Review by roadtosalvation

Reviewed: 02/25/13

Even nostalgia can't stop me from tapping out of the Wild Arms 5 arena

Wild Arms - Sony’s player in the once viable console role-playing game market. Born on the original PlayStation in 1996, Wild Arms is many different things to many different people. To most Wild Arms games were filler material used to bide time until the titles from the genre’s heavyweights made their debut. There’s nothing really wrong with that per say, but there were those who appreciated the series for its own merits. Such a group includes myself, who thought the original game was a real winner despite not arriving on game store shelves with the fanfare of a paraded title like Final Fantasy VII. In fact, I believe I may like Wild Arms and its first follow-up more than any given Final Fantasy. Unfortunately, while Wild Arms may have had it tough with competition in the PS1 days, it would be the PlayStation 2 years that would really do it in.

As a fan, I can’t really describe what hurt Wild Arms 3 so bad. On paper it looks like it has all the tools - and the game generally did well enough with critics - but there was this feeling that something had been lost, that Wild Arms had been lead astray. Such a description is ironic because Wild Arms 3 did very little different from its predecessor. Sure, the game may have presented the most western-influenced would out of the all the games – which many people ate up – but when it comes to game play the game was stuck in neutral for most it’s duration. Wild Arms 3 may have looked better then Wild Arms 1 and 2 (especially in battle) but could the game really compete when and where it counted? Virginia wasn’t really a bad protagonist but I’d be lying if I said she could hold a candle to Ashley Winchester or Rudy, Jack or Cecelia from the first game. Michiko Naruke’s music was nowhere as hit or miss as it was in Wild Arms 2 but did it really represent a new plateau for a composer as much as it proved a predicable formula was taking shape? Whatever element I tackle I’m sure some will fell I have it out for Wild Arms 3. However, the games that followed would mostly reinforce those feelings.

After two years of delays courtesy of Agetech, a game like Alter code:F seemed to be the game that would bring any kind of Wild Arms fan back into the fold, especially considering my fondness for the original. Media Vision really had me hyped for this thing but all the hype, hopes and dreams were buried under an avalanche of painful realizations. I could have tolerated the aging Wild Arms engine if the spark that fueled the first game was present but sadly it wasn’t. All that was left was an empty shell of a game that felt like a copy of a copy of a copy. Other games were actually going places and Wild Arms wasn’t. It was time for change….

Wild Arms 4 would be full of changes: a new battle system, a new way to utilize tools, the toning down of the Wild West influences and shifts in personnel. The Hyper Evolve X-fire sequence (the battle system) was a step in the right direction as it replaced one of the most archaic battle systems in the genre and the change in composer (Naruke fell ill) breathed new life into the game’s musical score. It took a long time for me to realize that Wild Arms 4 took a decent stab at reinventing itself and that it’s greater than the sum of its parts. However, as much as the game pushed forward other factors pushed back even harder. It’s easy to commend an attempt at change, but once you face the fact that these advancements came up to bat at such a late hour the series literally ended up back where it started. As much as I didn’t want to admit it back then it seems more than easy to say now: Wild Arms was one franchise that time left behind.

So what does this mean for Wild Arms 5? A lot - because time is running out. This is further intensified by the fact the game marks the series tenth anniversary – and for most of that time it’s been trailing the pack. Can Wild Arms 5 restore the franchise to the glory of its early days or is it the do not resuscitate order that’s been hanging over its head for the past few games? Rest assured there’s an answer, but it’s pretty damn depressing….

