Sony's Wild ARMs was one of the first traditional RPGs to hit the Playstation, and although it didn't revolutionize the genre, the game did distinguish itself with clean execution, a brilliant soundtrack, and a theme nearly as embedded in the Wild West as it was in fantasy. Because Wild ARMs met with respectable sales figures and critical evaluation, the release of a sequel comes as no surprise. And the sequel doesn't fail to impress, either. Wild ARMS 2, despite a few significant flaws, surpasses its predecessor and ranks as perhaps the best US-released traditional RPG yet this year.
Wild ARMS 2 takes place in Filgaia, the same land in which the first Wild ARMs took place, though the relation of the two stories is not clarified in WA2. Many, many years ago, a powerful demon known as Lord Blazer terrorized the citizens of Filgaia. The outlook seemed bleak for all humanity, until a mysterious girl accompanied by a powerful wolf-like guardian arrived. Armed with Argetlahm, a legendary sword, this "Sword Magess" managed to defeat Lord Blazer and seal him away from Filgaia, restoring peace to the land. The victorious heroine then disappeared, leaving behind only her sword and her legend.
In WA2's present, Filgaia has once again degenerated into a dangerous environment, filled with monsters and evil-minded humans. In order to attempt to maintain some semblance of civility in the world, a group of altruistic and highly trained citizens, headed by a noble named Irving Valeria, form an organization called the Agile Remote Mission Squad (ARMS). ARMS is a special task force, with abnormal activity its area of expertise, but rescue missions and crime fighting fall under its jurisdiction as well.
As WA2 begins, each of the 3 main characters in the game has just been chosen to join ARMS. Ashley Winchester is a bayonet-toting soldier of Meria Boule who is recruited while serving a suspension for unquestionable albeit heroic insubordination. Lilka Eleniak is a crest sorceress who inadvertently takes the long way to her destination, Valeria Chateau, the headquarters of ARMS. And Brad Evans is a former war hero branded criminal who now sits rotting in a secluded island prison.
After a brief orientation, the three new members of ARMS are immediately dispatched to combat a terrorist organization called Odessa. Odessa is intent on taking control over all of Filgaia, and it has repeatedly attacked the citizens of the land in its domination attempts. However, as the game progresses, it becomes clear that the threat looming over Filgaia is much more serious than any of its residents ever imagined.
Although WA2's storyline doesn't get off to a terribly exciting start, it does prove to be one of the game's finest points as well as one of the best plots seen in a recent RPG. As the storyline builds, the events involved get more and more exciting, and despite a few moments of uninspired cheesiness, it remains riveting throughout most of its long length. The final battle in the game is a good example of this; despite a striking similarity to the blatant emotional pandering of the last battle in Square's Final Fantasy IV, the concluding fracas of WA2 stands as one of the most emotionally inspiring moments ever seen in a video game. Character development is excellent as well. Most of the main characters in the game display good depth to their personalities as well as complex personal histories, and they evolve quite a bit over the course of their quest.
It's also great to see that interpersonal relationships between characters, which Contrail's scenario writers seemed afraid to touch with a ten-foot-pole in the first WA game, receive excellent attention in the sequel. Although I would have liked to see more development of the budding romance between Brad and Merrill, the relationship between Ashley and Marina is perhaps the best developed of any ever seen in an RPG.
Those who enjoyed the Wild West theme introduced in WA will be pleased to hear that it's even more prevalent in the second game of the series. Many NPCs appear in full cowboy garb, and several of the towns are designed exactly like those seen in cowboy movies.
Perhaps the most noticeable weakness in WA2's storyline is its translation. The dialogue does a pretty good job of avoiding spelling and grammatical errors, but it flows quite poorly, with many character responses failing to match their initial inquiries well. Much of the wording is also awkward, but the more emotional scenes in the game are thankfully handled quite well.
WA2's gameplay bears a lot of similarity to that of its predecessor, which is a good thing because gameplay execution was one of the first WA's biggest strengths. The turn-based battles return, and so do the random encounters. The force point meters that allowed special attacks upon their filling in WA are also present in WA2. And like the first WA, WA2 allows you to summon Filgaia's guardian elementals to aid your allies or damage your enemies. This time around, each guardian confers an additional command to any character who equips it, such as allowing that character to increase his or her defense for the duration of a battle. The tools that helped players make it through the convoluted dungeons in the first WA also return to the second game.
Remember how WA protagonist Rudy could interface with Ancient Relic Machines in the series' first game? In the second installment, both Ashley and Brad have access to their own ARMs, and they can customize the weapons like Rudy did in the first. These ARMs prove to be extremely useful when powered up properly; they're some of the most powerful weapons in the game.
