Wild Arms 4
Based on: Ditching the superficial medieval RPG coating for the new and equally superficial Old West theme.
Article by bobservo | October 5, 2007
Japan may not have a real army, but it does have a standing milita of RPG franchises that play second fiddle to the biggies (i.e. Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest). Lacking the budgets and prowess necessary to create games with the same quality as their betters, the developers of these B-grade franchises often shoot for the sun and end up hitting low-flying aircraft instead. Wild Arms, a card-carrying member of the League of Second-Tier RPGs, tried its best to ape its bigger brothers' gameplay for its first three rootin'-tootin' gun-shootin' installments. The result? Gamers experienced the video game equivalent of shoebox diorama versions of their favorite RPGs, with the added bonus of little cowboy hats on some of the characters.
In many ways, the fourth Wild Arms feels like a smaller developer coming to terms with its identity crisis. Playing it, you get the feeling that someone at Media.Vision came to the realization that Wild Arms was never going to be Final Fantasy, so, damn it, why should they try? This is by no means a defeatist statement; it's a realistic recognition of limits. And in knowing their limits, the team behind Wild Arms 4 has created a sleek, streamlined and compact little game that succeeds through its desire not to be an overblown epic.
Wild Arms 4 doesn't completely turn the series on its ear; the Old West trappings remain intact, along with the global setting: The ruined planet, Filgaia. Gamers frequently complain that the series's spurs, horses, and saloons are ultimately superficial window dressing and have nothing all to do with the world, the gameplay, or the plot. While this is true, a game like Dragon Quest has absolutely nothing to do with the Crusades, despite its medieval setting. So yeah, Wild Arms 4's visual theme doesn't have much meaning, but you can at least rest assured that your party members will never come down with gangrene or a mighty thirst for sasaparilla.
The game's Filgaia-roaming begins when a young boy named Jude is thrown into the harsh real world after his peaceful life is in an isolated, utopian village is disrupted by reality. In this case, "reality" means "explosions." Yes, as with most RPGs, the main character's home town is destroyed within minutes of starting a new game; but, really, are you expecting to be genuinely surprised at this point? As Jude explores the world, he gains friends, learns about Filgaia's sordid history, and eventually embarks on a world-saving mission. It's standard RPG fare, and while it's schlocky, it never gets stupid enough to shut down large sections of your brain (please see Wild Arms V if this is what you desire). Some of the characters may be stereotypes -- the dumb, headstrong protagonist and the meek female healer came fresh from the character factory -- but they don't come close to being intolerable. There are even a few surprises; your most powerful character is a calm and composed swordswoman instead of your usual hulking barbarians and Sephirothy vessels of angst.
This inoffensive nature -- really, the best compliment you can give an RPG's narrative -- also lends itself to the plot of Wild Arms 4. It's a somber affair, told with a bit of subtlety and lacking those shrieking, grating anime-esque moments that only seasoned and/or brainwashed fans of the genre can tolerate. There's also an overarching "children are our future" theme that connects all of the plot elements, overbearingly so at times. But we must remember: Japan is a culture that celebrates youth...sometimes in disturbing and illegal ways. Now let us all agree to never talk about this again.
While it does stay faithful to much of its history, Wild Arms 4 departs from the traditional RPG genre with its battle system. While combat remains turn-based, getting into random skirmishes is no longer the equivalent of mindlessly tapping the X button like a rat in search of some sort of experiment-based positive reinforcement. The new hex-based battle system makes strategy a necessity; it's an ingenious little bit of SRPG-lite flavor that spices up what could otherwise be yet another plodding, fruitless exercise in the RPG genre.
The hex system is a simple concept, but it works well: The battlefield is split up into a honeycomb shape with seven separate hexagonal spaces total. Some of these spaces glow with elemental colors -- your usual water, fire, wind, and earth quartet -- which can alter the magic and attack abilities of the characters on said spaces. Characters and enemies can share spaces with their comrades. This is mandatory for healing, but characters sharing a hex also run the risk of suffering extra damage; attacks are directed toward the hexagon spaces and a single action strikes everyone in that hex. And since the combination moves straight out of Chrono Trigger? require hex-sharing as well, you'll often have to risk suffering attacks on multiple members of your party at once in order to pull off some of the most powerful techniques.
It's no Final Fantasy Tactics?, but the hex system is fun to experiment with. It also exploits the abilities of all four playable characters, making them all useful in some capacity. Many boss battles are puzzles, requiring your party to attack in groups, avoid certain hexes, force the enemy into a certain hex, and employ other situation-based strategies. In making you play each battle a little differently, Wild Arms 4 ensures that fighting bosses doesn't primarily involve a constant repetition of Limit Breaking your way to the top.
The battle system isn't the only thing to change in the Wild Arms series with part four; different areas of the RPG experience have been soundly whittled down for your gaming pleasure. The world map -– probably due to the game's low budget –- is a Super Mario World? style affair, which makes moving from one destination to another completely effortless. The Super Mario World comparisons don't end there, though; Wild Arms 4 features quite a bit of platforming. It's no Klonoa? -– hell, it's barely better than Bubsy –- but it does make dungeon exploring an intriguing novelty. The fun doesn't end there, though; after performing certain actions, it's also possible to completely turn off random battles in most areas (!), which clearly shows that at least one RPG developer can identify the genre's biggest bugbear.
Having an interesting battle system and ergonomic features doesn't make Wild Arms 4 a stellar game; it makes Wild Arms 4 a good game. It's above average and, at twenty-five hours long, worth playing through just to see some of the quirky new features. It would be nice to think that Media.Vision took the slightly flawed elements of Wild Arms 4 and improved on them for the sequel -– it really would. Unfortunately, the truth is that with its fifth chapter, the series has gone back to being Final Fantasy VII in a shoebox.
A really old, smelly shoebox, possibly with a decomposing foot inside.