The first thing that really strikes me about Wild Arms 5 is pretty inconsequential but is a big one in my book. Watching the opening, animated video I can see that Xseed or Media Vision or whoever was responsible has learned not to shoehorn cringe worthy English lyrics into a J-Pop songs like they with Wild Arms 4’s “I Look Up At The Sky Because You Are There.” This isn’t to say I really like “Justice to Believe.” I don’t (Noriyasu Agematsu did a much better job with Wild Arms XF’s vocal theme “A True Lie”) because of how the lyrics coincide with the music but at least this situation is not made worse by trying to Americanize it. After this we are introduced to the game’s first problem: Dean Stark. I would really like to know what is up with Media Vision and these young, male protagonists. Why do they insist on dumping these “supposedly” relatable teens on us? Personally I’m a little sick of it and it’s really unimaginative for a genre that seems a little too comfortable repeating the same formula. This is one of the reasons people make fun of role-playing games! Where are those main characters I adored? Is it so much to ask for someone with the maturity of Ashley Winchester or the strength to overcome personal demons like Jack, Rudy and Cecelia? Okay, I guess I will admit that Dean isn’t too bad and that he is an improvement over the annoying, snot-nosed Jude Maverick, but he quickly - and thankfully - works his way into the background as more tolerable characters like Rebecca, Greg and Avril come into the picture.

Once the player gains control of Dean and his companions one will find that most of the work that went into dungeon exploration in Wild Arms 4 has been scrapped. The Crash Bandicoot-like platforming has all but disappeared as the game more-or-less reverts back to its pre-Wild Arms 4 form. This is very disappointing for a variety of reasons. I’m not going to sit here and say that WA4 offered a breakthrough in this area when it “borrowed” this type of gameplay or that Wild Arms 5 should have stayed the course (it shouldn’t have) but just because an experiment falls short doesn’t mean you have to give up and retreat back to safety. Why not take another shot instead of making every puzzle boil down to push/pull this and shoot that? Making the various tools into different cartridges fired by Dean’s (and only Dean’s) ARM doesn’t really give the other characters a chance to shine outside of combat and conversation thus adding to the overall lack of interest in exploration.

Exploration doesn’t just take place in dungeons however. After its absence in Wild Arms 4 a tangible world map makes a return. Such knowledge may make some happy but the fact that features that almost everyone hates (e.g. the search system) have returned with it will take the wind out of most people’s sails. As a player of the series I have – for some odd reason - never disliked this system, but Wild Arms 5 exacerbates my relationship with it due to the gargantuan size of the map. Do we really need this much worthless distance between locations? The landscape and its geography isn’t memorable in the slightest and it’s main purpose seems to be hiding treasure chests in the most obscure, out of the way places. The amount of time it takes to comb the land for items (one of which ends up being necessary) boarders on the insane. In fact I was finding items that several FAQ writers had missed. The real kicker is when I happen to know where an item is numerically and I have to press start and check my X and Y coordinates fifty million times because they didn’t have the forethought to make this information viewable in any kind of sensible fashion.

If you’re anal enough to scour the massive world map for items – most of which you can’t use until the end of the game – you will be doing a lot battling. The good news is the Hyper Evolve X-fire sequence from Wild Arms 4 makes a return with a handful of awesome tweaks (every character can move and attack in the same turn now!) and accounts for most of the game’s charm. However, this positive quickly becomes a negative. It’s not really hard to level to match or exceed the strength of the enemies in a given area; once you do your characters usually get a long string of turns before the enemy can even lift a finger. Because of this it is easy to wipe out most of the opposition you’ll face. This eventually makes random encounters dull and uneventful meaning there is a lot of pressure on boss battles to pick up the slack. Such battles generally do since the hex setups are different when combating a much more substantial threat but all battles mainly come down to a war of attrition and little else. The enjoyment that can be derived from the game’s combat is further damaged by an untelegraphed spike in the encounter rate a few dungeons into the game. Seriously, this game was released in 2007 and we’re still dealing with this kind of bull crap? Battles take long enough to begin with without one popping up every other step. It may be true that you can turn off enemy encounters if you purify (defeat) a dungeon’s Sol Niger but the encounter rate in the game should be fair enough were I shouldn’t have to employ such an option.

Beyond its gameplay Wild Arms 5 commits even more sins. My memory is a little hazy (e.g. I couldn’t force myself to play the game long enough during my second playthrough to confirm all the details) but Wild Arms 5’s big “claim to fame” is its story’s focus on class warfare. Many, many years before the start of the game a portion of Filgaia’s populace abandoned the planet for space due to the decaying environment. After traveling through space for a substantial amount of time these people evolved and become known as the veruni. After their efforts in space proved fruitless, the veruni eventually returned to Filgaia where they would somehow become the ruling class. Controlling the native peoples of Filgaia with cruel and harsh methodology, and sometimes even outright owning them, the planet began to biologically reject the veruni due to the changes they underwent in space. The conflict and differences between the classes/races was prophesized to come to an end when a mixed race child was born in a small village. This child would bridge the gap that separated the races and restore peace. However, such an event would never come to be. Due to the torment this child experienced from others because of his heritage this prophesized “bridge” would become wicked and twisted being.