An interesting note is that like several recent RPGs, WA2 does away with conventional magic points. The number of force points that a magic-using character has built up in battle determines what available spells he or she can cast at that time. Therefore, like Square's Chrono Cross, magic is limited only on a battle-by-battle basis, and not on a long-term basis.
Although the WA series isn't yet known for a huge amount of character customization, the second game does allow a bit more flexibility in the functional design of your characters than the first. As experience levels are gained, each character gains bonus points, which can be distributed to abilities such as protection from certain status attacks and increased hit points.
WA2 also features more playable characters than its predecessor did, with a total of 6. Although you can only send three of them into battle at once, the reserve character system is highly reminiscent of that of Sega's Shining The Holy Ark, which has the best that this reviewer has yet seen. Characters can be freely subbed in and out of the active battle party at the beginning of every round of combat, and although the substitutions execute more slowly than in STHA, the system is just as flexible.
Like the first WA, WA2's gameplay is executed very well. Commands are carried out crisply, and the game moves along at a good pace. The difficulty balance is on the easy side, but the game does get a bit more challenging later on. The inane puzzles that plagued WA are toned down, too, although they do once again begin to require absurd leaps of logic in the second half of the game.
WA2 also carries the sharp control seen in its predecessor. Your onscreen characters move in 8 directions, and a dash button enables them to travel quite quickly. Similar to the first WA game, the dash button functions as a straight-line accelerator rather than a simple speed-up button, so it has to be released whenever you want to change direction. This made control a bit more engaging for me, but some players may find it to be a nuisance. Your characters are responsive to the controls, and the menus are well organized and easy to navigate, both in and out of battle. The camera can be rotated in 45-degree increments.
As great a game as it is, WA2 does have one big flaw, and that shortcoming is its visual presentation. In switching from 2D backgrounds to a polygonal environment and replacing the majorly superdeformed characters with more realistically proportioned ones, Contrail's intentions were reasonable, but the end result turns out disastrously. Granted, the area maps look pretty good, with a strong level of detail and solid animation in the backgrounds, but they're the extent of the in-game graphics that this reviewer would consider passable.
The world map and battle graphics are absolutely horrible, suffering from constant severe blockiness and a surprising lack of detail. In addition, too few colors are used in them, and those present are drab and lack appeal. The animation of characters and enemies alike is choppy and holds little realism, and the polygonal characters do a poor job of maintaining their cohesion as they move. The spell effects and summons are feeble at best; although they use some lighting effects, their design and animation leave a lot to be desired.
The enemy design of WA2 is also noticeably poor. Almost none of the enemies hold any degree of intimidation, and the game features some of the dumbest-looking bosses to ever appear in an RPG, especially one that's meant to be taken somewhat seriously. The poor design also extends to monsters that certain characters can summon; for example, the Odoryuk guardian looks like something out of those My Little Pony cartoons that they used to have for little girls.
One thing that is impressive about WA2's visual presentation, however, is the anime movie that opens the game. This beautiful sequence features smooth animation and strong direction as it introduces the player to the various major characters in the game. The artwork is excellent, too; although the characters don't look quite as appealing as those in the first game, their design is a bit more unique.
In contrast with its visuals, WA2's sound department is perhaps its strongest individual facet. With the strikingly well-written soundtrack to the first game in the series, Michiko Naruke firmly established herself as one of the finest up-and-coming talents in the pantheon of game music composers. On the soundtrack to the second, she fully realizes that promise. The WA2 score is filled with brilliant melodies that complement the game excellently. Tracks like "Dungeon: Exploration 1" and "Departure" are perfect examples of how melodies that crescendo quickly should be constructed, and the awe-inspiring "Battle vs. Lord Blazer" contributes heavily to the emotional impact of the game's transcendent final battle.
Part of the appeal of the first WA's soundtrack was its somewhat understated country western influence. WA2's score carries that influence even further, and it does so without sacrificing the extreme melodicism of its songs. Examples of songs that fit this mold the most successfully include "Dungeon: Exploration 2" and the insanely brilliant "Battle vs. Liz and Ard".
Perhaps the only weakness in the game's brilliant soundtrack is the inconsistent quality of its sound programming. While some of the songs sound orchestrated, some of them sound almost blatantly synthesized. This disturbing disparity sometimes exists within a single track, where certain lines sound quite natural and others completely artificial.
WA2's sound programming also extends over to its sound effects. Some sound effects are pretty good, but others sound feeble at best. There is no voice acting in WA2.
In spite of its poor visual presentation, Wild ARMS 2's excellence in other areas carries it to the top of this year's yet-released US traditional RPG heap. Don't be fooled by the poor graphics; the storyline and music make this one a must-have.