Review by kobalobasileus
Wild ARMs 5
Wild ARMs has been a long-running and well-liked RPG series created by Media Vision for Sony. The first game in the series preceded the RPG rush on the PS1 due to it being released prior to Final Fantasy 7. Wild ARMs 5, (WA5) on the other hand, seems more like a last, dying shot from a once-great franchise that nobody really cares about anymore; not a great way to celebrate the series 10th anniversary. Over the course of 5 games and a portable spin-off, the Wild ARMs series has reinvented itself from a variety of angles in an attempt to remain relevant.
Overall, the graphics in WA5 look very nice. The characters are well animated, for the most part. However, each has only a handful of stock animations that they perform during the in-game-engine-rendered cutscenes, which can look silly at times (especially Chuck). The towns and dungeons also look quite nice. Unfortunately, the overworld has a few problems. Unlike Wild ARMs 4, which replaced the overworld with a dot-covered map, WA5 has a full 3D overworld, much like the one found in Dragon Quest 8. The problem with this overworld is that its very blurry. Every other scene looks sharp and clear, but the overworld looks like it is being filtered through a piece of plastic wrap or waxed paper.
Aside from the blurry overworld, WA5 is also missing one key element that stood out in the rest of the Wild ARMs series: animated cutscenes. Like every other game developer in the world, Media Vision seems to have decided that its cheaper and easier to simply use entirely in-game cutscenes. I always looked forward to the great intro and closing animations in the older Wild ARMs games, doubly so because they also featured some really catchy J-Pop-meets-Wild-West music. WA5 is completely devoid of these great mini-music-videos and only features one song, which is performed during the end credits.
Aside from the lack of a catchy intro song, the music, sound effects, and voice acting are very well done. The sound track still feels Wild West, but isnt quite up to par with previous games in the series. The voice acting is competent without any annoying or poorly-acted characters standing out.
The 10th Anniversary Edition version of the game comes with a fairly nice art book. I wasnt expecting much more than a collection of screen-shots, but was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the booklet. Its not an amazing bonus, but its a nice little collectable for fans of the series, as it covers all of the games (except the one on PSP). I would have been much more impressed, however, with a CD containing the opening and closing songs from the entire series.
Perhaps the biggest flaw in WA5 is the story. While Wild ARMs 4 went completely away from the Wild West meets High Fantasy setting that made the PS1-era Wild ARMs games so interesting and unique, it was unapologetic about it. WA5 looks like its going to be a return-to-form to the classic Wild ARMs setting until the first cutscenes introducing the villains appear. Instead of utilizing the completely unique setting of the old Filgaia, WA5 mashes together spaceships, domed cities, and giant robots in such a way that it turns into some sort of generic anime soup. Many of the scenes elicited facepalms from me due to their absurdity.
The characters are all completely overused stereotypes. The main character is a plucky youth (with conveniently blue hair) whose mottos is, You can do anything as long as you dont give up. Not only is that statement patently untrue, it also gets repeated over and over, ad nauseam, for the entire game. Supporting the plucky youth are the tomboyish love interest, the amnesiac girl, the revenge-seeking old guy (who couldnt be older than 35), the cowardly prettyboy, and the moe character. These characters are just as two-dimensional and generic as they sound. Their character development is entirely predictable, which makes it quite punishing to sit through their incredibly long-winded, boring speeches.
If the playable characters are two-dimensional, predictable, and boring, the villains are one-dimensional. They are led by an ominous prettyboy with a huge sword who wants to destroy everything. Supporting this character (who gets a severely heavy dose of deus ex machine at the end of the game) are the blindly loyal soldier, the token oversexed woman, the psychotic murderer, and the eccentric genius. Again, all of these character stereotypes are so common that one could go to the anime/manga section of any bookstore, point at one of the products on the shelf, and find at least half of these characters contained within it.
The games narrative itself is only vaguely original, featuring a rehash of the perpetual Filgaia is dying storyline that has been used in most of the Wild ARMs series. Only now the inhabitants of Filgaia are divided by class warfare between normal humans and the technologically advanced Veruni, who enslave normal humans due to the fact that being on Filgaia without protective clothing causes them to become ill. The plucky youth main character, by the name of Dean Stark, sets out into the world in order to become a Golem Hunter, one of the elite normal humans who are able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Veruni nobility.
