Wild ARMs 5 - Staff Review  

Elvis Has Left the Building
by Bryan Boulette

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40-60 Hours
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   While many games introduce protagonists still crawling along on the lowest tier of skill and station, few are so cruel as to arm their heroes with nothing but a mundane old shovel. Wild ARMs 5 is just bold enough to take this risk, though, in introducing Dean, a driven kid from a backwater, hardscrabble village on the decaying world of Filgaia. While he's already making plans to head out from home to explore his dreams, these plans take a slightly different turn when a mysterious silver-haired girl plummets out of the sky and crashes into his arms. Remembering only her name and one other thing, Dean sets out with his childhood friend to help the girl find out what's happened to her. Along the way, the friends struggle against not only the desolation of Filgaia, but also the obstacles thrown in their path by the noble Veruni, a race that rules Filgaia from a caste far above the limited humans.

   There's not a lot to the story that's going to feel particularly surprising to veterans of the Wild ARMs series -- or, in fact, to those with a diverse experience with RPGs in general (particularly in the introductory chapter, things feel unsettlingly similar to Skies of Arcadia). Filgaia, now in its fifth outing, feels like a pretty familiar world at this point, and though the class struggles are somewhat of a new thread for the series, the overall themes Wild ARMs 5 plods through feel like rehashes. Leftovers are good, but try eating the same thing for a week straight and one may start to tire of it. And frankly, the tale of human depletion of Filgaia, the planet's decay, and the fight to revive it come off as a bit old hat. But as mentioned, the class struggle's neat, and there are a few other plot points that do make the story pretty entertaining overall.

   Whatever weaknesses may reside in the plot, though, the characters don't suffer much for it. Wild ARMs 5 has probably the finest cast in the entire series, with the glaring exception of the lead, Dean, who's about as whiney and obnoxious as they come (if this is the tradeoff for having talking heroes, please, let's go back to the days of mute leads like Rudy!). The rest of the team is sterling, though, particularly the standout character of Greg, a taciturn adult who is portrayed with impressive realism and emotional depth and who can deliver dry one-liners with remarkable zest. Avril, the amnesiac woman who sets Dean's destiny in motion, is also particularly well portrayed, and the game goes to great lengths to develop her character's personality along a solid arc -- that she's more or less a blank slate when the game begins offers the storytellers the opportunity to evolve her before the player's eyes. And despite some cliched elements, the villains are a respectable group, too.

   Battles in the game take place via a hex system which should be familiar to those who've played Wild ARMs 4. Rather than having all the characters standing on a row, one side exchanging blows with another, things are much more fluid. The battles take place on seven hexes which the characters (and enemies) can move across. Whenever an attack or spell action is made, it affects everything in the hex, and rather than buffs taking effect on a particular character, they're based on the hex. Certain hexes double as elemental leypoints; to exploit enemy elemental weaknesses, it's necessary to stand in those particular spots and cast magic spells from there, as they'll then take on the properties of the leypoint. The system was first introduced in the fourth game, but some nice revisions were put into place -- most importantly, the ability to move and then attack. The system still needs some work, though. Random encounters don't offer any additional challenge, just more tedium as you need to move into position before attacking. Boss battles are a bit better, but there's still not a lot of strategic depth to them -- grab a good leypoint according to the enemy's weakness, and spam the same buffs and spells over and over. Most of the challenge in the game is just a matter of leveling up a bit more, which is also disappointing. What's more, the game limits the player to only three characters in battle, which cuts down on the number of tactical options that can be employed. Allies can be switched in, but sadly, it costs a turn to do so; this is far inferior to the rapid switch systems employed by Breath of Fire IV and Final Fantasy X.

One, two, three... draw One, two, three... draw

   Then there's the matter of character customization, a particularly big deal in any RPG. Wild ARMs 5 offers two primary modes of customization: the equipping of mediums, which confer stat bonuses and special abilities; and ARM modifications, which can be done through the acquisition of dragon fossils. The first system is, frankly, pretty disappointing. If one thinks of mediums as jobs or classes, it's hard not to be underwhelmed by the limited options available, with only a handful of mediums available throughout the game. Based off their mediums, characters learn only a small number of spells and force abilities, which again leads to few real options or depth. There's virtually nothing to tweak or play around with in order to create unique characters -- leveling up accrues skill points that can be put into learning medium abilities earlier at the cost of some HP, but the abilities still come naturally just by leveling up. It's a nice option if you're too impatient to wait for a certain abilitiy, but it's not anything close to customization per se. Meanwhile, there's the ARMs system. Each ARM has three parameters (attack, magic, and force), and getting a dragon fossil allows the player to increase one of these three parameters for all characters. What's more, the parameters can be un-adjusted. Want to switch a point from magic to attack? That's doable. Both of these features are nice because it's not necessary to be stuck with using only specific characters because they're the ones that received the limited-use items. The problem is that ARMs modification just never feels very valuable. It never really seems to make a big difference in the course of the game.

