Wild ARMs 5 - Reader Review  

You got Sci-Fi in my Western
by 7thCircle

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30-60 Hours
Click here for scoring definitions 

   Dean Stark, an energetic teenager, meets Avril, a mysterious woman with amnesia, when she falls out of the sky. Being good of heart and full of childish curiosity, Dean and his friend Rebecca set out into the world with Avril to help her regain her memory. The world they discover is a conflicted and inconsistent one. The Wild ARMs series’ shtick is a strong Western theme with cowboy hats, guns and hard cider, but this world also contains interstellar travel, sentient golems, and magic. The HEX battle system makes a solid return with an indication that it too will continue as a regular feature of the series.

   Even as the plot begins unoriginally, it is clear that the battle system brings something different to the table. During battles, the turn based HEX system presents the player with a grid on which the enemies and friendlies are randomly positioned. The grid layout is a hexagon with a circle of 6 hexagons surrounding and bordering it. A turn for a character consists of moving one space on the grid followed by an action of the tried and true fight-magic-item-defend variety. It sounds simple, and it is simple. Rather than changing the “sedentary bad guys on this side of the screen, sedentary good guys on that side” standard into something convoluted, the HEX system keeps Wild ARMs 5’s battles unique while staying straightforward and fast paced. Character turns take place fluidly; on paper it seems that “move and attack” would take more game time than merely “attack”, but battles in Wild ARMs 5 are paced just as quickly as those in RPGs with a more typical setup.

   Strategy in battles is straightforward too. A hex can contain one or more enemies or one or more player controlled characters. When an attack is made or a spell is cast, it is done on the entire hex and everyone in it is affected. Some characters can hit enemies a few spots away, some characters must be on a hex bordering an enemy, and one character can strike any hex from anywhere. This gives certain party members a frontline emphasis while encouraging others to hide away from monsters. Ultimately, though, a party member’s role is determined by which medium is equipped.

   Mediums are essentially a rudimentary job system. Each medium contains a list of abilities granted to its bearer at various character level milestones. The mediums themselves do not level up and characters do not permanently learn any abilities or keep the stat boosts. Anyone with RPG experience will quickly recognize the six mediums garnered in Wild ARMs 5: there is a fighter medium, defender/paladin medium, white mage, black mage, thief, and then a completely useless support medium. Maybe it represents the dancer class. In addition to class specific abilities, each medium gifts its bearer with a significant boost to two stats. The fighter-like medium grants boosted HP and attack. The defender-like medium boosts HP and defense, and so on. This is important because medium stat increases are by far the largest stat raise available. While a new weapon might increase attack by 3 points, the fighter medium raises attack by hundreds of points toward the end of the game. The upside is that this allows the player to use any party combination desired. Who cares if Avril’s attack is 20 points lower than Dean’s when a medium grants a 50 point increase to attack? The downside is the typical JRPG paper doll issue: the interchangeable characters can switch to any medium with the press of a button and immediately gain all of its benefits.

The maps are useless in English too. Expect to get lost. The maps are useless in English too. Expect to get lost.

   While the unique battle system and open character roles are spiffy, they lead into one serious problem. Wild ARMs 5 is very easy. Experience points are so freely doled out that there is never a need to level grind. At the end of each battle the entire team’s HP is completely restored. Running away is always successful. If you happen to lose a battle, you will be presented with a game over screen followed by the option to restart the same battle you just lost. With full health. Without reloading from your last save. It feels more like cheating than losing, especially because the game is so easy. In the rare instance that you see a game over screen, you probably earned it. With the exception of some bosses and quasi-bosses near the end, anyone capable of using a PS2 controller should also be capable of coasting through the battles. Another con here is the maddeningly high enemy encounter rate. When enemy encounters are random, unavoidable, and unchallenging, having to constantly play through them in the large overworld or while solving puzzles in a dungeon can be infuriating.

