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Am I in a mood to talk about anime yet… hmmm, nope, not yet. I’ve plenty of unmentioned things to talk about that relate to anime, though, and I think I’ll go into day two with guns ablazing as I talk about my favorite Japanese RPG of the year.

On the Second day of Christmas, 2007 gave to me,
Two Weird-ass Guns
And a blog with a spotty history

Wild Arms 5
What? You were expecting Persona 3?

Wild Arms. Not the series you’d expect one to be a fanboy of, no? I mean, once you strip away the wild west meets cheesy sci-fi elements of the Cattle Punk setting, you’re left with what most would consider a fairly typical RPG.

And yet, I adore this series, even in its lowest points. I admit 2 and 4 weren’t the best, and 3 tried too hard to be desert punk rather than the cattle punk setting that made 1 such a blast. However, for RPG games, they’ve always been solid in my eyes, and the stories, while usually fairly cheesy, have at least always had a certain mood to them that I enjoyed. Very much anime styled to the core, I look forward to most Wild Arms games in the same way less-informed SE Fanboys await the next bile that Tetsuya Nomura vomits out. That said, I’m not blind to their faults, which I’ll talk about before I go into just why Wild Arms 5 is so great.

As one who wants to go into game design, watching a series as it evolves is always something of interest to me. Wild Arms 1 was sort of an attempt at making Lufia 2 into a Wild West Sci-Fi game. It has much of the same mechanics, similar interface, tool and puzzle based dungeons and much of the same plot progression and themes running through it, just with a cyborg mute with a gun, a wandering samurai wearing a long brown duster, and a mage princess shaman. The games evil are the alien Metal Demons, a race of beings that foolishly annihilated their planet and now are looking for a new planet to inhabit and strip-mine. Filgaia fought back, but the war left the world in decline, and the world slowly began to decay. This leads to a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting with tumbleweeds and farming communities, so it’s sort of Technomagic Fantasy meets the Wild West. The music only adds to this feel, and it pretty much became the gold standard the series has been judged by. In terms of gameplay, I feel it is actually inferior to some of the later installments, a sentiment that will probably get me shunned by other Wild Arms fans. All four of them.

Wild Arms 2 was Wild Arms 1 trying a few new things in terms of story. The setting itself is the same as Wild Arms 1, right down to the world-in-decline so it’s technomagic-fantasy-with-tumbleweeds, but instead of focusing on a ragtag group of wanderers it instead follows a military special ops organization. There are still kingdoms, but in general the world feels less fantasy, partly due to the character designs more closely matching the setting and partly because the kingdoms don’t feel like strange fantasy fixtures in the middle of cow country. The characters are more interesting and sane design-wise, with a bayonet wielding soldier, a large heavy weapons specialist, a bumbling mage girl from a magic academy, an orphaned shaman, a bounty hunter and an optional character in the form of a Vampire. Okay, so sanity is only a BIT improved, but the characters feel more focused. With more well defined characters and a better focused world, it’s a shame that the story is rubbish and the battle system, while being a step away from the typical HP/MP setup the first game had, doesn’t work too well.

The problem with the story is simple: it makes no gorram sense. The first half of the game has some tangible big bads and a nifty terrorist/counterterrorist motif to it. The second half of the game almost completely ignores the villains of the first half and an alternate universe starts encroaching on the world in decay. It’s a jumbled mess by the end of everything. The flaws with the battle system are more in line with the fact that the designers could not figure out a balanced way to remove MP. In the first game, you had a special bar, the Force Bar, which filled with FP and allowed you to use Force abilities. Special techniques that weren’t force abilities were linked to MP. However, in this game there is no MP, and you can only use abilities if your Force Bar is filled to a certain point. This means that in order to use abilities you had to build up to them; you couldn’t use them right away, and then once you got there if you needed to use a force ability (which unlike regular abilities drained the Force Bar) you forfeited the right to use that ability until you regained enough FP. This makes some battles quite a slog, even for JRPGs. Fortunately, the dungeon crawls themselves remain just as fun as Wild Arms 1 and the Lufia 2 game that inspired it.

Wild Arms 3 was the first Wild Arms to completely ditch the fantasy and go full-bore into Wild West. However, in doing so it went a little too far and missed the cattle punk mark and crashing RIGHT into desert punk, into Trigun’s world of sand. If you LIKE sand and lots of sandy ruins, it’s not too bad (and in fact, until WA5 Wild Arms 3 was easily my favorite setting in the series.) The characters match the new setting quite nicely, with the twin Six-shooter weilding female lead being backed up by a machine gun carrying artificial human, a sawed-off shotgun using shaman and a sniper rifle holding scholar. Instead of magic being a trained thing, it’s done entirely through shamanic means. However, the story, while not as contrived as the first two games, still manages to use every single thing Wild Arms did in the first two games, from the world in decay to metal demons to an invading other world. The plot is paced weirdly and the chapters start long and get longer. Not to mention, the plot also forgets its own rules, starting a world with no surface water off in a dark and stormy night. Plus, the battle system is pretty much the same as Wild Arms 2, but with a touch more customization of abilities that still manages to completely wreck individuality. Like the first two games, dungeon crawling is still puzzle focused, much like Lufia 2 was.

