Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings Review
Pirates, Take Flight
One year after the conclusion of Final Fantasy XII, Vaan has achieved his dream of becoming a sky pirate, and he’s busy traipsing about Ivalician ruins with his childhood friend Penelo. Unfortunately, as he meets up with their old friends Balthier and Fran to seek out the Cache of Glabados, things don’t go quite as well as he would have hoped. Vaan’s airship is destroyed, and the orphans find themselves back in the lowtown of Rabanastre with the old gang, their sky pirating days seemingly brought to an end. However, when a mysterious airship suddenly shows up a short while later, Vaan, Penelo, Tomaj, and their friends sneak on board and soon find themselves on the floating sky continent of Lemures, ready for a brand new adventure.
Though most of the cast from the original game returns (including Ashe, Basch, Larsa, and even the headhunter Ba’Gamnan), gone is the convoluted plot of politics, betrayal, and intrigue. Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings is written and directed by Motomu Toriyama, the man behind Final Fantasy X-2, and accordingly, it shares a lot of similarities with the earlier sequel: things are a bit more light-hearted overall, with upbeat characters looking for fun, treasure, and adventure. This isn’t really to the game’s detriment, as that sort of atmosphere just meshes much better with the Vaan and Penelo characters. Balthier’s witty wisecracks (as good as ever) are more like the tone-setters in Revenant Wings rather than the occasional breaks from grim dungeoning they were in the first game. This isn’t to say that there’s no seriousness or substance to the plot of Revenant Wings, as there is. In a lot of ways, it feels like the cast of Final Fantasy XII has been transplanted into a more classic story like that of Final Fantasy V. Someone wants to achieve enormous power, the crystals are threatened, and it’s up to the heroes to save the day. Nothing here is groundbreaking, and Revenant Wings won’t win any awards for its storytelling. However, it’s fun, it works, and it’s bolstered by the familiarity and history the characters share from their previous adventure. It’s also nice to return to the world of Ivalice once again, even if this time the tale takes place outside of the known areas like Dalmasca and Archadia.
As much as Revenant Wings might deviate from its predecessor in narrative tone, it’s an even greater departure when it comes to gameplay. Final Fantasy XII was, in the grand scheme of things, mostly similar to its main series brethren, though one big change was in the way the game flipped around the turn-based Active Time Battle system with a time-based Active Dimension Battle system; the game also differed from most of the others in the series by incorporating free movement around battlefields. Revenant Wings takes things even further, replacing the pseudo real-time ADB with a full real-time battle system and making battle movement matter to a much greater extent. Where Final Fantasy XII was a traditional RPG, Revenant Wings is a strategy RPG that takes place in real-time. The characters, such as Vaan or Balthier, are deployed for the fight, but they’re supplemented with espers the player can summon and command around the maps. Each esper and leader fall into one of three types: melee, ranged, and flying. The three types share a rock-paper-scissors relationship that serves as one of the key routes to victory. The four elements — fire, water, earth, and lightning — are another important factor, as strength against one means weakness against another, and most of the espers fall into one of the four categories (there are also a handful of neutral and healing espers). And finally, espers range in ranks from I to III. Ranks are an indication of the esper’s power, but it also impacts the summoning cost (and how many can be on the field); the rank III espers like Ifrit and Shiva are the most powerful of all, and only one of them can be present at a time.
Once in battle, the player can use the touch screen to select characters and then either touch a movement destination or touch an enemy to move to them and attack. Just like in Final Fantasy XII, if enemies are in a certain range of your allies, you’ll begin attacking automatically, so in a lot of ways, Revenant Wings has the same semi-hands off approach as its predecessor. In certain battles, you can also open up treasure chests and gain natural resources like woods and metals that can be used in your weapon forging shop. After the battle is done, all the leaders will gain experience points and level up, increasing stats like HP, strength, speed, and mind. Here’s where the player can also manage character equipment — each leader can arm themselves with a weapon (which will sometimes confer offensive elemental properties), a piece of armor (which might have an elemental weakness or resistance), and an accessory (which might come with a support skill).