Now, as you can probably guess, this child grew up to be the main villain of Wild Arms 5. On its own I can’t say Volsung’s backstory is particularly strong, but in a certain sense it probably speaks to anyone that’s ever been the victim of a bully. The problem with this is the game doesn’t show the player how such a process occurred, how this glimmer of hope was darkened and snuffed out. No, the game only tells us. Because we are told and not shown it is borderline impossible to believe there was any goodness in Volsung at any point when we know the opposite is true. This makes him a threat you can’t take seriously (even when he kills a handful of people effortlessly) until you actually fight him. This flies right in the face of all role-playing game logic. Think about the first time you encountered Golbez in Final Fantasy IV. You did not have to fight him to know you did not want to screw with him. This was accomplished in many ways – Nobuo Uematsu’s music being a big one – but the feelings of fear or respect never apply to Volsung despite the fact he is clearly meant to be a fearsome and misunderstood character.

That failure aside I’m getting ahead of myself. Why? Because Wild Arms 5 has another villain that is actually worse. What? Really? Yes, there is a villain that is actually worse and even less fleshed out than the main one. A member of the “radicals” (who work under Volsung) and responsible for the tragic events that lead Greg – one of the game’s better characters – to become a Golem Crusher is Kartikeya. When we first meet Kartikeya we learn he’s an insane, depraved and nearly-god-like in that it would take one hell of an event to take him out. Beyond this and his connection to Greg’s past we ever learn anything about him. Can someone tell Media Vision that insanity for the sake of insanity is not interesting? What makes this even more depressing is Media Vision has gotten this kind of character right before with Judecca in Wild Arms 2. It’s true we never find out anything about of Judecca’s past (in a certain sense you didn’t need to) but the character and why he was insane was built by the narrative in an infinitely better fashion. In Wild Arms 5 Kartikeya psychosis is flat out boring and completely uninteresting.

I wish bungling the personalities of enemies was the end of the story but it’s not. Not only do we have some poor excuses for adversaries we have some poor excuses for playable characters. Again, I’m not a Dean fan but he, Arvil and Rebecca make a respectable team (and I love how their hair is all different colors) and Greg is perhaps the easiest character to form affection for. However, a bunch of “decent” characters doesn’t really equate to enough to sell a game and they don’t make up for a character like Chuck Preston. When the player first meets up with Chuck it’s a few hours into the game where he’s about to be hanged for a crime he didn’t commit. At this point Chuck is tolerable, but it’s not until many hours later that one realizes Chuck’s death would have been a good thing. Sadly Dean’s big mouth ends up inadvertently saving him from execution and gives us the cringe-worthy sunset scene.

After we fast-forward through the next fifteen to twenty hours of the game we run into Chuck again, this time as he tries to save his love interest from being sold into a life of servitude to the veruni. Its here and his clash with Fereydoon (another member of the radicals) that we learn that Chuck is all talk and little else. It’s true that he may have confronted the veruni but at the same time he lacks any kind of spine – or as the instruction manual puts it he has “a weak heart.” It’s pretty hard to get over this when he smiles in battle before attacks and acts all cocky. In a lot of ways he’s like Arnaud from the previous game only Arnaud’s character had someone to play off (Raquel) and change for the better where Chuck does not. Well, I shouldn’t say that. In a later confrontation with Fereydoon the game “attempts” to have Chuck grow as a character but it fails miserably. It’s really hard to care about someone (Chuck) who can only boost himself up by putting down another character (Fereydoon) when Fereydoon is easily one of the most honorable characters in the game despite being one of the radicals. In many ways Fereydoon is like General Leo from Final Fantasy VI: a well-intentioned person who just happens to be opposite side of the conflict. Anyway, as I sat there and listened to what the self-righteous Chuck had to say to Fereydoon I got angry. Angry because whoever wrote this game’s script is full of excrement and created a bowel movement called Chuck Preston.

