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Wild Arms - Alter Code: F (PlayStation 2) artwork

Wild Arms - Alter Code: F (PlayStation 2) review


"Wild Arms Alter Code: F combines the smooth play mechanics of Wild Arms 3 with the original's promising storyline... but it's not a re-hash. From reinvented dungeons to exponentially superior character development, Alter Code F distinguishes itself from the original and deserves its own praise."



The original Wild Arms is the game that most influenced my decision to buy a PlayStation. I had been a console RPG fan even before the SNES was released, and the game looked like a charming 2D adventure with then-spiffy (but now-laughable) 3D combat scenes. Most of all, I was enchanted by the thought of anime intermissions -- something that was sorely absent from most Saturn games. When I actually saw the Wild Arms opening FMV running on a Babbage's video monitor, my heart skipped three beats.....

"Hot diggity, that's EARNEST EVANS!"

It was actually Jack Van Burace, who just so happens to also be a blonde, wild-haired, leather-jacketed treasure hunter like Earnest Evans.

Extremely Interesting Note: Wild Arms also stole Earnest Evans' trademark cheek bandage, but they cleverly placed it on the other hero: a strapping young lad named Rudy.

Unfortunately, even though the game's first two or three hours were tightly-woven brilliance, Wild Arms strayed in too many directions and ultimately unraveled into a series of barely connected subplots. I didn't care about hastily-introduced and poorly-developed characters like Calamity Jane. Many dungeons seemed irrelevant to the main story, as though their only purpose was to provide me with yet another guardian beast (who would then be shelved amidst the other twelve). Furthermore, the game casually shuffled so many villains around that I kept forgetting Zed and Zeikfried were different people.

Wild Arms Alter Code: F fixes most of that. Basically, it combines the smooth play mechanics of Wild Arms 3 with the original's promising storyline... but it's not a re-hash. From reinvented dungeons to exponentially superior character development, Alter Code F distinguishes itself from the original and deserves its own praise.

As before, this samurai/sci-fi/Western hybrid (which somehow feels natural instead of gimmicky) begins with a series of three playable prologues, each focused on a single character:

Rudy Roughnight, the shotgun-toting boy who slaps little kids around but never says a word during the entire game. This "silent hero" schtick doesn't work when there are three joint leads. He's supposed to be the main character, but the silence makes Rudy feel like some guy who was tacked on at the end just to fill up the player's party.

Jack Van Burace, a grizzled tomb raider with a surprising capacity for swordplay. He's tormented by traumatic memories, but never talks about his past. I love this guy... in a purely platonic way.

Cecilia Raynne Adlehyde, quiet princess of a dying kingdom. Her heart is pure, but not naive; she understands the world's misery and yearns for peace. She's pretty.

After their individual chapters, these three heroes band together to take on the evil being known as "Mother" and save the world. Despite this comfortably predictable set-up, Alter Code F's puzzle-based dungeons, intelligent battles, and cinematic sequences are delightfully fresh.

Starting with Rudy's first foray into a nearby cave, it's apparent that Alter Code F has done more than just visually update old dungeons. The layouts and puzzles are entirely new, and many of them are designed to take advantage of the fully-rotatable 3D perspective. For example, while Rudy might need to climb a ladder to reach a platform above him, he'll later RAM HEADFIRST into that same ladder, knocking it down to form a makeshift bridge across an otherwise impassable pit.

* uncomfortable transition *

Alter Code F features an unusual monster encounter system. Although battles are random (and often frequent), they can be avoided as long as you have "encounter points". Basically, before a battle begins, a giant white ! appears above your character's head. Press X to avoid the battle... but you'll lose some encounter points, which must be replenished by either sleeping at an inn or by picking up white "encounter orbs". You'll also find orange "health orbs" in most dungeons.

That brings us back to the puzzles! While some of Alter Code F's obstacles are the mundane block-pushing type, most are unusual and thought-provoking. One puzzle requires your party to cross an ENORMOUS pit -- but this time, there are no ladders to ram. Aside from the pit, the only things in the room are some orange health and white encounter orbs (which are inconveniently hovering above the chasm).

