After all these years, and growing up with Windows 3.1, I have seen an entire evolution of computers and software. Touch screens and large resolutions were a pipe dream just 15 years ago. Now it's the norm. Going from a Packard Bell (yes, before HP) that couldn't run 3D Ultra Mini...
Considering how the Western genre was truly born out of a desire to adapt the stories of Akira Kurosawa's legendary samurai movies to a Western audience, it's a rather strange fact of life that so few video games are about them. The most mundane answer would be that most video games are translated directly, so there's little need to adapt them as such. But still, who doesn't want to take on the role of a gunslinger in a barren land, where men are men, women are either chaste or... not chaste at all, and your trusty horse is worth more than your life; All accompagnied by a simplistic grit-to-the-teeth-style melody performed with a guitar or even just a harmonica? More people than would want to read such a long sentence, I'm sure.
Well, keep on looking, because you're not going to see much of that in Wild Arms 3. What you will see, is a rather more direct "adaption" of your standard console RPG, except that the initial setting is in a world slightly resembling a western. But the characters and gameplay are nothing like what we get in Magnificent 7. Nor is it reminding anyone about Sergio Leone, about Charles Bronxo, about Clint Eastwood, or even about Emilio Estevez.
Now, this doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing as such. I'm just saying that if you want a game in what is commonly accepted as the "real" Western spirit of fiction, it's not here. So, take it for what it is: An RPG with fairly standard characters and gameplay, which does a couple of things differently, a couple of things well, most things averagely, and a few things badly.
Since, like any console RPG, most of the bulk revolves around random battles, let's get that out of the way first. Initially, it's a rather classic setup, where you give your orders of all the PCs, then these orders are acted upon. You can either choose to let the characters' speed determine in which order they go in, or you can set it up in your own manner. Bear in mind that if you put the slow Clive up first, the monsters that are quicker than him will act before the otherwise quick Virginia. You can also set up so that any or all of your characters act automatically, with the choices of either just attacking, or using everything they can to get the enemy down first. A nice touch for when you want to do some leveling on easy monsters, as you can then read a book while the battle goes on.
Then there's the Force Points, which aren't -quite- like ordinary MP. Whenever a battle begins, you start with as many FPs as the character's level. Then ordinary attacking, taking damage, and not the least evading damage, will increase this meter. You can then either use them on spells (which are mostly the kind you'd expect, with a couple of different ones), but that won't drain the meter. What will drain the meter is to spend the FP on the special abilities, ranging from multiple shootings in one turn, to summoning the summon beasts this game has. Quite different from what most other such games offer, in fact, and I welcome this change.
And that is just the ordinary battle. You will in fact also have a battle in the big sand seas using a "ship" made to withstand the tear and wear that sand will inflict on ordinary metal. These battles run more like the FF X system, and is different enough that you'll enjoy the change. The third mode of battle happen in the sky with a mechanical dragon... But the less said about this one, the better. Thankfully, you won't have to do it more than a few times.
The summoning beasts are another aspect that works differently than most other games. Instead of merely being summoned and dealing lots of damage, you can equip up to three of them to one character. Each one gives you a different raise in your stats, as well as three abilities, four different magic commands, and the possibility of learning up to five more abilities with the use of certain items. These abilities range from status immunity to more money from each battle, and a range of other effects that can and will help you in battle. Since each character only gets three each, this means you have to carefully balance all these factors. If two beasts have status immunity against poison, for example, it's no good to equip them to one character. To mention but one thing. It's inheritly simple, but keeps on getting intriguing right up to the end.
What doesn't keep on being intriguing to the end are the non-battle controls. The only way to run is to press the X button, which is also used as an action button for most everything else. And once you've started running, you have to stop before changing directions. More than one time, you'll end up running (sometimes over an edge) when you instead wanted to, say lift a crate. This gets -very- annoying over time.
The camera doesn't really help either. It's always set at about 45 degrees above the characters from a good distance, and although it's rotatable, it doesn't help giving the feeling of a unique town or dungeon. For that matter, much of the music in this game doesn't add to that, as most of the town tunes are used for at least three towns each. It's not that the music is bad, but the new places you visit just don't feel special. And with the town/dungon routine being plentiful, it'll get quite repetitive for a while.
Still, there's one thing to be said. For much of the game (but not always), at least you have a few choices in when to perform this and that mission. It's a linear game by all accounts, but not having to do checkpoint F before checkpoint E makes the feeling less pronounced than most such games. Also, with each character also having up to 3 non-combat abilities (from boomeran to freezing ray to bombs, etc, etc,), which means you'll be getting a variety of puzzles in each dungeon to solve. Thankfully, changing characters and character ability can be done directly, without having to go into any menu.
In the department of sidequests, there are a few of them. The Millennium Puzzles are initially interesting, and some of them are quite challenging, but the bad control design of the X button and the running thing, you might grow tired of it. But the rewards are usually worth it, so stay in there. Another thing is that healing herbs aren't sold directly in any shops of the game, you have to either win them from enemies, or grow them in a secret garden. Initially interesting, but not that fun in the long run is all I'll say about that one. There are also plenty of optional bosses, including a set of attacking porn magazines... (Don't worry about the kids, they won't actually see anything, though)
The graphics are simplistic cel-shading, but it's clear, and doing the job without impressing anyone. At least the game runs pretty smoothly thanks to this. The music has a Western-ish feel to it, but not always going all the way. The lack of voice acting might be annoying to some, but considering the current "standard" for voice acting in console RPGs (Grandia 2 and Tales of Symphonia, I'm looking at you!), I feel just as fine without it. There's really nothing about any of the PC characters so interesting you'd like to hear it voiced anyway.
All in all, there's not much that stands out. But it does make an attempt of distuingishing itself from the crowd, even though it seldom really succeeds. It's worth trying out, but one play-through will be enough for most, I imagine.
+ A Western RPG - Almost all RPG, just a little Western + Combat system with some new ideas + Generally good music... - ....that gets repeated too many places +/- No voices + Some interesting puzzles... - ...that are hampered by bad controls - Towns and dungeons not unique enough