Truthfully, within the 7-hex grid, there isn't nearly the level of strategy you get from straight-up SRPGs, and most enemy battles can be won with brawn, not brains. However the fresh take on action provides a much needed overhaul to what we've seen in past Wild Arms and should hold your interest long enough to finish this adventure.
Getting from place to place has been redone as well. Free-roaming overworld movement has been replaced with a point-to-point interface, ala Growlanser 2 and Shining Tears, among others. You'll lose the general freedom of the previous Wild Arms, but you'll gain a streamlined system that focuses on storyline and character-development more so than mindless wandering and random enemy encounters.
In-game levels are now platformers, reminding me of Valkyrie Profile, which is a good thing. You can jump, use tools, slide, and more. Puzzle-solving and general level exploration benefits from this new addition to the series.
Not quite there yet...
All this hype would be inconsequential if the very stars of the story were flat repetitions of ever other RPG past. While all the major stereotypes are here, they're far from cookie-cutter. Whether it's Jude, the naive, ARM-toting star of the story; Yulie, the magic-casting girl who holds more than her fair share of secrets; Raquel, the sword-wielding powerhouse; or Arnaud, the loose-lipped, would-be hero, you're bound to find something interesting as the ensemble traverses Filgaia in search of family and purpose.
With so much fresh paint, you might be wondering why the game doesn't reach A- level status. There are so many RPGs these days and it's such a hot genre that it's easy to lump them all together, but that would do a serious injustice to a series that has managed to stick around for so long. Sadly, there are just too many outstanding RPGs of late for Wild Arms 4 to be anything more than a solid B title. It doesn't lend anything new to the genre, doesn't take it in any ground-breaking directions, but it does comprise many of the best pieces of successful RPGs we've seen over the past couple decades.
The story is derivative but it's the best of its kind. The characters are reflections of those in most other RPGs, but there's real personality, and genuine humor, too. The visuals are clean and a great mix of 3D and 2D, but they don't push the PlayStation 2 to its max. You can see where I'm going here.
The effort by Xseed to bring Wild Arms 4 to Western shores is clearly a labor of love and shows true promise for a new publisher. Xseed's next offering is the new Shadow Hearts, so let's hope the quality continues to improve. In a year with another Final Fantasy on the horizon, Grandia III, a new Tales adventure, and many other A-list titles, it's easy to say you don't have room for anything else. Well make room, even if it's just a rental, because you might very well find the same charm I did in the latest Wild Arms installment.