Friday, January 1, 2021

Wild Arms


Lufia Goes West

In the latter portion of the sixteen-bit console era, Nintendo was in talks with Sony to develop a compact disc-based add-on to the Super Famicom / NES, although these negotiations ultimately fell through, and the latter company eventually turned their idea into the successful independent PlayStation system. While roleplaying games would find a niche on the system, Sony’s American branch at the time had a policy against the localization of RPGs that lasted until its chief Bernie Stolar jumped ship to Sega. Among the early roleplaying games for the system was Wild Arms, which definitely shows as one of the pioneer titles for the console.

Unlike the purely-fantastical setting of most roleplaying games, Wild Arms attempted to bring a wild west theme to the genre, although it often comes across as an afterthought. The playable protagonists, collectively known as Dream Chasers, include the enigmatic wielder of Ancient Relic Machines (ARMs) Rudy Roughnight, the equally-mysterious Jack Van Burace, and Princess Cecilia of Adlehyde, all who have decent development. However, the main antagonists, the Quarter Knights, don’t have a whole lot of backstory, and come across as ripoffs of the Sinistrals from the Lufia franchise. The dying world theme also echoes the original Final Fantasy, and in the end, the narrative isn’t a major draw to the game.

The translation doesn’t help matters, with Sony’s American branch having demonstrated at the time their incompetence with regards to videogame localizations. There are endless grammatical errors that even a middle-schooler could see, the font choice is terrible, Japanese quote brackets still remain, with many phrases within the dialogue encased in them, there are Engrish names like the “Fenril Knights,” and there are occasional lines such as “I’m back at this place of hatred; the hatred between a parent and a child.” Sony also poorly attempted to capture the spirit of Working Designs’ translations with things such as an anachronistic reference to the U.S.S. Missouri, and ultimately, they didn’t adapt the game very well for Anglophone audiences.

That leaves the game mechanics to shoulder the burden, and Wild Arms actually does okay in this department in many respects. Players randomly encounter battles, with this rate mercifully reducible with a spell later on in the game, and there are only three characters to worry about outfitting with equipment. Rudy can use the gun-like ARMs, each with a finite number of bullets the player can restore at inns, with players able to upgrade their attack power, accuracy (though his “Lock-On” Force ability largely makes doing so pointless), and maximum number of bullets.

Jack can use MP-consuming skills known as Fast Draws, which question marks initially indicate upon acquisition at certain points in the game, and reveal themselves randomly after several attempts with them in their “hint” states. Cecilia can cast MP-consuming defensive and offensive magic that the player can form through Crest Graphs at magic guilds, and Wild Arms follows the traditional turn-based battle structure of the player inputting commands for all playable characters, with them and the enemy exchanging commands in a round depending upon agility. As one can expect, turn order can be unpredictable, sometimes random, though Cecilia’s speed-affecting magic somewhat solves this issue.

Each character also has a Force gauge of up to 100%, with each character having unique abilities in this regard such as Rudy’s Lock-On skill that guarantees an ARM will strike an enemy or enemies, Jack’s Accelerate ability that guarantees him the first turn in a round, and Cecilia’s useful Mystic skill that expands a consumable item’s effects to all characters. Battles generally end quickly, although some animations appear drawn-out, and each character receives experience for occasional level-ups and Gella for purchasing ARM upgrades, consumables, and equipment. Other features include the ability to reduce the MP cost of Jack’s Fast Draws through Secret Signs.

The battle system definitely has its positives, although there are a number of issues such as the aforementioned problem with turn order, the finite supply of certain helpful consumables, the annoying endgame where death necessitates the player reload their last save (with opportunities to record progress often inconveniently placed) as is the case with standard encounters, and that enemies don’t decide their commands until reaching their turns, which can result in instances where, for example, the player revives a deceased character, only for the enemy to kill them again. The combat mechanics are serviceable, but far from perfect.

Another chief aspect of the gameplay is that each playable protagonist acquires a number of tools necessary to solve various puzzles in the game’s dungeons, which can be fairly enjoyable at times, although there are cases where I had to use a guide to figure out how to advance, which especially goes for the central storyline, given terrible narrative direction. Shopping is easy, players can see how equipment increases or decreases stats before purchasing it, and inventory space is more than generous, but an additional problem is the lack of maps for the sometimes-convoluted dungeons. In the end, Wild Arms only averagely interacts well with players.

Inarguably the high point of the first game is composer Michiko Naruke’s soundtrack, which contains many toe-tapping tunes such as the whistle-laden central theme “Into the Wilderness,” the festival music, and many dungeon tracks. There are some rare bad tracks such as one dungeon theme, and many tunes such as the main battle theme don’t last a long time before looping. The sound effects fare significantly worse, with many such as the laser-esque sounds sounding like they came straight from the Atari 2600. Regardless, the soundtrack is perhaps the game’s strongest suit.

While Wild Arms features beautiful opening and ending anime cutscenes, not to mention competent character design, and the town and dungeon environments look nice, the rest of the visuals fare significantly worse. For one, depicting the humanoid characters within and without battle as, for lack of a better term, Bombermen, doesn’t really play well for the graphics, with combat faring the worst in this regard, lending the impression that the developers played a little too much of Hudson’s Bomberman franchise. The monster designs aren’t any better, appearing incredibly jagged, and all in all, the sight is one of the original game’s weakest aspects.

Finally, the original installment isn’t terribly lengthy, although the in-game clock is a little slow, showing a little under nineteen hours for me to clear the game, but more in reality being somewhere around a day’s worth of playtime.

In summation, the original Wild Arms does have a few things going for it such as the serviceable game mechanics and puzzles, the enjoyable soundtrack, and that it doesn’t take up too much of the player’s time. However, it does sport some serious flaws of which mainstream gamers need to be aware such as the difficulty without a guide, the derivative plotline and poor translation, the primitive sound effects, the uninspired visual direction, and general lack of lasting appeal. Regardless of its flaws, it would spawn an RPG franchise that at times has been polarizing, not to mention a remake for the PlayStation 2 that bears a highly-divergent style.

This review is based on a playthrough of the digital version downloaded to a PlayStation Vita.

The Good:
-A few convenient battle mechanics.
-Some good puzzles.
-Decent soundtrack.

The Bad:
-Can be difficult without a guide.
-Derivative plotline.
-Poor translation.
-Primitive sound effects.
-Uninspired visual direction.
-Not a lot of lasting appeal.

The Bottom Line:
Not a good beginning to the series.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation
Game Mechanics: 5.0/10
Controls: 5.0/10
Story: 3.5/10
Localization: 0.5/10
Music/Sound: 6.5/10
Graphics: 2.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 4.5/10
Difficulty: Moderate
Playing Time: ~1 Day

Overall: 3.5/10

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