Ragnarok Tactics starts with creating your own character—default name "Rito". The story is set on a continent where two countries, Aura Republic and Branshaldo Empire, are in the midst of wavering political tension despite a contemporary truce. Our hero is part of a small mercenary group led by Toren, a cheerful local hero.
The story begins with Rito and Toren encountering Yuri, a knight from Aura, and Cynthia, a mage from Branshaldo near the border of two countries. Since all of them turn out to be looking for a group of monsters attacking the locals, they all decided to team up for the hunt. This makes up the first 3 chapters of the story, which serve as tutorials and explain various elements of the game.
After that point, the story branches out into various paths where you can side with either Toren Militia (which stays neutral between the two countries), Aura and Branshaldo. Naturally, I first expected three storylines according to the number of factions, but due to various turns of events, there are actually four storylines to complete. The game even provides an event flowchart to keep track of which events you have completed so far. There are about a dozen of chapters for each path (not counting the first three that come before story-branching occurs), and they adhere quite strictly to their own perspective, only granting brief glimpses into concurrent events now and then.
Between this and the fact that the demo allowed players to complete one full path all the way to the ending, it’s quite obvious that the Ragnarok Tactics is intended to be replayed over and over, and it shows in the game, too.
With the world map as the "hub", new stages appear at various spots where you can progress to the next chapter. You do have the option to break off from the current path to another at any point, but as I mentioned above, each path’s perspective is largely restricted to its own, so hopping paths may not yield a coherent sequential grasp of events. There are also Free Battles strewn across the region where you can build up your party, and some Sub-Events in towns which you can easily notice when they appear.
As far as combat goes, the game is pretty straightforward. Each battle starts you off at a preparation screen where you can optimize equipment and position your party in the starting zone. Each faction’s path grants two unique characters as comrades (who also participate in the story) as a rule of thumb, and you’re allowed up to 8 members on your side. This is where the Guild system comes in.
At the taverns in towns, you can recruit (i.e: create) mercenaries to join your Guild. They follow the same character creation process as the protagonist, but one difference is that you raise their starting level all the way up to the current level of the protagonist, by paying more per level. Since money isn’t hard to come by in the game, this way of leveling up does save some time grinding for a character. The trade-off here is that you can’t influence how the character’s stats grow, as opposed to a level-up through EXP accumulation, which allows you to manage where each point will go.
But normal levels can only do so much for a character’s stats; virtually half of the total stats is governed by the current Job level. Job levels are gained with Job Points (JP) earned in battle alongside EXP, but they progress noticeably faster. As a Job’s level grows, a character gains additional stats as well as various Skills for use in combat at the expense of Skill Points (SP). Skills can be upgraded for better efficiency by points earned (one per) every 3 Job levels, such as longer range for projectile skills and a wider effective area for spells. Jobs can be reassigned as desired at taverns without any penalty, although not all Jobs may be ideal for a character depending on their stat distribution.
However, even for a character with a sufficient Level and Job Level, the game doesn’t go easy on them. Enemies in story chapters are, more often than not, on par with or a bit stronger than your party members. This becomes even more apparent starting from mid-game when enemies have high enough Job Levels of their own to use Skills, which can take down a character in 2-3 attacks on average. Considering you need to keep the protagonist and two companions alive out of a maximum party of eight, story battles become increasingly challenging by chapter.
Perhaps as compensation for the stern difficulty, the game provides two features that can turn a fight in your favor. First is Overdrive. Overdrive comes in the form of a four-segment gauge that is separate for each character, and can be accumulated by attacking/defeating enemies as well as receiving damage. Its primary function is to chain multiple Skills in one turn without any SP usage, but each class can also pull of a more powerful Skill resulting from a specific sequence of Skills. You can get some hints about those sequences from a few NPCs in towns.
One odd thing about the Overdrive gauge is that, despite the "1 Skill per segment" being the rule of thumb, you have to fill up at least two before you can use it at all. Since each character has their own separate gauge and accumulation is a bit slow, making it a bit of a "late-battle" feature; on the bright side, this makes it primed and ready for a barrage of Skills to be unleashed against Bosses or tough enemies, which is how I often ended up using it.
The other feature, Burst, is opposite to Overdrive in a few ways. It’s a full gauge available from the beginning of each battle, and is shared between all the characters. Each character has a stat called "Burst Strike Area" which determines an area around that character from where up to two allies can be selected for a unison attack to all the enemies also in the same area. The resulting attack is quite powerful in damage output, but it’s shared between all the enemies caught in the attack. With the right characters, appropriate buffs/debuffs and smart positioning (of the Burst initiator), it’s entirely possible to take out an enemy in one shot if they’re targeted alone.
Outside of combat, there’s also the Card system to augment your characters. Each defeated monster can drop random Cards with various stat bonuses, added effects or Job-specific perks, up to 3 of which can be equipped to each character. (Finishing a battle may also yield cards.) Ragnarok Online players may be familiar with the illustrations of the cards (seen in the Item List), as they’re taken straight from the MMO.
One thing I noticed as I played through the game is that the game is rather slow in a few aspects. From my experience, each battle lasted around 25~30 minutes—although I should mention that I took a careful, defensive approach due to the difficulty. Animations are also a bit slow; while slow animations aren’t very noticeable individually, it does add up throughout a battle. There are no options or functions to skip them either, barring the long Overdrive and Burst skippable with Start. (Although I did find out that holding down the X button for about half a second speeds up the character movement.)
Lastly, character progression takes some time to get to a point where a character has decent survivability and some reliable Skills to work with. Newly created characters also have to be built up in their Job levels even if they were hired at a higher starting level. Between all that, my first run was a bit of a trudge, honestly speaking.
But good things do come to those who persevere: Once a story path is cleared and an ending is reached, a cleared save file can be made, from which a New Game+ can be started with all the characters, levels and items intact. You also get to wholly redo the protagonist without losing any of the level he/she has gained. On the world map, there’ll be an extra area called "Mirage Tower" where you can progress through various floors at your leisure.
Lastly, the game introduces the A.I.Z. system, which is similar to a quickload feature in a visual novel. Finishing a story battle without any ally defeated yields an A.I.Z. point (depicted as an hourglass), up to five of which can be stocked at any given time. These points allow the story to recede back to any branching point as shown on the flowchart. It’s quite useful for those who want to experience all the events happening concurrently before proceeding further down the chart.
Food for thought:
1. After clearing the game once, you unlock four job classes: Dark Knight, Shaman, Jonda and Kafra. Jonda and Kafra are basically ranged gunner-type jobs that are gender-specific with a few differences, like Clown and Dancer.
2. The way the dialogue is translated is rather modern; that is to say, it reads much of the time like people in our culture talking (even including some swear words), which often felt contrasted with the medieval fantasy designs of the game.
3. Designs of many important characters, even some villains, are noticeably based on profile drawings of various classes from Ragnarok Online.
4. The Burst Attack is quite similar to the "Team Make System" in Blue Roses, another Tactical RPG on PSP by developer Apollosoft, which also had a hand in Ragnarok Tactics. (For those unfamiliar, Apollosoft is a relatively new developer founded by former Flight Plan employees.)
5. While you can redesign your custom characters at nearly every aspect (from name to job), there are two odd things you can’t change: hair color and gender. Hair color takes after the default color of the very first model a character takes after, and stays the same afterwards, which is a minor quirk. Gender, on the other hand, affects a character a bit more, since there are two jobs each gender can’t access—Clown and Jonda are male-specific, while Dancer and Kafra are female-specific. That said, there are few differences between the analogous Jobs. The exception to both issues is, of course, the protagonist.