Tactical RPG Musings Part Three: Stella Glow And Mercenaries Saga 2 Demos

Stella-Glow-5

It seems I was never really the only person wondering what happened to tactical role playing games on portable systems — why we never got a new Final Fantasy Tactics or something like that on the 3DS or Vita. The Vita got a new Disgaea game sure, and I think the 3DS got ports of the Shin Megami Tensei Devil Survivor (is that the right “Devil” title?) games, but it’s nothing like the growth the subgenre saw on the DS and PSP. I spent a little time this week playing demos for a couple more I didn’t realize were on the 3DS that at east try to satiate some of the thirst.

One game that came out back in July that I failed to notice is Mercenaries Saga 2. I guess someone else got tired of waiting for a new FFTactics and just tried to make their own… or at least make a 3DS sequel or port of an existing mobile FFTactics clone. With Mercenaries Saga 2 that is clearly what Circle Entertainment tried to do, even if it didn’t have the same resources Square did.

The game’s art and low-end graphics come together to make something that reminds me of the Super Famicom version of Tactics Ogre. The story and dialogue try to have the same air of sophistication and intrigue as Square’s tactical RPGs but come off as something much simpler. Even the off-mission menu screen looks like a mobile game interface.

Still, battles in Mercenaries Saga 2 manage to provide the kind of strategic fun people expect from what it emulates. I still found myself having to fairly meticulously plan out moves. This game even manages to bring its own unique rules to the mix which make things slightly more interesting, like how the game handles counterattacks and special points. For $5 if you’re really starving for more FFTactics gameplay and you’ve already played out all other alternatives, this manages to fulfill what I like about tactical RPGs.

I think I finally figured out how to sum up my preference for tactical RPGs despite my general dislike for most turn-based RPGs. Essentially, most tactical RPGs I’ve seen cut out all pretense of being a realistic or cinematic experience to instead create what is almost literally a virtual game board. I like what this approach does to both a game’s presentation and its mechanics.

When a typical JRPG constantly transitions between real-time exploration, cut scenes, and turn-based combat, I find it unpleasantly disjointed. I end up preferring to stay in the real-time exploration experience because that’s what I find most immersive, and the turn-based combat just temporarily takes that away. In essence, this game is a board game that sometimes tries to masquerade as a more active experience. Grid-based tactical RPGs on the other hand are turn-based 100 percent of the time which in my opinion just feels more cohesive. Furthermore, being able to move characters around a large grid just feels like a logical step forward from static characters facing each other in lines.

My favorite tactical RPGs also mostly tend to be the ones that represent the board game feeling visually. Just look at FFTactics: every environment in the game is rendered in rectangular blocks, whether it’s a village or a forest. The character models all have the same simple, repeating animations which makes them look like moving figurines. Even the cut scenes are rendered with these exact same assets (except the FMVs in the PSP version). It’s kind of the same reason some people like the style of Hitman Go, which realizes it can’t be a realistic-looking Hitman game on a phone screen and thus goes in the opposite direction.

In my opinion one mistake made by Stella Glow, of which I also played the demo on 3DS, is that it tries to go for the cinematic approach, but only a little bit. When I got my first look at a battle zone in the demo I was relieved to finally see a tactical RPG making full use of the 3DS’s visual capabilities. For a while I’ve imagined looking into the boards and figurines of FFTactics through that 3D screen with more detailed graphics, and Stella Glow I believe is the closest we’ve gotten. Then when an attack happens it does what Fire Emblem: Awakening did and cuts to a separate, more cinematic scene showing the two characters fighting. I actually turned off the animated battles in Awakening because I prefer to simply look at the tiny character sprites fight each other. I miss the way the older Fire Emblem games did it where you’d just see two animated sprites fight on top of a giant block representing the ground.

I’ve probably talked enough about how tactical RPGs look. As a game Stella Glow seems to be a pretty good tactical RPG in the same style as Mercenaries Saga 2. It puts more emphasis on managing turn order which is displayed at the bottom of the top screen. I’ll be honest and say I didn’t get a chance to play a whole lot of it because the demo tried to take me through three missions without any way to save. Unfortunately I also had to give it a rest because of the egregious moe harem theme that was creeping up. The main characters themselves are fine and the dialogue is okay, I mostly just don’t like their designs.

Now, can XSEED or someone please get me an English version of Grand Kingdom?!

BULLETS:

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