Version Reviewed: PlayStation
Year Published: 1997
If Wild Arms was the first JRPG someone played, it would probably make them a fan of the genre. As one of the first true RPGs for the Sony PlayStation, it is a very solid game, with a fast and fun battle system, many hours of play, and a decent amount of exploration, puzzles, and secrets to be found while never requiring too much level-grinding. But veterans of NES and (especially) Super NES RPGs may find the lack of innovation and focus in its story to significantly lower enjoyment of the overall experience. Other sources have lamented much about the generic "heroes vs. evil demons" plot, but what they may not have said is how the story shamelessly copies memorable scenes from its predecessors. This is not something I was expecting, and yet that's what I got.
Wild Arms opens with an impressive anime-style FMV sequence whose music and aesthetics might lead one to believe they're about to play an RPG with a setting akin to the American Old West, something that I had not seen before. But once the game begins, that illusion quickly fades as the world we are plunged into, Filgaia, is a typical pseudo-European fantasy land with castles, towers, and ancient ruins, and the story starts going through the RPG tropes. Only one ranch town, one "Native American" village, and a few covered wagons exist to remind us why the soundtrack is playing "The Ecstasy of Gold" from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Filgaia doesn't look like a desert because it's in the Old West - the land has been dying ever since a war between humans, demons, and an alien race known as the "Elw" that happened 1,000 years ago nearly destroyed it. The Elw created weapons and technology during the war that have become lost, buried, and scattered over time. Your characters, Rudy (a mysterious kid with a gun), Jack (a mysterious man with a talking rat), and Cecilia (a talkative princess with magical powers), are now trying to find these artifacts before the demons can use them to conquer and destroy what's left of Filgaia.
The problem with the game's characterizations is that Rudy is the one who represents the player, unless there's some other reason he's mute that I'm not getting. Yet, it begins with Jack's backstory as it explains why the demons have returned - a corrupt king was coveting a giant cocoon that imprisoned their "Mother". However, Jack has a different name in this sequence (Garrett) and different clothing, and the story quickly jumps to Rudy's current whereabouts. This makes it easy to never realize Jack even is Garrett, leading to confusion about why he refuses to talk about his past and what he wants revenge for. The moment of his "big reveal" is underwhelming.
Because Rudy is mute and Jack doesn't like to talk much, most of the dialogue falls to Cecilia, a princess-turned-adventurer who is struggling with an identity crisis that she discusses at nearly every major event. If the story is a Penny-Farthing bicycle, Cecilia is the big wheel, Jack is the small wheel, and Rudy is supposed to be the rider, but seems more like a weird third wheel.
Rudy's story begins with him taking care of horses on a ranch, but when he enters a forbidden cave to save a lost child, he breaks a seal, which causes earthquakes to happen, monsters to appear, and the townspeople to convene at the mayor's office in a meeting that concludes with them voting to throw Rudy out. The mayor laments that he took Rudy in, but can do nothing to help him now. I'm not sure how anyone who's played Secret of Mana could not have noticed the nearly duplicate scenario here, and Rudy's name is even very close to "Randi", the official name of Mana's boy hero, leading me to believe it can't possibly be a coincidence.
This wouldn't be the last time I encountered something that seemed copied from an earlier game. The science fair bears strong resemblance to Chrono Trigger's Millennial Fair, as does a certain tidal wave cutscene. The "Pleasing Garden" is graphically similar to the "Sky Garden" from Illusion of Gaia and accessed in the same way - a hidden tile in the desert.
All of this doesn't necessarily make Wild Arms bad, but it does make an RPG veteran feel like they're playing parts of games they've played before. This is odd considering the much-touted endless possibilities of the CD format, which was relatively new at the time. Possibilities are still limited by the imagination, I suppose.
The game's strict adherence to Rudy's mute hero status hurts his potential character development. The most egregious example is when he becomes trapped in a dream world by a demon - it seems like this should have been a big moment for him to overcome his fears and personal vices. But since he can't talk, Cecilia, whose gift of gab is eternally dependable, inexplicably ends up in his dream and defeats the demon for him. Somehow, EarthBound managed a believable scenario in which Ness, also a mute hero, overcame a personal demon in a dream. Wild Arms goes through the motions, but without the necessary emotions.
And then we have the cookie-cutter villains: Demons with such intelligence and mastery over advanced technology, that they could easily form their own society and coexist with the humans if their leaders weren't psychopaths with serious "mommy" issues. There's the typical brainless thug type who just wants to run his mouth and fight, a mad scientist who loves human experimentation, a boomerang-wielding ninja who's obsessed with proving he's superior to all other life forms, and a "dark knight" who vacillates between wanting to rule the world or destroy it. There is a fifth member of these "Quarter Knights" who exists mostly for comedy relief, and yet may be the only one capable of eventually realizing the obvious here.
