In the crowded RPG genre, Wild ARMs 4 isn't worth a second look.
Though it's the fourth entry in the Wild West-themed RPG series, you'd never know it from all of the changes that were made to the story and presentation. Though there are a few new twists on the mechanics, Wild Arms 4 keeps a lot of the console turn-based RPG conventions. You control a small, rag-tag group of youngsters that randomly encounters hordes of monstrous enemies. Each party member specializes in a particular area, like fighting, magic, or support skills. You level up as you beat enemies, gain new abilities, get more powerful weapons, and go off to the next dungeon. There's a lot of dialogue, a lot of towns to see, and ultimately a world destroying plot to unravel.
As this particular story begins, you’ll find yourself in the shoes of Jude, a plucky young go getter from the secluded and peaceful Ciel Village. You're the only boy in the village, who has a loving mother, a stern martial arts trainer, and a town that’s suspiciously full of old people treat you like a grandson. Naturally, this geriatric utopia is upset, as a military force moves in and starts wreaking havoc. You eventually learn that you’re a "gene driver", a person with the genetic makeup needed to control sophisticated guns known as ARMs. Once you start packing heat, you leave Ciel Village, pick up a few traveling companions, and go off on a whirlwind adventure across the desolate world of Filgaia. The planet is still ravaged from a war that ended a decade ago, but left Filgaia a dead and dreary place. Over the course of your adventure, your party gets wrapped up in saving the world, all the while learning valuable lessons about friendship, sacrifice, and helping others. Does any of this story sound remotely original? It shouldn't, because this is the plot to every RPG ever made.
The overly-clichéd plot could be forgiven if it weren’t for the rest of Wild Arms 4’s glaring problems. To start with, the overall presentation of this game is very unimpressive. While Wild Arms 3 had a unique cel-shaded Wild West look art style, Wild Arms 4 looks like a cheesy anime from Cartoon Network. The characters have huge eyes, big mouths, wild hairdos, and ridiculous weapons. You’ll be reading a lot of text in this game that expounds on the plot and characters, but rather than popping up a text box and showing some character animations, the game switches to anime-style still portraits. It's a jarring transition every time it happens, and the same six or seven portraits are used over the 30 hours that you’ll be playing. It also doesn’t help that the dialogue is so repetitive. The only three conversations you’ll see are "adults don't understand kids,” “kids don't understand adults," and "peace is worth fighting for." These are extremely boring to read, and with no decent graphics to distract you, it quickly becomes a chore to go through a dialogue section. In the few cases where there is a rendered cutscene, it looks ugly, as though the developers used the in game engine to render the scene and then dialed-down the resolution for playback. Also, the characters' mouths are obviously moving to sync with the Japanese voices, which means that the English voices pause awkwardly to match up with the mouths. This is common in anime, but just looks odd here.
Wild Arms 4 also has some of the worst voiceover you’ll hear. Jude’s ear-splitting voice is maddening. Since almost all dialogue involves him, you’ll find yourself cringing as you prepare to hear his shriek during every dialogue section. The main antagonist sounds like some sort of surfer instead of a military captain. It’s hard to take him seriously when you’re mentally comparing him to a beach bum. His crew isn’t much better, as a few of them are so completely over the top that it's laugh out loud funny.
Not everything is a waste, though. The battle system in Wild Arms 4 is different than most RPGs, and it’s certainly the game’s strongest feature. This is a big relief, since the random encounter rate is pretty high. At the beginning of battle, your characters and the enemies are positioned randomly in a set of seven hexagons, three of which have elemental powers attached to them. So, instead of lining up against your enemies and just picking from "attack, magic, special, item, defend", you have to pick a strategic position to strike by moving within range of your target. This adds some depth to the gameplay, as you'll usually want to control one of the elemental hexes to exploit an enemy’s weakness, but not spread yourself out too thing or get surrounded by your enemies. Also, status effects like haste, poison, and magic resistance are planted on the hex, not the character, making it an interesting tradeoff of where to put your fighter. The system works very well, but you'll find that putting your melee fighter in the middle, your ranged fighter behind her, and the two magic users on the elemental hexes flanking them is almost always the best strategy that you can employ. Even still, there's a lot going on in battles and you'll find yourself trying new deployments and spells to better stay on top of your enemies, even if you don’t stick with them long term.
Character customization is also very well done. The skill system is especially deep and fun to play around with. Each character has a list of specific skills that they can learn, including attack abilities, healing spells, stat boosts, and other various abilities. As you level up, you'll learn these skills automatically. However, you also get one growth point each time that you level up. These can be applied to any skill, so you can master skills earlier than by leveling up alone. However, keeping growth points in reserve boosts your HP and MP. You’ll have an interesting tradeoff between acquiring skills and keeping your character strong at the same time. If you accidentally make a paper tiger who can deal damage but not take any, you’re able to readjust all of your skills and growth points on the fly, so you're never locked into a bad setup for your character. You'll be rewarded for playing around with your skills when you match up against enemies that have certain attack patterns and weaknesses to your specific abilities.
Unfortunately, the battle system and character customization just don’t make up for the rest of the game. You'll spend most of your time getting from point A to point B by moving across large linear expanses while solving some very boring puzzles. This could have been interesting, since you do have the ability to jump on ledges, stomp on crates, climb up pipes, and pick up tools to get through the next section. It’s not, though, because you'll mostly just be running in a relatively straight line all of the time. Every now and again, Wild Arms 4 takes this linearity literally by throwing in a 2-D platforming area, almost like mixing Super Mario Brothers with an RPG. These sections are always tedious, as it just takes too long to get through them and they don’t add any fun to the game. Neither does the set of puzzles that you'll have to solve to get through each dungeon. There are a lot of switches to be thrown, torches to be lit, and platforms to scale. While the puzzles themselves aren't so bad, they're totally nonsensical. Why would you have to light torches to get through a door of an orphanage? Why is there a switch to move platforms across molten lava in a temple? Why do they use disappearing blocks in a tower? The poor level design really takes you out of the game and makes you wonder just what the developers were thinking.
Wild Arms 4 is such a step in the wrong direction for this series. The developers can be commended for tossing a few RPG conventions to the side in favor of some new ideas, but a lot of them just aren’t any fun. After about 20 hours, you'll want to forgo sidequests and power leveling in favor of beating the game and moving on. Wild Arms 4 should be avoided, even if you're a fan of RPGs and especially if you're a fan of the Wild Arms series.