If you've noticed huge spotlights, clamouring press and screaming fans outside your local game shop lately, don't be alarmed. You see, Final Fantasy is back in town for the Christmas season, and as one of the longest-running series of all time its arrival tends to be marked with a bit of Hollywood glamour. And while our previous few handheld experiences of the series have been the equivalent of a re-run of the Great Escape at Christmas, Revenant Wings is pure, silver screen stuff-that-dreams-are-made-of class.
Not that we didn't like those re-runs. When FF IV, V and VI were re-released on the Game Boy Advance we thoroughly enjoyed their polished pocket-sized conversions. They served up what Final Fantasy does best – a deep plot, great characters and addictive battling. But after 12 incarnations of the same idea, you can understand our desire for something a bit different.
If you're not familiar with the series, however, then fear not, as Revenant Wings will whisk you away into a fresh narrative within the first half-hour. Before you know it, you'll be soaring across the sky continent of Lemures with Vaan and his crew of Sky Pirates, learning about a plot to destroy the floating lands.
But it's just not a new story: Revenant Wings also turns classic Final Fantasy gameplay on its head. Gone are the long periods of waiting for your turn to attack. In its place is something quite different – genuine real-time strategy.
The game's action – in between scouting the world map and chatting with your team of pirates – is divided into missions that take place in closed-off areas. At the start of each, you're shown the main opponents you'll be facing, and can choose your team accordingly. That includes equipping your party with the right sorts of items and weaponry, as well as picking Espers. Espers are summoned creatures that will follow one of your characters around, helping out as they can.
Espers broaden the tactics of the game a little, adding in a nice sense of scale to things, as well as enabling you to choose different skills and elements depending on what you're fighting. Sometimes you'll need flying fire-throwers, at others you'll want rabbits in dresses that heal people. This can change mid-battle, too, by capturing points on the maps that make it possible to summon fresh beasties to help with the fight.
As time goes on you eventually unlock more Espers, as well as discovering new equipment and gaining experience points that make your characters stronger and capable of more impressive skills. It's the addictive hallmark of any Final Fantasy game, true, but having its base in strategy makes it a little different. In fact, because your skill set and range of Espers grows so steadily, the tactics vary throughout the game, offering up quite a variety of strategies.
In fact, at first this fails miserably. On an average mission early on in the game, success is as simple as selecting everyone onscreen with a press of the X button, and then tapping the boss at the end of the map, giving Revenant Wings all the tactical nuances of a sledgehammer to the face. But as the game progresses it punishes you for it, forcing you to learn when to hold back, how to approach bottlenecks, and when to send in the rabbits.
And when the game opens up like this, it all comes together. You'll be struck suddenly by how well made it really is. Yes, it's got the Hollywood sheen that we mentioned earlier – the cut-scenes are drop-dead gorgeous in the kind of superficial way that makes you feel bad for enjoying them so much – but even the in-game engine manages to mix cutesy sprites with solid 3D and make it work. And what will really get you is that it's simply very fun, and very big.
Though not big in a cumbersome way, as you might expect from Final Fantasies of the past. Rather, Revenant Wings just has a lot to offer. One minute you're digging up materials to forge weapons out of, the next you're unlocking massive flying dragons to keep as pets. Just as you get used to the idea of capturing summon points, you're given a fresh type of challenge and have to adjust. There's always that addictive edge to playing, that knowledge of a faster sword or a bigger spell just around the corner. It's what has always been at the heart of Final Fantasy, of course, and it still beats as strong in this new incarnation.