Spoilers for the first chapter.

“There’s blood on my hands, how long til it lies on my heart?” A little maudlin, but a very strong line for a video game opener.

Few games let you play as an embattled minority. You may nominally be — as with Final Fantasy VII’s AVALANCHE — in a terrorist organization, but these aren’t labels that stick. In Tactics Ogre you are an insurgent group. This is more than a title, it’s your life. You are a Wallister, part of a small population oppressed by the Galgastan majority. You begin a resistance movement following your rescue of a Wallister duke. With the deposed nobility leading your cause things begin to pick up steam, but the townspeople you are sent to recruit would rather wallow in relative security than seize back their birthright. This frustrates your party to no end.

Outside of the resistance meeting you’re approached with orders from the duke: burn the town and blame the massacre on Galgastani forces.

When you bomb a power reactor in Final Fantasy VII the news reports on the many workers who lost their life in the incident. Your party member rages against the media. The plant was empty, they made sure of it! No innocent lives were lost! Even at the deepest of its navel-gaze there’s very little moral equivocating in FF VII. Your party would not have bombed that power plant if innocent people were actually there. They are the heroes, and heroes don’t kill good people.

The fairy-tale hero does not exist in Tactics Ogre. There is Denam, a teenage revolutionary who has watched his people die. When asked to kill your own people, you’re tasked with deciding what you value more: your freedom or your principles. I had no lofty standards. I chose the massacre because I knew it was required to recruit a certain character. I traded the lives of many for my modest comfort.

Denam’s position resonated with me. He has seen his friends and family murdered, and now these cows are content to be eke out a subsistence living under the yoke of an occupation? Meanwhile, the rest of Wallister suffers for their inaction. For once, the choice to kill isn’t placed in front of the cartoonish backdrop of a Fallout game, where destroying a town with a nuclear bomb is done solely to acquire a penthouse apartment. I, the player, had something to gain from the massacre. Did Denam as well? Were his goals more noble than mine? People are dying. So then, how many deaths fulfil the price of liberty? This is a question that worries me constantly. In the real world I have a secret (callow) relief that such decisions aren’t forced upon me. In Tactics Ogre, safe at home or on the subway, I can make Denam’s choice.

The massacre done, Tactics Ogre becomes a story of redemption. It questions loyalty, both to friends as well as lord and land. It is a direct, brutal story. It asks a something we’re used to video games asking: is redemption possible? In gaming the answer is a constant refrain of “yes.” By the end of Tactics Ogre we’re willing to settle for “maybe.”

By the end, even the “Best Ending,” we ask ourselves if any war is just when it places such strains on its participants. Even war for a noble cause shatters lives and it’s questionable if anyone in Tactics Ogre survives intact.

During battle octopus monsters attack by throwing giant cartoon boulders at you. How then, does the story have the right to tell you “heavy is the head that wears the crown?” Your birdmen archers shoot crossbows at undead dragons. It is very silly. Where does morality fit into that?

But there it is.