Developer: Media Vision
Release Date: January 10, 2006
One could probably argue that the existence of a fourth game holding the Wild Arms moniker indicates how strong and healthy the RPG genre is. This is a series that gotten by largely by mixing the unique stylings of the western with opportunistic release scheduling and generic, middle-of-the-road gameplay; apparently this simple formula has moved over 2.5 million discs.
It’s a far more compelling argument to say that franchises like this are a great way to kill a genre, and that this specific line of RPGs was a dead horse on arrival, with each iteration a senseless flogging of that carcass. Still, Wild Arms 4 did claim to be somewhat different.
Based on my purposefully limited interaction with the previous Wild Arms games, Wild Arms 4 does represent some significant departures from its predecessors. For one thing, the western style that was the series’ greatest strength has been largely excised from Wild Arms 4. In its place is a largely generic world of magic and machines, where destroyed tanks are plentiful but cowboy hats are strangely absent.
So we’re not off to a great start here. It certainly doesn’t help that the first event in the game destroys the plucky young boy hero Jude Maverick’s village and thrusts him into the “real world,” thus giving the genre another example of its most overused introductory plot point. And from there, all the basic story clichés are hit. There’s a innocent little girl who’s a powerful magic user but must be protected anyway. There’s an evil empire hell-bent on dominating the world or destroying it. It’s a story that goes through the motions, but there is a noticeable difference – it all doesn’t make a lick of sense.
Wild Arms 4 has some very interesting ideas. It had an idea, for example, where a character who the game treats as a father figure states that the difference between good and evil is that acting on your strongest convictions is good, and doubting your actions but performing them anyway is evil. To believe such a thing is to scour all evil from history, but the hero spends the rest of his game blindly following his convictions anyway – fortunately for him, it worked out - this time.
And somehow, that’s not nearly as crazy as the game’s concept of adulthood, which Wild Arms 4 manages to include in the vast majority of the cutscenes in the game. Adults are fundamentally different from children, see. They have different belief structures, but more importantly, they have responsibilities, and just can’t do whatever they please. An adult (the same father figure character, actually) uses such statements to justify shooting the children he befriended with his one-shot-one-kill weaponry.
It’s all deeply confusing, and the end result it while the hero and the villain’s beliefs differ in a way that forces conflict, neither team appears to be thinking rationally. This makes it extremely difficult to suspend disbelief. There are simply no characters to relate to.
It certainly doesn’t help that all this strangeness is voiced awkwardly, but even that’s better than the voice acting in the non-plot related one-liners; most of those are truly cringe-worthy. There’s some good music here and there though, particularly when the game remembers where it came from and plays up some western-inspired tunes, complete with whistling. But then, there are some pretty bad songs in Wild Arms 4 as well. Trust me; you’ll know them when you hear them.
There’s no bad in the graphics, though. But then, there isn’t really anything great there either – there isn’t a lot of detail in the textures or nuance to the animation, and the non-western scenery really sucks a lot of the life from the world. The game will also present storyline elements via the 3D engine occasionally – for the most part, the exposition is presented in hand-drawn anime stills. There’s an inconsistency to this presentation; I can understand why you’d want to use stills to avoid animating complex interactions, but why use a picture of a character’s back to represent him walking away? Why not have him just, I don’t know, walk away? And if it’s a stylistic choice, why were there all those other scenes that were animated?
This feeling of inconsistency is also present in the exploration aspect of the game. By and large, the game controls in the standard RPG manner, where a 3D map is explored until the route to the dungeon’s final boss is found. There are treasure chests to open and button-based and lock-and-key styled puzzles to solve. It’s all completely standard and pretty simply done. But then there is a side-view mode, in which the game attempts to mimic a 2D platforming game. That’s well intentioned, but with all the enemies locked in random encounters and most of the mechanics borrowed from the 3D exploration aspect of the game, there’s little to do in these areas except solve jump puzzles. It’s either boring or frustrating, and feels out of place and only half-implemented.
Fortunately, the battle system is actually quite well done and fully realized. Encounters are random, and when you hit one your party of four is dropped on a grid of seven hexagons. Most attacks can only hit an adjacent hex, but if there are multiple enemies in that hex, they all take damage. It’s still turn-based, but the grid adds an element of strategy to the movement of characters. Because each of the characters has a completely different set of useful skills, every turn feels important. And, perhaps most ingeniously, every battle is fairly challenging, but you regenerate all or most of your life after victory. This provides a sense of accomplishment in every win without forcing the player to manage healing items or spells.
All of these elements come together very well in just about every battle. The story so distances the player from the action, however, and the remaining elements are so mediocre that even the strengths of the battle system can’t carry the game to completion on its own – and this game is short, clocking in at around twenty hours for the first playthrough. The game does have an item creation system, but it’s introduced very late in the game and the process is completely simple. It just requires a huge amount of money, implying that it is only truly useful in follow-up playthroughs. The second and third playthroughs do introduce some new elements like this, which is a nice touch but ultimately an empty gesture, as the game doesn’t provide the kind of experience that is worth experiencing multiple times.
If you’re a real fan of the series, however, there are special bonuses like that for you. If you like, you can even import your Wild Arms: Alter Code F data for additional treasure chests and other various niceties. But ultimately, you’re probably the only people who should be playing Wild Arms 4 at all. For everyone else, the character’s irrational beliefs make the story impenetrable, and the rest of the game doesn’t hold up well in the face of the PS2’s RPG library.