Thursday, November 01, 2012

Ogre Battle - Legend of the Zenobia Prince

More of the same? Yes, and there's nothing wrong with that.
Review By Last Cetra

If you have ever played the first Ogre Battle game (for the Super Famicom, Saturn or PlayStation) you should feel right at home with Prince of Zenobia. This game plays almost exactly the same as the earlier installment, only with some features slightly changed (likely to make it more enjoyable on a portable system). With that said, despite the lack of all-new, fresh ideas, is this game still worth a try? I'll get into that soon enough; firstly, let me explain how the game works, in case you're new to the series.

GAMEPLAY: If I am to forget the lack of new ideas and judge this game as isolated from the title it is a spin-off of, March of the Black Queen, I can't consider its gameplay as anything but engrossing. Putting it in few words, the game consists of several battle scenarios in which you start at some fortress and must make your way to the enemy headquarters to defeat the boss defending it. You can deploy several units to help you fight the enemy hordes as you make your way across the map, though it's always wise to keep some fighters stationed at your base, lest you lose your foothold yourself. Each map also contains several cities and churches that may be freed, providing you with items and magic tarot cards as well as tax money, which is collected every 24 hours (in-game time, corresponding to but a few minutes) and is necessary to buy supplies or keep your deployed units on the battlefront. In the other hand, enemies may also try to invade freed cities to retake them, adding another burden to your side.

This all may sound simple enough, but after you're past the introductory levels you'll realize how hard it is to keep everything going smoothly: maintaining your own headquarters safe, protecting cities, managing resources, checking enemy troops' movement, finding the best ways to advance toward the boss, exploiting enemy weaknesses and taking advantage of each of your characters' own strong points. Another one of those simple-to-grasp yet hard-to-master games, Prince of Zenobia may be hard to put down after you start playing. Even though some of the later levels may take nearly one hour to complete, you should hardly feel the need to use the in-battle temporary saves to take a breather.

I still haven't mentioned one of the best aspects of the game, though: the class and battle systems. With nearly a hundred different character classes available, each of them with its own peculiarities and attack sets, you should have a lot of fun just by trying to handle character growth and getting the stronger classes. Depending on the units you create, your strategies may differ greatly, which helps keeping the game always fresh. For example, you may have a Werewolf class that is only strong during the night, forcing you to rethink your tactics during the daytime; or you may have a Mermaid, that is particularly strong in the water, but moves very slowly in other terrains; undead characters are immune to nearly every attack, but will be defeated instantaneously upon taking holy damage; Hawk Men can fly, but are not as strong in battle as other fighter classes. In short, the unit/army customization possibilities are vast.

As for battles, though they are always carried out automatically by the computer, they require no short amount of thinking. Seeing as how classes vary so greatly, you'll always want to make sure the unit you're using against an enemy has some advantage over him. Also, you can intercede during the battles to select an AI style for your characters, telling them how they should behave, or to use magic cards to turn the odds of battle to your side. One distinctive aspect of the battles in this game is that whenever you engage an enemy, you don't necessarily fight to death: each character has a set amount of times to act per encounter, so that, after every character has spent his turns, the battle ends, and the victory goes to the side which dealt the most damage. The loser side is pushed backwards on the game map, granting the victor the chance to keep going forward on his way to take over a city, for instance.

STORY: Though the Ogre Battle series is known for very convoluted storylines, filled with political schemes and plot-twists, surprisingly Prince of Zenobia may fall short of one's expectations. The story isn't bad, but certainly seems a bit bland when compared to the other games. As its title suggests, Prince of Zenobia tells the story of Tristram, from his youth up to the events preceding the first Ogre Battle game. After his father, the king of Zenobia, was killed by the Zeteginean Empire, Tristram is sent away to the distant countryside under the protection of Estrada, one of King Zenobia's loyal knights. Estrada trains the young Tristram hoping that one day he'll be able to reclaim the kingdom of which he was once the rightful heir.

However common-place the main plot may sound, though, there is still some pretty good dialogue present in the game that keeps it from ever becoming dull. More specifically, the usual moral questions from the series are still present. Near the beginning of the game, for example, you will meet the priestess Aquarius, who surrendered herself to a despotic feudal lord of the region in order to try and help him switch to a righteous way of life. However, this same ruler is one of the stage bosses that you must kill. When you do so, Aquarius will despise Trsitram for trying to solve everything by force. Instead of simply arguing that war is the only way to free the land (something his mentor, Estrada, would say), Tristram argues that is the only way he sees as possible for now, and prompts Aquarius to follow him in order to set him onto a righteous path, as she had been trying to do with the enemy lord. In short, Tristram's character is rather complex for such a small-scaled entry in the series, and his constant wondering about what's right or wrong lead to some interesting exchange of ideas between him and his vassals, friends or even enemies.

