature comes into its own once the game becomes more complex, when you have more than just rank-and-file Fighters and Amazons filling your units. Using the “Weak” tactic to pick off low-HP units is a good way to minimise damage dealt to you, and “Leader” focuses attacks on the enemy unit’s captain, useful when you need to send the unit packing in a hurry rather than harvest complete kills.
If tactics aren’t enough, it’s possible to turn the tide of battle with tarot cards. These single-use items have various effects such as healing your unit, dealing damage to the enemy, banishing undead, buffing stats, granting extra attacks, making your unit immune to magic and dealing damage to characters based on how low their alignment is – in both friendly and hostile units. Tarot cards also grant an effect when picked up (through liberating towns and temples on the world map), such as increasing the liberating unit’s stats, altering their alignment, changing the time of day or making all subsequent card gains affect all deployed units. While you won’t get far on cards alone, sometimes they’re exactly the trick up your sleeve you need to get out of a jam or finish off a boss.
How you assemble your units and develop the characters within is of paramount importance. While in general you need a strong front line to protect weaker units (such as spellcasters) in the rear, there are many ways to go about this. A unit has five character spaces available, but beasts and dragons take up two apiece, so you frequently have to decide whether that Giant is really worth giving up two smaller units to fit in. Characters will use different attacks whether they’re in the front or back row, and while the choice of where to place them is often obvious (e.g. Knights getting 2 slashes in the front and one in the back, or Wizards getting magic in the back and only a weak melee strike in the front), some are much more difficult. Will your Kraken be more effective with 4 melee attacks, or two area-of-effect attacks? Should you trade your Cockatrice’s 2 melee attacks for the chance to petrify a single target? There’s no right answer, and as lateral placement of characters also affects which enemies they will attack first, you’ll spend a lot of time chopping and changing your units until they feel right.
Of course, building your units is only the start. Making sure they develop in the direction you want them to is where things get really tricky, and this is due to Ogre Battle’s alignment and reputation systems. In order to promote characters, they need to meet certain level and alignment requirements; for example, Knights need high alignment to become Paladins, while Wild Men need low alignment to become Evil Ones. Characters gain or lose alignment based on the level and alignment of enemies they kill relative to themselves; killing good or lower level enemies will drop your alignment, while taking down higher level or evil enemies will raise it. This is fine in theory, but it only takes a few weak enemy units to turn your legion of honour into the neighbourhood bullies, and once alignment goes too far in either direction it’s almost impossible to get back.
This would be less of a problem if alignment weren’t directly tied to your rebel army’s reputation. A unit’s alignment decides whether liberating an enemy town – necessary for side quests and precious campaign funds – will raise or lower your reputation, which together with your Lord’s alignment determines which quests, special characters and endings are open to you. Even more frustrating is that most of the game’s secrets are only available to noble players. This is a real shame when the very coolest and most powerful characters are evil, such as the devastating nocturnal Werewolves, or the dirt-cheap undead units that are immune to all but white magic, which will kill them instantly.
This highlights the greatest struggle of all; the choice between honour and survival. It’s hard enough to win the war at all, without worrying about doing it fairly. On each map you can deploy up to ten units, which at first is more than enough to capture and hold every town and temple. Later, however, as unit upkeep costs rise with your level, it takes more towns to keep your treasury afloat and more units to properly defend them. Turtling up until the enemy runs out of units to throw at you isn’t really an option because A) sometimes they never seem to run out, and B) if too many days pass on a single map, you incur a reputation penalty for prolonging the war.
My greatest criticism of Ogre Battle is that after a while, it all gets a bit samey. There are only so many times you can obliterate an enemy unit in a single battle, fret about finances and curse yourself for not bringing a cleric to an undead fight before you’ve had enough. I didn’t reach this point until more than ten hours into the game, and there’s still almost half the game to go. Even so, the sublime mix of strategy, tactics and luck make it worth picking up regardless of whether you make it to the end.