a review of Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings
a videogame developed by think and feel
and published by square-enix
for the nintendo DS
text by tim rogers
More shocking things have happened than Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings‘ not being a terrible videogame at all. What with all the breeding and inbreeding surrounding it, you’d think it would have no right to be anything other than complete trash. It’s a spinoff of a Final Fantasy game that “average gamers” hated despite its accidental brilliance; in the perfect world as represented by the Square-Enix corporate umbrella, the “niche gamers” that are able to find the genius in a game like Final Fantasy XII can go to hell and then die again. You’d think that if they were going to make a spinoff or a side-story, they’d also spray a thick layer of bullstuff all over it, to make it the same brand of zippers-and-pleather fetishism schlock that they make most of their money from these days. Not so — Square-Enix have decided to do the previously unthinkable, and respect their audience, though only in the most ham-handed way: they have graciously created the “Ivalice Alliance”, a brand name for videogames existing within the “Final Fantasy” brand name, which happen to take place in the mythical land of Ivalice, where lizard men and bunny girls politely obey the laws of combat and agility stat numbers as they fight for the future, where the music of Hitoshi Sakimoto, which is like a special kind of language developed to convey strategic thought, booms down from the sky at intense moments, or twitters in the background while generals are micromanaging troops. The “Ivalice Alliance” will no doubt eventually pop out an all-new Final Fantasy Tactics adventure; setting up a new brand name to house remakes and spinoffs is kind of &^#$#ed. At present, the brand is already off to a rolling start, with Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings and Final Fantasy Tactics: The Lion War, already released, and Final Fantasy Tactics A2 and Final Fantasy XII: International + Zodiac Job System on the way. I don’t know about “Job System” being in a game title, especially preceded by a mathematic symbol. It leaves kind of a weird aftertaste. It also makes me kind of thirsty for the inevitable day that someone makes a game title that contains a balanced equation.
At any rate, Revenant Wings is a shockingly not terrible game, for what it’s worth. You think it would play something like Kingdom Hearts without the Disney or Sephiroth, though I guess the 160-year-old man who makes the important business decisions (strike down innovation in the name of paying as few full salaries as possible) was out attending his grandson’s funeral or something, because someone decided to roll with the crazy idea to try to make this actually a good game.
It’s a real-time strategy game, sort of, though less like StarCraft and more like Ogre Battle. Final Fantasy XII was something original because it played kind of like Ogre Battle without all of the fading to black and auto-fighting. FFXII was producer Yasumi Matsuno’s way of trying to come to grips with his dream to create a numberless, dynamic, evolving role-playing adventure game, though Square’s desire to repress his more interesting ideas apparently sent him running. Matsuno is one of the few people in game design we can probably call a “genius”; he was without a doubt the most creatively talented person getting a monthly direct bank deposit from the Square-Enix corporation, or perhaps any Japanese videogame corporation. As convinced as I and we are that Matsuno can make a hell of a videogame if only someone would give him enough money and trust, we’re not about to say that Revenant Wings was doomed to be a horrible game just because Matsuno wasn’t involved.
It’s still a shock that it wound up not being terrible.
Someone with a couple more-than-interesting ideas threw them together, and here you have it. It’s a real-time strategy game that flows kind of like Final Fantasy XII; most of the missions take place indoors, which is quaint. It feels at times almost like Baldur’s Gate, though at many moments the truth shines in: the people who made this game never played Baldur’s Gate, maybe because Baldur’s Gate was never released in the Japanese language. In many ways, the game is free to do whatever it wants because of this pseudo-fact — just as the terrifyingly bad third-person shooter Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII was free to do whatever it wanted because none of its designers had apparently ever played a good shooting game. Where Dirge took the path to the dark side, Revenant takes the path to the light side. It’s a cute, pleasant little game, like Baldur’s Gate meets the stage-by-stage action-adventure spirit of one of those above-average side-scrollers on the Super Famicom.
