Wild Arms (PlayStation) review
"Hills aren't covered in lush grass; they're sandy peaks with dying brush and scraggly reminders of what might have been a forest at one time. You won't find false-fronted general stores, either, or a stagecoach line. Instead, there are castles and towering fortresses, oceans and wastelands that dwarf the last remnants of civilization. It's a world where magic isn't lost entirely, where demons and wizards still roam the land, and where an ancient people's technology still breaks to the surface at unexpected moments."
Imagine me as the nerd that sat in the corner of the school cafeteria with sweat-stained armpits and too many tater tots, and you'd have a pretty good idea of the impression I made back in my high school days. Only when others likely talked about Dungeons & Dragons, I thought of Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior. There were others like me, staunch supporters of the Super Nintendo, and we all liked talking about the amazing environments, the heroes, and the epic journeys they took. For me, that was role-playing. I didn't need pens, paper, or stat sheets. I didn't need to envision spaceships floating through the sky. Those weren't role-playing games. And if you'd asked me, I certainly wouldn't have said there was anything worth exploring in the Old West.
Perhaps that's the genius of Wild Arms, the first in what was to become a series of successful console RPGs published by Sony for its Playstation and beyond. Rather than going with the standard knights and dragons approach, the game keeps what it likes from those themes, then sprinkles in some Western flare. Gimmicky? Sure it is. But as I was soon to discover when I brought Wild Arms home after a trip to Wal-Mart, change can sometimes rock.
Before you get the notion that this game features gunfights and Wyatt Earp and John Wayne, you should know that it has none of that. Instead, there's this vague sense of the Old West that hangs over the whole title. Hills aren't covered in lush grass; they're sandy peaks with dying brush and scraggly reminders of what might have been a forest at one time. You won't find false-fronted general stores, either, or a stagecoach line. Instead, there are castles and towering fortresses, oceans and wastelands that dwarf the last remnants of civilization. It's a world where magic isn't lost entirely, where demons and wizards still roam the land, and where an ancient people's technology still breaks to the surface at unexpected moments.
In short, the world in Wild Arms is fantastic in a way I'd never imagined. But this would mean nothing if developer Contrail didn't follow it up with substance, and indeed they have. The cool setting is supported by a story that somehow feels right at home within the atypical trappings. When the game begins, you'll witness it in fragments, as the game introduces three characters from various portions of the mainland who come together in time to embark on a quest where the prize at stake is no less than the world's salvation from the hands of ancient demons and those who would summon them. Though the story doesn't wander far from the cliche, the setting elevates it to a whole new level that puts a fresh coat of paint on the proceedings.
Speaking of that, I should probably also mention the graphics. After all, what would the environment be if it weren't brought to us professionally? I was pleased to find immediately that Contrail's artists recognized that fact. From a stunning FMV clip that opens up the game (few other titles have ever rivalled it) to a spartan graphical approach to the overworld that never does more than suffice, the game's entirety is quite cohesive. Battles aside, you'll be watching things from a strictly two-dimensional angle. Towns and castles are icons on a world map, as are mountains and water, deserts and plains. When you explore villages and cities, or even dungeons, you might well think you've put in a Super Nintendo title by mistake. A well-polished cartridge, but a cartridge just the same. It's only the battles that introduce something new, as the camera pans around blocky characters and even uglier monsters. The polygon count here is quite clearly nothing to strain the Playstation's processing unit, but Wild Arms does have the distinction (and defense) of being only the second or third RPG for the system. Today's gamers will have to choke back their appetite for stunning visuals in order to enjoy this one, but I'm encouraging you to do precisely that.
The main reason for this is the game's character progression system. Throughout the game, you can find tablets. Your characters then equip these, and can assign spells to them. In a clever move that appealed to the infant in me, the developers allow you to re-name the skills you can teach the protagonists. Thus, a default fire spell might be called 'Nasty Fart,' and so battles can be amusing even when you're in the middle of a monster-riddled dungeon and wishing you could reach that next save point.
Dungeons aren't so simple as sneaking past hordes of demons, either. Many of them are filled with puzzles you must solve in order to proceed. These go beyond just tripping switches, too. Scattered throughout the game are various special items, three for each of the main heroes. When you attempt to tackle a dungeon, you get to decide who will lead the party, and which item he will equip. Stuck in a room with three switches and four statues? Match the statues to the switches, and set a bomb to reduce the excess statue to a pile of rubble. Or maybe you need to light a distant torch with a burst of magic. Sometimes, the game even splits up the party so they must press switches together. These kind of puzzles, while perhaps not amazing, still represent enough of a departure from the norm that they keep the game feeling fresh.
Something else that also departs from the accepted standard is the battle system. I don't mean so much that there's some sort of special system such as the active battle meter employed by the Final Fantasy series, but that the presentation here feels fresh. Now, you may be thinking ''He's just saying that because he's enamored with the Old West style,'' and you'd be right. But I had to find some way to segue into a description of the battle menu, and that was the best I could come up with. Regardless, you should know that instead of selecting commands from a menu near the bottom of the screen, you'll find a cross-shaped series of five tiles at the center of the screen. Select whether you wish to fight or run or defend or whatever, then choose a more specific command such as a spell you want to use. Magic is cast only if you have enough points, and these are accrued throughout battle.
So, the battle system is fairly unique, the setting is a cool twist on an old standard, and just about every other element benefits from that change in one way or another. Does that necessarily mean everyone will enjoy it? Of course not. The approach definitely isn't for everyone, and may even alienate those not willing to keep an open mind. Not only that, but there are some flaws inherent to the genre that the developers didn't really even address. For those two reasons, I can't give the game the perfect score it at times makes me consider. Regardless, this is worth your time. If you're open to older gems, this is one of the brightest.
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Staff review by Jason Venter (Date unavailable)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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