   Gameplay in the Wild ARMs series doesn't just consist of the battle system, though: dungeon design is as key an element of the games as anything else can be. This is, after all, a series that relied upon dungeons filled to the brim with rigorously designed traps and puzzles through its first three installments before switching over to a more platforming-based design for the fourth outing. These dungeons are designed to obstruct the player's progress and provide challenge as surely as the bosses and random encounters. So how does the fifth game fare? The platforming of the fourth game is largely abandoned in favor of a return to the puzzle-solving roots of the series. The dungeons in Wild ARMs 5 start out fairly blah and ordinary, but they improve soon enough and offer quite a few stumpers as the player progresses. However, the game lacks the variety of tools to be found in earlier titles, instead providing gun cartridges geared towards specific purposes like freezing and grappling. Despite the visceral enjoyment of being able to rapidly fire a six shooter in gun mode, the tools this time around are not as creative as before, and overall, neither are the puzzles they're intended to solve. And while the dungeon design is pretty good, it just doesn't hit the highs that the first game in the series offered.

   The game's graphics are great. Character models are very well detailed, as are the towns, cities, and dungeons dotting Filgaia. The world map is a particularly impressive feature overall, with wonderful visuals and true 3D via a third perspective view and a fully rotatable camera. There are numerous terrain types the player will explore as he trudges across the large map, which is full of treasure chests and puzzle crystals that can be hunted out by using the search feature. In all, it seems like the most impressive 3D world map to come around since Skies of Arcadia and Dragon Quest VIII -- however, it's a bit deceptive. While it initially appears to equal those two games in scale, open-endedness, and explorability, it gradually becomes apparent that the map of Wild ARMs 5 is much more structured, segmented, and (unfortunately) linear. Rather than having a wide open world, the game has everything broken down into very small chunks clearly divided from one another. Further, there's much less traversable space and the map is set up in such a way as to basically corral the player down specific, drawn-out routes. It would be better if exploring yielded real rewards, but unlike Skies and Dragon Quest VIII, there's mostly just ordinary treasure chests to be found, and after a while, it just doesn't feel worth it. The world map is still a visual treat, but it simply doesn't rank up there with the best.

   Musically, though, Wild ARMs 5 is a phenom. There's an interesting mix of western-themed music in fitting with the series setting, some more typically light, anime-styled fluff, and some more electric-edged rock beats for a number of the battle themes. Almost all of the compositions are of high quality, but what's truly most impressive is the staggering variety: the game's soundtrack has over a hundred songs in total; there are numerous battle themes, many of which are tailored towards specific enemies; there are several different world map themes, depending upon the region of the world the player's currently in; and quite a few dungeon themes to make sure the player isn't hearing the same track over and over while trawling through the labyrinths of Filgaia. It's a masterful work which should rank as the finest in the series, made all the more remarkable considering the absence of fan favorite Michiko Naruke, who's long been the mainstay composer for Wild ARMs. Credit where due, though -- her replacements deserve massive kudos. The voice acting is also particularly well done, though there's not a ton of it.

Protip: He is nuts Protip: He's nuts

   Interaction is a mix of good and bad. The localization is good, and the best in the series -- though after the second, third, and fourth games, plus ACF, that in itself isn't saying much. Wild ARMs games have long been prone to overwrought speechifying worthy of valedictorian lectures when they're not busy repetitiously ramming home their chosen theme with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer (whether it's hope and love or migratory birds or spreading wings to fly). Wild ARMs 5 still does this... but it cuts back on both, and does so dramatically. Yeah, certain things will still get annoying, and the twentieth time Dean mentions the phrase "climbing the wall" the player will likely want to punch him. But it's outright palpable how much better the localization is this time in comparison with past bungles. The actual writing itself is good, and conveys the right amount of personality and character. However, the interaction system also includes things like menu designs, and the one in this game falls flat. Trying to model a menu after the hexes so emblematic of the battle system may be cute, but it's not efficient, and neither is the actual layout all that well designed. It's janky and unintuitive. Menus have been around as long as RPGs have, and they're one of the most fundamental things given that virtually everything within the game is accomplished by way of them. There's no excuse for developers not absolutely nailing them in this day and age.

   Wild ARMs 5 is a good game and a whole lot of fun. It's not particularly original, but it takes some of the best elements from each game in its series and blends them together into a quality offering that should appeal to those who've long been a fan. For those who haven't, the fifth game is almost certainly their best bet for an introduction into the world of Filgaia. There's still a lot of room for improvement with this series, but after a few disappointing entries, it's refreshing to have one that gets things so much more right overall.

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