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PS2 Preview - 'Wild Arms 5'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Aug. 14, 2007 @ 6:06 a.m. PDT

Wild ARMs 5 is an RPG that follows the journey of a group of young travelers as they try to unlock the mysteries of their ravaged land and unknowingly become involved in a struggle that will decide the fate of the entire world.

Genre: Role-Playing Game
Publisher: Xseed Games
Developer: Media Vision
Release Date: Q3 2007

Wild Arms is one of the forgotten gems of the PlayStation era. If you ask someone to name franchises, you'll hear Final Fantasy, Breath of Fire or Suikoden, but for some reason, Wild Arms never manages to shine quite as brightly. It isn't that they were bad games because the Wild Arms series was fairly well designed, with interesting puzzles, unique concepts for battle systems and a delightful Western setting. Wild Arms never really attempted to reinvent the wheel until Wild Arms 4, which introduced a new battle system and a Valkyrie Profile-esque 2D dungeon design. Unfortunately, while sparkling with interesting ideas, WA4 was held back by a severely unbalanced combat system and a terrible and frustrating plot. Thankfully, Media Vision had a chance to look at what did — and didn't — work in WA4 and is bringing us the much refined Wild Arms 5.

The star of WA5 is Dean, a young boy with a serious fascination for Golems, which are giant humanoid mobile weapons from a long-ago era, and the basis for most of the technology in the modern-day world of Filgaia. Dean's Golem fanboying comes to a head when what seems like a simple adventure ends up with the discovery of an intact Golem arm that houses a mysterious girl with amnesia named Avril. All Avril can remember is the phrase "Johnny Appleseed," and it's up to Dean and his friend Rebecca to figure out exactly what that means before it's too late.

Like the other Wild Arms titles, Wild Arms 5 takes place in a Wild West setting with a smattering of classic Japanese RPG clichés. Filgaia is a dusty empty world, with only a few bastions of technology and commerce. Most of the power is in the hands of the mysterious race of beings called the Veruni, who have effectively enslaved humanity. While humans are mostly free to go about their business, a Veruni can enslave or kill them for no reason at all. It's an interesting twist to the usual RPG formula, where humans are generally the more prolific and powerful of races, and it does an interesting job of evoking a feudal atmosphere in a Wild West setting.

Although the dungeons have been upgraded from 2D to 3D, many of the action elements introduced in Wild Arms 4 do make a return. Dean can jump, slide and use his handguns (or ARMs) to solve puzzles, open chests and even discover invisible items. His ARMs can be equipped with different kinds of ammunition to aid in the exploration of dungeons. It forms a nice balance between the Tools found in the first three games in the series and the platforming exploration present in Wild Arms 4.

Returning from Wild Arms 4 is the Hex Battle System. Mixing elements of strategy RPGs and turn-based action, the Hex Battle System makes battles a more hands-on affair than many recent RPGs. Wild Arms 5's battlefields are divided into a number of interconnecting "hexes." Player characters and enemies are randomly distributed among these hexes at the start of every battle, and combatants can move from hex to hex, as long as it isn't occupied by an enemy; they can even share hexes with allied characters.

The real twist comes from the fact that actions performed in combat don't affect other characters, but instead target the hexes themselves. Attacking a hex hits everything inside it, and using a healing item will restore the hit points of everybody inside the targeted hex. Support spells don't target characters, but instead buff a particular hex, so pumping up characters' stats will require you to hold your ground, or risk letting the enemy take advantage of your hard-spent MP. Learning how to use these hexes is key to surviving battles; proper usage can allow you to damage multiple foes at once, conserve healing items, and even lure enemies into traps with careful planning. Of course, if you don't think ahead, you could find your entire party trapped and surrounded in a hex full of bad status effects.

Magic is quite different in Wild Arms 5. There are only a handful of spells, and few of them have any sort of elemental affinity; instead, each spell gains power from its surroundings. A number of the hexes in each battle contain "leylines," or magical conduits, corresponding to a specific element. If you cast the magic spell "Blast" on an empty hex, it unleashes a non-elemental burst of magical energy, but if you cast it on a Fire Leyline, suddenly that magic spell transforms into a rain of fireballs. Since powerful enemies tend to be weak to specific elements, winning those battles relies on you being able to take advantage of these leylines — a difficult task when enemies are guarding them with their lives.

