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`Revenant Wings' brings real-time strategy play to `Final Fantasy'

Justin Hoeger
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

FINAL FANTASY XII: REVENANT WINGS

3 stars

PUBLISHER: Square Enix

SYSTEM: Nintendo DS

PRICE: $39.99

AGE RATING: Everyone 10-plus

For the second time this year, Square Enix tries its hand at making a real-time strategy game out of one of its franchises. This time, it works.

Where the resource gathering and base building of "Heroes of Mana" was a bit too complicated for the DS hardware to easily pull off, "Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings" adapts and simplifies "Final Fantasy XII's" excellent Gambit system to good effect.

The game focuses on Vaan and Penelo, the young street urchins who made up one-third of "FF XII's" main cast but who served as observers and hangers-on more than crucial characters. This is their turn to shine.

Having gained an airship of his own and fulfilled his dream of becoming a sky pirate at the end of the original game, Vaan and his constant companion head off to meet their former compatriots Balthier and Fran, also sky pirates.

The four tussle a bit over a pair of gemstones - they are pirates, after all - and each pair ends up with one of them, though Vaan loses his ship when the temple housing them collapses. He soon finds another after a mysterious craft crash-lands near his home city of Rabanastre. He takes it over, takes off and is soon winging his way toward the sky continent of Lumeres, where his new ship came from.

Once there, Vann, Penelo and some young friends from Rabanastre discover Llyud - a member of the winged aegyl race native to Lumeres – under attack. It seems that the events of the original game have left the normally shielded sky continent open to attack by a nastier breed of sky pirate.

It's not long before our heroes are embroiled in another adventure, albeit one lighter in tone than the political intrigue of "Final Fantasy XII." But light in tone doesn't mean light on combat. Vaan and crew will take part in plenty of battles on their new quest - in fact, it's nearly the only thing they'll do. These battles unfold on maps dotted with features and foes; most maps have multiple missions attached to them, with non-story missions opening up after plot sequences are finished.

The player's group consists of up to five leader characters; these include Vaan, Penelo, Llyud and other dramatis personae. Each leader possesses special abilities - just one at first, with more unlocked as they increase in level. The stripped-down Gambit system is tied to these. Instead of setting up long chains of cause-and-effect conditions, "Revenant Wings" limits the player to a single Gambit, a move that will be performed automatically whenever available and appropriate.

This can be useful for actions that need to be done at crucial times, like healing and revival, and can help a player gain an early advantage in a skirmish by blasting a group of foes with powerful spells and attacks right at the start. Moves can also be selected and performed manually, but this takes time and micromanagement to do, and it can be hard to find the right target in a tightly packed melee.

Each leader character can be teamed up with several espers, summoned creatures that do their masters' bidding. These range from the classic yellow chocobo bird to powerful creatures like Shiva. Players can choose a group of five esper types at the start of each battle, with stronger types limited to higher-level tiers. On some maps, leaders only have the espers they begin with; on others, reinforcements can be summoned.

Each esper or leader has a melee, ranged or flying attack class. Melee units beat ranged units, ranged units beat flying units, and flying units beat melee units. Many espers also have an elemental attribute, further complicating a player's strategic options when planning for battle.

For a strategy game, "Revenant Wings" is pretty simple. The bulk of the planning, as in "Final Fantasy XII," happens before the first sword is swung. The game allows for individual leaders and their espers to go in different directions and target separate foes. In practice, it's usually easier just to select the entire group of good guys and send them against the nearest bad-guy mob.

The backgrounds in "Revenant Wings" are gorgeous, showing off the DS' polygon-pushing capabilities at their best. The character graphics are less great - they're hand-drawn, in a similar manner to those in "Final Fantasy Tactics" and its ilk, but they look more pixilated. The animation is fine, though, and the graphics aren't poor, just a little rough around the edges. The music is wonderful, however, and drawn mostly from the terrific "Final Fantasy XII" soundtrack.

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