A Tactical RPG (or Tactical Role-Playing Game-- sometimes abbreviated as TRPG, for short) encompasses a genre of video games that emphasizes RPG elements (customization, character growth, etc) but is mechanically structured around 'tactical' game decisions, forcing the player to think and play strategically. These games, while they might require a great deal of strategy, are not typically associated with the strategy genre.
TRPG's function rather similarly to most RPG's in design and mechanic-- typically, your 'party' consists of a main character-- these characters gain experience and grow stronger via engaging in battle. Often, these characters can be customized down to their weaponry and armor (and sometimes accessories, like bangles, necklaces, or cowls) and as the player progresses through the game, they acquire stronger 'gear' for their characters, in essence, making them stronger. Strategic elements come into play here as well, in the customization phase, as some pieces of equipment might be weaker in terms of 'stat' altering values (the amount by which they increment the character's base variables, like strength, dexterity, and so on) but might functionally be stronger in other ways-- for instance, a hood that might be weaker in terms of defense, but functionally viable due to the fact that it protects against status abnormalities like poison, which gradually damages the character over time.
As for elements that differentiate RPG's from tactical RPG's-- TRPG's have become popularly recognizable by the very feature that makes the genre unique-- a grid of some form by which the character's and enemies are aligned, like pawns on a chess board, moving in much the same fashion. The player and enemy team take turns moving units across the grid, the idea being to strategically position units so as to maximize their damage capability, while minimizing their exposure to danger. An isometric grid continues to be the most visually recognizable form of the TRPG grid, though other forms of representation do exist. Further differentiating the two genres, units within the player's party are usually characterized by a class or job, allowing the unit to perform certain abilities of cast certain spells in battle, and this job can be customized to the party's needs-- unlike most RPG's, where characters enter the player's party with a predefined class and set of abilities.
It is clear that tile-based tactical combat existed in games as far back as 1983, with Ultima III: Exodus, which was also the first RPG game to feature animated sprites, and Bokosuka Wars, each thought to have contributed to the fundamental mechanics that would become essential to the Tactical RPG genre, though later titles would really develop and shift the genre into the space it exists within today. The future of the genre is also a little uncertain, it must be noted, as the technique of isometric projection (seemingly complicit with the genre) has fallen somewhat out of favor in popular games. This is not to say that some genre bending has not taken place in more recent titles, Like Knight in the Nightmare and Sega's Valkyria Chronicles: games that seem to borrow tactical RPG elements, but rely heavily on other game mechanics and genres to convey gameplay. It raises the question, is the tactical RPG genre still (and popular) genre? Or is it intrinsically dated?
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light
Published in Japan in 1990 by Nintendo R&D1, this series is arguably thought to be one of the defining progenitors of the genre, as it was one of the first to popularize the genre to that scale. Characters had unique classes and stats and were able to level up, like most RPG's of the time-- adding another degree of strategy, as characters ran the risk of being permanently lost in battle if they were to similarly lose all of their health, like any other enemy or NPC. This was an early mechanic of the genre that has shifted somewhat with the advent of newer modern TRPG's-- though Fire Emblem remains one of the few modern series to still implement this feature fully.
Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen
Released in 1993 and one of four Ogre Battle games to be released in North America. The game received a fair bit of acclaim for mixing real-time elements alongside the tactical mechanics of the game, and was notable for introducing character moral alignment to the story line, allowing the player to experience branching paths and a variety of outcomes, depending on that character's particular moral stance. Interestingly, the sequel Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together would mark the first Tactical RPG with the word, 'Tactics' in the title-- soon thereafter becoming a staple in the genre as an indicative way of conveying gameplay. As of late, this naming mechanic has strayed as the genre has seemed to widen a bit-- with advents like X-Com: Enemy Unknown which seems to blur the genre slightly.
Final Fantasy Tactics
Developed and published in 1998 by Square, arguably the title most responsible for instantiating the Tactical RPG genre in North America-- set in the ficitonal world of Ivalice, this game has inspired several more recent spin-off's, like Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire in the Rift, and was also somewhat responsible for birthing Square Enix's game project, the Ivalice Alliance: the force responsible for producing the series of games that have been set within the fictional realm. Despite employing a stylized aesthetic, at a time when many games were experimenting with rudimentary 3D graphics for character representation, the game remained true to then-Square's bitmap sprite aesthetic but tempered the technique with full 3D environment projection, which was freely rotatable by the player and allowed for more complex environmental surface topography. Batlles were turn-based, as were many games within the genre, but employed a class system more in keeping with those that had been seen in previous installments of Square's main series, most notably Final Fantasy V. Part of the game's success is definitely owed to the fact that previous developmental members of Ogre Battle and Tactics Ogre made up a majority of the developmental team. Game Informer called it, "the most impressive strategy RPG yet" despite assistant professor at the International University of Japan's Akito Inoue's opinion that it's more casual nature, unlike Tactics Ogre which boasted a variety of branching paths, was one of it's primary reasons for success.
Developed by Intelligent Systems and published by Nintendo, Advance Wars is an acclaimed tactical RPG released exclusively for the Game Boy Advance on September 10, 2001. It was well received by reviewers. It received the highest Metacritic a Gameboy Advance game has ever received. It got a perfect score from Edge Magazine and almost perfect score from IGN . The game is highly praised due to its deep and addictive gameplay, typical of the genre.
- McNamara, Andy, ed. (1997). Game Informer Magazine (9). Sunrise Publications