Mild at heart.
The Wild Arms series has never done much more than add a little Western flavor to the whole Final Fantasy experience, but at least the entries were well-produced, clean RPGs. Wild Arms 4 represents yet another Final Fantasy casserole of a game, albeit not the best of the bunch. Some notable flaws and a generally poor tech backbone certainly don't help, yet somehow, this is still a palatable, playable game that adds up to a bit more than the sum of its parts.
The main character is Jude Maverick, a 13 year-old boy and the only child resident of an idyllic floating village located miles above the war-ravaged planet Filgaia. The sky literally comes crashing down on Jude one day when an army assaults his skyward home. As he investigates their camp, he discovers a girl named Yulie í¯Â¿Â½" the first girl he's ever seen í¯Â¿Â½" and soon after gains the power to wield a giant gun. That's hot. In a twist that would surely make Freud grin and feminists frown, Yulie has the power to calm Jude's cannon by embracing him, and so Jude, rationally, vows to protect her at all costs from the evils of the world. Hot, hot, hot.
[image1] Jude and healer/friend with benefits Yulie are joined in their quest by Arnaud, a cowardly magician, and Raquel, a fencer who takes all her fashion cues from Sephiroth. As the four heroes travel through the game, the story clumsily trips along beside them, one moment dealing with genetic experimentation, the next with the moral ambiguities of war, all while trying to set up its thesis that, in the end, love and sacrifice are all that stand between universal life and death.
In some ways, then, Wild Arms 4's plot is identical to what you'd find in a Final Fantasy game, minus the slick delivery. Instead of awesome cut-scenes, flashbacks, and spoken dialogue, Wild Arms 4 takes a novel approachí¯Â¿Â½literally. Whenever a large chunk of back story comes to the surface, the screens dims and paragraph after paragraph of disembodied text appear for your reading displeasure. There are cutscenes, too, but with so much of the plot left to the exposed machinery of naked words, Wild Arms 4 reads a lot more like a rough draft than a finished product.
While the plot deals with the unexciting themes of innocence and morality, the game itself issues a few new ideas, though it mostly struggles with mediocrity and bad delivery. The battle system, for example, takes the standard turn-based scheme and applies it to a grid made up of seven hexagons. Characters and enemies take turns attacking, but they can also use turns to move from grid to grid for extremely limited turn-based strategy.
Some hexes contain elemental properties. If a character standing in a red hexagon casts a magic spell, that spell will do fire damage. On the other hand, a fire spell cast on a character standing in a red hex will do minimal damage. Certain characters can apply status effects to hexagons, afflicting ensconced enemies or aiding resident allies. Further, players can employ basic bits of strategy by sequestering weak units behind strong ones.
[image2]The enemy A.I. sure won't figure it out, as it's as basic and limited as the itty-bitty battlefield. Instead of using any real intelligence, your foes simply follow attack patterns. Bosses are more difficult, but usually require little more than an obvious grid mechanic, such as placing all your characters in the fire hexagon to avoid the boss's nasty fire spells.
This is a logical system that adds welcome flexibility to the occasionally dull matter of turn-based RPG combat, but as with the plot, it feels coarse and unfinished. Regardless of the level or the number of enemies, the battlefield is always a mere seven hexes, no more, no less. Any sort of size fluctuation would have done wonders for the strategy. Though it's had Final Fantasy Tactics' superior example to rip off for seven years, Wild Arms 4's combat system just isn't nearly as interesting or deep as it should be.
And neither is your party. Combined, Jude, Yulie, Arnaud and Raquel are a formidable bunch, but if one of them bites the dust, the rest can quickly follow. Yulie is by far the weakest, frequently getting whacked by enemies before you even have a chance to move. If you forgot to buy any revive items (which are outrageously priced), she's down for the count, and so is your party's only healer. While there's nothing wrong with focusing on four characters, each could use a more robust skill set.
Even Jude's gun isn't as interesting as it sounds. It has several upgradeable parameters, such as number of shots fired in one turn, accuracy, auto-reload chance, and damage, and these are malleable. If you use a part to increase damage but start missing everything, you can access a graph that lets you reallocate points to accuracy. This system gives you plenty of ways to customize Jude's weapon, but the settings don't really matter í¯Â¿Â½" so long as you aren't constantly missing enemies, you'll kill them just fine.
When you aren't burning down monsters on a wonky disco floor, you're probably engaged in solving a nonsensical environmental puzzle. At one point I was making my way through an abandoned genetics laboratory, complete with high-tech computers and filing cabinets, when I came upon a locked door with lanterns on either side. To get through, I had to take a wooden cane generated by a golden orb floating in the middle of a distant room, light it on an exposed flame, then run back through a half-dozen random monster battles to light the lanterns and proceed.
[image3] After that, the camera, which is always fixed, moved to a two dimensional, side-scroller perspective, and I had to jump across chasms, slide under low-hanging walls, and finally butt stomp crates to proceed to the secret, underground part of the lab. Everybody knows evil geneticists get around in BMWs and glass elevators, not by lighting tiki torches and stomping on wooden crates. There's nothing wrong with introducing platform mechanics to an RPG (not that there's anything right about it), but developers at least have to put the stomping and sliding in some sort of believable context.
It's easy, though, to overlook nonsense like lighting a lantern with a magically-generated stick in the middle of a lab when you're focused on getting from point A to point B. The game is completely linear, deftly keeping you distracted from its considerable shortcomings with regular doses of chatter, drama, boss battles, new weapons and new powers. Wild Arms 4 was made from an extremely simple, profitable recipe, and those with less discerning eyes might not catch all the pitfalls.
Wild Arms 4 even looks like a Final Fantasy knock-off, squashed anime bugs and all, with frequent unsightly blemishes. When Jude double jumps, for example, a blue halo of blocky sprites emanates from his feet. None of the textures are crisp, while those used to create the appearance of rocky walls, for example, are muddy. It runs smoothly, though, so at least you're not plodding through too many load screens.
The weird, upbeat music may be the best part of the game. The sound effects are generic, but several of the voice samples are unbelievable. When Jude jumps, he literally says "Jump." And when you defeat enemies, they babble incomprehensible parting words that are nothing if not entertaining.
For all its exposed mechanisms and inelegance, Wild Arms 4 is, at its core, a solid Final Fantasy clone. It provides a somewhat engrossing, predictable plot, and a steady flow of battles, puzzles, drama and rewards. Unfortunately, the lack of more interesting ammo leaves this gun firing blanks.