Wild Arms

Developer: Media.Vision
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment

Video review

 Text review

It's no secret that Sony's original Playstation console was something of a landmark system for JRPGs. While it's true the NES and Super Nintendo had a healthy library of the genre which was one of the contributing factors for their massive success in Japan, it wasn't until Final Fantasy VII launched on Sony's grey box that the genre became popular in western shores. The attractive CGI visuals, well developed turn-based combat and plot-oriented adventure was a runaway hit, create a sudden influx of imitators and competitors.

Yet, there was a time before Final Fantasy took the world by storm. In fact, there were even a handful of JRPGs released worldwide during the brief two-year period between the Playstation launch and the release of Final Fantasy VII. For this reason I was looking forward to Wild Arms, as I assumed it would be a window of what would happen had the tale of Cloud and Sephiroth been unknown. However, much to my surprise, I quickly discovered Wild Arms shares so many similarities with Final Fantasy VI, it could almost be considered an unofficial sequel or spin-off.

Now this isn't a stab at Wild Arms, much to the contrary. Seeing a game that is visually and thematically so similar to my favorite entry into Squaresoft's flagship franchise was an unexpected but welcome surprise.

Equally welcome are the strong first impressions, as the game begins with a nicely rendered Anime cutscene created by Madhouse, the same animation studio behind shows like Hunter X Hunter and Card Captor Sakura. Sadly, as attractive as the intro it is, there are no other cutscenes similar to this throughout the entire adventure. Bait and switch aside, it does a wonderful job at setting Wild Arms' mood and the visuals are complemented beautifully by a western-themed song. In fact, the game's soundtrack is easily one of Wild Arms' high-points, employing a full blown orchestra with renditions taking classical fantasy tunes and adding a western flavor, not unlike the previously mentioned Final Fantasy VI.

Oddly enough, Wild Arms tries to surpass its inspiration by combining elements of fantasy, sci-fi and western into one package as the world of Filgaia features guns, lasers, space stations, demons made of metal, magic, swords and much more. 

Yet, there seems to be a disparity between what we're told narratively and what we see. Both the soundtrack and plot would have you believe the world is made to resemble that of a steampunk spaghetti shooter, however, every town and city looks like your typical fantasy JRPG. The visuals, for as beautiful as they are, rarely seem to fit with the world we're supposed to be exploring. If it weren't for the music or side characters like Calamity Jane, I could easily assume this is a land of myth and magic. In that regard, it seems Final Fantasy VI did a much better job at visually conveying its own world by making steampunk vehicles and houses a common sight. 

I know I keep returning to this topic, but both games are surprisingly similar in visuals, themes, music and even gameplay. Anyone who played Squaresoft's classic RPG franchise will feel right at home with Wild Arms' random encounters and turn-based combat system. You only control a maximum of three characters, each taking a clear role. Rudy is a tank, dealing decent damage and taking the largest amount of punishment. Towards the later stages he even acquires the ability to guard allies. Jack is a damage dealer, featuring a high speed and physical damage output, but is low on armor. Lastly we have Cecilia, the group's mage whose abilities ranging from healing and buffing to damage dealing though I found little use for the latter.

The party formation is definitely a little too safe, leaving no ground for experimentation as level and skill progression follows a strictly linear path save for the order in which Cecilia learns magic spells. Moreover, these are the only playable characters, no guests ever join the party and little is ever done to spice-up combat despite Wild Arms' relatively lengthy campaign. 

I would even go so far as to argue the battle system seems poorly thought out. For starters the game is simply too easy. Random monsters rarely pose a threat and boss fights are too easy and unsatisfying. It wasn't until I ran into an optional arena towards the endgame that I finally met my match, though even those challenges were doable with enough tactical reasoning. Characters can also summon guardians, a feature that is once again reminiscent of Squaresoft's Final Fantasy series, and though they play a pivotal role in the narrative, I generally found them underpowered, verging on the useless.
Even Rudy's titular wild ARMs weapons paled in comparison to Jack's sword skills or Cecilia's healing and buffing skills, but I suppose calling the game Sword & Sorcery would be too on the nose.

I may sound like I'm being harsh on Wild Arms' combat system, it's not that the fighting is bad, it actually verges on being good, but it lacks any challenge or personality and is bloated with features that you'll rarely use.

It also doesn't help that Wild Arms' simple, but attractive 2D visuals are replaced by rudimentary 3D polygonal graphics during combat. To say the game's polygonal showings have aged poorly is an understatement, featuring crude figures, poor animations and texture warping.  Even the sound effects are often oddly placed, with fierce creatures releasing cat sounds when hit, other times, they are mysteriously absent or cut off.

