Why I Love: Wild Arms (PS1)

Final Fantasy VII – IX, Suikoden 1 & 2, Xenogears, Final Fantasy Tactics, The Legend of Dragoon, Star Ocean: The Second Story, Breath of Fire IV, Paraside Eve, Vagrant Story… to say the Playstation 1 was a bit of a RPG haven would be an understatement. So many titles, so many hits, there’s been no other console in gaming history that had the high quality of RPGs at such a volume like Sony’s debut system did. Of course, there was utter tripe like Alundra 2 and Vandal Hearts 2 but these were so few and far between and thankfully, fans have forgotten about that nonsense.

For me though, one particular title stood out in such a big way when I first saw it when it was reviewed in Gamesmaster magazine waaaaaaaay back in the mid 90s. Wild Arms got my attention immediately when I first laid my eyes on its images in the mag. I’d never heard of it before, as everyone was so hyped about Final Fantasy VII being released and so when Wild Arms arrived in December 1996, just one month before Squaresoft’s big daddy, it was largely ignored. I never ignored it though. I was coming off the back of playing a ton of SNES RPG classics in the early 90s, and so I received the game right on its release. I was of course excited about FFVII, but there was something about wanting to play Wild Arms that I just couldn’t shake off.

Developed by Media.Vision and released in 1996, It’s your bog-standard PS1 era RPG and one of the earliest released too. Turn-based battles married with an overhead visual display which scrolls with your characters. 3 good guys are taking on a party of bad guys to stop them taking over the world, and you’ll go on levelling up plenty and acquiring new swords, guns, and wands for your characters over the course of your playthrough. There’s really no frills attached with this one, but it has some nice unique touches within.

I love the way the screen zooms in on the map when you’re near a town, it even becomes a factor in trying to find a hidden location at one point. The characters of your party all have their own different battle systems to play around with too. There’s Rudy’s ARM weapons which can be upgraded in a manner of ways to your hearts content. Cecilia the mage can accrue quite the library of white and black magic, deciding which spells to gain at her leisure. Jack’s method of attaining his special moves is quite fun, working almost on a right place, right time kind of basis. Known as ‘Fast Draw’, you can miss his moves if you don’t seek them out properly and while you can continue through the game, the completionist in you will be tearing your hair should you not fill in that last gap in the menu. There’s a few mini-games that can be played early on and the usual expected vehicles to come which will help you in your traversal of the world map.

As for the cast, they’re an easy to love bunch who will be there with you throughout the game. Just a trio of individuals to worry about, but they each have their own personalities and ideosyncrasies to learn and they’re written so well. They initially don’t get each other, but over time they learn to bond together, and reach a point where they are almost family with one another. You feel their growth so personally and it’s a treat to see them develop. A neat little touch in the game is when you can choose which character to play as, and when you approach one of the two you’re not playing as, you can strike up a convo and learn what’s really going through the other person’s mind. It’s a fun way to eke out a little bit more of what’s going on in the current situation you find yourself in.

Cecilia Adlehyde the mage is the lady of the group, but her sex very rarely ever comes up in the game and she truly is an equal to her companions. Raised in a monastery in an attempt to keep her safe from her true destiny, Cecilia soon figures out what her calling is and she will leave the abbey to aid the cause of eradicating the world of evil. She comes across as strong-willed immediately and has a cool scene early on where she sheds her long hair in an attempt to leave behind her past. Hers is a real tale of growing up and throughout her story she will attempt to find love and experience true loss. She finds it hard to separate being a princess from being an adventurer, and love could be the factor which hinders both roles for her. As she gets stronger in her education of the magical arts, she becomes quite the motherly figure to the two chaps in the group and it never feels forced when she calls herself in as a force of defence for the team. An endearing character, Cecilia’s connection to the Guardians ensures she is a deserved member of our battling trio. Sadly, her offensive magic never feels truly dangerous, but her support magic makes up for that with some good defensive assistance.

