Let me start off by saying and am not a fan of experiencing anything out of chronological or "intended" order. I will not jump into a TV series unless I can go back and watch everything up to the latest episode. I watched all six seasons of 24 in the course of a week, then turned around and watched all of Heroes in time for the Season 2 premier. The same goes for video games. I got Final Fantasy XII the day it came out, but 10 days later, I got my Wii and Twilight Princess (yes, I got it in advance like other media outlets), and I couldn't get myself to go back and really get into the game. I then was without a PlayStation 2 (and currently still am without one), so playing Final Fantasy XII was no longer possible. So when Square-Enix sent me Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings, I was a bit hesitant to be the one to review the title, since the other reviewers were already busy with other games.
Strangely enough, except for confirming certain people are still alive post-ending of Final Fantasy XII, Revenant Wings steers clear from major spoilers from the its predecessor. In fact, half of the game takes place in the world of Lemurés, a sky world far above Ivalice, and so the game has very little to do with Final Fantasy XII other than the main cast. Changing the setting is just one of several major changes found in the sequel. Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings is a mission-based, tactical RPG - think of it as a Final Fantasy X-2 meets Final Fantasy Tactics Advance.
Players assume the role of Vaan and Penelo, along with several other companions, who take to the skies and discover a hidden world known as Lemurés, where a race known as the Aegly live. The story basically has two parts: the first part revolves around discovering the mystery behind the evil villain known as the Judge of Wings and why they're destroying Lemurés, and the second part reunites Vaan with the major characters from Final Fantasy XII, as they travel across both Ivalice and Lemurés to uncover the truth about the connection between the two worlds. Much like Final Fantasy X-2, the game really doesn't have a strong central plot, but instead focuses on chapters which have their own unique stories and characters. Fans looking for more character development will be pleased, but those looking for a strong overall narrative won't be as disappointed as the main story is stronger than expected.
As mentioned, the game is broken into chapters. These chapters consist of typically five or six missions which must be completed in order, culminating with a boss battle. Each mission takes place in a unique arena based on the landscape of Lemurés or Ivalice, and to complete a mission requires certain objectives to be completed. These objectives range from wiping out all enemy forces, to destroying the opponents Soul Crystal, to capturing all Summon Gates, to defeating a boss. Accomplishing these objectives requires not only effective use of your main characters, but the ability to use your Yahri, aka Espers, efficiently as well.
The Espers are basically creatures that are controlled by their masters - typically determined by which Summon Gate they appear from and who controls it at the time of their summoning. Players will earn points for their Ring of Pacts that can be used to unlock new and more powerful Yahri. The Ring of Pacts grid is very reminiscent of the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X in that it is a circular map, though it also has the properties of Final Fantasy XII's License Board in that unlocking one space opens up surrounding spaces. Once Espers are unlocked, they can be placed into your Esper groups, which contain five Espers ranging in various ranks. Early on in the game, players can have four Rank I Espers and one Rank II Esper, but later in the game the more powerful Rank III Espers can be summoned as well.
At the start of each mission, sometimes Espers are immediately summoned, while in others, players will start off cold with only the five main combatants. Finding and capturing a Summoning Gate will then allow a player to call forth Espers, though there is a limit to how many at once can be summoned. Each individual Summoning Gate can only have so many Espers in the "queue" at once (eight I believe), though you can summon more than eight Espers in total from that gate. Additionally, each character has an "Affinity" meter, and summoning an Esper will cost you some Affinity. If the meter is full, you can't summon anymore Espers. Each character also can only command a finite amount of Espers as well.
Controlling actions in battle are primarily done through the stylus, with players being able to click any single unit or touch the screen and drag the stylus to select multiple units and issue them a command. When units are toggled, dragging the stylus over certain spots will trigger an icon to appear, indicating what command will be taken. Boots mean the unit or units will move to that area, swords crossed means they will attack, a green gem icon means they will attempt to capture a Summoning Gate, as well as other commands. Players can also use the buttons to toggle quickly between main characters, and then issue commands for that character and their supporting units.
Of course, the main characters have more complex combat systems, each with unique strengths and weaknesses. Kites is your mage, who can deal damage from far away, while Filo is your group damage dealer. Penelo is a healer, and Vaan is a melee warrior. There are other characters who will join in as you progress, each with unique abilities. Additionally, since it is not always possible to control everyone at once, players can set other unit leaders' gambits to have them automatically engage in a certain action, such as setting Penelo to heal everyone all the time.
For a Nintendo DS title, the visuals certainly do charm. The look and feel is that of 2D graphics in 3D gameplay. It is very easy to recognize who is who when it comes to the main cast, and even Espers and enemy units are pretty distinguishable. Environments are varied, with the layouts of some levels ranging from simple boxes to complex, meandering paths. FMVs are present, and are a nice reward now and then and retain the Final Fantasy spirit. The overworld map segments, however, are the low point and could have had more detail. As for the audio, there is no voice acting, sadly, but the soundtrack is partially derived from Final Fantasy XII, along with new tracks. Some of the music gets extremely repetitive, and the variety is nowhere near as much as a console Final Fantasy, nor is the quality up to par, but for a Nintendo DS title, it is very well done.
Revenant Wings is fairly challenging, especially in the last three chapters, as well as all the last optional quests to unlock the hidden Scions (Rank III Espers) and one that powers up a weapon each time you complete it (though it consists of 10 missions). Brute forcing will work to an extent, but selecting appropriate Espers and learning to pick off enemy units slowly and one at a time are crucial to success later on. Protecting a character who can revive a unit leader, or simply having one in the mission is almost mandatory to successfully complete the game. Another issue with Revenant Wings the fact that the Nintendo DS' small viewing screen area poses a problem sometimes - especially in larger maps with units scattered around. However, the biggest criticism with this title is the lack of camera control. There are times when the environment or just a plethora of combatants on screen will block/obscure the view, and trying to select specific units is nigh impossible, let alone trying to issue commands to them on specific enemies.
Final Verdict - 8/10
A solid tactical RPG that can be enjoyed by average gamers for at least half of the title. Completing it requires a bit more dedication and skill, though. This game is put together very well and is a nice follow up to Final Fantasy XII, and manages to radically shift the visual style and gameplay, yet will satisfy most fans. There is a chance the game is too radical of a departure for Final Fantasy XII fans' liking, so hardcore fanboys, be warned. However, this is a must-buy title for the tactical RPG fan.