The Wild Arms series has never been in the forefront of the RPG consciousness like Final Fantasy has, but it has steadily accumulated a loyal following and made progressive strides throughout the years. The Sony PSP was not initially the go-to console for RPGs, but recently there has been an influx of top quality strategy RPGs for it, such as Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness, Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions, and Jeanne d’Arc to name a few. Strategy RPG fans can now add another title to this growing list: Wild Arms XF (the “XF” is pronounced Crossfire).
There’s no justice on the battlefield, only in soldiers’ hearts.
Yes, this new installment of Wild Arms is a strategy RPG. This move is not surprising to me. In Wild Arms 4 and 5 for the PlayStation 2, the traditional turn-based battle system was eschewed in favor of the more tactical HEX grid battle system. The HEX system has now evolved into a full on strategy RPG system Where the map tiles are hexagons rather than squares, allowing for characters to have a different range of movement than they would with typical square tiles. Moving units around on the battlefield is no different than a strategy RPG with square tiles, though sometimes using the D-pad to select the HEX you want can sometimes be a little awkward. It’s a good thing there’s a zoom out feature for battle maps and that they’re camera rotate-able with the L and R buttons given the sometimes drastic levels of the terrain and sheer size of the battlefields; although the camera sometimes pans too quickly and does not always allow optimal viewing angles.
If you have played a strategy RPG before, then you have an idea of how basic gameplay works in Wild Arms XF. For those unfamiliar with strategy RPGs, battles are tactical, turn-based battles akin to a more complex version of Chess on larger battlefields with varying types of terrain. Most strategy RPGs have a “Player Phase” where the player makes all of his or her moves and then an “Enemy Phase” where the enemy makes its moves, but Wild Arms XF does things a little differently. Turn order is based on each unit’s RFX or “Reflex” stat. Those with higher RFX are given earlier and often more frequent turns. Turn order is displayed on the right hand side of the screen and there are ways to raise your units’ RFX and lower your enemies’ RFX during battles, which can definitely turn the tide of a difficult battle. In addition, if your units surround an enemy unit, the attacking unit will either do extra damage or initiate a physical or magic combination attack. The pacing of the gameplay is fairly brisk as far as strategy RPGs go, so the game does not feel draggy.
As with any strategy RPG, there is a variety of missions with various conditions for success or failure. There are assault missions, target-finding missions, escape missions, stealth missions, bodyguard missions, and more. Preceding each plot-based mission is a DER (Direct Event Report) where the conditions for battle are laid out for you, strategies are suggested and character classes may be suggested as well for successful mission completion. You will often be pitted against seemingly impossible odds, and not heeding the DERs may spell your doom. Battles can be quite difficult, even early on, but they are all winnable. It’s just a matter of figuring out and utilizing the best strategies to win.
Menus are intuitive and pretty easy to navigate. There is character micromanagement, but it is not as extensive as the micromanagement of, say, NIS strategy RPGs which sometimes go overboard with it. Speaking of NIS strategy RPGs, has anyone here played Soul Nomad? If you have, then you know how the towns in Wild Arms XF work. Towns consist of a list of selectable locations, such as “shop” or “plaza,” atop a static backdrop. Most locations are places where you can talk to NPCs, shops are where you buy items and equipment, and Synth Shops are where you can upgrade weapons and armor with raw materials. Any townsperson with something important to say is marked with an exclamation point by his or her name.
One trait that many strategy RPG fans like is a malleable Class or Job system, and Wild Arms XF has one. Like many RPG job systems, there is a variety of character classes with different kinds of skills, and leveling up a class will allow you to equip their specific skills when using a different class. Each storyline character starts out as a class unique to him or herself that nobody else can have. For example, main gunslinger Clarissa is the only character who can be a Dandelion Shot. As the game progresses, more and more classes open up that characters can switch into. You will find yourself switching characters’ classes and skills frequently to suit mission conditions, and thankfully all that can be quickly and easily done in the menus. Just remember that when you change a character’s class, you’ll have to re-equip their weapons, armor, and items they hold. In addition to the main characters, generic units can be bought to augment your party. You “roll the dice” till you get a set of character statistics you like, then select that unit’s starting class, gender, voice, and give it a name. The final step is to select your unit’s starting level, and it’s that starting level that determines the final cost of the unit. Paying for levels is worth it, since grinding a level 1 unit to play catch up with the rest of your party is never fun.
