One of the first RPGs to land on the Playstation in 1997 was an unassuming, Old West-inspired game by the name of Wild Arms. Though it never managed to compete with more mainstream series, it has a greatness all its own; with a solid difficulty balance, a variety of puzzles, and a plot that dwells more on loneliness and a decaying world than on long-haired villains or a large but irrelevant main cast, I consider it one of the best RPGs on the system.
In the past couple weeks, the news got out that Akifumi Kaneko, the lead designer and scenario writer for the entire Wild Arms series, left Media.Vision in 2008. This came a couple years after Michiko Naruke, who had been the primary composer for the first four games, had stopped working on the series due to illness. Although it’s possible that we’ll see more Wild Arms games, these two were the heart of the series – any more we’d see would probably have a completely different feel (though the most recent two had already reached that point). In memory of the loss of the core of the series, I’d like to dwell a little on the best and most innovative elements of the first five games (and F). I exclude XF only because I’ve not yet played it (it’s on my to-do list). I’ll generally avoid major spoilers where I can.
The first Wild Arms game particularly captures a sense of loneliness that no other game has managed. Each of the primary characters in the first game is alone for a different reason: Rudy due to the recent loss of his mentor and father-figure, Jack’s entire kingdom had been destroyed in a demon attack three years prior, and Cecilia’s rank causes people to view her only as royalty and not as a person. Through their searching for a way to defeat the demon resurgence, they each have to confront their inner demons as well.
Wild Arms also conveys a strong sense of powerlessness; the main characters are unable to prevent the destruction of multiple cities despite their attempts. The funeral scene in Adlehyde is particularly powerful; though no game has yet made me cry, this scene has brought me the closest. The helpless feeling is reinforced when your characters are only able to defeat the initial villain through the help of an external force. While (naturally) your characters still grow to be strong enough to protect the world, there is still a sense that the victory is only temporary; while the primary threat to the world is destroyed, the decay of the world will continue.
Wild Arms 2 deals with the ideas of terrorism and nuclear proliferation. For a game created well before terrorism became the watchword for a certain US administration, it manages to capture the fears of the world population and the upper echelons of different governments when confronted by the ideas of extremists (even if they’re idealists rather than just crazy). Unfortunately, to get at these ideas you have to wrestle your way through a translation that’s murky at best and “all your base” at worst.
The third game has a distinct post-apocalyptic atmosphere. While it’s hard to imagine humanity managing to scrape by in a dry, desert world, Wild Arms 3 manages to make it at least somewhat believable. It captures the most Western feel of the series by far, though it is still tinged with the Ancient Ruin Syndrome of the other games. With Skies of Arcadia-esque search system and vehicle battle system, WA3 makes for a solid entry in the series. Its Encounter Cancel system allows you to avoid most battles entirely – great for anyone who doesn’t particularly enjoy them.
Ahh, the fourth game. Thinking back on it, I really don’t think I ever treated it fairly. It’s short, incredibly easy, and dropped the earlier Encounter Cancel system, adding a bit more frustration to dungeons. It might seem like a recipe for disaster, but the primary characters are fun (particularly Arnaud and Raquel), the puzzles are somewhat more action-y, the plot retains the sadness of earlier entries, and the dialogue is entertaining. Not only that, it has the most realistic ending for an RPG I’ve ever seen.
The 5th Vanguard (as the US releases finally adopted the original nomenclature) was, in many ways, an appropriate goodbye for the series. Since it was the 10th anniversary of Media.Vision, they added all the primary characters of the first four games as minor characters. They removed names, but kept the core of the character: Rudy wanders from town to town, appreciating the scenery of towns and musing on human nature (amazing that a silent protagonist would become so long-winded); Cecilia is a noble with a chronic disease, out to discover what the world has to offer before it relapses. None have a major role in the plot, but they add a little flavor to a world that otherwise feels a little one-dimensional (evil nobles versus well-meaning but ignorant commoners). Though it has a lackluster and often confusing plot (I think in the finale, time travel and cryo-stasis made a character infinity years old) its entertaining battle system improves on WA4’s to give it a similar balance to that of the original.
So goodnight, I say, to a series that – though rife with terrible character names, poor localization, and occasionally hamfisted lessons on human nature – has, despite its flaws, showed me what the role-playing genre could be.
Since Wild Arms is a series where the intros are consistently pretty good, I’ve consolidated some links here.
Memorable themes (All by Michiko Naruke unless otherwise noted)