Wild ARMs XF (PSP) review
"It truely is a fantastic example of the genre, but it's immediately obvious that innovation isn't the reason why. The game's biggest departure from genre conventions is that its play field is divided into hexagons instead of squares. This makes sense given the battle system of the last two traditional Wild Arms games, and adds a small bit of series recognition to the game, but the practical impact is nonexistent. The game feels very familiar immediately. Move a unit, select its action, move on. Simple. "
Many games that call themselves 'strategy' titles really aren't. A classic example is Final Fantasy Tactics, and while that game is good in its own way, it's hardly a deeply strategic title. What it's really about is customizing a cast of tiny people to your liking with a lot of familiar classes, and then obliterating the game handily by rolling your face over the controller. Final Fantasy Tactics was more of a turn based combat game. Wild Arms XF, on the other hand, is a game that stands up and proudly exclaims "I am a strategy game!"
It truely is a fantastic example of the genre, but it's immediately obvious that innovation isn't the reason why. The game's biggest departure from genre conventions is that its play field is divided into hexagons instead of squares. This makes sense given the battle system of the last two traditional Wild Arms games, and adds a small bit of series recognition to the game, but the practical impact is nonexistent. The game feels very familiar immediately. Move a unit, select its action, move on. Simple.
What the game does do is become a strategy game first and foremost. Most titles have a small few objectives. Kill everything on the map. Protect this guy. Kill this guy. Protect this guy while killing everything on the map. Those will be repeated over and over from beginning to end, and while there's nothing wrong with that, it rarely requires you to strategize as much as the game would like to imply that it does.
XF has those too, to be sure, but they're more moderated, often coming with a stipulation. In one level your fighting forces are divided by a fallen pillar, with one lone unit on one side and the bulk of your forces on the other, and the challenge is in keeping that unit alive while drawing his enemies close enough to the larger group to wear them down with ranged attacks. Other objectives have you manipulating objects in the terrain to block a swarm of high leveled pursuers while you escape to a certain point on the map. There are some levels that have no combat at all, and instead force you to make your way through a series of logic puzzles in an Indiana Jones styled ruin.
This all puts the focus firmly on the strategy, not the combat. Knowing exactly what each class is capable of doing is imperative at all times when laying your plans for a level. Beating the game using the same group composition from beginning to end is nigh impossible without excessive overlevelling. Each encounter requires you to plan your party exclusively for that encounter, without regard for what came before or what will come next.
There are other smaller departures from the normal conventions which further support proper strategizing.. Many of the game's abilities (mostly magical ones) can only be used if your unit hasn't already moved that turn. This makes planning ahead with respect to your unit placement very important. You can't just run in and start shooting fireballs, and if you make a mistake, your mage will get obliterated before having a chance to do anything at all while getting in position. To make up for this, magic damage is pretty massive. It's all risk vs. reward, and if you can make the right moves, it's very rewarding.
The story is a little less decidedly fantastic. You're dropped into the role of Clarissa, a spunky girl travelling with her loyal companion Felius on a journey to restore the world to a prosperous state for all mankind. The only snag is that the key to doing this was stolen from her late mother by a menacing figure named Rupert.
It's not the most original intro, but things snowball as they always do, and as things progress, some genuinely surprising events occur. The plot has it's high points and its low points. It has an unfortunate tendency to make the most annoying characters the most vocal. Like Levin, the obnoxiously overachieving child of an important Knight who's motivation tends to be in his pants. This is mitigated a bit by more interesting characters like the poetically inclined Ragnar, your party's humongous strong man. You meet him in the woods, cooking a gourmet meal for himself. There's just something satisfied about the largest character being the most articulate.
It's a bit hit or miss, but it's entertaining enough to do its job, ferrying you from one exquisite combat segment to the next. The gameplay succeeds in nearly every way that matters by providing a strong combat experience that requires you to study the odds stacked against you, and respond accordingly to succeed. Brute force won't win the day here, and that's the way it should be.
Freelance review by Josh Higley (September 21, 2008)
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