Dean and his friends eventually become involved in a civil war between the Moderate and Radical factions of the Veruni, which draws them into direct conflict with the games one-dimensional villains. Overall, the story is predictable and the foreshadowing is too heavy-handed, revealing the few unpredictable plot points far too clearly and too far in advance. Its a disappointing story that drags-on far too slowly for its own good.
I clocked-in approximately 70 hours on WA5, which is significantly longer than the amount of story material in the game warrants. While I did complete many of the side quests, I didnt do them all. I estimate that completing all side quests would give WA5 a total play time of ~100 hours. The problem is that the story is so weak that I would only want to stick with the game for ~60 hours to complete everything.
The HEX system from Wild ARMs 4 makes a return in WA5, with a few tweaks that make it just about perfect. The Guardian summoning system via Mediums is back after a short absence and every character, once again, owns an ARM. Unfortunately, with the return of those great gameplay systems comes the horrible search system that first appeared in Wild ARMs 2. While it isnt quite as bad as its original version (the player no longer needs to search for towns for them to appear on the map), it is still incredibly tedious to run back and forth across the entire overworld shooting out radar beams in the vain hope that a hidden treasure will appear. Even worse, the hidden puzzle boxes wont appear until the player talks to a specific character, so its necessary to canvas about half of the overworld twice!
The great 2D platforming sections that debuted in Wild ARMs 4 have all been replaced by dumbed-down 3D platforming that makes the games obtuse camera more problematic than it needs to be. Its very easy to become disoriented in the games many dungeons (especially the bonus dungeons), as everything kind of looks similar and the camera pans around however it wants. The camera made me long for the days of Wild ARMs 1 and Wild ARMs 2 when the camera was fixed in a nice overhead perspective instead of a sloppy third-person perspective.
The Wild ARMs series is well-known for its puzzles. Unfortunately, in WA5, almost all of them involve sliding blocks or shooting switches. Some puzzles rely on Deans ability to fire different types of bullets from his ARM. However, instead of being intuitive, each of these puzzles comes with a blob of textual hints that makes them seem a heck of a lot like the story problems I used to do in my math classes in school.
For the main battle system, though, the gameplay is solid and the difficulty is just right. During each battle, the characters and enemies appear on a grid of 6 hexagons. Every attack affects one or more HEXes instead of characters. When multiple characters or multiple enemies are in the same HEX (characters and enemies cant occupy the same HEX at the same time), its possible to hit all of them with one attack. The strategy element of the game is strong, with certain enemies requiring unique strategies to defeat them. Unlike Wild ARMs 4, level grinding is quite easy thanks to the ready availability of items that grant double experience, the fact that characters who dont participate in battle get full experience, and the bonus dungeons contain enemies that are challenging but give tons of experience and money. Thanks to the low amount of grinding required to hit level 100, this is the first Wild ARMs game since the first where Ive defeated a number of the bonus bosses.
Later in the game, it is even possible to engage many of the bonus bosses with a golem character. The golem battle system, however, is a complete joke. Instead of controlling the golem, the player must program his AI by talking to a golem engineer in Deans hometown. Even when programming the golem with nothing but attack moves, he still wanders around and chooses to defend instead of attack quite frequently even when fighting weak enemies! The golem also frequently does stupid things like attack with an element the enemy can resist or absorb. The problems with the golem battle system, I think, all come down to the fact that there is no real explanation provided for how to program the golem effectively. The instruction manual says nothing about it and the in-game tutorial is vague. Instead, the player is just presented with a square programming space and a variety of triangular pieces of software, most of which are too situational to even consider.
Wild ARMs 5 could have been a much better game. If the writing staff had chosen to embrace the Wild West setting instead of marginalizing it for generic anime sci-fi and had created some more interesting, multi-dimensional characters, the small flaws in the gameplay wouldnt have been enough to drag it down. As it is, WA5 has an anchor of a story around its neck and the hexagonal life-preserver isnt enough to keep it afloat. Long-time fans of the series should still consider giving this game a chance. Fans of generic shonen anime/manga may also like it.
Overall (not an average): 7/10
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: Wild ARMs 5 (10th Anniversary Edition) (US, 08/28/07)
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