Wild ARMs does the impossible: it turns quantity into quality. When defeated bosses become too many to count, spells too many to cast, and guardians too numerous to summon, the game finally comes into its own. Until then, Wild ARMs is fairly mediocre RPG with a bare bones plot and non-entity characters. But stick with it, and you'll be rewarded at least somewhat: the game is as long as some high-profile releases, the story is simple, sincere, and heartfelt, and the number of optional sidequests is overwhelming.
Historically, Wild ARMs is one of the first RPGs on the PlayStation, released almost simultaneously with Vandal-Hearts, Suikoden, and the first Persona, and predated only by the infamous Beyond the Beyond, and it shows. The game is a mixture of traditional and new elements, while the basic mechanics show that Wild ARMs' creators were not quite sure of what a next-generation RPG should look like.
For example, the extent of customization possible was simply obscene by the day's standards: the characters' names can be changed at almost any point in the game, along with the spells' names and window color, while the
window borders and battle menu buttons can be redrawn from scratch.
The game essentially combines several battle engines into one: besides the customary options of "attack," "defend," and "item," each character has a set of uniquely accessed abilities. Rudy, the game's mute hero and an expert in ancient high-tech fireARMs, can find new armaments in treasure chests. ARMs consume bullets and must be reloaded when these run out. Furthermore, ARMs can be upgraded in power, capacity, and accuracy.
Jack, swordsman and master of the Fast Draw, learns new techniques through practice and observation: for example, he can learn Trickster from a pickpocket, or Meteor Dive by observing gusts of wind. Over time, Jack will
learn a large repertoire of offensive moves, a healing technique, an instant death attack, and several others.
Cecelia is the team's magic user, but even here the game breaks with tradition. Cecilia's grimoire is limited only by the number of available crest graphs. Any one spell can be inscribed on each, making Cecilia's choice both very large and instantly customizable at any Magic Guild to fit most situations.
In addition, each character has access to a unique set of four Force commands. Force abilities are separate from all others; using them costs nothing except Force, which builds up from scratch during each battle; these abilities can be used at any time the character isn't confused or asleep. For example, Jack's first level Force is "Accelerator," which allows him to go first in the upcoming round; Cecilia will eventually acquire "Double Cast," which allows her
to cast two spells per round; Rudy will learn "Fury Shot," which triples ARM damage. All three characters have access to the "Summon" command, which makes it possible to call into battle the guardian associated with the equipped rune.
Thus, Wild ARMs completely does away with level-based spell-gain; even the forces are gained according to plot. Levels only influence attribute values, and leveling up for spell acquisition is non-existent.
However, the results are less than impressive: battle always boils down to using the most powerful attacks available - the most powerful Rune, the newest Fast Draw, the most upgraded ARM. However, older attacks and weapons don't usually sink into oblivion: the first few ARMs are great for random battles, and Divide Shot is very useful even at the end of the game.
The situation is better in Cecilia's case. Out of her mammoth repertoire of sixty-four spells, some are continually useful and even somewhat original; spells like "Prison" and "Life Guard" have no equivalents in other
games. More familiar spells have unique nuances - confused characters cannot kill themselves or other party members, and berserked characters actually fight better than normal. "Randomizer" allows Cecilia to cast powerful spells relatively cheaply and frequently; spells that increase or decrease power, defense, and speed actually work in this game, even on bosses; and, of course, I wish more games would incorporate a "Status Lock" spell.
Wild ARMs also faces the unenviable challenge of redeeming some of the worst polygonal graphics on the PlayStation: the color scheme in battle is dark and muted, polygons jiggle, flutter, and drop out, and the 3-D models are not only exceptionally ugly, but also animate sluggishly; there is even some slowdown.
The game makes valiant efforts to overcome this hurdle, with some success: the sound effects are crisp and loud; the battle theme isn't as grating as some; some enemies and effects fill the entire screen; and the encounter rate is actually tolerable in places (a spell that becomes available at the game's midpoint allows you to decrease the rate even further).
The graphics out of battle are much, much better, but only barely. The locations are fairly colorful (though brown is predominant), and the sprites have a meaty quality that suggests that they are executed on a 32-bit console,
but everything suffers from a squarishness, blockiness, and an appalling lack of detail. The game lacks graphical pizazz: it has very little character.
On second thought, the dominance of pastels can be attributed to the game's alleged Wild West angle. "Alleged" because excepting a few items like Jack's "Ten Gallon Hat" and the overpowered "Sheriff Star," and the Spaghetti
Western trill that precedes Zed's every appearance, there is very little Wild West material in Wild ARMs. The closest the game gets to guns is Rudy's Ancient Relic Machines. Everyone else including the Metal Demons from Hiades, use swords and such.
Music is the game's saving grace. It is simple, rich in melody, and memorable. The dungeon track is guaranteed to make your heart race, and the boss tracks are sufficiently ominous. The game fares slightly worse during quieter,
touching moments, but never quite loses face.
If the soundtrack is Wild ARMs' saving grace, the puzzles are the game's heart. Wild ARMs is first and foremost a puzzler like no other - the puzzles are consistently challenging, original, and numerous. While some are variations
on the usual press-the-button, throw-the-switch puzzles (there's a wicked one in Ka Dingel), others are tailored to a particular character's Tools.
Jack, Rudy, and Cecilia will collect a set of four tools each, which can accomplish a number of things: Rudy's Radar spots hidden treasure, Cecilia's Stopwatch can rest puzzles, and Jack can direct his tough-talking rodent pal Hanpan to reach far places - helpful for otherwise unreachable treasure chests and switches.
Difficulty varies widely: a few puzzles, notably the doors of De La Metalica and the crystals of Heaven Corridor, are almost impossible when you factor in some awkward translations.
In an RPG that places such a heavy emphasis on the action element, control is a vital issue, and Wild ARMs does a rather admirable job in this department. Movement is precise and characters respond instantly. It is difficult - if not outright impossible - to get stuck on scenery, though dashing, while fast, presents a problem: not only can you not change direction while running, but bumping into anything at all stops the character completely - they will recoil and spend a second to recover.
Traditional difficulty is almost low enough to ruin the experience. Most bosses and enemies are very similar in that they usually have a single completely exploitable weakness, and not at all enough HP to present a significant
Wild ARMs places very little emphasis on plot: it sets up few expectations, so players won't feel betrayed. The story is rather pedestrian, except for two things: the villains are wonderfully personified, and the characters' personal
dilemmas are both difficult and touching. Wild ARMs has very few long "talkie" scenes, and none of the characters are particularly well developed, but though I couldn't much identify with any of the heroes, I could at least commiserate with them.
Villains like Zed, Boomerang, and Lady Harken also lend Wild ARMs a good deal of drama: finally, we have some bad guys who aren't exactly flat, who have real motivations and back story to them, and even change during the course of the game.
Wild ARMs is far from perfect, but it is unique, it is well-rounded, it has heart, it has conviction, and it has timeless appeal.