Wild Arms's sprite-based overworld, towns, and dungeons are competent, but are not as impressive as the best offerings on the Super NES (they are more Breath of Fire and Lagoon than Chrono Trigger and Super Mario RPG). Because Filgaia is dying, much of it is brown and dull, and the way the camera zooms in and out on the overworld as you walk around is a bit disorienting. I found the overworld somewhat confusing to navigate in general because so much of it looks alike, and the (tiny) in-game map is not very helpful.
Character sprites are typical RPG short people with monochromatic hair (similar to the Lufia games), but they don't match the look of the game's opening and closing anime movies. In fact, there are characters shown in the FMV's that represent some of the more important NPC's, but I don't know who they were because they don't look like their sprites (Jack's mouse also appears to have evolved into a Raichu at the end). It could've helped to have profile pictures next to dialogue boxes, but either that wasn't considered or the fact that Rudy wouldn't get one because he never talks would've been conspicuous.
The battles are the most stunning aspect of Wild Arms's visuals, but a modern-day player would have to place their mind in the time period of the late 90's to appreciate them, as enemies and characters are low-poly models with textures and bodies that look "assembled" from their parts, while the backgrounds have that jittery "fishbowl" look common to the PlayStation. But from the perspective of this being the first time most players would've seen an RPG with 3D battles, they are very impressive, with hundreds of animations for attacks and spells, and a dynamic camera that pans, sweeps, and zooms around at different angles, sometimes even freeze-framing on moves long before The Matrix made that a thing. The characters still look more akin to their 2D sprites than their anime alter-egos, but the monster designs (particularly the imposing bosses) are spectacular.
But none of this would mean anything if the battles weren't fun to play and they are, thanks in large part to the massive array of skills you can find and earn for each character. Along with the standard fight and magic commands, each character has a force bar that builds up over time and can be used to unleash up to four different moves, provided that you've found them. In addition to this, the characters all have a unique skillset, with the highlight being Rudy's ARMs - a series of upgradeable guns from which the game takes its name.
What makes Wild Arms engaging outside of battles are the special tools each of the three main characters can acquire, which lends the game a Zelda-style puzzle solving element. For example, Rudy has bombs, Jack has a hookshot, Cecilia has a clock that can reset a room (useful if you mess up a puzzle and have to start again). The tools are mandatory for progression, but also allow you to open up optional secret areas in places you've already been. Anyone hoping to find every last ARM, spell, special armor/weapon, secret boss fight, and battle skill will make great use of them. While this has been done in RPGs before (Final Fantasy Mystic Quest is the earliest one I can recall, Lufia II is also notable for it), since it was fun in those games, it's fun here, too, and a major reason the game never gets boring.
One complaint I've seen about Wild Arms from other sources is that it's "too easy". I don't really feel like that was a problem for most of it, as it was no more or less difficult than most other JRPGs I've played, and some of the optional bosses can be extremely tough. However, the final bosses (a series of four fights in a row) were much easier than most that came before them - they barely scratched me, though I'll admit I was probably overleveled from all the sidequests. I was also a little perplexed that although the bosses are defeated, the heavily-armed satellite poised to destroy the planet is just left hanging there. Shouldn't something be done about that, too?
In some ways I am glad that I did not play and review Wild Arms when it was new, because it was a sensitive time of transition for video games from 2D sprites to 3D polygons, with many players feeling there was room for both while others wanted them to shift entirely into the third dimension, causing internet forum feuds and Sony to restrict the release of 2D games in the US (a policy attributed to Bernie Stolar). It's not that I was against sprites, but when a game is released on a new, more powerful system, I would hope that the graphics could at least match, if not surpass, the best of what I've seen before. I would've also hoped the story could've been something new and exciting and not so deliberately lifted from other sources, especially after such a promising and original opening sequence.
What Wild Arms does get right - its mashup of RPG and Zelda-like puzzle solving and option-laden (and eye-pleasing) battle system - kept me entertained for many hours, and it may very well do so for genre fans and RPG veterans hankering for an oldschool-style game. But when all was said and done, I would've liked to have placed it amongst my top favorites, but its lack of commitment to new ideas keeps it just shy of that mark. Though it was mildly successful, it's not a surprise that the PlayStation wouldn't be defined as a great RPG console until Final Fantasy VII was released just a few months later.
Large world to explore with many secrets, sidequests, and super-bosses. There is even a whole optional dungeon hidden in a weird way.
The tools the characters' use to conquer dungeons can also be used to find the game's best-kept secrets. Many skills, armor, and items are only obtained this way.
Great battle system with pretty (though dated) 3D graphics.
The opening FMV is amazing.
The bucolic soundtrack is nice, even though it rips off Ennio Morricone's film work.
The story could've used more attention. It's not only generic, but blatantly copies scenes from earlier RPGs. A few scenes are very poorly translated.
Too much of the dialogue is given to Cecilia. Hey, I'm all for "Girl Power", but not at the cost of the other characters being mannequins.
Navigating the overworld (especially before you get an airship) can be confusing because the camera zooms in and out and much of it looks the same.
Anyone expecting an RPG that's actually set in the Wild West from the opening FMV will be disappointed to learn that only a few select areas carry this theme. The rest is typical RPG settings.