Review by BWoodhouse

"United We Stand... Maybe"

Maybe it's not entirely original, but Yggdra Union is a marathon strategy game made especially for masochists. Its narrative begins like many others in the genre. A bloodthirsty despot overruns every kingdom in the land, with conquest and destruction his sole ambition. Only Princess Yggdra survives her country's royal massacre, escaping with a holy sword into a company of gold-hearted bandits. The tiny guerrilla group has to struggle across battlefield after battlefield, square by square, to restore peace to the world. But each little unique aspect of Yggdra Union introduces another disadvantage obstructing the player from achieving that ideal. As a package, its elements put forth a brutally unforgiving test of strategic thinking.

The most basic unit of combat is when one individual challenges another. Rather than exchanging blows one-on-one, though, each side begins the clash with the strength of six warriors. For example, Yggdra fights alongside five other sword maidens, while her loyal knight Durant appears in a group of three doubly-powered horsemen. Following an initial strike by the aggressor and a counterstrike in defense, the two sides hack away until one is eradicated. It's not a static process. A skill gauge sits at the top of the screen, and you can launch special attacks or defenses when it reaches maximum capacity, assuming other skill-specific conditions are met. To fill the bar quickly, you can order units to fight passively, inflicting less damage in the interim. Conversely, you can ramp up the energy expended on regular attacks, but that moves the gauge in the negative direction.

However! The loser of this clash is not immediately vanquished. Instead, they lose a variable amount of morale, essentially HP, based on a variety of factors: margin of victory, the principals' basic stats, terrain, and more. That means adeptly managing a fight, even if it appears you'll fall, is of the utmost importance. Boss-level enemies are designed to take advantage of this system. It hurts them very little when you narrowly win a battle, if it hurts them at all.

Here's Yggdra Union's major catch: each side can only initiate one skirmish per turn. In order to involve the full force of your party in that single exchange, you must form a union, this game's terminology for unit formation. The shape required depends on the gender of the union leader, and the order of action is predetermined by position. That allows you to arrange the best matchup for the familiar (sword > axe > lance > sword) weapon hierarchy. You'll really gain the advantage if you can line your four or five members into a group, and then attack a smaller cluster of enemies. Each member of the larger faction will get a turn at close combat, which means some of the outnumbered must act more than once to even up the pairings. And there's a penalty: those units will lose the strength of one warrior with each successive engagement. Of course, the computer is always trying to turn the tables. It's very possible that one of your characters, though in a union on offense, cannot form a sufficient union of their own on defense, leaving them as easy prey. The maps make it very tough to organize as well. Many consist of single-width paths with no open space; it's necessary to scope out the intersections conducive to holding your formation while keeping the opposition at bay.

There is an even greater obstacle, though, to forming a more perfect union. As part of battle preparations, you select a collection of cards, usually less than ten, from your stock. One card must be played at the start of each turn; it determines the attribute associated with the skill gauge. Cards hold great powers, from casting curses to super shields to summoning golems onto the field. But they're finicky tools. The skill may only activate with a particular union leader, on a certain terrain, or at a specific time of day. Moreover, the card serves a more rudimentary purpose: movement. Yggdra, Milanor (her crafty bandit) and their friends have no capacity to move on their own. Instead, a value on the card dictates the total number of squares your party can travel that turn, and it could be as few as three or four spaces. Cards can only be used once per battle, so there's a constant tension between wasting a card just to move or saving it for its skill. Also, if the deck runs out during a stage, it's game over.

One final component magnifies all these hardships. The morale of your characters never automatically refills; the damage carries over from battle to battle. As a result, you must rely on the precious few restorative items doled out on an irregular basis. Some are rewards for particular victories, other dropped by or stolen from powerful enemies, none likely to sustain you on their own. It's necessary to also scavenge the battlefield for hidden items, usually found in out of the way villages or empty squares. That's a problem for a couple of reasons, one being that movement is such a prized resource. The other being the game's fondness in transitioning directly from the completion of one objective to the next goal. In these cases, the map extends in a certain direction, and you're expected to soldier on without a hitch. Being scattered about, hoping to hit the healing item lottery, can place you horribly out of position.

A single safety net exists. When you inevitably fail a mission, the experience earned is carried over to the retry. Except if a unit dies, in which case the CPU spitefully zeros out the progress made towards the next level. But even if it takes eons, you'll eventually be strong enough to proceed. The game really does move slowly regardless, since it's necessary to monitor each and every close quarter clash. At least it's a marvel to watch the smooth attacks of twelve fighters in motion at once. Yggdra Union comes from the same developers as Riviera: The Promised Land, another critically acclaimed GBA title, and it utilizes the same anime art style. All of the characters have huge, ultra-cute eyes, and there's a stunning level of intricate detail in the clothing. Yggdra wears this frilly green dress, and it almost shows the stitching in her layers of lacy petticoats. Her flowing blonde hair makes her look angelic, but juxtapose that with how she manhandles her ornate sword that's as tall as her own person.

I wish I could say that the events of Yggdra Union reflect the appearance of delicate innocence in its artwork, but it's full of ethically challenging situations. In one of the early chapters, Yggdra's group happens upon a province in civil strife. Two branches of the ruling house are engaged in conflict, though neither party is necessarily evil. They're both just equally selfish, pigheaded, and uncommunicative regarding their own interests. However, the skirmish impedes our progress, so Yggdra must choose a side and end the squabbling. The leader of the branch you aide will soon permanently join the party as a valuable ally. The leader of the branch you oppose will be dead.

That's a lesson this game teaches. The currency of war is blood, and the balance is paid by anyone pulled into the conflict. Be ready for Yggdra Union to extract its pound of flesh from you as well. The game has interesting gameplay mechanics, but together they form such an oppressive system. Even when you clear a stage, it feels like you have to redo it because it needs to be done better. Because it needs to be executed perfectly or the mistakes will compound exponentially. Overcoming the challenge can be rewarding, but only someone who craves a little bit of punishment can wholly enjoy that.

Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 08/28/08

Game Release: Yggdra Union: We'll Never Fight Alone (US, 11/21/06)

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