If you're feeling bloated and half-retarded from eating enough starch to make a crude cement mix, a strategy RPG might be the last thing on your mind. But don't let something like feeling disgusted with yourself for stealing a final glass of gravy keep you from playing games; abandoning our pastime in favor of a well-deserved food coma would awaken a terrible anger in the spirits of the long-dead pilgrims whose only hope for their progeny was mounds of oily food consumed by the bucket and damn fine portable gaming.
So, don't pass out just yet, brave reader. Hit the jump for our review of Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings.
Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings (DS)
Square-Enix's renewed focus on Ivalice was an unexpected but not at all unpleasant change in direction for the RPG giant. Developing and evolving the fledgling universe originally depicted nearly ten years ago in Final Fantasy Tactics, Ivalice has expanded rapidly from its one-shot roots into a world with characteristics all its own. There's a neat sort of cyclical nature to it -- informed by Final Fantasy characters, themes and motifs, Ivalice itself informed and inspired the development of Final Fantasy XII, one of the most wild departures in the series to date and perhaps the most detailed glimpse into the universe we've yet seen. Expanding upon the foundations established in Final Fantasy XII, Revenant Wings is just as surprising a departure from previous standards as its forebearer while managing to capitalize on the magic of its surrounding universe.
Taking place a year after the events of XII, Revenant Wings puts players back in the shoes of Vaan, XII's protagonist and arguably the most underdeveloped character in the game. Inspired by Balthier, Vaan and fellow XII alum Penelo secure a ship of their own to pursue dreams of becoming fully-fledged sky pirates like their comrades. On their first treasure hunting expedition to retrieve the Cache of Galbados, Vaan stumbles across an airship which takes him and Penelo to the sky continent of Lemurés. They meet the denizens of the sky continent, a winged race called the Aegyl, besieged by other less-than-noble sky pirates hunting for the treasure the continent is said to hold. Vaan and crew vow to rid their land of these swarthy bastards, setting them along a quest that will unravel the mysteries of the sky continent and (of course) risk the catastrophic ruin of everything that is, y'know, good. This is Ivalice, after all.
Shirking the tactical RPG roots of the Ivalice world, Revenant Wings takes Final Fantasy XII's real-time battle system a step further, taking the form of a sort of RTS-lite gameplay model. Those of you familiar with the unfortunate failure of this year's Heroes of Mana, take heart: Square-Enix did some homework and created a fun and functional spin on the RTS genre that actually fits the platform. Using the stylus (natch), the player can control Vaan and crew as well as their summonable cannon fodder, the Espers, with a variety of conventions we've come to expect from the genre. It has its ups and downs, but we'll get to those in a minute.
Like a certain other alternative RTS released this year, combat in Revenant Wings is remarkably simple, boiling down to what is essentially a rock-paper-scissors sort of arrangement with its controllable units. Vaan and his cohorts, designated by the game as "group leaders", as well as the Espers they summon are all dumped into one of three categories: melee, ranged, and flying. As you might expect, each is strong against one and weak against the other, but Revenant Wings complicates things further by tossing elemental alignment and special abilities for team leads and the bigger, burlier Espers into the mix. Espers are unlocked via the Ring of Pacts, a curious spinoff of the licensing board in which weaker Espers (chocobos, bombs, et cetera) lead to stronger ones and, ultimately, the beefy Shivas, Ifrits and such that we've come to expect from the Final Fantasy series.
The control functions for the most part, but isn't without its share of shortcomings. Most of your time with Revenant Wings will be spent with the DS firmly gripped in one hand and the stylus in the other, using the digital pad to navigate the camera's perspective over the field of battle while doling out marching orders with the stylus. Team leaders and the Espers in their command are represented by icons in the HUD, and the player need only click on one to select each member of that group and send 'em off to fight, scavenge the battlefield for items and treasure, and so on. But the limits of the control scheme makes it difficult to achieve complete mastery of your units -- selection is limited to everyone, individual groups, or whoever you can grab via a drag selection tool. I can't hold a button and make precise selections -- two diablos, a chocobo and two tonberry, for example -- as units are always paired with a group leader of the same type.
Unit coordination becomes a bit difficult on some of the maps featuring tighter terrain or corridors, which Revenant Wings features fairly regularly. Often times you'll find that your units crowd and glom together, making the selection of a particular ally or enemy for a quick heal or devastating spell a bit difficult. The alternative, of course, would be to send your troops in calculated waves, but often times sheer numbers is the best offense, and tossing three or four Espers at a pack of six to twelve enemies makes for a swift slaughter.
Creating custom groups on the fly -- all flying espers, all group leaders and no espers, or all fire-elemental espers, that sort of thing -- would've been an absolute godsend in the more heated battles later in the game, and is the sort of feature that is standard in RTS for a reason. While you'll certainly get by without it, when you lose hard it likely won't be for lack of proper planning or underdeveloped stats, but rather a giant pit of fury and hell in which an inability to designate attacks or use unit types to your advantage is constant.
Frustrations aside, there's a load of crap to do in Revenant Wings, including optional monster hunts and weapon crafting on top of the plot-advancing main quest. Mission objectives remain fundamentally simple throughout the bulk of the experience (capture summon points, defeat enemy group leaders, destroy all the monsters), and for many of the game's early battles, victory is as simple as selecting the right elemental affinities and sending your horde at opposing forces to take 'em out brute force style. But at the end of the day, Wings plays pretty well and can be loads of fun, especially when the battles get interesting in the latter half of the game and the player is granted access to the optional missions.
Revenant Wings' closest ties to its predecessor is wrapped up in the aesthetics, particularly the music. The game features plenty of familiar faces, locations and references to the events in XII, but the music was lifted outright from the game -- hardly a detraction, really. Unlike the absolutely soul-destroying dischord featured in Final Fantasy X-2, it was actually refreshing to hear songs that I was already familiar with from the original XII, if only for the way in which it carries the themes and emotional gravitas to the new title. The transition is made pretty well, so much so that it's almost surprising to learn that the music was rearranged and not just piped through crappy speakers at lower bitrates.
But there's something of an absence in the original game's epic scope, which is to be expected in a jump to a portable platform, but I believe it to be more closely related to the art style. Ryoma Ito's character design resembles what we've seen in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and the upcoming DS sequel Grimoire of the Rift, and though the world is certainly an expanded Ivalice as presented in FFXII, a fair bit of emotional weight is lost in the transition to these softer, cuter sprites. I wouldn't mark this as a detraction unless you play Wings expecting the same sort of epic scope as the original; there's a lot at stake in the game's story, but pre- and post-battle dialogue is often spent scrolling adorable exchanges between adorable sprites representing characters we only recently watched unravel a massive plot to destroy an entire kingdom. It's a preference thang, but might irk some gamers the same way the lighthearted shenanigans of Tactics Advance burned gamers looking for another bloodthirsty political epic like Tactics.
At the end of the day, Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings is a fine alternative RTS that expands upon an already fantastic universe and one of Final Fantasy's most compelling stories and casts to date. But while their grip on the gameplay end of things has improved dramatically over Heroes of Mana, Wings makes a few mistakes that keep things a little less strategy and a little more mob slaughter. Look past the shortcomings of the gameplay, however, and you'll find a limited yet worthy sequel that stands as one of the better RPG/RTS/WTF experiences on the platform.
Incidentally, did you know that it's been just over a year since I published my Balthier mancrush article? Oh, I still swoon at the very sight of that son of a bitch.