With the veritable cornucopia of fantastic games which have landed on our laps in the last three or four months, it's easy sometimes to forget that the first half of 2007 was no slouch in gaming terms either. For many, the highlight of the early months of the year was Final Fantasy XII - Square Enix's triumphant return to its best-loved RPG franchise, and to the fascinating world of Ivalice.
It was, admittedly, not exactly everyone's cup of tea. Some adored the game's brave move to real-time combat, with a party of characters controlled by the highly customisable Gambit system which allowed the player to set up triggers for specific actions, but others hated it and accused the game of "playing itself". Some were engrossed by the mature and complex high fantasy storyline, which dragged Final Fantasy away from teen soap opera and gave it a stunning ensemble cast and a heavy dose of political intrigue, while others lamented the lack of melodrama and the slightly ill-defined central character, Vaan.
For those who loved both aspects, though, Final Fantasy XII was a genre-redefining game - and as a result, the team's rapid development of a sequel title for the Nintendo DS has been followed with keen interest. Revenant Wings picks up from the end of Final Fantasy XII; for those craving a return to Ivalice, this is it.
Making a Comeback
It would be an error, however, to categorise Revenant Wings as being "more FFXII". In fact, the game wisely avoids duplicating too many of the systems from its progenitor - choosing instead to create a very different but definitely related experience that's specifically crafted to play to the strengths of the Nintendo DS.
In essence, Revenant Wings is a real-time strategy game - its closest relative, perhaps, being Square Enix's own Heroes of Mana title, which pioneered the combination of RTS and RPG on the DS. Comparisons with Final Fantasy Tactics are also obvious, not least because of the connections between FFXII's team and that game (although Revenant Wings was developed externally to Square Enix) - but unlike FFT, this game dispenses with the turn-based combat in favour of a faster-moving real-time system.
You control up to five named characters on the battlefield at once, taken from FFXII's main cast - supplemented by former Rabanastre street-rats Kytes and Filo, who had small roles in the previous game, and by new character Llyud. Each of these characters can summon various monsters to fight for your party, starting from relatively low-end monsters such as Cactaur and Chocobos, and going right the way up to epic boss summons such as Ultima. Creatures are summoned through special Summon Gates, which are essentially the resource nodes you need to capture and defend.
As you might imagine, battles with this many creatures to control quickly become rather hectic on a screen as small as the DS'. All of your interactions are carried out with the stylus, while you pan around the screen with the D-pad (southpaws beware; there's no way to switch the button config to scroll around with the face buttons), while the game tries to simplify your interactions by giving you the ability to control units in groups.
This works rather well, actually. By clicking on a named character, you can select all of the creatures he has summoned - so if you're careful about organising your summons, you can select a healing group, or a ranged weapon group, with ease. You can also drag a box around a number of units to group-select, just like a PC RTS game. It's well-considered, and provides a nice work-around for the fact that actually picking out an individual character in a melee battle can be a complete pain in the backside - although you'll still run into that frustration a little more often than we'd have liked.
Get Your Fresh Gambits
Final Fantasy XII's love-it-or-hate-it Gambit system makes a return in Revenant Wings, too, but it's been vastly chopped down for this game - to the extent that characters can only have one Gambit enabled. This can be quite frustrating to begin with, because it means that characters with multiple special abilities can only use one automatically, and must be manually selected to trigger the others.
To be blunt, this never stopped being slightly annoying - but as we progressed through the game, we realised that the trick here is to build up a set of effective Gambits across your squad, with each creature doing a specialised job. Each creature may only have one gambit, but that still adds up to a couple of dozen gambits spread over the entire party - enough to create some quite complex behaviour.
Given this level of specialisation in each character, the comparisons with Final Fantasy Tactics' superbly well balanced characters and abilities are obvious. Indeed, if some rather fiddly controls are Revenant Wings' weakest point, its finely honed balance is arguably its strongest suit. As in FFXII, this balance can be thrown out a little if you do a lot of the side-quest material (of which there is absolutely tons on offer), but that's entirely your choice - and even at that, choosing the right combined-arms approach to any given battle will be important.
Echoes of Final Fantasy XII can also be seen in the difficulty curve. Revenant Wings starts off with a number of very simple encounters, then vastly ramps up the complexity of battles until, in the latter portions of the game, even the best players will find themselves being seriously challenged by some of the tougher battles.
The difficulty never seems daunting, though, because this is one of those rare games where as soon as you fail a battle, your mind is buzzing with ideas about things you could have done differently - and you're itching to get back into the fray. That, we'd venture, is a very good sign.
Of course, Final Fantasy has in recent years been as much about presentation as anything else - and on this front, Revenant Wings is hugely impressive. Like FFT, it opts for lavish 3D backgrounds with lovely hand-drawn 2D characters on top, and the effect is very striking - especially thanks to the huge number of sprites which are included to ensure that characters look good in every setting.
Full motion video has become a hallmark of Square Enix' DS titles, and Revenant Wings is no exception. Beautiful sequences whose cute character designs are reminiscent of Final Fantasy IX combine with in-engine cutscenes to tell the story, which is itself rather more of a traditional, high-spirited adventure than Final Fantasy XII's heavyweight tale.
For fans of Final Fantasy XII, of course, the chance to spend more time in Ivalice is the big draw of Revenant Wings, and the game does not disappoint. All of the main characters from the previous game make a return - and some of them are actually far more suited to the new, more light-hearted storyline of Revenant Wings than they were to FFXII itself.
Vaan, in particular, was a somewhat faceless character in FFXII, designed to be an observer of momentous events more than anything else. In Revenant Wings, however, he is a fully fledged sky pirate - and even when the more interesting cast members from FFXII turn up, he holds his own as a credible and likable leading man.
As with the gameplay, though, the wisest choice which Revenant Wings' developers have made is to steer clear of turning the game's story and presentation into "more FFXII". Just as the complex gambit system wouldn't have worked terribly well if shoehorned onto the DS, the handheld platform is not an ideal system for a storyline of political intrigue and religious philosophy.
Although we hesitate to make the comparison, knowing full well how many people disliked the game we're about to mention, Final Fantasy X-2 sprang to mind more than once while playing Revenant Wings. They are very different games, but they share the same relationship to their respective progenitors - more light hearted, exuberant and accessible adjuncts to an RPG heavy hitter. It's probably no coincidence that they were both directed by the same person, but rest assured - there's no hint of FFX-2's campy, girl-power motif, which some adored but many despised.
Revenant Wings' presentation alone makes it stand out as one of the DS' most impressive titles in a long time - while its experimentation with combinations of RTS and RPG concepts mark it as yet another example of Square Enix' newfound willingness to innovate.
It's by no means perfect, sadly. Problems with the fiddly control interface are compounded slightly by the slow pace of the game and some repetitive encounters - but our biggest gripe is the lack of any kind of multiplayer. The single-player is long and engrossing, but a DS strategy title without multiplayer is a real let-down.
However, for fans of Final Fantasy XII, it is a wonderful continuation of the story - a welcome chance to revisit well-loved locations and characters. Even for those who weren't won over by FFXII, it stands in its own right as an impressive and enjoyable game - and one which you don't even need to have finished the original RPG to appreciate. Definitely one for your shopping list when it appears in Europe next year.