Those looking for something to fill the cavity of sharp and high-velocity RPGs left after Phantasy Star's departure (the real Phantasy Star, at least) need not look much further than the Wild ARMs series, Sony's very own serial vision of guns, guts, and glory. Both follow their own carefully constructed universes, whose characters create myths and legends that concatenate into millennial skeins. Both are environmentally concerned, where planets are often dilapidated and moribund. And both deal with black pressure of inevitable mortmain. But while Phantasy Star was epic in scope and sometimes cynical in result, Wild ARMs is sometimes effervescent and sugar-coated, often directionless. Much like a planet in decaying condition, it's not really getting any worse, but it sure isn't getting any better, either.
Returning to the game construct of limited amount of playable characters used in the original, the player controls four characters: Virginia (“the dual pistol dreamer” as the manual claims), Jet (“the rebellious treasurer”), Gallows (“the man who makes freedom his policy”), and Clive (“the proud sniper”) who all inhabit a Filgaia on the threshold of nothing; as far as they know, practically the entire is a giant desert surrounded not by a liquid ocean, but sand dunes (a sea of sand is an interesting notion, though geologically impossible). The four meets through a large stroke of coincidence of tomfoolery and from thereon, the problems and their severity escalate. For the most part, the story is your usual worthless RPG jargon but Media Vision is starting to get into the groove of the universe they've created, and the game talks more like a dramatic history lesson than a clash of good versus evil.
The central characters of most current and popular RPGs are detestable anathemas, feebly created as video game writers travel from point A to point B in their attempt at moral realignment. Recent attributes that come to mind range from the moronic and haughty to the cruel and whiny but Wild ARMs 3 brings a new one to the table: the blindly ignorant. Virginia travels into the dangerous wasteland with not too much in that pretty little head of hers and manages to drag down three other poor suckers with her constant self-righteous and self-important harangues that practically crop up at every cutscene. She rambles on and on to anyone that's willing to listen (or argue) about the necessity of testing and discovering one's limits with the most irritating, pharisaical tone.
The others barely manage to salvage any dignity, mostly because their images are tarnished by association. While Gallows is the most believable out of the bunch, Jet's and Clive's motives for sticking around are highly spurious. Jet takes pride in not having any use for memories and his obstinate independence. There is a solitary effort to show why he doesn't desert the group but it comes off as very forced (not to spoil the plot, but it's because he wishes to interrogate a certain someone despite the fact that he makes the decision while talking directly to that someone). Meanwhile, Clive, the elder of the group, is trying to piece together the planet's murky past and yet, despite the fact that he's the strongest out of all them, he altruistically helps make Virginia the leader of the outfit. Obviously, he wants this young girl in the crudest form of novitiate to learn, but if he wants to help out the next generation, why not start with the daughter he's left behind? This is really is destitute of logic.
So if the major players are that poorly portrayed, the secondary characters are utter disasters. The three main villains are your stereotypical ones, clad in white robes with bad personality complexes and a tendency to speak in very ugly platitudes (actually, everyone does that in this game). Virginia and company frequently cross paths with competing teams, whose frictional chemistry and stymieing shenanigans would be an amusing note (like Landstalker's Kayla, Ink, and Wally) had they not been so out of place. For example, Maya Schroedinger, Virginia's arch-nemesis, and her opposing party are comprised of a guy with an afro, Maya's brother who wears a backpack in the shape of a panda (even though there are no pandas in Filgaia), and a talking cat (despite the fact there are no other talking animals in Filgaia). I'm willing to suspend belief but consistency with the rest of the world is vital too. The translation is the best you can hope for (grammatically and stylistically clean) but even that's not enough since there's not much you can do to help people who constantly speak about traveling as "spreading your wings and flying."
The battle system is done well enough, but can't offset the illogical problems the game has already accrued. The gist of it: Before entering a random battle, an exclamation point will appear above the character's head. If it's red, the battle is unavoidable. If it's green, the battle can be avoided completely without penalty. If it's white, it means it can be avoided but at the cost of a reduction in the Encounter Gauge. Depending on how difficult the battle is, a certain amount is taken out of the gauge. If the amount in the gauge is less than required to avoid the battle, you're forced into a fight and you'll regain one point after each victorious battle. The stupid downside: The developers thought this was advantageous enough so they eschewed an escape command. (You do find an item half-way through the game that gives the command but it has never worked for me.)
Once you're in battle, you'll notice the Force Points (FP) bar that is equal to the character's level, and that is used to cast magic or use special abilities, such as attacking first, attacking multiple times, summoning, and so on. Interestingly, magic doesn't cost any FP to use; all that is required is that you have enough that is required. For example, casting "Vortex" costs 10 FP and if you have at least 10 FP, you can cast it as many times as you want (special abilities will drain your bar though). This lends itself to some interesting strategies and encourages the player to hold nothing back since your bar will be replenished when the battle ends. As your level goes up, you're able to perform more complex moves more quickly and this is one of the rare games where fighting gets a little bit better as the time goes on.
At first sight, the world map looks like any other (save for the boundless amount of brown and yellow hues) but after a while, it becomes quite apparent that there are no man-made landmarks or monuments anywhere. Instead, they must be found, done by using the square button which shoots out a green vectrex dome that searches the area for any of the landmarks. I don't want to tell Media Vision how to do its job, but it would've been much better if the search dome was present at all times, rather than being forced to press the square button hundreds upon hundreds of times. This forced searching adds nothing to the game and when discovering an area after running in circles wearing out the controller, it gives off more of an its-about-damn-time feeling, desensitizing the thrill of exploration, rather than heightening it. What's worse: areas are undiscoverable if you're not told about it beforehand, so get ready for a lot of aggravating backtracking. There is an optional item that helps out exploration but it's too little too late since the game is nearly over when you're strong enough to find it.
Side quests are my biggest draw to the series and, fortunately, the game doesn't let down with this one. Though the fact that you can only go to secret areas once you're hinted towards them was inhibiting at first, the sheer amount of them does much to alleviate that. There really must be close to three dozen secret areas to explore.
The graphics are in a healthy form of pulchritude, and though I originally had reservations about the decision to use cel-shading, it's not so obtrusive that it becomes distracting. There's a constant graphics filter which makes the game look like it's enveloped in a ceaseless dust storm, finely complimenting the Western theme. I wish I could say the same for the music though. The leif motif and fugues are starting to sound anachronistic (though nowhere near as dated as in Final Fantasy) and there's a ridiculously obnoxious sibilance in the battle and world music.
Honestly, I absolutely hated this game when I first started out, where the weak exploration system, awful story, and reprehensible characters hit like an avalanche. But as the lengthy nature of RPGs will usually do, the game slowly steamrolls all of the bad, all of the average, and what little there is of the truly great into a patch of dull pastel mush, that while not extremely pleasant, is at least easy to swallow. Wild ARMs 3 is missing a lot that would make a good game, but it has nice graphics and a lot of side quests and, as Jack Nicholson might say - that ain't bad.
. . . Sqoon