Wild Arms 3 (PlayStation 2) review
"Something something demons wasteland..."
You might begin Wild Arms 3 expecting an experience precisely the same as every other JRPG from the 2000s. You'll assemble a motley crew of adventurers, venture into straightforward dungeons, bump off hordes of fantastical beasts by repeatedly selecting "fight" from a battle menu, use the spoils of war to buy copious healing items, and coast through the experience while paying casual attention to the plot. Meanwhile, some textbook villain lusting for power drives the game's conflict forward, and the protagonist--a plucky seventeen year old who wears their optimism on their sleeve--vanquishes the antagonist with the power of friendship. Along the way, our hero's infectious personality wins over the hearts of ever cynic they pass and reminds everyone of the youthful innocence they left behind.
But Wild Arms 3 is not quite that game...
As with its two predecessors, this title transpires in a slowly dying wasteland known as Filgaia. Over the years, the planet's once-fertile soil has withered and dried out, giving rise to massive expanses of sand and oceans made completely of dunes. As you chat with many of the NPCs, you realize there's no hope that things will improve. They all know the world is slipping away, yet they have no choice but to carry on with business as usual while it happens.
It seems ironic, then, that your mission in all of this is prevent someone from revitalizing the world. As it turns out, a rather nefarious trio who refer to themselves as prophets seek forbidden knowledge to convert Filgaia into a more fertile planet. The only catch is their attempt to do so might end up wiping out all of the life already existing there. Obviously, your team has a problem with being expected to sacrifice themselves and everyone else for the "greater good," and thus have to take out the trinity, despite their seemingly noble aspirations.
The only ones who stand in the prophets' ways are your usual JRPG suspects: the spunky teen (Virginia), an amnesiac (Jet), the guy who doesn't want to accept his lineage (Gallows), and the man who did a regrettable thing and can't let it go (Clive). However, Wild Arms 3 puts a fresh spin on these archetypes. Take Virignia, for instance. Unlike the typical RPG hero, her do-gooder code of morality comes across as clumsy and impractical. Her actions earn her at least two slaps across the face throughout the campaign, mostly because her enthusiasm leads to such reckless behavior that she occasionally endangers those around her. During one excursion, for instance, her carelessness nearly gets her entire crew killed by falling rocks. Rather than charming the pessimists she encounters, she often ends up proving their cynicism right.
The others unfortunately don't reeeive much attention in the early phases of the campaign, and seem to fill a void more than anything. After a while, though, it's as if the writers remembered they have three other character arcs to explore, and thus began giving us reasons Jet can't remember anything, that Clive beats himself up, and that Gallows doesn't want to ascend to priesthood--and they're pleasantly not what you would expect. The reasons behind Jet's forgotten past, for example, tie very much into his own origin story, as well as into the series' lore.
Stories like this always revolve around journeying because what better way to soul search than to embark on a quest that takes you literally all over the world? And hell, half of the excitement behind travel is that you don't know where new locations lie immediately, and have to actually gather information and scan the land before those places appear. Sadly, the one downside to this system is that you sometimes end up searching for ages before you find the next place you need to hit because the hints you receive are vague. Folks at one point might tell you to head northeast to spot a dungeon, but fail to tell you how far northeast or that the lair lies on an island.
As the quartet uncovers new areas and makes fresh discoveries, we learn more about them. You walk into a facility and Jet has a flash of memory, or Clive recalls something that happened between him and his late father-in-law, or Gallows cracks a joke while also explaining some of his indigenous culture. You know from these scenes where the characters are headed. Their developments are thus no surprise, but the climaxes of these subplots remain great despite their predictability.
Survivalism stands at the center of it all, adding further drama to the events that unfold. Our heroes aren't merely moseying from one plot beat to another without a care in the world. They're fighting for their lives in a harsh, rotting environment teeming with horrific (and sometimes silly) mutations. Remember earlier when I referenced healing items in JRPGs, and how success sometimes boils down to amassing major funds and purchasing armloads of healing potions? You can't rely on that strategy here, mainly because Filgaia's unforgiving conditions render gardening or farming nearly impossible. Thanks to that, your chief means of acquiring restorative goods early on is either from combat or treasure chests.
You don't actually secure a means to cultivate healing berries until later in the proceedings, and even then it's only after a side quest. From there, you must return to a certain location repeatedly throughout the campaign and collect berries from a farm. The hell of it is you'll need stronger healing items as you advance, and more powerful products come with low cultivation rates. As a result, you can't expect to easily venture into a dungeon with full sets of the best berries and carrots available. Securing a bounty like that requires time, and it's almost certain your patience will wear thin before you even get halfway to that lofty goal.
Your only other option is to be wise with your supply by mitigating damage as much as possible. You can accomplish this by leaning into your characters' individual strengths (e.g. placing more emphasis on Clive's critical hit rate or Gallows' magical capabilities) through choice weapon upgrades, and by equipping each character with the proper Guardian crest and accessories for useful stat increases and passive bonuses. In other words, you want builds that finish off the opposition quickly while reducing damage as much as possible, allowing you to conserve your medicinal items by using them infrequently.
For some folks, walking the survival tight rope might be stressful. For others (myself included), this harrowing setup only added to the adventure factor. You have to really plan before moving onward and consider choices carefully. In some small ways, it reminds me of older, more uncompromising roleplayers like Phantasy Star II. During your first playthrough, you can't approach this title lightly and expect to prosper.
At a glance, Wild Arms 3 is your average JRPG, complete with a simple turn-based, menu-oriented battle system and recognizable tropes. However, this isn't a kind of tale where you grind and coast from one plot revelation to the next, but one where you must struggle in the face of perilous odds. This is a story of hope in a hopeless land with seemingly no future, and it's only fitting that you advance through this piece constantly worried you might not have the supplies or builds necessary to win. Regardless, like the NPCs dwelling in this hell terrain, you move forward heedless of the overwhelming sense of hopelessness, somehow hoping or knowing you will persevere.
Community review by JoeTheDestroyer (July 26, 2021)
Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.
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