One part action adventure, one part real-time strategy, and plenty of Final Fantasy atmosphere; add them up and you've got Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings for Nintendo DS, the follow-up to the popular PlayStation 2 game Final Fantasy XII. While in Tokyo for the 2007 Square Enix Festival, we had a chance to grab a copy of this game--released last month in Japan--and get a sneak peek at this handheld return to the world of Ivalice.
Revenant Wings producers are quick to point out that the handheld game is not a sequel to the original PS2 game. That said, there are some obvious similarities to the console game, most notably the setting, Ivalice. This is the same world in which other FF games have been set, such as Final Fantasy XII and Final Fantasy Tactics, as well as many of the characters. The hero of the PS2 FFXII, Vaan, is the central character in the game and he's joined again by the feisty Penelo. In the opening cinematic, the two are riding in an airship that belongs to Vaan, who has apparently moved up in the sky-pirating ranks since we last saw him. Other characters from the original FF XII, such as the rabbit-eared Fran and the sky pirate Balthier, will return to Revenant Wings, as well as a number of new characters we haven't met yet.
Where the game sets itself apart, then, is through the gameplay and particularly the battle system. As in the original, battles take part in real time, with no transition screens to get in the way of the action. However, combat--at least at first--seems like a much more hands-off task than in previous Final Fantasy games. For example, during the opening stage of the game, you're tasked to take Vaan through a dungeon populated by a number of monsters. The upper screen of the DS shows a map of the dungeon you're currently exploring, along with colored icons to indicate friends and foes. The lower screen shows the actual action, and it's here where you'll interact with the game. For example, to move Vaan, you tap on him and then click to the area where you want him to go. He moves a bit slow for our tastes but, sooner or later, he'll get there. To attack an enemy, you first click on Vaan and then on the enemy you want to attack; a handy clashing sword icon will pop up to help you figure out who you can attack.
Once you're in combat, it's a mostly automatic process in Revenant Wings: Vaan simply busts out his sword and starts whacking on the bad guys. Similarly, Penelo will heal your party members automatically as you go. While it isn't long before things pick up a bit, in the early goings, the game seems intent on acclimating new players to the system with a learning curve that is anything but steep. After your first few victories, you meet up with Penelo and, with your party size doubled, you begin to get a look at how Revenant Wings' combat is going to work. You can choose to control either individual characters by clicking on them (or their character portrait in the upper left-hand side of the touch screen) or do a mouse-style "click and drag" with the stylus to select multiple characters at once. As your party grows--and it will grow quickly--this will become a key tool to managing combat.
Though Vaan and his party members start out with basic attacks, after a few fights, you'll earn new attacks that will either deal more damage or damage multiple foes. For example, Filo, who rides a special hoverboard, will earn an attack that lets her spin around and attack multiple enemies in the vicinity. To use special attacks, you have to first select the character, and then choose a menu option at the bottom of the screen; an icon will pop up and you can choose to engage it. You can choose to either manually use these special attacks by following the method described above or set the special attack so that it's "always on" and your character will attack with that special move. The downside to this is that special attacks take longer to charge than standard attacks. We found the most successful combat tactic, at least in the early going, was to set one character on auto-special attack and let the other party members attack normally while occasionally throwing in the manual special attack.
Another wrinkle to the combat system in Revenant Wings comes with summons, which are essentially small creatures that each of the main playable characters can summon to his or her aid. Early on in the game, Vaan gains access to a crystal he can use at various portals on the maps to summon these creatures, and you can take over enemy portals for your own use as you encounter them on the map. Portals come in three different flavors: friendly, neutral, and enemy. Each playable character can have multiple summoned minions accompany him or her, which means that a five-person party quickly swells to a 15-character party in no time. These summoned creatures have different abilities; some are better at ranged attacks, while others prefer to get up close and personal. As a result, the summoned creatures have a definite rock-paper-scissors feel to them, and you'll want to make sure you have a good variety of summoned monsters to take on all comers. Summoned monsters also have elemental strengths and weaknesses that you can use to your advantage against your enemies. You're able to assign different summoned minions to different members of your party at the portals; there's a specific capacity cost for each monster you summon, so using more "expensive" summoned monsters will mean fewer members in the party. Party capacity is determined by the number of player-character leaders, as well as the number of portals on the mission map. You can remove summoned monsters at any time and then summon new monsters at the portal (you'll have regained some party capacity at that point).
As you progress through the game, you'll earn new monsters you can summon at the portals. Before a battle begins, you're able to organize these monsters into specific "decks" that you can take into battle with you. You'll only be able to summon monsters in a mission that are in an active deck, so there will be some planning required as you prepare for your next encounter. There's also information on the enemies you'll face, which will give you a better idea of how to set up your party in terms of who is the leader, which summons to have available, and so on.
With your party at full force, it's easy to see how Revenant Wings' combat is quite different from previous Final Fantasy games. As you gain experience and the maps grow in size and challenge, you'll find yourself splitting your group up into smaller forces to take on the many enemies you'll come across, much as you would in a typical RTS game. Of course, it's possible to simply take the entire group from one spot to the next, overwhelming the enemy with your sheer numbers, but it's quicker to split things up and manage the battles as they come among your divided forces. The game makes it fairly easy to move from one spot of the map to the next. You can scroll with the D pad or use the left or right trigger to flip-flop the upper and lower screen, thus bringing the map to the bottom screen, where you can then tap to where you'd like the camera to move. When you release the trigger, the screens return to normal and the camera instantly moves to the spot you chose. You can also double-click a character's portrait to be taken directly to him or her. Finally, you can use the buttons to select either all on-screen characters or cycle through the characters one at a time. While splitting up your forces can save you some time, you'll want to be careful how you do it. Putting a healer like Penelo as point won't give you much firepower; it's best to include another playable character to help her out. Also, it's important to watch out for your summoned minions. Once they're gone, you can't bring them back until you access another portal.
As you move around the maps, you'll find various pickups you can harvest and use to your advantage. For example, a blue plant can be used to heal hurt party members, while piles of wood can be chopped for weapons crafting. Before crafting a weapon, you'll need a recipe book showing various weapons. To craft one, you first choose it from the recipe book and then combine three prescribed elements to create it. From there, you can name the item, and as you might expect, the better the materials you use, the stronger the weapon. In addition, there are usually treasure chests on each map where you can find new items and weapons for your characters to wear.
Unlike older Final Fantasy games, you have access to the greater world in Revenant Wings early on, thanks to Vaan's airship. You can fly around the entire continent of Ivalice, though only certain areas will be accessible to you at any given time. Once on the ground, you move Vaan from spot to spot to access the next mission in the story (which is identified by orange flags).
The graphics in Revenant Wings are looking good on the DS. The game shines visually in the combat map stages, which are colorful and feature a surprising amount of variety. The pre-rendered cutscenes are also typically excellent. There's no voice acting in the cutscenes, at least none that we've heard so far, but the animation cinematography is up to Square's high standards. Our main gripe with the graphics is the tiny size of the characters during battle; especially when they are bunched up, it's tough to distinguish some of the minions from the main characters.
It seems that the producers behind Revenant Wings are trying to create a Final Fantasy games for folks who may not have played an FF game in the past. That said, the simplistic combat you start out with seems to grow in complexity and depth the more you look behind the scenes; and we suspect the legion of FF fans will find plenty to like with Revenant Wings' approach. So far, there's no word from Square on a US release date for the game, but we'll be keeping you informed on any news in the coming weeks.