Wild Arms 4 (PlayStation 2) review
"That might be the greatest thing about Wild Arms 4: Accessibility. The puzzles are tough enough, the battles take enough strategy and the plot has enough depth any deep-thinking gamer. But the frenzied gamer gets platforming action, a superior battle system and a story that never stops moving forward."
No one’s ever accused me of being smart, but when it comes to buying videogames, I do my homework; check out the reviews, compare prices, learn all there is to learn. But not this time; Wild Arms 4 was bought on a whim, and life’s all the better for it. If I’d read about it beforehand, I’d never have bothered.
I hate puzzles. Wild Arms 4 has many puzzles.
Battles come first for me, story come second, and puzzles get in the way of both; they pointlessly stop the action and rarely makes sense in context. Why would an army base use block puzzles for opening doors?
Wild Arms 4 isn’t like that. Here, puzzles are solved with the Accelerator ability, a supercharged burst of speed. You can jump, you can duck, you can slide. Yes, there are blocks to move and switches to pull. But there are pits to jump, poles to climb, and obstacles to dodge. Wild Arms 4 tests your intelligence and your reflexes.
It makes you dash through a corridor filled with rotating lasers, each section more intricate than last, jumping through with expert timing and inches to spare.
It has you run at super-speed as the earth gives way behind you, where the slightest misplaced twitch of the controller sends you straight to the darkness below.
It pulls a Mario and switches to the side-view, leaping over chasms, shimmying up poles, stomping switches and kicking through crates, as if the developers decided to add a pinch of platforming to their RPG.
Wild Arms 4’s puzzles work because they don’t just drive you to think, they drives you to react. It doesn’t give itself a chance to be boring; even out of battle, you’re in constant action.
Speaking of which, those battles should’ve pissed me off, too.
Random encounters always task me. I hate throwing down every six seconds, hate not knowing what I’ll be up against, and hate leveling up, checking stats, upgrading weapons, all so I can fight from a straight line.
Wild Arms 4 is like that, to a point. The encounters are random, and while every area has a switch to turn them off, doing so is more trouble than it’s worth. Enemies are strong here; anything can kill you at any time if you’re off-guard.
Aside from those fundamentals, Wild Arms 4 breaks far away from its brethren. You can actually move your fighters around, taking them from space to space like pieces on a board game. The battlefields made of seven hexagons; one in the center, six on each side. Odd setup, but it rejuvenates the aging turn-based formula. Your troupe can fit in the same space, they can all attack from the same hexagon, but that means they’ll share damage, status changes, effects; whatever happens to one hexagon happens to everyone inside. Enemies take advantage and try to herd you into the same space for a quick, clean kill, so you’ve got to do it to them first. Position plays a big role.
But not the biggest. Teamwork is Wild Arms 4’s top theme in the story and in the gameplay; employing each character’s strengths is a must. Raquel is a swordmistress who personifies the title, even some bosses fall with a single strike from her hands, but she’s slow and weak to magic. This is where Arnaud comes in; cocky, but with enough magic talent to back it up. He speeds Raquel up, wards away enemy spells, and punishes with his own brand. But he doesn’t take as well as he gives, so Jude takes it for him; if there’s a space between the enemy and his friends, Jude’s fast enough to fill. He can snipe across empty hexagons, attack twice, thrice, maybe even four times before the enemy gets a chance, raise his stats to staggering heights. But he’s a kid, doesn’t have much weight to throw around, so when things come to a pinch and the health’s getting low, Yulie heals his up, fast and easy, something she’ll never had to do outside of combat since you’re healed after every fight.
No resting at inns, no using herbs every five minutes, no running low on HP before the boss. You’re always good to go.
There is some micromanagement involved; each character gets a skill every two or so levels, so there’s always some ability to be learned. Arnaud learns teleportation, can appear on any hexagon at any time. Raquel learns bigger and wider strikes, how to kill everything around her in a single circular swoop. Jude becomes quicker, Yulie heals faster; everyone comes to do what they do better than they were doing it, picking up powers they’ll need against the ruthless bosses that await them.
Brute strength and high levels are enough to beat some bosses. Some. But most of the time it won’t matter how strong you are, or how fast you are, or what weapons you’re holding and what armor you’re wearing. They’ll still kill you. Maybe in one hit. Strategy is essential. Go in with buttons mashing and it could take hours to win, if ever. Analyze your opponent, devise a plan, and it’ll take ten minutes. Tops. Wild Arms 4’s puzzles require less thought and more action, but it’s battles requires less action and more thought. Therein lies the strength.
But, even if I’d known how solid the puzzles and fighting where, the story would’ve pushed me away.
I loathe a cliché, and Wild Arms 4 is full of them. Jude, the little boy who can wield the incalculable power of ARMs, Raquel, a woman with a blood-stained past who combs the world for ‘beautiful things’, Arnaud, the skirt-chasing magician whose mouth provides a constant source of trouble, and Yulie, a little girl who’s hidden powers will either save the world or destroy it.
But it does what it does in brilliant fashion. Jude seems like your average RPG hero, until you realize his bravery is just nativity in disguise; he runs headfirst into the most dangerous situations because he’s a kid and he doesn’t know any better. Yulie seems like your average RPG heroine, always waiting for Jude to come save her, but her will grows as time passes, and she strives not to be the damsel in distress. Arnaud and Raquel build a solid romance; their love is based on time spent, experiences shared and words said, building in small steps with every scene; the most realistic and least mushy relationship I’ve seen in a videogame.
You even feel for the villains. The world of Filgaia is wrenched, barren, mauled by war. People lack the initiative to rebuild; they lack the drive. So the ‘villains’ take their role and wear it with pride, make a world where strong people like Jude, people who can revitalize the planet, are forced to rise up. They’re shocking the world back to life. Questions on life are asked, philosophies are there for you to ponder, but the story never suffers because of them If you like the political side, dig in; if you don’t, ignore it and you’ll still understand the tale.
That might be the greatest thing about Wild Arms 4: Accessibility. The puzzles are tough enough, the battles take enough strategy and the plot has enough depth for any deep-thinking gamer. But the frenzied gamer gets platforming action, a superior battle system and a story that never stops moving forward. All this, and a world filled with NPCs who never look and act the same way, dungeons that show everything from the might of a raging volcano to the serenity of a frozen mountain, and music that, if I’m not mistaken, takes cues from the Good, the Bad and the Ugly’s theme.
If it has a fault, I don’t see it. If there’s a better RPG, I haven’t played it. Wild Arms 4 is nothing short of phenomenal.
Staff review by Zack Little (July 16, 2006)
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