Depending on how you help Tristram solve his questions, the game may also lead you through two very different paths, with different stages to be cleared, and ultimately branches into 6 different endings. The bottom line is, while the main plot is comparatively simple, the dialogue is often a joy to read, from conversations between main characters even down to some of the townspeople messages.

GRAPHICS: This game boasts some pretty decent graphics for the Neo Geo Pocket Color, and wasn't tuned down from its SNES counterpart half as much as you could expect. Some of the stage maps are quite big, taking a lot of time to traverse with non-flying units, and everything on them is easy to discern. Battle scenes are still the best part of the game: though sprites are naturally not as colorful or sharp as before, every single action has its unique animation, and some of them look great. With nearly a hundred different classes, each with its own set of actions, you can expect to see quite a lot of different effects, too. One difference is that character sprites were made smaller during battles, so that only the character currently performing his action gets a full-sized sprite. That could be seen as a downside, but I actually think it helps keeping track of what's happening, as you can see clearly who's doing what.

SOUND: I love the musical scores from Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata and, even though they didn't work directly with this entry in the series (since it was developed by a different team), their original pieces were still used. So, basically, what you get is a bunch of recycled Ogre Battle songs, tuned down a bit due to the NGPC's restrictions. And that's great, if you ask me, because the original soundtrack was not short of superb, with several march-inspired themes that manage to put you right into the spirit of the battle. I believe there are only one or two songs that were made originally for this game and, not surprisingly, they pale in comparison to the rest of the music. Still, in most of the stages you should be listening to very familiar music, if you played the original game, or at least getting acquainted with some of the great creations from the Sakimoto/Iwata duo.

Sound effects, likewise, were kept intact for the most part, though once again they don't sound as good because of the NGPC's limitations. In the same way each battle action has its own animation, you should also be able to hear quite a large variety of sound effects throughout the game, which help making each attack distinguishable from the rest. Ogre Battle is also famous for the "Fight It Out" or "Liberation" voice effects, which are present in this game as well, and never get old no matter how much they're overused.

CHALLENGE: While the original Ogre Battle delivered its challenge in a perfect dose, this game is not without its flaws. While it's still challenging and will require you to think a good deal in some of the levels, the difficulty is very unbalanced. To put it better, it starts too easy, and, if you keep using powerhouses like Bahkim or Cain, it will stay that way for quite a while. However, the difficulty suffers a sudden and unexpected rise near the end of the game, particularly so on the last level. So the point is, the game never prepares you for what's coming.

My primary complaint, however, is about some of the stuff that worked so well on the original game and that was removed from this one. For example, in this game no matter how long you stay in a level collecting taxes from the people, they will never stop supporting you, so that on any level you can go on filling your pockets until you have the maximum amount of money (mind you, however, that having infinite money won't help you against some later challenges). Also, while enemies in the original Ogre Battle were always eager to retrieve the cities you freed, and were thus always reducing your escape routes and depriving you from your loyal tax payers, in this game they will focus on attacking your units instead, so that you may leave cities unattended for most of the time. Some enemies may ever go over a city while chasing you, and not bother to reclaim it. That removes a very interesting tactical aspect of the game, that consisted of having to intelligently keep units deployed everywhere to hold newly acquired positions.

LASTING APPEAL: While Prince of Zenobia contains a lot less stages than any other game in the series, in the other hand it has two different paths to follow, six endings, and nearly a hundred different character classes to play with (half of which you won't even be able to get in a single play through), plus an engrossing gameplay and interesting battle system, so it can keep you entertained for quite some time, naturally. I still haven't mentioned, however, the one and meaningful advantage this game has over the original one: multiplayer battle. While not as good as it could have been, since it still lacks full-fledged scenarios to measure your strategic skills against a friend's, it grants you the possibility to test your units against a human player, which may always offer greater challenge than the CPU (especially so if you take into account secret, powerful character classes which never appear during the normal game). Add to that an interesting rule system, which lets you adjust war funds, battlefield, victory conditions etc, and you get a completely new mode that can keep you entertained even after you've finished the game. Any way you see it, if you actually own an NGPC this is a definitive must-buy for the system.

OVERALL: To put it simply, I must admit this pretty much works just as a handheld add-on for the original Ogre Battle, with a lot of extra levels. Some things were tuned down, and it has nothing new but the multiplayer mode to boast of. Nevertheless, despite being more of the same, the formula was never broken to begin with, so that there's no reason not to play this game if you enjoyed the first one. Once again, if you own an NGPC, this is a must-have. If you don't, go play the original Ogre Battle on the Super Famicom, Saturn or PlayStation first and see what you think. If you're into strategy games, I believe you won't be disappointed.

NAME: OGRE BATTLE - LEGEND OF THE ZENOBIA PRINCE
SYSTEM: Neo Geo Pocket Color

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