Final Fantasy isn't the only source of inspiration in Wild Arms, a few hints of The Legend of Zelda can also be detected. As you progress through the game, characters will acquire tools which are used to solve puzzles. Some are original creations like wands that allow you to speak to animals or glove to push objects away while others are clearly mimicked after Link's arsenal, such as bombs or Wild Arms' interpretation of the hookshot.

I generally enjoyed these puzzles as they added variety to dungeon crawling segments, however, the random encounters would often get in the way, making things especially frustrating when I was having trouble finding the correct progression method. Perhaps most egregious is the fact Wild Arms doesn't always make it clear what you have to do or where you have to go. For example, one puzzle requires you to put an item back into the treasure chest you picked it up from, however, no clear indication was given, nor did I even know the game allowed you to do that. Other times I was forced to wander the world map aimlessly simply because I had no idea what I was supposed to trigger the next story event.

Speaking of the story, I generally enjoyed it and its themes. It began with everyone having clear goals and motivations on who they are and why the demons seek to take over the world. However, as the plot progresses the demons' tactics become more extreme and their reasoning murkier. Towards the end of the game I had lost all emotional connection with them and viewed them as little more than cartoon villains.

Thankfully, the same cannot be said for our main characters, their backstories, interactions and character growth arcs are easily the highlight of Wild Arms' story. All three characters come from a background of sadness and loss and how they deal with their inner demons is intriguing and often genuinely heartwarming. However, the developers made the odd decision of making one of the characters, Rudy, a silent protagonist. This means that while we fully understand Jack and Cecilia's reasoning as they grow, we're often left to guess Rudy's. Moreover, having a silent protagonist among two talkative and likeable characters creates an odd clash. I understand the idea was to make Rudy a blank canvas for the player, but considering we later learn his intricate backstory, the whole idea of a silent protagonist backfires, damaging any conflict resolution.

I'm quite glad to have played Wild Arms, while the game isn't the departure from the Final Fantasy-based formula I was hoping for, it more than makes up for it with graceful 2D visuals, a beautiful soundtrack, and a likeable main cast. The 3D graphics have definitely aged poorly, especially when compared to the 2D's segments more inspired moments of beauty. The combat is entertaining if a bit simple and the main plot starts to meander a bit towards the end, however, Wild Arms is a worthy acquisition and still worth a playthrough today.

- Graceful 2D visuals that manage to surprise you when you least expect
- Beautiful orchestral soundtrack with a wild west twang to it
- Likeable main cast with engaging and heartwarming character arcs
- Legend of Zelda-like puzzles are generally fun and add variety
- Combat is easy to get into and a great choice newcomers to the genre


- The combat is easy to get into, but rarely provides any real challenge
- Polygonal graphics during combat segments aged terribly
- Occasionally obscure puzzles made worse by random encounters
- The story and villains' motivations become somewhat murky towards the final acts
- The mix of fantasy, sci-fi and wild west isn't always seamless with the latter being forgotten in the visuals

Final Grade: B

Trivia: Perhaps as a nod to the two franchises that inspired it, Wild Arms features two subtle references to the Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy VI. A doll dressed in a green garb that looks suspiciously like Link can be found in Cecilia's bedroom.

Trivia 2: When exploring the world of Filgaia, you might also come across an arena which resembles Final Fantasy VI's Colosseum. Inside, you'll find a female spectator with green hair and ponytail, reminiscent of Terra from Final Fantasy VI.

Video packaging review

 Text packaging review

(excuse the condition, this game is becoming harder to find and sometimes we have to make due with what we got.)

I have to say, I'm not a fan of this cover. Not only do the characters lack the detail and colors found in the opening, but the poorly rendered mid-90s CG background clashes against the 2D design. If I had to guess, I'd say the developers took concept art and simply placed a bland, boring background.

Inside, we find a manual and the game disc. Note the disc uses different art from that found in the cover, little touches like these go a long way.

The manual is light on story, giving only a few paragraphs of background information on the world and our characters. Thankfully, this is offset by how in-depth it goes to teach you how to play Wild Arms. More importantly, much of the information here is actually useful, as they include descriptions for each status ailment and even give away some of the tools you'll have at your disposal for puzzle solving. There's even a few concept art images thrown in for good measure though sadly they're in black and white like the manual itself.

Unappealing cover art aside, this is a good packaging for a standard release, I wish the manual were in color and featured more concept art images, but few games did that in Europe.

Packaging Grade: A-

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