Designing a real-time strategy game for the Nintendo DS is an interesting challenge. It’s not at all clear to me why the developers at Square Enix thought that this was the right approach for a sequel to Final Fantasy 12. Though there are a couple of good ideas, they’re really not up to the task.
The gameplay is reminiscent of Dawn of War 2’s campaign. Units are divided into squads. A typical mission involves assembling these squads into a death-ball and then rolling gradually through the map clearing out all the enemies. What makes Dawn of War 2 so compelling is that there are interesting decisions to be made, both before and during missions. Equipment choices matter. Unit’s roles evolve as they level up. Inside a mission there are constantly choices to be made about optional objectives, and resource management, and flanking and the like.
There’s none of that in Revenant Wings, and so things get dull fast. There are a couple of rock-paper-scissors systems of counters, and there are a variety of units to choose from, but none of it seems to make much of a difference. Choosing equipment comes down to picking the weapon with the highest attack rating. When actually in a mission, there are only two inputs required: select everything and tell it to focus fire on the nearest enemy (there’s no fog of war, so there’s never any uncertainty about this), and manually trigger everyone’s offensive special abilities whenever they come off of cooldown. There are never any choices. It really is just doing these two things over and over again. It’s all very playable. It’s just that it’s also dreadfully dull.
There aren’t a lot of useful decisions to be made outside of combat. There are no choices to be made in terms of character development (a far cry from the freedom of the core game). There are choices about units to recruit, but they seem relatively minor. While the game tries to prepare you for combat by letting you know what units you’ll be facing, it neglects to mention the most important thing: whether you will be able to summon reinforcements or not. Given that your most powerful unit can only be summoned as a reinforcement, and it takes up a slot that could be used for a less-powerful unit that can be summoned at the start of battle, this is a critical oversight. Regardless, beyond this one frustrating quirk, the choices just aren’t interesting. Do I use the unit that’s vulnerable to the elements that the enemies are using, or do I use one that hits the enemies’ weaknesses? Not exactly a hard call. And since most of the hit-points and damage seems to be contained in the squad leaders who aren’t covered by these choices, it all seems kind of irrelevant anyways. I sort of wonder whether just bringing in the five squad leaders, plus just healing units would work. I suspect it would.
There are also lots of weird interface quirks within the game. Because there’s just the stylus, not two mouse buttons, after a command is given, everything becomes unselected. This makes playing the game even more of a chore, since successfully managing an engagement requires constantly focus-firing, and thus constantly alternating between pressing the button to select all units and clicking on the appropriate enemy (and alternating between face-buttons and the stylus is as awkward as ever). It would be even more annoying if the game required any sort of micromanagement of squads.
Speaking of the squads, there’s a bit of a conceptual problem. In Dawn of War 2, you give orders to squads as a whole, and all members of a squad share functionality, equipment, and special abilities. In Revenant Wings, squads are essentially just pre-set control groups. The units within squads often end up having not much in common with their leaders. It leads to squads where one flying unit in a squad will take a completely different route and get separated from the rest.
The big reason behind the death-ball (other than that the game just never requires you to have units at multiple places) is how much of a pain it is to manually break off units elsewhere. As I said, the only efficient way to manage an engagement is to select all units and focus-fire them, while triggering special abilities as much as possible. It’s essentially impossible to do this without using the all-units button, which in turn makes it impossible to break off a squad to do another task. It’s a real pain that, whenever I broke off a leader to do another task, I essentially lost my ability to focus-fire the rest of my units. It meant that when things went wrong, it was incredibly frustrating.
Presentation-wise, there’s plenty to complain about too. The death-balls look like an awful mess of sprites and health-bars, and so trying to, say, find the badly wounded unit to heal is a real pain (there’s a reason why all defensive abilities in Dawn of War 2 affect all nearby friendly units and don’t need to be targeted). It’s ugly, too. The sprites don’t look great in the default view, and they look outright awful when the game decides to zoom in on them during cut-scenes.
Outside of combat, there’s plenty of atrocious interface decisions too. Navigating the map is cumbersome. The shop interface is particularly bad. By design, you harvest a bunch of low-grade crafting material which is only good for selling, but like-items don’t stack in the shop screen, and so the junk has to be sold off one by one, using a screen that’s only four lines high, while carefully making sure not to sell the valuable material that’s mixed in with the junk.
That “Pacts” screen, which is used for recruiting new units is an abomination. It’s a wheel of units, with weak introductory units at the centre and stronger ones further out. But only a quarter of it is displayed at a time in the game. It’s frustrating to compare potential recruits within the game, since functionally comparable units are always in different quadrants. And notice those purple arrows on the outside of the ring? Those rotate the wheel. But which way do they rotate it? It’s ambiguous, and it I was constantly guessing wrong about which way it would go.
Story-wise, the game suffers from the decision to target the game at a younger audience. Vaan and Penelo were the least interesting of the Final Fantasy 12 protagonists, and so focusing the game on them does not endear it to me. Granted the political intrigue of 12 was nigh-incomprehensible at times, but at least it had the appearance of complexity, unlike the “let’s all go on an adventure” plot of Revenant Wings. Taking Penelo and having her interest revolve around cooking and dancing strikes me as a particularly regressive change. So is forcing her into the role of the dedicated healer, when she could pursue any path in the base game.
So it’s a mess. But one that I played a lot of, since I didn’t really hit a difficult spike. So technically, because of this, it doesn’t fit into my rubric. I suppose this means that I have less patience for boring games, even easy ones. I suppose this is a good thing.