On the surface of it, Jack Van Burace is your Indiana Jones of the group. A treasure hunter with no fixed abode and no qualms about stepping over others to reach what he truly desires, he can be headstrong at the best of moments but careless at his worst. Deep down however, Jack harbors a painful past after losing his one true love to the demons who threaten the world of Filgaia throughout the game. As the story progresses, you will find that Jack finds his strongest powers within the courage he has within. Accompanied always by his rodent companion Hanpan, where Jack can make reckless decisions, Hanpan is always there to help his friend get back on the right track. He also growns very close to Rudy, acting almost like a big brother to the youngster. Like Cecilia, Jack’s Fast Draw techniques can feel very disjointed; some are extremely powerful while others seem overly pointless. Don’t bother trying to pick-pocket anyone for instance, it’s effectively there as a novelty to help support his persona. I loved the character so much I once created my own wrestler in WWF No Mercy and named him after Jack. Nerd alert.

Rudy Roughknight completes the triangle of heroes, and he is easily the most mysterious of the three. With very little known of his background, he is a simple 15 year old boy who is only looking for acceptance. He says very little with barely any lines of dialogue throughout the game, but one particular sacrifice he makes later on in the story tells a thousand words about the person he has become. He will also find out a shocking revelation about himself which has the potential to destroy the relationships he’s built with his two friends. Despite his quiet nature, he soon becomes the centre of attention for two ladies, a position which Jack has nothing but sympathy for. Inheriting his choice of weapon, the ARM, from his grandfather, Rudy’s special attacks are by far the most satisfying in-game. You feel a real sense of OOOMPH behind every bullet fired from his various pistols, lasers, and even rocket launchers and bazookas. There’s no messing around here, if you want bosses taken out sharpish, make sure you stock up on plenty of rounds of ammo as Rudy is the guy to get the job done.

Our characters also have ‘tools’ which are very fun devices which help you along in the game. One of the more basic ones is Rudy’s bomb. Think A Link to the Past and you’ve got it. You also have Hanpan, Jack’s rodent companion who, on usage of the little blue pipsqueak, can high-tail it across gaps to flick switches for you and nab previously unretrievable items. Then you get the really cool tools like the radar, which sets off a ping and flashes hidden pickups on any screen with a nice green glow whether they be in barrels, caskets, or chests. It’s a fun aside which you’ll end up abusing to no avail. Rudy has motorised skates he can use and Cecilia can stop time, Jack can even play a guitar which encourages enemy battles should you find a need for such things.

So on the surface of it, the game is relatively normal in the RPG landscape. Its plot however, is from a different spectrum altogether. This journey of 3 vastly different characters who come together to unite in a battle of good vs evil is plotted out in such a touching way. Moments of despair are near heart-breaking, comedic scenes are rare but welcomed, and the development of all 3 of our heroes from what they initially are to what they become is masterful. The game knows how to hit you where it hurts at the right moment and I can’t praise it enough. The moment Wild Arms ‘bit’ me was unforgettable. I knew the game had got real when that kid had let his balloon go up into the sky at the fair. The instant it happened, I had this feeling of dread wash over me because it just felt too perfect, this setting of a peaceful fun country fair where surely nothing could go wrong? All hell breaks loose, you and your party  do your thing in eradicating the immediate danger, and then escape for a short time. When you return later to sort out the bad guy who oversaw the destruction of Adlehyde town, the music that accompanies the scene is just perfect and really lends well to that feeling of hopelessness that is required of your senses. When you read, “Dead… they’re all dead…”, it’s heart-breaking.

 

On the flipside however, the game can handle comedy quite well, and the best scene for it is no doubt found in the wedding scene on Captain Bartholomew’s boat. The scene has you as Cecilia trying to help Capt. Bartholomew con a local family, who is at war with him. Naturally, the only way to do this is for her to marry him in a fake wedding ceremony, and whilst initially against it, she soons finds herself learning her vows and making sure she doesn’t get her words mixed up. Of course, the whole thing is moot anyway once the demons show up but still, it’s a refreshing break from the doom and gloom you’ve already become accustomed to at this early point in the game. Jack’s rodent friend Hanpan also lends some comedical interludes in his criticisms of his owner. These asides are needed in a game with such a serious plot.

