This week it's the turn of Wild Arms 3 - a fantastic and quite overlooked RPG. I would like to start this episode with another personal history lesson, as I often tend to do, and go over my experience with the series. I picked up the first Wild Arms in 1997 when it was released for the PS1, and it was actually my first serious attempt to play through a turn based JRPG. At about 10 or so hours in, I got stuck on a particular boss (Zed), and at this point the concept of grinding for levels was completely alien to me, so after retrying the fight half a dozen times or so and failing, I gave up. Then Final Fantasy VII happened, and Wild Arms became forgotten until some time around the year 2004, when I found Wild Arms 3 in a bargain bin for £10. At first it didn't even occur to me that it was part of the same series that I had tried some 7 years before, though when I heard the music and started to get the gist of the plot, it began to come back to me. After thoroughly enjoying the game from beginning to end, I then went back and played through the first two game in the series (having to import part 2 from the US). By then, both Wild Arms 4 and Wild Arms Alter Code F (a PS2 remake of the original) had been announced, and I imported them both as soon as they were available. I hope to get around to covering the rest of the series in future seasons, but first things first, let's dive into what makes Wild Arms 3 so special, and quite possibly the best entry in the series!
Wild Arms 3 is a great western RPG, and by that I don't mean one that's been developed by team from Europe or the US, I mean western in the howdy pardner, rootin' tootin' Clint Eastwood / John Wayne sense of the world. The western influence has been present in all the games in the series, yet it hasn't always been as strong as it could have been, with the first two games having quite a large amount of fantasy influence in them, and the fourth game veering into the realm of science fiction. This time around though, every one of the four playable characters carries a gun (or ARM), you get to ride horses, raid a train, fend off dastardly bandits, and do other cowboy type stuff. The characters include Virginia Maxwell, who is a descendant of "Calamity" Jane Maxwell from the first game, a young Baskar (native American style culture) by the name of Gallows who is desperate to leave his village, the loner Jet Enduro roaming the world looking to make his fortune, and the wise sniper Clive Winslet who is taking on random jobs to help pay for medication to heal his ailing wife back home.
Next up, the presentation - Wild Arms 3 is incredibly polished, with a fantastic animated intro that plays each time you load your save and actually changes to represent what's going on in the story. The tune that accompanies this intro is also one of the best from the series, bettered only by the extremely catchy whistling theme from the PS1 original. This is bookended by another great tune and a series of screens that summarise your character level and other stats should you say no when asked if you want to continue playing after you save your game. The music that accompanies the main game also happens to be one of my favourite RPG soundtracks - series veteran Michiko Naruke turns in some fantastic pieces, from the upbeat toe tappers that can be found in the many dungeons and the over world, to the more laid back tunes from the many towns such as Claiborne. Visually, the game uses a cel shaded look with a paint like texture that looks quite good most of the time, and a bit odd at others. For instance, Virginia's hands look freakishly huge in her white Mickey Mouse style gloves, with fingers that resemble sausages. Overall though, the game is incredibly slick, and it feels like you are watching an episode of a great anime show each time you fire it up.
The game play is fairly traditional turn based stuff but there are a few twists that this series throws into the mix. Early on in the game each of the four members of your party gets their own "Medium" - an object that allows them to connect ancient guardians of Filgaia (the planet the series is set on) which allows them to cast spells, use special abilities an summon the guardians to aid in combat. To use all these things you need to earn Force Points (or FP), which can be done by attacking enemies, taking hits and evading incoming attacks. Building up your FP to certain thresholds (like 10, 30, etc) allows you to use spells like Cremate or Heal without actually expending any FP. Then there are certain character specific abilities like Clive's Lock On which is allows you to hit enemies that usually have a very high evasion rate, or Extend, which lets Gallows use a spell like Heal on the entire party instead of just one person. These actually do use up FP.
The one other thing I want to touch on the the dungeon design and the puzzles. Each of your characters have their own tools, like a bomb, a flame crest or a boomerang, and there will typically be locked doors throughout the dungeons that will require you to blow something up, light a torch, or hit a switch with the boomerang. None of it is especially taxing, but it does help to add some variety to the game play and stop you from getting bored with endless random battles. Also in the dungeons are two different types of crystal - red and white. You characters have a bank of vitality, and when a fight ends with them on less than 100%, this vitality is expended to top it back up to maximum. The red crystals in the dungeons refill this vitality. The white crystals are related to a system that allows you to skip random battles. Just before one is about to be triggered, a white exclamation mark appears over the head of your on screen person and you have a second to cancel the battle. One ECM point is used up by doing this, and should you run out you will then be forced to fight. White crystals restore your ECM meter.
If you're still open to playing games on the PS2 and not all about the current generation, then I would really recommend checking out Wild Arms 3. Whether you check out the preceeding games in the series is up to you - it's not entirely necessary (there are connections to the first game throughout the third, but the story is self contained enough for it to not really matter). I'm going to try and cover another RPG a bit later on in this season, but they do take a bit more preparation than the standard episode. Next time though, I'll be looking at a classic platformer - Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy (with HD footage!).