Wild Arms XF uses atypical class names such as Secutor, Fantastica, and Gadgeteer to name three. Some like Secutor (melee fighter) and Elementalist (mage) are strategy RPG staples, but some are unique (at least to me.) There is a good variety of classes in the game with unique skills and abilities, so players can create their parties as they see fit. Early on, there is only a limited selection of classes, but more become available as the game progresses. There may be strategy RPGs out there with more classes or jobs, but considering the level that Wild Arms XF encourages players to know every class and skill inside and out for the successful completion of missions, any more classes or jobs would have made the game cumbersome. In other words, the number of classes is perfect as it is.
The game has an overland map where you point and click on the locations you wish to go to. Areas where plot events occur are marked with exclamation points in either yellow or red bubbles to indicate the level of hostility of said events. There are also unmarked blue points where you can fight battles that are solely there for the purpose of building character and class levels. I made use of these frequently to obtain the transferable class skills I needed for upcoming battles. Yes, the game does require some grinding, but nothing too horrible.
There are some aspects regarding the gameplay that I would like to bring up. Area attacks hurt everyone within that attack radius, including your own party members. The same goes with area healing. If an enemy is within your radius of healing, that enemy will be healed as well. Sometimes random HEXes you move your character to can grant boosts or liabilities. In addition to HP and MP, characters also have a VP or Vitality Points bar. Every action taken uses up VP and once you run out, you lose HP with each successive turn. Some gamers may find these elements to be unnecessary nuisances whereas others may enjoy the added strategic elements they bring. I fall into the latter camp. For example, I was not initially sold on the VP gauge until it became an important and dynamic element in a mission late in Act 1. That mission would have been a pretty humdrum mission without the VP gauge, but the VP gauge made it interesting.
My only major issue with the gameplay regards saving. You can only save your game on the world map, in towns, and when the game prompts you to (usually after major cutscenes.) You cannot save during battles, and this can be bothersome when having to fight multiple battles in a row, especially since battles can be lengthy and difficult. Since this is an RPG on a handheld system, saving should be allowed any time the player wants. I would have loved to be able to save during battles and between battles in multi-battle sequences. A way to fast forward cutscenes preceding battles would have been a nice convenience as well.
I may not look it, but I’m actually the complete package.
The gameplay graphics consist of 2D sprites on rotate-able 2D environments with varied heights and terrain. The sprites are small and have simple animations, but they look smooth and do not get pixelated during close-ups. The environments look nice and smooth without clipping. Indoor environments and buildings possess more detail than outdoor field environments. Visual effects, such as spell effects, are pedestrian. The overland is a hand drawn map rather than a traversable world. The bottom line is that the gameplay graphics are far from impressive, but get the job done. One advantage to the non-powerhouse visuals is that loading is kept to a minimum. Loading typically only occurs before battles, and the load times are manageable.
The best graphics in the game are reserved for cutscenes. Most cutscenes have a visual novel aesthetic where full length, 2D character portrait stills are layered over static backdrops. Major cutscenes have still shots that look like action scenes directly out of an anime. These cutscenes are nice, but I wish they were fully animated. The character designs are decent, but rather generic. They’re no better or worse than those found in prior Wild Arms games, though. Most female characters, playable and non-playable characters alike, wear appropriate outfits, but some females do wear ridiculously skimpy clothing. The worst offender, though, is a villainous Queen Brahne lookalike bursting out of a red dress that’s definitely too tight on her. Yes, you read that right, and I will say no more.
Some lies are worth living.
The story is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, to grace a Wild Arms title. Like all Wild Arms games, it takes place in the dying world of Filgaia. This installment stars a straight-shooting gunslinger named Clarissa. Clarissa is an honest gal with a strong sense of justice who abhors lying, cheating, and general dishonesty in both herself and others. So basically, she’s a straight shooter in that regard as well. The story begins with Clarissa in a showdown with an outlaw named Rupert who just stole her mother’s sacred sword. After bandying words back and forth, Rupert baits Clarissa and before he can harm a hair on her pretty little head, out comes Felius, Clarissa’s half-brother and guardian. Just as things are about to come to a head, three masked men alert Rupert that their boat is about to leave. So while the three masked thugs keep big brother and little sister busy, Rupert makes his getaway. After the struggle, the only clue Clarissa finds of Rupert’s whereabouts is a badge with the royal quest of Elesius.
