Feb 142008

Final Fantasy XII : Revenant Wings for the DS opens with some really beautiful video sequences, accompanied by lovely music. Immediately, the top-notch presentation that Final Fantasy games are known for asserts itself. Yet, as is so often the case with FF spinoffs, the actual game doesn’t live up to the polish. Despite its production values, Revenant Wings is an uninspired game with merely passable mechanics.

The box promises a version of the FFXII battle system, and Revenant Wings more or less delivers that with its real-time action and skill charging, though the context is quite different. Each of the characters commands a group of monsters in most parts of the game, making it more of an RTS, though there really isn’t any resource management going on. This isn’t to say that there’s no micromanagement—you’ll be doing plenty of that, because the AI does not make good decisions and cannot be stopped from making bad ones.

You have no option with the AI other than setting a single “gambit” (automatically used skill). So you cannot, for instance, tell a group of creatures to stand their ground. Ranged creatures especially have a tendency of getting into trouble this way, but any of your creatures might chase after an enemy against your orders. It’s also difficult to respond quickly to problems, in part because your creatures move so slowly, but also in part because your units have a hard time moving around one another. In fact, it will not be at all uncommon to see melee and flying units wandering aimlessly through the ranks long after you have ordered them to move to a particular spot, especially when you have lots of relatively stationary ranged units. As you might guess, units have no AI that commands them to stay together, which will occasionally result in a lone member of a platoon charging hopelessly into the mouth of death while his comrades mill stupidly about in your lines.

Other than the traffic jam problem, the touch control works pretty well. Unit selection is straightforward, and never caused a significant problem. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to get units to do what you want—your units and the terrain can obscure opposing units, preventing you from ordering an attack. Also, especially on screens where there is significant variation in altitude, it’s not always clear where you are telling your units to go, or even where you can tell them to go. Once you successfully order them, they’ll take a while to actually get moving; your commands always seem to take a backseat to whatever the units are doing at that moment.

As a strategy game, Revenant Wings is run-of-the-mill. There’s a standard revolving set of weaknesses (flying creatures weak to ranged creatures weak to melee creatures weak to flying creatures) and the requisite elemental strength/weakness setup. It’s generally more important to exploit the former than the latter when you choose what creatures and leaders you’ll take into battle, but here too you are overly limited. For much of the game you have no real choice about what attack mode your leaders will use. Later on, you have somewhat more flexibility, but in the end you will have only one healing leader (Penelo) and four ranged combat leaders (with two each of flying and melee leaders).

Despite all the limitations, however, the game is not terribly difficult or strategically challenging. Most maps can be solved with a tenacious advance or simple distract and destroy tactics. The exceptions are one ill-advised stealth mission, a few missions involving allies (who apparently long for death) and the final mission, which is somewhat insulting in that you are essentially confronted with a gun that can only be destroyed by attacking the mouth of the barrel. It is doable, but tedious and frustrating, and made more so by the tendency of characters whom you have told to remain in a safe area to wander into the path of the shot (due to the aforementioned AI issues). Naturally, enemy troops are never damaged by the enormous laser blast. In short, difficulty is added in lazy ways—useless allies, massive enemy respawns, over-leveled opponents, and silly terrain effects—rather than more subtle approaches like truly coordinated enemy attacks or realistic competition of strategic goals. This feeling of laziness is accentuated by the interminable recurrence of bosses, especially the Judge of Wings and Ba’Gamnan’s crew.

The presentation, as I mentioned, is top-notch. The music is especially notable. Although almost all of it is cribbed directly from the original, it was ported to the DS without a significant loss of sound quality. The result is a really enjoyable audio experience, though some of the sound effects are obnoxious. The in-game graphics of course don’t match the detail and beauty of the pre-rendered cutscenes. However, they’re perfectly serviceable in most instances. The environments are nice, and the map of Lemures is very pretty (this is less true of the Ivalice map). The monster designs have a lot of personality for their size, though I feel that the art department stretched themselves a bit too far on some of the larger espers—these are sometimes too detailed, resulting in an complex yet uninteresting blob.

This description could also apply to the plot, which hits many of the same notes as the original FFXII and adds some Kingdom Hearts-style rambling about hearts (anima). It’s interesting to know what happened to some of the minor characters of FFXII, but it’s striking that the main characters appear to be totally unimproved by previous events. Penelo is sent to video-game writing purgatory with stock jokes about her bad cooking, and at one point devolves into a sobbing useless wimp. This isn’t anything original: I note it only because Penelo’s backbone and sass were her only distinguishing characteristics in the previous game and here they are eviscerated for no apparent reason. None of the other characters do much to distinguish themselves—oh wait, one is an emotionally closed-off pretty boy, a novel concept for SquareEnix writers. Cameos by the several of the original FFXII cast amount to just that: cameos, with no additional character development.

Pretty cutscenes and pretty music achieve nothing if they’re applied to a run-of-the-mill game with a lame plot. Regrettably, that’s exactly what happened here. Revenant Wings‘ uninspired mechanics, oversimplified strategy, and limp story waste the value applied in the graphical and audio departments. It’s not a terrible game, but those who expect a play experience as vivid as the opening videos will come away disappointed.

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