The game makes nice use of the Nintendo DS touch screen for controlling your units. The bottom screen is the field screen; the top screen is a map; press the L or R button to reverse the two screens; with the map on the bottom screen, touch a location to go there. It’s pretty tight and fast. Almost too fast at times — there’s no speed setting option, and there’s no way to pause the battle and issue commands, which, come to think of it, is kind of inexcusable.
There’s plenty of pleasant brain-clutter all over the place: summon gates allow you to summon monsters; choose the types of monsters you want to be able to summon before the battle by forging a “Summon Deck”; assign the monsters to specific “leader” characters, click the leader character’s portrait at the top of the field screen to select that leader and all of his or her monsters. Pay careful mind to the types of opponents you’re fighting, so you know whom to send after whom. Magic units beat flying units, close-range units beat magic units, close-range units beat flying units. Position your healing units in the right spot on the battlefield to keep your troops living.
The battles get pretty hectic, and sometimes it’s kind of impossible to know what the hell is going on. The graphics are nice enough when you’re not relying on them to do your laundry, I guess. The backgrounds are some Xenogears-esque polygonal 3D, though the screen doesn’t rotate — early Weekly Famitsu articles depicted a little icon in the corner of the screen that you could tap to drag-rotate the map, though that would probably be the lifeboat that broke the battleship’s back, and render the game an unwieldy mess. Speaking of messy, the character sprites are kind of hard to make out, most of the time. When the screen isn’t actively discombobulating in the name of bitching 3D, the sprites are so “Vintage Final Fantasy” that it might make a man serene inside. Once things start moving, it gets confusing. At least the music is nicer than nice; it’s kind of funny how much post-Final Fantasy Tactics Hitoshi Sakimoto’s stuff sounds like it’d fit into Chrono Trigger when it’s rendered with the DS sound chip. The save menu music, in particular, is pretty sublime. During battle, you can hear some choice cuts from Final Fantasy XII now played with warmer, happier, more lovably handheld-feeling synthesizers.
In short, this game is cute and small and kind of easy and mostly good. There’s no two-player wireless versus or co-op mode, which is just plain not cool, though the one-player quest is a breezy and poppy and breathless story about dumb little kids on a dumb air-pirate-battling adventure on a floating continent; it never stops or stoops to pander, which, in this day and age, is utterly remarkable. You can open the menu between battles to unlock new summon monsters using crystals earned in battle, or to put new swords or armor on your troops, which mostly feels like busywork because the swords or armor are just things you find in the natural course of the missions, anyway, though for the most part, it all flows very well. It’s Square’s second attempt at a real-time strategy for the Nintendo DS, after Heroes of Mana, which was so easy that it felt vaguely wrong, like breaking into someone’s kitchen to eat leftovers out of their refrigerator while they’re upstairs watching TV in bed.
Square has flip-flopped back and forth between utter conviction that the DS is a piece of stuff and yen-sign-irised hope that at least a million of those ten million units sold might have found the hands of die-hard Final Fantasy fans. To wit: they announced Dragon Quest IX for DS, and then scrapped the controversial action-RPG style of Dragon Quest IX because Children of Mana (an action-RPG) didn’t sell well enough. There’s going to come a time that Square-Enix has to untie the bundle of controller cords in their game shelf, to sort the pride from the common sense. If Heroes of Mana, Square’s obvious water-testing DS RTS, had sold a half a million copies (it didn’t), Revenant Wings, blest with a Final Fantasy brand name, would no doubt have received the smothering, triple-A, canon treatment, and the story would be bogged down with children whining about how they don’t want to grow up. Instead, we get pages torn out of the “Dragon Ball” rulebook; for example, we have a character who hates the good guys, yet is forced to fight on your side because of some dopey magic torture ring. The game flow follows suit in charming little lapses of game-design grammar, like how a “Gambit” is just the single action you configure a character to automatically use over and over again, not the complicated yet elegant (and kind of revolutionary) AI scripting the term represented in Final Fantasy XII. Et cetera. Though the final product is kind of gimped out of a multiplayer mode or very much real depth at all behind edge-of-the-moment strategic planning, this is seriously the kind of tossed-off, down-to-earth videogame these people need to be making a whole lot more of.