Upon arrival in Elesius, Clarissa is taken by the peacefulness of the kingdom. As she and Felius make their way through some of the smaller towns in the kingdom looking for clues regarding Rupert, they soon see that the peace in Elesius is merely a facade. A year ago, the beloved King Hrathnir fell ill and the equally beloved Princess Alexia went on a quest to find a cure. She went missing and has been presumed dead. So with the king’s health in further decline and the princess in absentia, the political powers that be are running the show and have taken to hiring thugs to impose martial law on the people. And unbeknownst to Clarissa and Felius, Rupert happens to be in cahoots with the Elesius political council.
Even though Clarissa knows she should be focusing on Rupert, her strong sense of justice will not allow her to stand idly by while the people of Elesius are suffering. Though Felius advises against Clarissa sticking her nose where it does not belong, he still stands by her. In the first (of many) defining moments in the story, Clarissa goes against some of her beliefs and impulsively uses some unexpected leverage to liberate a bunch of wrongly imprisoned civilians and re-instill their hope in the kingdom’s future. So not only does Clarissa have to embark on an adventure where she earns allies, gains enemies, and learns about the deep dark secrets of Filgaia and its people, but she also learns more about herself than she ever thought possible. How does this straight-shooting honest gal deal with the concept that perhaps some lies are worth living? Play the game and find out.
The story is well told and there is lengthy exposition during cutscenes. Not once did the exposition feel padded or ancillary; all of it was necessary to understand the characters and events. What makes the cutscenes as good as they are is the wonderfully written dialogue. Not only is the dialogue free of any technical errors, but it is colorful, flows well, and reads in a believable, conversational manner without any robotic stiffness or awkwardness. The cast of characters is nicely done. Each character has a distinct personality, develops as the story progresses, and has his or own backstory and motivations for doing what they do. Sure they fall into archetypes, but they go beyond the surface level of those archetypes. The villains, both major and minor, are also characterized well and there is a good variety of them from elder statesmen to outlaws. Even villains who only make brief appearances leave an impression, such as the intelligent and eloquent Nanasato, a prison warden in one of the early missions.
The story does not break the Japanese RPG mold, but as far as Japanese RPG stories go, it’s a good one. I like how it adds its own flavor to the Japanese RPG formula in some minor yet amusing ways. For starters, instead of the heroine’s pendant glowing at the faintest sign of ancient magic, it’s her gun that glows. Another example is where the script is flipped in that instead of the boy being oblivious to the girl’s crush on him, this time it’s the girl who’s completely oblivious to the boy’s crush on her. To me, Wild Arms has always been about tradition with a twist, and this installment certainly follows suit.
She’s like a wildflower blooming in a barren field.
I’m saving the best for last here. The one element of the game that absolutely outshines everything else is the music. Quite simply, the soundtrack to this game is stellar and the sound quality, even through the PSP’s tiny speakers, is terrific. I was quite happy when, during the introductory sequence, a vocal song with the original Japanese vocals played. There’s a Japanese vocal song at the end as well. These songs are sung by Kaori Oda and have lyrics written by Michiko Naruke, who scored the first few Wild Arms games. The OST (original soundtrack) for the game has music by FIVE composers (none of whom are Naruke) across FOUR CDs and the tracks are generally long and not repetitive. Battles and cutscenes in the game are lengthy so it is very important that the music not be repetitive. Each of the composers captured the unique “mojo” of Wild Arms while still retaining their own distinctive styles and voices. A wide variety of instrumentation from whistling to horn to electric guitars to synthesizers and more can be heard in the soundtrack.
The second key aspect to the sound is in the voice acting during major cutscenes. The game gives players an option to select between English and Japanese voices and both are of professional quality. I actually kept the game in English for the most part, because I preferred Clarissa’s English voice to her Japanese voice as the English voice was less shrill, less high-pitched and, in my opinion, fit the look of her character better. Sure in both the Japanese and English voice tracks there are some characters whose voice acting is mediocre, but the voice acting in either language gets my seal of approval. Voice clips can be heard during battles as well and a really nice feature is being able to select how frequently you want to hear the battle quips, so there should be no complaints of those being too repetitive.
We often argued when we spoke, but at least you always heard me out, right until the end…
To sum it up, Wild Arms XF is a very good game: one that I definitely recommend. It had its flaws, to be sure, but what game doesn’t? I had a very enjoyable experience with it. The game was very challenging, but still a lot of fun to play. It also had a great story and incredible music. The game offers a great value for the money in that it is a very lengthy adventure. Many handheld RPGs clock in at 15-20 hours, but Wild Arms XF will easily keep gamers busy for 2 to 3 times that amount of time. Wild Arms XF may not be the ultimate or defining strategy RPG experience, but it was definitely one of the most fun strategy RPG experiences I have had in a long time.