   Outside of battles and plot scenes, significant time is spent exploring said large overworld and solving said puzzles in dungeons. The world in Wild ARMs 5 is huge and empty with towns scantily drizzled across the landscape. There is encouragement to explore every nook and cranny of this world, though, due to the existence of plentiful, invisible treasure chests. These chests only become visible when Dean searches for one while within a few yards of the chest. Searching every square yard of the world takes exactly as long as it sounds like it should. Fortunately, this is completely unnecessary, although the items in chests tend to be very good. Often the best equipment and accessories at any point in time are found in these treasure chests rather than at the shop in the latest town.

   The puzzles in the dungeons are given a platforming twist in that Dean can use his ARMs outside of battle. Progressing through an underground tunnel or cave involves shooting objects with Dean’s various bullets in addition to the standard block pushing, switch activating fun. There are thankfully few jumping puzzles; Dean’s control is slippery. The puzzles are usually reasonable, but some are extremely obtuse to the point of causing frustration. There are many cases where a vague clue is supposed to be logically interpreted in a specific way in order to solve the puzzle. The solution is always simple, but if you interpret the clue incorrectly you will be stuck there forever.

   The graphics are neither offensive nor mind blowing, although many obvious shortcuts were made. Most of the dungeons are 12,000 year old ruins created by an ancient race whose taste in décor, luckily for the developers, caused them to make every single one of their structures look identical except for the color. The result is that 2/3 of the dungeons are pallet swapped ruins with identical textures and even identical rooms. The draw distance on the outside world is nice, but the graphics there are muddy compared to the rest of the game. The visual highlight is the character design. All the major characters have a unique look and are free of leather, zippers, and exposed skin. The humans dress in a realistic, believable fashion while the ruling race, the Veruni, tend toward unreal amine fob-wear.

This line is spoken in every cutscene in the game This line is spoken in every cutscene in the game

   Sadly, the characters themselves are not as interesting as their clothing. The playable characters are all likeable but flat. Their regular banter throughout the game could have been entertaining or important, but instead they force the player to listen to the same people have basically the same mundane conversations over and over again. Any potentially surprising plot points are heavily foreshadowed to the degree of insulting your intelligence. There is an almost noteworthy political struggle within the Veruni and the overarching plotline is nearly competent with some touching moments. Too bad most of the story is dedicated to Rebecca asking Avril if she has regained her memory every 30 minutes and everyone discussing what an imbecile Dean is. You know something is amiss plot wise when the playable characters keep referencing the fact that the lead is an idiot.

   The background music is discernibly above average. Maybe it is just the uniqueness of listening to music with a Western sound in an RPG, but this aspect of the game seems to stand a notch beyond the other components. As clumsy as the plot is, there are some definite moving moments in the game where the music hits a sad, poignant tune in just the right way. The voice acting is decent. Credit should be given to the voice actors for taking a lame duck story full of exaggerated characters and somehow keeping the spoken words grounded. The only sound problem comes from Dean’s grunts and exclamations while platforming and searching for treasure. While bearable in dungeons, they will drive you directly to the mute button while searching the world for treasure chests.

   To persuade players to replay old areas and find every secret, there are Sol Nigers located throughout the world and dungeons. Defeating the quasi-boss in the Sol Niger allows Dean to turn off enemy encounters in the surrounding area. The boon is generally too late to assist in the current dungeon, although it is a total requirement for completionists planning to run through the entire world more than once. Without assistance, this is easily a 60 hour game for completionists. With assistance it should still take over 50 hours to find everything. If one tears through the game with no care for finding invisible chests or optional dungeons, the game time can probably be knocked in half.

   In a time when most JRPGs do two things well and four things horribly, Wild ARMs 5 stands out as a game that hits all aspects right about on average while avoiding the disservice of being bland. The best thing that can be said is that no single part is terrible; its greatest weakness is the lack of anything so great as to make it a must play game. There are many better PS2 RPGs out there, so anyone new to the scene should start with one of those. If you have played all the great RPGs from this era, Wild ARMs 5 is an easy recommendation. Now if only the game itself weren’t so easy.

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