The core gameplay is fun, but it leaves a lot to be desired, too. There are a number of flaws that range from aggravating to realizations that the game is falling short of its potential. For instance, Revenant Wings lacks a rotatable camera of the sort usable in Final Fantasy Tactics. Why this is omitted is a bit inexplicable — the battlefields are full 3D, and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to implement a fixed camera. It’s not a huge deal, but it can cause some minor annoyances, especially if enemies happen to be hiding out of the camera’s sight. More serious are the problems of the game’s poor pathfinding and sometimes sketchy touch controls. This will probably grate especially on those who’ve recently played through Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, which utilized the stylus exquisitely, particularly in the area of pathfinding. For some reason, allies can’t move through other allies (which can sometimes lead to irksome little blockades that the player will have to manually clear) and sometimes the routes they take when you select a particular destination seem a bit wonky. Anyone spoiled by Zelda‘s ship navigation or boomerang controls will wish for something better whenever these problems crop up. It would have been nice had Revenant Wings allowed for the player to just draw a point-to-point path for the units to have them go exactly that route. The touch problems are mainly related to trying to select individual espers in the thick of battle. Because of the small screen combined with the fairly small sprites, it can be a pain to try to highlight a specific unit. The game mostly rectifies this by including easily selectable icons of the five leaders along the top of the screen, which the player can touch to give commands to the leader’s whole team. You’ll quickly adapt when you realize that the best way to play is to simply forget about the espers as individual units, but instead think of them as extensions or supports for the leaders. Rather than trying to direct twenty different espers to ten different spots, it’s best to just issue commands to the teams as a whole, let the leaders lead the way, and allow the espers to supplement them.
Probably the biggest flaw in the game, though, is the lack of deep customization. What’s there just isn’t developed as much as it should have been. For instance, esper troupes. There are lots of espers, but it’s bothersome that you’re limited to only designing three battle troupes (the slate of five espers that get summoned into the battle) in advance — yes, you can modify them on the fly before battle (and usually need to, since matching elements and types is so important), but it would have been nice to be able to predesign and store more. It’s worse that you can’t exactly configure the leader/esper units the way you want them — when battle begins, the espers are randomly assigned to type-matching leaders. If you want Llyud to have three ice elementals and three lightning elementals, too bad. He may get six ice elementals. True, the player can use summon gates to add more espers to the battle, but there’s really no reason at all not to be able to preconfigure squads. Meanwhile, the “gambit” system outright sucks and bears no real resemblance to the system from FFXII. In Revenant Wings, “gambits” are nothing more than the ability to turn on or off a leader’s auto-use of a single action ability, which they’ll then use as much as possible. You can have Penelo use curaga automatically via gambits, but if you get stuck with status ailments, you need to either switch her curaga gambit off and her esuna gambit on, or cast the spell manually. It’s clear that Square Enix wanted to make this a more accessible game, but the actual level of customization and depth they implemented is unsatisfying. Still, the core system itself is fun, and there are a good number of quests to play through (some of which are mandated to advance the story, but many of which are optional side missions) and most players should feel challenged towards the end, especially if they attempt to tackle Midlight’s Deep.
Midlight’s Deep, which also appears in Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions (it was called Deep Dungeon in the original PlayStation version of that game), is a mark of how well Square Enix handled the localization of Revenant Wings, as this optional challenge wasn’t in the Japanese version of the game at all. Its addition really highlights the effort the company is putting into many of its US releases (Dirge of Cerberus, Dragon Quest VIII, and Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker also had their share of additions and improvements). The other major change they made was a big increase in the game’s difficulty. One of the primary complaints about Revenant Wings in Japan was its ease, but that isn’t the case here. Toughening the game up serves to make it much more enjoyable to beat.
