Ogre Battle 64 and the Cost of Revolution

Ogre Battle 64 begins with the player character breaking up with his boyfriend before graduating from military school, where the pope gives him a tarot reading. From there, Quest’s Nintendo 64 strategy RPG gets progressively more obscure, angry, and gay. I love this game for so many reasons: its expansive character customization, its tragic Iliadic love story, and its focus on a people’s revolution against a rigid class system and the imperial religious hegemony that supports it. But the most compelling — and frustrating — aspect of Ogre Battle 64 is the thoughtful way it forces you to navigate the revolution at the heart of its story, and to explore the moral cost of waging war.

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“In a world shrouded in darkness, no path can be found”

Ogre Battle 64 puts you in the center of that revolution as its terribly-named golden boy and resident military genius, Magnus Gallant. Magnus begins the game as a troubled new recruit in the Southern Division of the royal army, which he joined to piss off his dad and prove himself to his ex-lover Prince Yumil. Magnus is assigned to crush a small peasant rebellion in his region, but he sees the evils of his country’s class system firsthand while fighting to uphold it. He defects to the revolutionary army early in the game, and the rest of the story follows his escalating struggles against kings, holy knights, and the world-threatening demons they summon in their pursuit of ultimate power.

Like all strategy RPGs, Ogre Battle 64 trains its players to optimize their play, and to find the path of least resistance to victory. But the tactical component of the game is imbalanced as hell and slants clearly toward an obvious way to win every battle. Each group of soldiers has a designated leader, and if you kill its leader, that unit no longer responds to orders. Once you figure out how to pick off unit leaders, the rest of their soldiers become easy prey. So it’s best to focus on training up a couple squads into unstoppable killing machines, rush down your enemy’s leaders, then relentlessly hunt their terrified and helpless subordinates down. Break their spirits and kill them while they sleep, wipe them out utterly. This is the easiest way to get experience, money, and items, and it is presented so matter-of-factly that it’s easy to ignore how monstrous these actions are.

“As time passes, their backs break under their burdens”

Ogre Battle 64 has five possible endings, and if you play it in the way that is most obvious and intuitive, you get the worst one. Your friends, the protagonists of the first Ogre Battle game, ambush you on the road. They call you a monster, a cruel mirror of the same injustice you fought against. Their attempt to stop you is too little too late, however, and you cut them down with relative ease. Your brave comrades-in-arms fall before your blade one by one, damning you with their last ragged breaths.

Angry, confused, and with the blood of your allies fresh on your hands, you return to the capital. There, the new revolutionary government pronounces you to be dangerous, a bloodthirsty zealot possessed by demons. The last time you see Magnus, his own soldiers draw their swords and turn on him. Your legacy is annihilated and your name is forgotten.

“The possible, the attainable, the hopeful.”

The first time I finished Ogre Battle 64, I was as baffled and hurt as Magnus himself. I had won every battle, killed every enemy of the revolution, and this was my reward? I had completed the game, and was still completely unaware of the mechanic that determines Ogre Battle 64’s ending, an invisible meter called chaos frame. Chaos frame is effectively a number between 0 and 100 that measures the people’s opinion of Magnus. This number goes up when you liberate an enemy town during battle, and down when you capture it.

In order to liberate a settlement, it needs to be occupied by soldiers who share the values of its residents. Mechanically, this means that towns with low morale should be liberated by chaotic units like berserkers and witches, while those with high morale are more welcoming of lawful characters like paladins and valkyries. Neutral towns are always captured, so try not to bring the war into communities that have managed to avoid it so far.

When you send a unit into an enemy-occupied town, you can’t just send your strongest fighters. It’s imperative to think about who is living there, and who they are most prepared to see as rescuers or invaders. This coalition-building approach to the revolution is far more difficult and time-consuming than the way that Ogre Battle 64 is intuitively played, since you have to field a wide variety of soldiers of varying levels and alignments. Keeping lawful and chaotic units in the same army is a tricky balancing act, requiring you to meet their disparate requirements to recruit and upgrade, but it’s the only way to earn the people’s trust.

Person of Lordly Caliber

Someone had to puzzle this out through trial and error first, but at this the best way to figure out how to get the good ending is to ask other players. Ogre Battle 64 came out almost 20 years ago, so this meant having conversations on gaming forums. The regulars of Ogre Battle 64’s GameFAQs board were glad to educate me on the obscure mysteries of the chaos frame, and encouraged me to play the game again to correct my mistakes. I liked them so much that I stuck around the forum for nearly a year, even participating in a long-running roleplaying thread set in the Ogre Battle universe.

While other strategy RPGs focus on finely-tuned, difficult battles, Ogre Battle 64’s challenge is less straightforward. You still need to defeat your enemies, but the ends cannot justify the means. It’s obsessed with a more Nietzschean struggle, “He who battles with ogres should look to it that he himself does not become an ogre” or something.

Even with the best ending, Ogre Battle 64 is a story fraught with violence and tragedy. The question is not whether that violence is justified (it is), but what you can do to make all of that suffering and death meaningful. By forcing you to ask others for help, Ogre Battle 64 shows you the limits of your moral compass, and the danger of acting on your convictions alone. To keep your ignorance from trampling others underfoot, you have to humble yourself, listen to advice, and value the lives of those you would help more than the ruin of those you would overthrow.