The game looks fantastic, at least on the surface it does. The characters are all very charming and are designed with models that look 3D but must be 2D, but it does look 3D, but surely it can’t be, and so on. Just give them a spin on the spot, you’ll see what I mean. The towns and dungeons and interiors are all highly detailed and are all very distinctive. Whether it’s the monastery you start off in as Cecilia, or the farm-town of Surf where Rudy resides, they stay in your memory and you won’t forget what they looked like. All are accompanied by their own individual themes too, but more on the soundtrack later. The over-world map also does its job well and is highly reminiscent of Final Fantasy VI, with a kickass gallant theme to boot. It gets even more free when you begin to unlock the various vehicles which let you traverse previously locked areas. Everything is detailed beautifully down to each individual pixel and you’ll enjoy exploring all of the various nooks and crannies of all the areas you cross.

Sadly, the same can’t be said for the in-game battles. You have to give it some sort of a break as it WAS one of the first RPGs released for PS1, but when you consider the battle visuals that arrived a month later in FFVII, there’s a massive disparity in quality to be found here. Very basic looking player characters square off against the ugliest sharp-edged garish enemies which have no real fear about them. It all feels very tacky and is the main reason I dread it when that screen crumbles away to show an impending battle. If there is one major negative in Wild Arms, the 3D battles are the one sore spot. At least the battles are about the only time you have to deal with the 3D areas, otherwise you get to take in the pixel art of yesteryear thankfully.

Everything else about the game is just wonderful though. Take the soundtrack. Partly inspired by Ennio Morricone’s western scores, there’s not a wasted tune to be found in this one. Check out the Town theme which gives off vibes of cowboys and indians. How about the super peaceful Hope theme which truly makes you want to sit back in a hammock, chewing on some wheat while the sun sets? For me, the track that stands head and shoulders above the rest is called After the Chaos and Destruction. This usually plays after a massive tragedy in the game, the first one related to an attack on a town early on in the game which I mentioned earlier in the article. While people lay dead around you, checking them yields no response and as the music plays, you feel a real sense of despair. I never felt this sheer lack of hope whilst listening to any of the FFVII OST, though it has it’s moments. The synth sounds paired up with the acoustic guitar is just a great combination, and it’s such a harsh juxtaposition where you fall for a song so much despite the fact it plays during some of the games lowest plot points.

 

So what was ‘that’ thing I just couldn’t shake off about Wild Arms? I don’t know. I’m glad I felt that sense of curiosity when I first heard of the game though. If I hadn’t, I’d have still played Final Fantasy VII regardless, and still no doubt loved that true classic, but I would have side-stepped a hidden gem, one more so hidden than most. Wild Arms is a game that was released at the absolute cruelest time for any RPG to be released. Looking back on their date of release, Media.Vision have to wonder if their first Wild Arms title could have been received any better had it been 6 months earlier or later. Maybe. It wouldn’t have changed the impact that FFVII had on the gaming landscape. While Wild Arms didn’t have the same effect on the gaming world as FFVII did, it certainly never left my mind as one of the best titles I ever had the pleasure to enjoy on the Playstation 1.

If you’ve never played Wild Arms, I implore you to either buy the original game which isn’t too pricey by today’s standards, or simply get it on the Playstation Network. It can then also be played on the PSP, which is where I’m currently replaying the game yet again. It’s an absolutely fantastic early sign of things to come where RPGs and the new generation of ‘serious’ consoles were concerned. It’s just a shame that despite a series which now consists of 7 games, a manga, and an anime series, it has been left for dead for the last 10 years, the last release being the PSP’s Wild Arms XF in 2008. Maybe one day we’ll get to return to that dusty land of Filgaia. Maybe.

Catch me reloading my ARMs @auto2112