Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings on the Nintendo DS is a follow up to Final Fantasy XII. "Follow up" is much more appropriate than "sequel" as although the plot takes place after the events of XII it has very little to do with the events of that game. Similarly the gameplay in Wings has nothing to do with the traditional Final Fantasy style gameplay of XII.
The plot not directly continuing is (for me) a good thing as I didn't finish FF XII. Similarly the gameplay in Wings not being anything like XII is also good news. The reason I didn't finish XII was that I got completely fed up playing it whereas I did, eventually, complete this.
In Wings Vaan, Penelo and assorted other characters (some new, some old) acquire a mysterious ship and before having a chance to realize their (well Vaans) dreams of becoming sky pirates find themselves transported to the land of Lemures (which happens to be a group of flying islands in the sky) and get involved in a conflict between the local residents the Aegyl, other less scrupulous sky pirates and (this being a FF game) the deeply troubled (and not just plain evil) Judge of Wings who is trying to destroy pretty much everything due to deep personal issues.
The gameplay is different to a "normal" Final Fantasy game, instead of the usual group of three characters wandering around it's squad based. You take up to five characters into battle and each of them has a troupe of summoned monsters (Espers) to do their bidding and most of the fighting. The characters and monsters are all either ranged, flying or melee style fighters. There are also elemental properties (either strengths or weaknesses) to the weapons wielded by characters or monsters themselves - fire, earth, water and electricity. And so we have a 2-dimensional game of rock, paper, scissors. Flying units beat melee units which beat ranged units which beat flying units and fire beats water which beats....
The final complications come in the shape of the ranks of monster - I, II or III with them being progressively tougher and the availability of healing units, which is effectively Penelo and certain monsters.
At the start of each mission you usually get to choose your characters and the make up of your squad and can almost always see what units you will be facing. When you get into battle you find that the map is on the top screen (as per usual) and your characters are viewed from an almost isometric 3d viewpoint above. You order them to move and attack by using the stylus in a fairly unsurprising but effective control system. It's a DS game and it behaves like one.
A typical mission will charge you with either wiping out all the enemy monsters, all the enemy leaders or something similar. Often there are summoning gates through which you can summon replacements when your monsters are slain and sometimes the objective is simply to capture all of those.
The combat works surprisingly well. Generally your units respond properly to your orders and you feel fairly in control. Micromanagement isn't recommended as things are fairly fast paced (too fast to manage 20 units individually anyway) and selecting an individual unit is fiddly. It's better to control your team at a squad level and worry about where your units are relative to each other and the enemy. Juggling keeping your flying units out of the way of ranged units, your ranged units behind a screen of melee or flying units and your healing units out of battle but within range of the fighting units they need to heal is how you will generally spend your time. The balance of your squads will make or break a battle. With five squads and four kinds or unit (counting flying, melee, ranged and healing) you'll usually ponder what the fifth should be or whether you can get away without one kind entirely.
The difficulty is generally well balanced. Some of the battles were more frustrating and needed more retries than others but generally they were beaten with relative ease by an eventual change to my strategy rather than by fluke. There are definitely some issues though. The AI really isn't that bright on either side. Path finding could definitely be an issue, not over long distances but with just units finding their way around dense groups of other units. Keeping a your squads organised and separated can alleviate that. The enemy AI is even more clearly dumb. Slightly too frequently the solution to a difficult level was to defend a summoning gate whilst repeatedly sending level III Espers off to grind down someone or something that I needed to kill or destroy to complete the mission. The AI would concentrate on hurling units towards the characters rather than intercepting the huge dangerous thing sneaking around the back.
Your reward for completing these missions is usually some money, for buying things, materials, for crafting things and Auracite which is used to unlock more Espers to summon. And experience to level up with, of course. Despite the total change of gameplay this does still feel like a Final Fantasy game. The graphics, dialogue and the presence of plenty of side quests ensure that. The side quests probably make up more than 50% of the missions so there's plenty of material. Having finished the main plot and lots of side quests I had 90%+ completed and it had taken me 30+ hours. Again since this is a Final Fantasy game completing that final 10% of missions is not going to be easy, I took a look at them and decided I'd rather just see how it all ended but if you want a challenge then they are there.
The final thing that marks this as a Final Fantasy game is the cut scenes which are up to Squares usual standard of being totally gorgeous. Sadly you will see precisely half of them as the game does the usual DS trick of putting the video on both screens despite it being impossible to watch both at once. Normally this isn't worth complaining about but if they hadn't done that they could have squeezed double the length of video on the cart and that would have been good news. As well as being lovely to watch they might have helped connect the missions with the plot a bit more. It's a minor gripe but as the cut scenes aren't repeatable you'll find yourself missing details on one screen while watching the other and never knowing what you missed.
In many senses this isn't quite as good a game as a traditional Final Fantasy game, it doesn't feel as epic and the graphics obviously aren't as impressive. Yet as I said at the beginning I finished this but didn't complete XII which I would almost certainly give a higher mark. The answer to this has to be accessibility. The game is on the DS so you can pause it any time you like by shutting the lid. If that wasn't enough you can even save from a menu option without having to go and find some magic crystal somewhere that's fifteen random battles and half an hour away. That means you can play this without having to carve out two solid hours that may be totally wasted if you die at the last minute. That's why I got fed up with XII and that's why I was able to steadily work through Wings. Hopefully Square will learn this lesson. A standard Final Fantasy game with a save file you could use any time but only load up once as well as it's standard save crystal based saves. It would be a thousand times more playable for those of us with jobs, partners or children. I'd like to see reviewers penalizing the inevitably brilliant FF XIII if it doesn't have this feature if only because otherwise I'll never be able to play it!
However this is a review of Wings and I should stop letting its bigger brother steal the show. It's a nice solid game and is getting an eight out of ten which it deserves as a game but that said it's worth mentioning at the end of this review that value wise it would be a ten - it's 30+ hours long and Amazon are still selling it for under 12 quid. From that and the fact that no-one else has reviewed it yet I can surmise that not nearly enough people have bought it. So you should buy it. What else are you going to do all summer?
8 / 10