Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Publisher: XSeed Games
Release Date: March 11, 2008
The year was 1997. While the genre of the tactical RPG had been touched upon with Sega's Shining Force series, it had otherwise gone neglected, with the exception of occasional offerings such as Ogre Tactics. In this otherwise-neglected field, Squaresoft decided to release Final Fantasy Tactics, a game that would redefine and revitalize the genre and summon forth the requisite slew of imitators, ranging from the darkly humorous Disgaea to the unforgiving Fire Emblem. Ever since that one spectacular groundbreaking moment, other game companies have sought to create a game that would build upon that innovation and perfect what was started so long ago. Even Wild Arms, a western-themed role-playing game series long beloved by a small army of rabid fans, has decided to get in on the act.
Enter Wild Arms XF (Crossfire) for the PlayStation Portable. Fans of more "pure" role-playing titles will always find that tactical gaming dilutes the experience — and vice-versa — but this game offers a fairly seamless blend. The story involves Clarissa and Felius losing Clarissa's mother's sword, which would save the dying world of Filgaia upon which they live, to a mercenary named Rupert. When she goes to chase after him, she is inadvertently drawn into political intrigue with a corrupt senate that relies on a brute squad known as the Martial Guard in order to "police" (read: extort and bully) the populace. By sheer coincidence, Clarissa just happens to look like the dead princess, and, when left with no alternative, she finds herself using this to her advantage to help organize a rebellion against the oppressive government to save the kingdom of Elesius.
In a format that is often stuffed to the brim with weak characterization and abysmal voice acting, the makers of this game have elected to buck the trend. Each character has a distinctive and noteworthy personality, and the writing makes the various players in the story seem less like one-dimensional sluggers and more like actual people with motivations and personalities. Whether it's the headstrong and deeply moral Clarissa, the quiet and enigmatic Felius, or the prim and proper Labyrinthia, each character is distinctive enough that it would be easy to tell who is speaking simply by reading the dialogue and nothing else. This is a particularly welcome breath of fresh air and will hopefully be picked up on by game designers in the future; we may be playing tactical games, but there's no rule against a solid story line or likeable characters.
Better still, players who are experienced with this sort of game will find that there is a refreshing change of pace with many of the story missions. While it is true that random combat will often take the form of "kill everything in sight," mission battles are often less direct and include flipping a switch in the distance to open a gate while trying to evade an overwhelmingly powerful opponent, sneaking villagers out of a prison camp while trying to stay out of sight, or escorting those same villagers from one side of a battlefield to the other. Mission success is not necessarily a matter of being able to take down the opposing side, and while it does help to do so, the ability to keep your mission objective in mind is definitely a big plus if you want to make progress.
Unfortunately, while Wild Arms XF picks up the ball and runs with it in terms of story line and characters, it commits a rather grievous fumble in terms of gameplay. This is not to say that the game is difficult to control or figure out; I was able to pick it up and play immediately, immersing myself in the charismatic tale. No, the great flaws are in the details, and that's not really something you want to be able to say about a game in a genre for which details are everything.
First, there is the inclusion of Vitality Points, which is a sort of stamina meter for your character; you begin each battle with a full VP meter, and it decreases at the end of each turn, based on what equipment you're wearing and other factors that determine your weight stat (WGT). This is right up there with weapon durability as one of the most irritating things that can go into a game. In addition to having to try to make tactically sound decisions, the player is essentially forced to hurry through a battle and given comparatively little time to adapt his strategy to factors that may crop up. This also punishes well-armored characters, meaning that you will not always be better off utilizing your best equipment. Removing the VP meter would have greatly added to this title's appeal, and it should definitely be considered if there is a Wild Arms XF 2 in our future.
Another issue of particular irritation is the imposed class changes. While it's true that characters are allowed to change class at any time other than in the heat of battle, there are certain battles where a particular class is not encouraged, but required. Part of the fun in the better titles of this genre is figuring out which classes or abilities are best suited to the battle and your personal play style. This exploration is limited by the frequent need — and I do mean need, as you can't win the fight without them — to utilize a specific class at a specific time. Nobody likes being railroaded into a predetermined path, and this is especially true for strategy gamers.
The final flaw with Wild Arms XF, although some might consider it a bit of a boon if they like high difficulty ratings, is the fact that the game's random encounters seem to get extremely difficult in very short order. In the very first area where random battles can be fought, enemies can be found that can confuse your characters, steal your items, halve your HP, and even kill you instantly, regardless of your current hit point status. While this is something that I would expect of encounters later in the game, when your characters had made sufficient progress that would help to offset these attacks, inexperienced tactical gamers will find the repeated deaths of their characters in these very early levels to be highly frustrating.
Wild Arms XF is a title that picks up on one of the major weak points of the genre and improves upon it in a welcome stroke, but seems to favor an increase in difficulty simply for difficulty's sake and has a nasty habit of halfway playing the game for you. If you are an experienced strategy gamer and a role-playing game fan, this might be just the thing you need to get the adrenaline flowing and shake off those I've-seen-it-all blues, but anyone who hasn't cut his teeth on easier fare might be better off seeking out a copy of Disgaea.
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