As far as RPG series go, one of the smaller ones you don’t hear too much about is Wild Arms. They are the only RPGs I’ve heard of that try to tackle the Wild West as an overall theme, and tend to blend in fantasy and science fiction elements to keep the game interesting for more traditional RPG fans.
Although the plot and setting differ significantly between any two members of the series (with one exception), there are some trends, such as the Guardians, which are summons characters can equip and use. All of the games also have the blessing of Michiko Naruke’s composition talents. Although she was not able to do the full composition for 4, all of the games have excellent music which adds greatly to the atmosphere – in fact, it was hearing the music that brought me to revisit the first and go on to try the rest of the series.
One main trend of the series is a lack of consistent localization. Each Wild Arms game has been localized by a completely different company, so translation varies from pretty good to quite bad. This also means romanization of a name is generally different from game to game as well.
The first entry in the series was released right before Final Fantasy VII in the US, and thus didn’t receive much in the way of publicity. The battle system in the first entry is turn-based. Each character has specific strengths and weaknesses, as well as certain abilities only they can learn. Despite a fairly simple system, battles become strategic, especially during boss battles where predicting your enemy’s moves is important.
Battle is made more interesting through the Force system, in which characters gain Force for dealing or receiving damage. Using multiples of 25 force, each character has 3 unique abilities, ranging from utility (use an item on the entire party) to damage-dealing (automatic critical hit). Customization comes in the form of upgrading Rudy’s ARMs and deciding on what magic to give Cecilia so you can develop a strategy to take on some of the tougher optional bosses.
Dungeon crawling in the game is more interesting than most, as the game – and the whole series – has all kinds of puzzles and obstacles that you need to get past using tools your characters collect, in a system somewhat similar to Lufia 2 for the SNES.
The plot starts out looking fairly standard – an ancient evil has mysteriously returned, and it’s your job to stop it. The characters involved, however, make a huge difference, and two of the three main characters have events that happened in their past that become significant during the game. The only complaint about the game I have is that the main character’s name was made “Rudy” for some reason (original was “Rody”). I don’t know why it bothers me, but Rudy just gives me a bad connotation for some reason.
Atmosphere is a huge part of this game. Much of it has a Wild West feel to it, but there are also elements of classic fantasy that blend in quite well. The game begins with a semi-innocent charm that – within a few hours – turns into a sudden realization that what is happening to the world is significant and very, very bad. As the characters try to find out how to stop it, the resurrected evil destroys multiple towns in its wake.
Near the end of the game, a huge variety of side-quests and optional bosses open up for the player to try. Many of these are tougher areas or enemies than the end of the game, giving the player a chance to try out new strategies on particularly tough bosses.
Honestly, as a whole, I felt a much stronger connection to this game than I usually do. The opening credits roll around three hours into the game during a funeral scene – not many designers are willing to do something like that, but it lends a huge depth to the story in the beginning, and I felt a connection to the characters for it. The first game handles the emotion well, as plot and music merge to create a seamless experience.
The second game, called “2nd Ignition” in Japan and Europe, includes a few gameplay changes and more than a few graphical changes. First, battle is somewhat more complicated – instead of Force only being used for the special Force abilities, magic and abilities have a prerequisite of a certain amount of force, but do not use up that amount (i.e. “Heal” requires 12 force, but you do not lose any for using it). MP was completely done away with, as well.
Wild Arms 2 carries on the tradition of puzzles, and makes them more complex – a total of 6 playable characters, each with 3 tools, make it difficult to even figure out what tool is appropriate for what puzzle. Although this can make the game frustrating, there is a great satisfaction when you complete a particularly tricky word puzzle.
The six characters in the game each receive a good deal of development. Although the plot is somewhat complex and downright strange near the end (and the beginning), it is still pretty good. The plot is a good deal darker than that of the original, which is a trade-off: on one hand, this game lost much of the good-natured charm of the original, but on the other it made the plot somewhat more interesting.
Translation in Wild Arms 2 is a bit sketchy in places, although considerably less constrained than most (for example, the radar tool is called the “Booty Call”). This game is also the first game in which a frowny face (:-() pops up in dialogue (to my knowledge).
Technology in the game is handled quite differently from the original; in this game, it is more prevalent – trains, planes (no less than 3 ancient flying machines), and even nuclear weapons (…kind of) make their appearance.
Overall, WA2 is just not quite as good as the original. The battle system is more complex, and there is more variety to the characters, but the light-heartedness of the original is missing and the game is incredibly easy. I would also like to say that Ashley is a terrible name for a male lead.
Finally, as the first WA on the PS2, WA3 is a huge graphical upgrade. When I played it, the first thing that struck me were the graphics. It was a relatively early game on the system, but the graphics were of a similar mold to Dragon Quest VIII – colorful, with a cel-shaded look, and anime-styled characters.
The combat system was made more complex in some ways, but less so in others. In earlier games, each character has three unique force abilities; in this entry, each character has one. However, magic is based entirely on the Guardian each character equipped – up to three – so you get to choose who got what magic abilities. It took me a few hours to figure out the battle system completely, but when I did I found loopholes without even looking.