Trying to critique the music in Revenant Wings is an interesting puzzle, the sort of riddle a sphinx might come up with: what to do when the best aspect of a particular feature is also its biggest flaw? Most of Hitoshi Sakimoto’s score in Revenant Wings actually comes from the original Final Fantasy XII. It’s hard to complain about this too much — XII had a stunning soundtrack, amongst the best in the series with its sweeping orchestral tendencies and evocative mood setters, and the songs here are faithfully arranged for Revenant Wings and reproduced to a surprisingly high quality level given the DS’s much more limited sound architecture. But at the same time… it’s the same music that everyone’s heard already in XII. Look, sure, Sakimoto is a busy man these days with numerous game and anime soundtracks on his plate in a given year and his work increasingly farmed out to his Basiscape lackeys. And it’s doubtful that another composer would have or could have composed music so complex and powerful as the score done for Final Fantasy XII. Regardless, though, he’s pulled this trick before (due to his busy schedule, all of his contributions to Ogre Battle 64 were reused songs from the two prior games in the series), and reusing the same music doesn’t help the sequel stand on its own and form an individual musical identity.
The visuals in Revenant Wings are nothing short of beautiful. The game mixes quality 2D sprites full of lively animation with lush 3D backgrounds that show off stunning artistic direction, bold use of color, and an amazing sense of style and personality from one location to the next. While there are certainly many criticisms that could be lodged against Square Enix, visuals are rarely one of them — it’s undeniable that the company’s artists and programmers wield the capability to wring the absolute best visuals out of just about every system they touch. Revenant Wings is one of the few games about which one can say that it doesn’t just look incredible for a DS game; it simply looks incredible. Perhaps the only complaint that could be lodged is that while the sprites are good, they perhaps could still be better — during closeups, they suffer from a bit too much pixelation. Even so, it’s impressive just how many sprites the game displays with real time animation at one time, and the lower pixel count may have been necessary to achieve that. The backgrounds, however, are flawless. What’s more, the game supplements its storytelling with relatively frequent and impressive cinematic FMV movies. They’re used to great visual effect, allowing the game to nicely show off some of its more important moments with very strong cutscene direction, and they never drag too long. They’re to-the-point and don’t allow the player to grow bored with watching long non-interactive movies. They also, in a pleasant surprise, are smartly designed around the two screens of the DS: movies will show the action from different angles and make quick cuts between the top and bottom screen. In all, Revenant Wings sets a new standard in portable RPG production values.
Middle-of-the-road games are pretty easy to review because they know what they are and rarely aspire to be something more. So, too, are unambiguously great games and bad games fairly simple matters to hash over and sum up. Probably the most difficult thing to handle in reviewing games, however, are those titles where there’s very clearly so much more potential there than what was ultimately achieved in the finished product, and this is the situation in which Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings unfortunately finds itself. This is a good game (and that point should be stressed: this is, despite its flaws, a very solid, enjoyable game) that could have been so much more. Its visual beauty and artistic presentation are enormous; its world is compelling and buoyed by a rich history and mythos; its cast is interesting and, what’s more, given the opportunity to shine as they further the development they evinced in their first outing; the production values are through the roof for a handheld title; and it’s easy to be impressed by the picturesque FMV cutscenes put together to help tell the continuation of Final Fantasy XII‘s story. The game had so much going for it that it hurts how much the ball was dropped in nailing that final key ingredient: the gameplay. While attempting to break new ground is admirable, developers should take care to ensure that the ground they’re breaking isn’t a frozen lake.
A good rule of thumb in reviewing is to look at the core designs of the game and to ask how well the game achieved those design objectives. But in the case of Revenant Wings, it’s questionable whether the designer had clear and coherent objectives in mind. Was this game intended to be an introductory “first” Final Fantasy (and if so, one further questions why make it a direct continuation of another game)? A proper follow-up to Final Fantasy XII? An experimental spinoff with untried and untested mechanics? Clearly, given the tweaks in difficulty, it tried to be an easy game for Japan and a challenging game for North America, but maybe it doesn’t make sense to split the two markets so drastically apart. Perhaps Revenant Wings simply got bogged down in trying to be too many different things that it lacked the clear direction it needed to emerge as a top calibre game on its own merits. One gets the feeling that if the developers had stuck to more familiar territory — say, keeping the same gameplay style (and the same focus on vast exploration with lots of towns and open areas) as the original Final Fantasy XII, or going with a perfected turn-based Final Fantasy XII Tactics-styled strategy game — they could have created one of the very best Final Fantasy spinoffs yet made. But they didn’t, and it’s not. We’re left with a game that, while enjoyable and worth playing, goes out of its way to remind the player that it could’ve been a true classic.