By Sparky_Buzzsaw 12 Comments
It's been a ridiculously long time since I wrote one of these RPG Retrospectives. I had originally intended on writing one of these every week or two for various old-school RPGs to beef up Giant Bomb's lack of RPG coverage, and as I always do with my planned blog features, I failed miserably. However, I did write a few, namely for Quest for Glory, Star Ocean: First Departure, Tales of the Abyss, and Grandia.
What these Retrospectives aim to do is fairly simply. I play older RPGs, completely at random or whenever the mood strikes me, as thoroughly as possible to determine how they compare to similar RPGs and if they hold up today. I also analyze whether or not the cost versus the value of the game in the period of time that the blog is written, so keep in mind that the availability and access might not always be up-to-date.
While I had originally intended on writing about the Wild ARMs games in order (and in fact, I played through the first two games early last year in an effort to prepare for their Retrospectives), neither game is fresh enough in my memory to actually write about them. While cleaning out my stacks of games for a trade-in to Amazon, I came across Wild ARMs 3 and decided to toss it into the PS2 for no good reason whatsoever. It's a game I haven't revisited in quite some time, so I was excited to see how it holds up.
First, Some History
You know those games you always see on a Hastings discount corner? The five dollar budget games that never seem to disappear from the shelves and eveybody seems to ignore? Wild ARMs 3 was one of those games. I first bought it for my brother, who at that point owned a PS2 while I had an Xbox in 2002. I only got a chance to play through the prologue before revisiting the game when I finally got my mitts on my own PS2 in 2004.
Truthfully, it was a little underwhelming at the time. At that point, Final Fantasy X and Kingdom Hearts were the system's RPG behemoths, and they were dirt cheap, too. And over on the Xbox, Morrowind was consuming my every waking moment, leaving me with little desire to play through a JRPG that seemed a bit too much like its predecessors.
For those unfamiliar, Wild ARMs games are turn-based JRPGs of the old guard. There are random breakaway battles that will no doubt make some today cringe, but the game earns some points for having the option to skip battles (until an exploratory gauge runs out, at which point battles become mandatory until the gauge is refilled by finding crystals in caverns or resting at an inn). The first two Wild ARMs games featured a limited number of characters armed with, well, ARMs - essentially upgradeable guns. Other characters were armed either with magic or special combat skills. All characters could be complemented by Guardians, which were the Wild ARMs equivalent of summons from the Final Fantasy games. Each game featured a cool pseudo Western aesthetic, complete with Ennio Morricone-styled music and names ripped straight from popular spaghetti westerns and Old West lore.
You can also switch between characters. Each is given a number of special items to use when solving puzzles or exploring, such as bombs, a freeze ray, or a radar that helps you detect hidden objects. A fair chunk of dialogue with townspeople will change depending on who you have equipped, often leading to secret areas or useful information.
So How Does It Hold Up?
Wild ARMs 3 feels like a bit of a letdown, even today, especially when held up against its predecessors. It was an interesting looking game, to be sure. At that point, cel-shaded graphics were still a new thing, and it could look damned pretty in spots, but the gameplay felt ripped straight from Wild ARMs 1 & 2, and graphics aside, most of the game felt stripped down. You no longer bought new equipment, but found items in combat and chests that you could attach to your summoned characters With every character now wielding ARMs (but only one per character, without any of the spectacular absurdity of prior ARMs), the characters all feel too similar. Sure, they've all essentially got their own class, but none of them have the scope and depth of the characters from prior games. Mind you, those prior characters weren't exactly worthy of a Saturn award, but they were pretty great.
It doesn't help matters much that the game never really goes anywhere. The villains are introduced early, the side characters are pretty lame, and the protagonists are as flat and boring as any in the series. Part of what made the original two so great was the intrinsic charm of the world of Filgaia and the bizarre characters that inhabit it. Although all the games have anime inspirations sprinkled throughout (namely in their introductory videos), at no point does the series get bogged down in anime tropes. This is true even of Wild ARMs 3, but I wouldn't have minded just a bit more flair, a bit more character to the whole game. Everything feels just a little subdued. Part of that stems from the "end-of-the-world" theme that hangs over most of the game. But part of it is just a lackluster story filled with lackluster characters.
That said? It's still a pretty terrific RPG in terms of its mechanics, dungeoning, and pacing. You find a town, buy some upgrades for your guns, grab a few bits of information from the locals, and you go hunt down the next dungeon. It's a tried-and-true formula, and it works spectacularly well for me. True, the random battles seem to be a bit much, closing in dangerously on Suikoden IV in terms of frequency, but early in the game, you can start stealing items from easy monsters that allow you to fast travel around the world, and you're given pretty easy access to save points (through the use of Gimel Coins, a not-so-rare special item that can also be used to continue should you fail in a battle). I feel like there's potential to be frustrated by the game, but there's a quiet sort of assurance in the game's mechanics that made sure I never quite got to the boiling point. That's the mark of good classic RPG elements.
The game also features tons of extra content in terms of optional dungeons and areas to explore. This is a big game, but a lot of its length can be cut down if you're willing to forego the optional areas. The light puzzle-solving elements in the game never feel overwhelming, and often provide a welcome break from the typical dungeon crawl. Again, none of them have the charm or ingenuity of earlier or later games in the series, but they're still pretty well designed.
Is It Worth It?
Used copies of Wild ARMs 3 are going for about $5 on Amazon. That feels about right, given the dated nature of the game and later advancements in RPGs. As of right now, it's only available on disc and hasn't seen a rerelease on PSN (fingers crossed), but for the cost, I'd say it's worth a shot. But if I were you, I'd go ahead and play through Wild ARMs 1 & 2 first, as both are on PSN and are, at least in my opinion, much more fun.
That said, you really can't go wrong with Wild ARMs 3. It can be a little difficult, but once you learn to game the system a bit (Vanquish + Gallows = near insta-win for every battle) and get to know when to save, you'll have no trouble with it whatsoever. It's a hell of a meaty game for $5, and the battles don't look nearly as fugly as the first two games. It also has the distinction of being one of the rare JRPGs that doesn't make you want to cringe when someone's watching you play it. There are no moments of big-eyed Japaneseness, no cutesy stupid anime tropes, and best of all, no annoying little children or pets pissing me... uhhh... you off every other cutscene.
It's a very meat-and-potatoes sort of RPG, but it (and the series as a whole) has fantastic mechanics that really need to be experienced by anyone interested in RPGs as a whole. There are some bits of kindegarten level armchair philosophizing, but that's about as annoying as the game ever gets. I really recommend it, especially today, when there are so few traditional RPGs on the market - and since PS2's are insanely cheap.
Hope you enjoyed the return of the Retrospective. I'm slowly working my way through Final Fantasy IX, and intend on returning to Filgaia for thoughts on Wild ARMs 1 & 2 sometime in the future. I've also got something lined up for when I finish Lunar on the PSP. Whew!