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Wild Arms 4 (PlayStation 2) artwork

Wild Arms 4 (PlayStation 2) review

"Sometimes you can switch off battles entirely. Some people might worry that this will result in a game where you give into temptation and donít fight enough, resulting in mad level building halfway through the game. Thatís not true, though, because you canít switch off the fights the minute you feel like it. Each new locale forces you to endure combat first. Thereís even more good news, too: battles donít suck."

Five hours into Wild Arms 4, thereís a scene that gets right down to the heart of what the game is about. The young protagonist, a boy named Jude, mentions the word Ďevilí and it inspires some of the others traveling with him to lecture him on how limited his perspective is. They maintain that there are seldom those who champion the cause of good or evil, just people with their own ideas that maybe donít mesh.

At the time, the debate flies right over Judeís head. Similarly, the player may be wondering what in the world heís doing listening to such discourse when he could be stomping through the next gnarly dungeon (and make no mistake about it; the dungeons in Wild Arms 4 truly are gnarly). Of course, heís sitting in the comfort of his living room instead of protecting Yulie and trading insults with Arnaud while a silver-haired hottie named Raquel watches quietly.

The game starts with Jude dozing in the branches of a massive tree while in the distance, a pale blue sky encloses the area like a dome. Late to a fencing lesson he doesnít particularly care about, he drops down from the tree only because heís hungry and wants to eat. Alas, his mother tells him to fend for himself. He heads off to search for some berries in the local forest, but instead he finds an adventure.

Adventure comes when a massive warship tears a hole in the skyline. Itís a surreal introduction to a strange game thatís about to get stranger. After the ship lands, Jude watches a young man get smacked by his superior and thrown in a holding cell. Curious, Jude sneaks inside and finds a singing girl, then promises to rescue her. With a little help from Arnaud (the young lad that got slapped), he does. They return to the village in time to be captured again, then manage a spectacular escape after Jude causes a weapon to appear out of thin air. The acquisition of this strange power also leaves his home in ruins while broadening his horizon past the village and forest he once knew.

The opening sequences are a bit of a trip for Jude (who watches his deceptively simple world crumbling around him), just as they are surprising to the person gripping the controller. You can make Jude jump, stomp, double jump and even power slide. Controls are responsive so that you can reliably solve increasingly tricky puzzles.

Though early events might involve sliding under shelving thatís too low, or hopping up a shaft with obvious outcroppings, later ones see Jude dashing through laser-guarded shafts and along the crumbling remnants of an alternate dimension. Sometimes, thereís not enough time to act, which is why a Matrix-like ability lets you slow timeís progression. In this mode, which lasts only for a few crucial seconds, you can grab spectral coins and time extenders. One particularly cool application involves a spinning fan. Its gusts of air fill a shaft and prevent Jude from entering the next room, but slowing things down makes the ascent much simpler.

There are other tricks, such as the requisite switches and card readers. Many of these require that you grab special tools. Unlike earlier titles in the series, Wild Arms 4 doesnít grant you devices youíll be able to use throughout the whole game. Instead, it lets you pick up a sword or staff or some other item, which you can keep with you as long as you donít need to jump. Frequently, the easiest path forward is a quick hop away, but youíll instead have to wander about and trip switches or get creative if you are to proceed. This is a nice switch from the norm in some ways, but it did get frustrating on occasion.

Fortunately, battles donít worsen matters. For the first two thirds of the game in particular, some dungeons hardly seem populated. Rooms that require precision jumps seldom include random encounters, nor do those with mind bending puzzles. Sometimes you can switch off battles entirely. Some people might worry that this will result in a game where you give into temptation and donít fight enough, resulting in mad level building halfway through the game. Thatís not true, though, because you canít switch off the fights the minute you feel like it. Each new locale forces you to endure combat first. Thereís even more good news, too: battles donít suck.

Each battlefield is divided into seven hexagons, so that itís shaped like a honeycomb. Characters can move to any adjacent panel, but this uses up a turn. So does striking with magic or a weapon, or using an item. A bar at the bottom of the screen shows who will attack next, while a meter to the right tracks the force points that are building up to allow special moves. The remarkably complex and satisfying battles are a true win for RPG gamers everywhere.

A typical battle begins with a wealth of options: do you have Jude move to the right so that his attacks can reach the nasty looking goon across the way? Do you leave him in the same square as Yulie so her healing magic restores his life and her own, as well? But if you do that, enemy attacks do more damage. Even so, Jude might take the brunt of a blow and leave Yulie alive to cast magic on Raquel from afar, and maybe that will give her time to build up points and use her badass sword skills on the opponents that Arnaud has weakened with his support magic. Itís quite the dilemma, and a simple review canít possibly touch on the intricacies that lie just beneath the surface.

Despite the potential complexity the system permits, battles are generally easy. If you find one that isnít, you can reattempt until you win (there is no penalty for this). I never had to stop for the express purpose of level building, because I knew ingenuity would always win the day. Tougher foes are never more than a dungeon away, and rushing to meet them will advance the awesome plot.

It would be a crime to spoil anything past the first hour of gameplay exposition, so I wonít. However, itís safe to speak in generalizations. The gist of it is this: ten years ago, a battle was waged that threatened Filgaiaís future. Even now, people are trying to rebuild as those who participated in the great struggle are hesitant to see it end. Thereís a lot of philosophy here, broken up by clever dialogue and sinister puzzles. Who is right in the current war? Who is wrong? Why should the average man be allowed to decide the worldís future if he is too simple to understand the bigger picture?

Somehow, Wild Arms 4 asks a lot of tough questions without ever becoming too serious. Thereís a lot of comic relief and there are touching moments and characters. Just when you think youíve got everything figured out, something surprising happens. A character youíve really started to like might be cheerful one minute and dead the next. Though a lot of the discussion is about how kids determine the worldís future and adults are often self-important nuisances, the comical themes are underscored by moments so tragic that youíd never expect them. The dynamic is wholly satisfying.

Even when itís not, when the enemies or heroes start to ramble on just a little bit longer than you might like, itís hard to lose interest. I found myself truly rooting for Jude and Yulie, two of the most enthusiastic and likeable characters Iíve ever found in the genre. I barely refrained from hissing when certain enemies appeared, and sometimes I felt a cheer rising in my throat as they met an untimely, gruesome defeat. Not many games accomplish that.

Of course, part of Wild Arm 4ís success comes because it knows how to play to its own strengths. Philosophy is minimal. Then youíre swept off to another intriguing dungeon and more breathtaking vistas. Previous games in the series communicated the idea that Filgaia is dying by throwing piles of sand and rock at the player. The world here is more diverse, with snowy mountain peaks and foggy trails and swamplands and even beaches that look like they belong in a volleyball game. Because thereís still some beauty left, fighting for the worldís preservation (despite the impending sense of doom) is all the more thrilling.

Wild Arms 4 is a true treat. There are so many things it does perfectly, so many risks it takes that pay off. The characters are awesome, the plot clever and thought-provoking in all the right measures. The voice acting is lovely (great emphasis on the right places, most of the time), the rousing soundtrack provides great atmosphere and the graphics kick butt. Hey, thereís even a skill progression system that will keep you rushing to the menus at every opportunity, just so you can tweak your party members. Yeah, itís that addictive. Iíll probably play through it again one of these years and enjoy myself just as much, all over again. Thereís definitely something Ďgoodí in the world, and its name is Wild Arms 4.

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Staff review by Jason Venter (January 16, 2006)

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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