Another interesting element of magic in the world of Wild Arms 5 is that MP is not the only kind of fuel you have for magic. Basic abilities and spells do indeed require MP, which doesn't change much from the usual system found in most RPGs, but what's really interesting are the spells that don't require MP. As your characters battle, they build up Force Points, which works like a super bar in a fighting game: Once you've reached a specific level, you can use those FP to unleash special moves or attacks by spending one or more bars, but the catch is that the entire party shares a single FP bar. It may be useful to have Rebecca use the Jump ability to move to a far-away Hex, but it could leave Dean without the FP necessary to perform a powerful technique.

One major advantage to sharing a hex is the ability to perform combination attacks between various characters. When two or more characters have battled together for a long time, are in the same hex, and have enough Force Points, they may learn a powerful new combination technique. Some combos cause massive amounts of damage to a single foe, while others hit every enemy on the field or in a specific set of hexes; each of these attacks also includes a particularly cool animation that is unique to each team. Of course, learning when to use these hidden techniques is key because bunching up your entire team for a failed attack can really hurt when enemies go to town on your unprotected hex.

Mediums in Wild Arms 5 function like a mix of the ability system from Wild Arms 4 and the Mediums from Wild Arms 3. A Medium is a special piece of equipment that determines a character's abilities. Each Medium has unique attributes; some are focused on healing abilities, others on physical combat, and yet others on support abilities. Once a Medium is equipped, the character gains access to some, but not all, of its abilities. Each Medium ability has a specific ranking, ranging from 1 to 99, and that ranking specifies what level the equipped character must be at in order to use that ability.

However, at each level up, a character gains a Glyph Point in addition to their regular level, which can be spent to temporarily "add" a level to a specific Medium ability. Thus, if a power requires a character to be level 20, and he is level 18, you can allocate two GP to learn that ability early. Of course, spending GP comes at a cost. Each GP spent lowers the character's max HP until the point is allocated back to the character's health instead. So while players can dump all their GP into that powerful new ability, it means they'll be so fragile that monsters can take them down in one or two hits.

The interesting aspect of the Mediums is that, unlike Wild Arms 4, they can be moved from character to character, rather than each character having a specific skill setup, allowing you a bit more freedom with your characters. Rather than one character being stuck as the dedicated healer, you can switch around, depending on the current needs of the party. Furthermore, each ability tends to be a bit better balanced than its counterparts in the last game, so that one particular set of abilities doesn't instantly overpower all the others.

Wild Arms 5 isn't exactly a graphical masterpiece like a lot of recent RPGs, but it is still a rather nice-looking game. The characters are detailed and expressive, a welcome change from the still portraits used in place of cut scenes in Wild Arms 4. Of particular note are the cut scenes, both in and outside of battle, which show a bizarre and amusingly over-the-top style that is rather rare in RPGs. Dean never does thing subtly. When confronted with a giant monster, he'll perform insane stunts like leaping off his own weapon to perform a double jump, followed by a judo throw that sends the monster flying. When disembarking from a moving train, the team uses hand grenades to cushion their fall ... by using the explosion to throw themselves back into the air before they hit the ground. This sort of insanity fills most of the action-based scenes in the game, and it keeps things from getting boring.

Wild Arms 5 is shaping up to be an excellent addition to the franchise. After the monotonous Wild Arms 4, it is a relief to see Media Vision bringing back the best elements while trimming off the less enjoyable segments. August is going to be a hefty month for gamers, with titles like Persona 3, Bioshock and Metroid Prime 3 due to take a hefty chunk from our wallets, but RPG fans looking for a little more will certainly want to check out Wild Arms 5. The PlayStation 2 may be seven years old and considered "last generation," but with offerings like Wild Arms 5, it's certainly proving that it isn't dead yet.

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