The loopholes I found really should’ve been fixed; for example, a spell that increases a character’s attack power by difference between current and max HP. When you get it, your best attacker has around 200 ATP and 900ish max life. Reduce him to half health, use the spell and his attack power more than triples. This makes the whole game quite easy.
The puzzles, thankfully, are a bit easier than WA2. Some of them are difficult to figure out, but that’s because they follow real-world rules; for example, you may find out you need to stop up a valve, with no clues whatsoever how. The solution is to freeze it shut using an ice tool you may have acquired several hours ago.
Cities and towns are more fleshed out in this game than any game I’ve seen. Each NPC has a unique portrait and name, and nearly every one says something different after each plot event. Many even say different things depending on which character you are using. I felt this was unnecessary at first, but I actually got to like some of the NPCs in the game that had no bearing on the plot whatsoever.
The atmosphere in Wild Arms 3 goes for an entirely Western feel. The entire world is in fact barren – there are no oceans, and little grass (part of the plot involves figuring out why).
The plot starts off whimsically, but develops into a more serious feel after several hours. The characters are somewhat fleshed out, but some feel sort of two-dimensional, and I only found one of them particularly interesting.
Wild Arms 3 has a very well done plot, and both graphics and music complement it well. The story combines the light-heartedness of the first game with the darkness of the second in roughly equal amounts, though it becomes even more strange at the end than WA2’s. Bonus points, however, for the second game I’ve seen where the main character’s father is not only alive but badass (Final Fantasy Legend II being the first). Thank god, the weird character names (Jet and Gallows) are not as strange as before.
In between 3 and 4, MediaVision made Wild ARMs Alter Code: F, a remake of the original game. You might think it odd that a PSX game was remade for PS2, but the upgrade – both graphically and engine-wise – is very nearly flawless.
The plot of the game is virtually unchanged (a good thing). Minor events throughout the plot were modified to add more backstory, fleshing out the characters. After advancing far enough in the plot, you can actually get three additional characters to join your party as well.
In addition, all of the music was remastered by Naruke, and is again excellent. Graphical designs were clearly well-thought-out, with some excellent artwork unlockable for viewing in the game (it was good enough for me to import the artbook, the only game-related non-game piece of merchandise I’ve ever bought).
The only way the game is lacking is the poor localization. ACF has the worst localization in the series, with gender/plurality confusion, lack of voices (which were in the original) and general spottiness.
Despite the poor translation, it is my favorite game in the series. It combines some of the best features of 1, 2, and 3 in just the right amounts to keep combat and puzzles interesting.
The most recent release, Wild Arms 4, is a huge departure. The game takes place in a sort of sci-fi Filgaia, which has had more or less constant warring for several years. ARMs, rather than being ancient repaired relics or even specialized weaponry, are packs of nanomachines that will form into a gun on the proper user’s command.
The main characters are all even younger than standard RPG fare. The main character is 14 or 15, with the oldest member of your party being 19 (though she acts older). The entire game seems to center around a theme of children being better caretakers of the world than adults. They could have convinced me even if they hadn’t hammered it into the plot at every possible point.
Combat once again received many modifications – it switched into a hex-based system, where any amount of characters can be on a hex.
Also, the combat system was modified from an entirely round-based system (like Dragon Warrior/Quest games) to an active-turn system (like FFX). Although this made combat somewhat interesting, the number inflation (characters start with 2000 HP) and sheer power of some characters makes the game really easy. Most boss fights in the game boil down to putting everyone on the same hex, hasting that hex, slowing down the enemy hex, and waiting for Raquel (your powerhouse) to pummel the enemy into submission in 2-3 hits.
Dialogue in the game is interesting, as the “chat” takes up the entire screen, with character’s portraits being divided by seemingly random lines. Sometimes the positions of characters’ portraits will switch to indicate movement or emotion (or sometimes for no good reason at all). Voice acting is a bit cheesy, but WA4 has the best localization in the series.
Towns are large and have a huge variety of NPCs, and once again each have their own portrait (larger this time). There are many NPCs, sometimes up to 20+, in each town. Unfortunately, there are only 4-5 towns in the game, and the game is really quite short.
Dungeons were changed as well. Instead of having set tools for each character, exploration is done as Jude (another ridiculously named main character) in a more action-based setting (sort of like Valkyrie Profile). You can find tools in some rooms to solve puzzles, but none of the puzzles are too difficult once you figure out that Jude can magically (?) compress time.
Come to think of it, WA4 has some of the worst names I’ve seen for an RPG. I can sort of forgive Jude, as silly names are a tradition for the series. And I know Raquel is an actual name too. But Arnaud and Yulie? Seriously, you’d think they spent half the writing time on thinking up weird names for the main characters.
All in all, Wild Arms 4 is just not as good as the other members in the series. It doesn’t have a particularly strong (much less convincing) story, has little of the Wild West feel of the earlier games, and combat is just about a joke. If you’re looking for a cheap and relatively quick RPG, it’s not a bad bet, because it’s definitely not the worst game I’ve played.
Despite its tendency to have downright strange names for main characters and the somewhat over-the-top Spaghetti Western feel, Wild Arms is a great series of games. As long as the next entry is not as generally bad as the 4th one (which it shouldn’t be, as the main character uses a shovel in battle), Wild Arms will remain among my favorite series for a long time.