Unfortunately, even after that I was not done dealing with Chuck. A few hours before the conclusion of the game the game committed the ultimate sin: making me split up my party and use all my characters. This meant that I HAD to use Chuck and the ever-so-forgettable Carol. So I split my characters and got my ass handed to me because – get this – Chuck is a terrible character in combat as well! Chuck’s ARM, the L23 Pile Bunker, is interesting until you realize it has atrocious accuracy. It was at this point that I had enough of the game and whipped my hands clean of what else it had to offer. Well, there was this and getting stomped by a level 90 Sol Niger on the world map that more-or-less told me not to waste anymore time on the game. This is really something because I had played all the previous Wild Arms games up to this one (the 10th Anniversary game) to completion and this was the one that broke me. This just wasn’t fun anymore and I was done lying to myself… I could only do that for so long. What happened to those games like the first two Wild Arms; games that were full of charm and were able to beat back what seemed (and generally were) superior products? Where did the soul go? When did these games start feeling like pale facsimiles?

Beyond disappointing me in the major areas outlined above, Wild Arms 5 dropped the ball in many other ways as well. Despite his excellent work in Wild Arms 4 composer Masato Kouda’s music failed to ensnare me like it did before; even worse was the fact that he learned nothing about making good town themes that shied away from stereotypical ideas - and Wild Arms XF’s music proved he never would. This meant it was up to series newcomer Noriyasu Agematsu to provide great tracks like “Terrible-monster Attacking Crew!” and “One Day You'll Forget Your Hopes and Dreams” that made the game worth listening to. The overuse of nostalgia also hurt the game since its obvious this was trying to distract me from the fact that the game wasn’t as good as it thought it was. Bosses from previous games kept popping up as cute little references every now and then (and there was one really funny joke that involved a name/password from the first game) but that still couldn't keep the cold, hard truth at bay.

Then there are the facts I faced when I tried to replay Wild Arms 5. I didn't even get to the bad bits of character development late in the game before all the shortcomings in the game play made me question why I was playing it. A few hours in I quit playing, hooked up my recently acquired Nintendo GameCube and played Metroid Prime for the first time. Sorry to say that was a stroke of genius on my part as I ate that game up – even a decade after its release – and Wild Arms 5 was pretty much as stale as it was the minute it was released. I’m sure some will say that’s an unfair comparison but I’m sure I’ll play Metroid Prime again at some point. Wild Arms 5? Probably not so much…. but the collector’s edition does look cool sitting on my shelf!

So if I find Wild Arms 5 such a chore, why did I buy it, sell it and repurchase it? Well, a big reason is memories fade – even bad ones. I had to replay Alter code:F half way through to remind myself why it will never reach the same plateau as the original, thus I had to replay this to remind myself that this game was a sign that the franchise needed to end. If it wasn’t for some silly need to collect all the games in the series or the awesome, eighty page artbook that comes with the special collector’s edition (a sweet item!) I wouldn’t have re-bothered. It’s sad to say that Wild Arms 5 is far from a product that fought to keep the Japanese role-playing game market viable at a critical juncture; instead it probably did more harm than good by containing way too much genre-based retread. Couple that with the fact that the series would retreat to the strategy role-playing market after this game and you can literally smell the desperation.

I’m sure some reading may feel I had fun dismantling what Wild Arms 5 has to offer. While I’ll admit the thoughts in this review have been a long time coming, nothing would have made me happier than if I had actually enjoyed the game either time I played it – especially considering marked the series tenth anniversary. Unfortunately, all we got was a reminder that the genre’s time in the spotlight is over and another semi-pointless trend (first person shooters) has replaced it. Perhaps I should reserve judgment until I get around to playing Wild Arms XF but if Wild Arms 5 proves anything it’s that the series time is over – pleasant memories be damned.

Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Product Release: Wild ARMs 5 (10th Anniversary Edition) (US, 08/28/07)

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