Wild Arms

   With the first RPG on the system being the mediocre -- to put it nicely -- Beyond the Beyond, the PlayStation got off to a rocky start in the RPG world. The situation soon rebounded, though, with the release of Suikoden, the promise of Final Fantasy VII, and the presence of one other oft-overlooked gem -- Wild Arms.

   The first RPG from developer Media.Vision (now Contrail), Wild Arms brought a breath of fresh air to a genre that thrives on clichés. The game flies against convention in a number of ways -- its action RPG-style puzzles, its use of just three characters, and most importantly, its storyline.

   Expecting an evil empire to overthrow or a corrupt religion to unmask? Don't look here; there is no empire, and religion is on your side for once. After beginning with a frustratingly slow series of pointless quests, Wild Arms does an about-face and produces one of the best storylines ever, tossing constant surprises at you. The final boss is just pure genius -- and no, I'm not going to spoil it here; go play the game!

And that's the bottom line, 'cause Hanpan said so!

   The story is supported by a great cast of characters, both good and bad, whose personalities shine in the excellent translation. The characters include Jack's sarcastic wind rat companion Hanpan (who can fly over to distant chests and retrieve them), the irreverent "Calamity" Jane Maxwell ("This is a game! You should always carry a special weapon!"), and a great villain in the form of Alhazad, a sadistic demon who spends most of his time thinking up new and creative ways to tortue people. Even the NPCs entertain at times, such as the doctor in Adlehyde, who is the subject of a hilarious running joke. The lone bad apple in this bunch is the ninja Boomerang and his wolf Luceid, who are the most blatant rip-offs of other characters (Shadow and Interceptor) I've ever seen. Indeed, a number of elements in the game seem "inspired" by those in others -- the interior design of Malduke, for example, looks eerily similar to that of Kefka's Tower, and the fake wedding scene resembles FF VI's opera scene. But, hey, if you're going to copy, you might as well copy from the best.

I feel like tossing chickens tonight!

   Of course, an excellent story would be nothing without gameplay, and Wild Arms delivered in that department as well. Although the gameplay is nothing terribly original, a number of unique features stand out, such as the magic system -- you locate Crest Graphs in chests and other locations, then take them to a Magic Guild to have spells inscribed on them. The game also takes a page from action-RPGs by including various tools (bombs, hookshot, lighter, etc.), crates (and chickens) that can be carried and thrown, and puzzles in dungeons. Challenging puzzles normally make a great addition to a game, but some of the ones in Wild Arms are just too challenging -- nobody could ever think of the solutions on their own, so most people solved them either by trial-and-error or by consulting a FAQ.

   One major complaint that has always been leveled against Wild Arms is its lack of characters -- you only have three characters, who comprise your party for the entire game. More party members would have been nice, and a number of existing characters could well have been party members, but the three who do exist are used in a number of creative ways. Each of them has their own distinct set of abilities, for one -- Rudy uses a variety of ARMs (guns) that can be upgraded by weaponsmiths, Jack learns sword techniques and must practice them to use them, and Cecilia casts magic from the aforementioned Crest Graphs. In addition, the trio splits up in a few special situations and each character moves around separately -- indeed, the game opens with three short quests, one for each character, that you must complete before they meet.

   The graphics weren't much to speak of when Wild Arms first was released, and they certainly aren't now. A few touches are worth noting, however -- for example, walking through a puddle of water in one of the 2D field screens will cause your character to leave wet footprints, and the bosses perform actual death animations when they die rather than just disappearing. The 3D fight scenes lack detail, but that was probably sacrificed in order to maintain the speedy frame rate and allow the use of light-sourcing effects (a rarity in RPGs, both then and now).

Must... watch... intro... again...

   What Wild Arms lacks in graphics, however, it makes up in music. Some of the pieces of music are so good that you can't bear to leave the scene where they play because you want to keep listening to the music (such as the flying theme). The most prominent of these is the main theme, which accompanies the outstanding anime introduction. Most intros you watch a few times, then you just skip over them -- but not Wild Arms's. It cleverly uses story elements from later in the game that can't be understood at first, but become perfectly clear later in the game, thus giving the intro more meaning with each viewing. Sadly, the intro is the only such anime movie in the game; more cutscenes later would have been a great feature.

   Wild Arms is one of those cases where the whole is greater than the sum of the pieces -- none of the elements would have been enough to carry a game on their own, but together they form a classic RPG that holds its own against many more recent titles. Unfortunately, if you haven't already experienced this masterpiece, you may never get a chance. Most stores have already said their farewell to ARMs, and the game is virtually impossible to find. If you can find it, though, don't pass it up -- this is one game that's worth almost any price.

Retrospective by Fritz Fraundorf.
Wild Arms
Developer Media.Vision
Publisher Sony
Genre Traditional RPG
Medium CD (1)
Platform PlayStation
Released 1997
Wild Arms FAQ
8 brief movies / 24 screens
24 characters and scenes
Game and soundtrack covers