One of the best turn-based RPGs of the past decade heads into the tactical-combat genre with mixed success.
When Persona 5 hit in 2017, I wasn’t expecting myself to fall for it in the manner that I did. As my first entry-point to the long-running Shin Megami Tensei series, I went in blind with zero expectations. Waiting for me was an intensely stylish and slick RPG with a cool concept - a group of radical teenagers discover they have the power to create big societal change in the world around them.
It wasn’t a perfect game though - it felt bloated at times and its representation of romance, queerness and women left a lot to be desired. Let’s call it a problematic fave then. An anime romp through modern-tokyo, mixing dating sim and visual novel elements with one of the best turn-based combat systems in a modern RPG.
After spending over 200+ hours with the Phantom Thieves across both 5 and Royale and the recent Dynasty Warriors spin-off Strikers, it’s time to return for one more outing with the crew - this time in grid-based tactics format.
We pick back up with the phantom thieves towards the end of the original Persona 5’s story - and excluding some of the narrative additions and changes from Royale. Our crew of teens find themselves transported to a strange new realm in the metaverse - a kingdom ruled by the despotic Lady Marie. Joining them in the struggle to escape the metaverse is Erina, the leader of a rebel army, and Toshiro Kasukabe, a young member of the Japanese National Diet.
The phantom thieves take a back-seat to the newcomers in the narrative, who are fine for the most part. Plot wise, Tactica is focused on the way that power and corruption can abuse and harm societies from Lady Marie’s domineering control over her subjects to the surveillance-state fascism of ‘Yoshiki the Buddha’. Thematically, it all works well. In execution however, Tactica can feel oddly paced and plods about - especially in its opening tutorial missions.
Set them up and knock them down
So how’s the tactical combat? It’s pretty solid and translates some of the mechanics of Persona 5 well to a grid-based system. In Persona 5, controlling turn-order and denying enemies the ability to attack back was paramount. This was achieved by countering enemies’ elemental weaknesses which would knock them down and give you an immediate extra-turn in combat.
Tactica removes elemental weaknesses and replaces them with a cover system. Enemies (or heroes) behind cover have resistance to attacks. Push an enemy out of place and attack them when they’re in the open and you’ll knock them down - immediately opening your character up to another move & attack in the same round. If you surround your enemies in a triangle formation while one enemy is knocked out, you can dish out a tremendous all-out-attack, possibly wiping out an entire map of baddies if you’re good with positioning.
Managing the turn economy, careful positioning and smart usage of abilities that displace or open up knockdown opportunities becomes the key to success in tactica with each squad-mate bringing their own niche and fighting style to the table.
Haru has terrible movement (only able to cross a handful of grid spaces per turn), but has great AOE gun damage and a variety of physic spells that allow her to draw enemies out of cover closer to her. Newcomer Erina can easily knock enemies out of cover by charging between turns, allowing her to get into hard to reach locations and gain the upper hand in battle.
You can further customise your crew by assigning them an additional sub-persona, who’ll bring passive and active abilities to supplement their kit. This works best when you’re helping offset a unit’s weaknesses, as doubling down on their strengths can sometimes leave a character feeling unable to contribute due to the nature of the combat’s focus on turn-manipulation and positioning.
Further complexity in Tactica comes through map obstacles and objectives. There’s a lot of exploding barrels, switches, multi-leveled terrain, ladders and jump platforms to think about. Working out how best to manipulate enemy positions while taking advantage of a map’s environment becomes key to later battles and with ‘quest’ missions offering unique puzzle-maps with strict completion requirements to tease and solve.
More homework to do
Most quest missions were extremely rigid problems to solve, usually with one clear solution - i.e knock these enemies in just the right away in the first two turns, so you can carefully position everyone in your final turn and wipe them out with an All-Out Attack.
Quest missions felt like homework and the opposite of how I like to approach a tactics game. I love the ‘oh no’ moment of a pod of aliens discovering you in x-com or the ability to rework and try out different unit formations and strategies in Fire Emblem & Triangle Strategy. Working out a specific sequence of tactical moves with a singular solution was not where I wanted to be.
Thankfully, Tactica’s main story missions take on a different approach to the side-quests, allowing more of the flexibility I want out of tactics gameplay, and less of the puzzle-box head-scratching that doesn’t quite gel with how I like to play. These main missions provide some flexible challenge, offering bonus experience and rewards for completing them without taking too much damage, losing units or within a set turn limit. It provides a good sense of tension - similar to the way in which x-com’s turn-timers would press you into action and dangerous situations.
What I found in my 15 hours so far, was a mix of highs and lows. There’s some great tactical combat and an interesting narrative twist on the Persona series to dive into here, but ultimately it feels like there’s just something missing.
It culminates in a lack of urgency to pick the controller back up. Unlike recent tactics games like Marvel’s Midnight Suns or even Fire Emblem: Engage (which had a truly woeful story but kept me hooked with its tactical combat) I’m just not that invested in the mechanics and systems on display. I don’t find myself daydreaming strategies and combos, theorycrafting cool character builds for my squad and wanting to dive right back in for just one more turn.
On the narrative end, while the themes being explored are interesting, I just don’t feel the drive to keep playing to see where it all goes.
The phantom thieves are the drawcard for Persona 5 fans, and yet here they feel a bit one-dimensional, lacking in drive and are spectators watching the story unfold alongside you.
Problematic pacing and a lack of narrative urgency does not aid here.
Tactica often feels more interested in surface-level interactions -for example characters playing dress-ups in Shogun-era attire, rather than exploring the interiority of its cast.
Maybe this will all change when I arrive at the back-half of Tactica’s gameplay - but the true challenge will be to see if I can ever get there.
A copy of PERSONA 5 TACTICA on PlayStation 5 was provided to SIFTER for the purpose of this review.