Here's the trick: Cecilia wields a wizard's staff that shoots MAGIC RAYS to transform orange health orbs into sturdy tiles. The answer seems obvious now: shoot the orange orbs hovering above the pit to build a pathway from one side to the other! However, shooting a white encounter orb doesn't have the same effect. Accidentally zapping those causes you to teleport... in this case, right above the pit. Then you'll fall. And that's not good.

It's impressive how Alter Code F's developers linked traditionally disparate RPG concepts -- random encounters and puzzle-solving -- together in such an unusual way. The many obstacles sprinkled throughout every area require similar care and attention.

After escaping that particular dungeon, I immediately raced back to my boat. While sailing the high seas, I remembered an important detail; I had forgotten to stop at an inn to rest and replenish my encounter gauge! Sure enough, a giant red ! appeared onscreen, indicating that I had been DISHONORABLY AMBUSHED with no chance for escape.

Most enemies are elaborately animated; insect-like opponents flit across the screen, and iron-helmed goblins dance around and issue flanking orders to their comrades. This time, my opponent was a grotesquely obese Kraken.

The massive Kraken neither flits nor dances.

I attacked with "CICI ROCK", an earth-based boulder attack so cool I had to name it. And, since this is a Wild Arms game, I was able to name it when Cecilia purchased the spell from a magic shop. Unfortunately, this particular creature is resistant to earth attacks; the electrical "CICI BOLT" (I named that one, too) would have been a wiser choice. Meanwhile, Rudy pulled out his hand-cannon and dished out a whopping 8600 points of damage with the "GATLING RAID" ability, which empties an entire clip into a single target's face. That put a quick end to the Kraken and its fat ways.

Although not on the level of something like Shin Megami Tensei, the battles require thought and prudent spell purchases... but they're still loud and visually spectacular, especially when you start summoning elemental guardians, which lead into prolonged (and unskippable) cinematic sequences of unbridled carnage. My main complaint against the battle system is that guardian spirits are now confined to Cecilia. In the original, guardian-summoning runes could be equipped on any character for devastating (and degenerate) effect. By limiting the runes to Cecilia, this element of mix-and-match strategy no longer exists. On the other hand, this change forced me to develop Rudy and Jack's unique talents... and Cecilia feels a lot more important now. It's absolutely a change for the better but, as a power-hungry gamer who enjoys abusing broken play mechanics, I was disappointed.

What I absolutely love is how the original story has been so well tied to the quest. It's not so much better-written as it is better-executed. Each dungeon and town (there are a LOT of both) now features a cutscene or two. With its fully-modeled 3D character closeups, Alter Code F is a lot more powerful than the original and its distant 2D sprites. Even brief, silent moments are impressive -- before a racially intolerant mayor grudgingly accepts help from a forest elf, he gives the young girl a long, cold stare. The bed-ridden mayor cradles the girl's medicinal herb in his hands... and as the camera pulls away from the scene, he shamefully -- but graciously -- lowers his head.

Because of these touching moments, even minor events feel important... but there are a few parts that might cause fans of the original to cringe. The most glaring is an early scene of carnage, where burning corpses have been replaced by people waiting to be (optionally) rescued. Life is a lot less dramatic than death. Fortunately, these changes are rare, and newcomers to the series won't even notice.

Legions of Michiko Naruke fans -- I've been one since the Valis days -- would flood the HonestGamers Mailbag with irate letters if I failed to mention the soundtrack. The great news is that the famous "whistling theme" remains 100 percent identical to the original, even if the opening cinematic's new visuals aren't quite as striking. The other news, which is hard to label as either "good" or "bad", is that most of the music has been drastically re-arranged. No one can agree on which specific songs are better or worse; the original was more memorable (with pronounced melodic lines), but the remake is richer (with fuller instrumentation). I generally prefer the original, but the new music is still fantastic. For atmosphere and hummable charm, Alter Code F trumps the soundtrack of any other RPG domestically released this year.

I won't ever abandon my nostalgic feelings for the original Wild Arms... but legends are born through repetition and re-invention. Aside from a few strange quirks (such as healing spells not working outside of battles), Wild Arms Alter Code: F is both a major improvement over the original and a fantastic game in its own right. It's fresh, exciting, and loaded with tons of secrets. And this time, I actually care about Calamity Jane.

//Zig

Rating: 9/10

zigfried's avatar
Staff review by Zigfried (December 24, 2005)

Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.

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