Wild Arms 4, realizing it missed the mark with the previous setting, swings back towards technomagic fantasy and goes so far as to mostly miss all the cattle punk, making the setting a post-apocalyptic technomagic fantasy that looks sort of like what a Final Fantasy might look like after a nuclear bomb hits. The world in decay plot point is there, but it takes the back seat to a more shounen-anime inspired plot about a boy with a nanomachine gun, a priestess who uses nanomachines to summon, a cool-headed flirt of a mage, and a badass swordfighter girl who is probably one of the most awesome characters created in the series. Its plot really isn’t that great, a mostly linear trek around the world with more than a few absurdities littered about everywhere. It’s the oddest of the Wild Arms in terms of setting: theoretically, everything that makes a Wild Arms game a Wild Arms game is there, just without the western punk feel to it.

However, Wild Arms 4 had a huge success in precisely two areas: it’s astounding dungeon crawl and combat systems. Before I played Wild Arms 4, the only RPG I had played that gave me good, fast paced dungeon crawls with platforming and puzzle solving was the Mario RPG series. And yet, Wild Arms 4 managed to completely make me rethink the way RPGs should handle if they decide to be platformers. Excellent controls, clever and fair layouts, and rewarding the player for exploration of dungeons by granting them the ability to turn off random encounters once they met certain conditions, Wild Arms 4 was a blast to run around the dungeons most of the time. Also fun was the various single-use tools replacing the gathered-over-the-course-of-the-game tools of the first few games, making a more dynamic feel to the Lufia 2-esque puzzle focused dungeon crawls. That said, the amount of backtracking and the way your character slowed down when carrying an item slowed this pace down considerably, so a few kinks in the dungeon crawl system still needed to be worked out.

And then there was the battle system. A quick, semi-strategic MASTERPIECE thats only shortcoming is that it still felt like a prototype. The premise is simple: allies and enemies spread out across a seven hexagon grid arranged like a typical honeycomb pattern. Allies can occupy the same spaces and enemies can occupy the same spaces, but they cannot move into each others space. Instead of affecting individual targets, abilities affected hexagons. The amount of tricks this allowed, such as corralling enemies onto spaces that have been poisoned to name one, gave combat a slight thinking feel. Since your HP was healed at the end of combat, challenge was added by making the monsters actually do fairly significant damage to you at times, so while you didn’t need to worry about healing outside of battle, healing inside was still a damn smart idea. While the characters lacked customizability, their individuality made them all useful in the end. The only problems were that the battles could have been even more.

So, at the end of Wild Arms 4, Media.Vision, the development team, had a game series that had missed the mark its setting was shooting for four times and had poor, bad-anime quality plots each time, but for the first time ever they had a truly good idea for game design, and they likely had some ideas on how to further improve that.

So what did they do? They hired a writer to worry about the story of Wild Arms 5, and focused their efforts to fixing the problems Wild Arms 4 had in game design.

The result is my pick for best RPG of the year.

By hiring Japanese pulp novelist Kaori Kurosaki, all the major things that make the Wild Arms setting work came together, and for the first time, the setting was sci-fi cattle punk with no fantasy creeping its head it. It was a western sci-fi RPG, what Wild Arms has been trying to be from day one. The planet is in decline, and it’s a crisis that for once affects both the humans and the “alien” dictators that rule the world. The story itself is about creating equality and destroying the idea of Class in society, making it the first Wild Arms to have an actual cohesive THEME to its story. The story is still anime styled, but in this case it just feels smarter. The characters fit in to the setting marvelously, and of the six major villains (consisting of a badass normal, a big four, and the big bad) only one has no sympathetic qualities. Most of the villains are fighting the other side of the war, but also care enough about the world to try and make things good, at least for their own people. One of the big four is even sympathetic to the plights of both races, and in fact has no villainous traits at ALL. The one unsympathetic villain is the target of one of the main character’s story, a revenge plot that ends up being the strongest executed plot of its kind that I’ve seen in a long time.

The main characters themselves are quite likable. The main character is a typical never-say-die shounen lead who is instantly likable thanks to his exuberance (and a breath of fresh air from all the emo whiny Cloud Clones we’ve had since FFVII), his female childhood friend is lovably tsundere (rather than annoyingly tsundere), the badass with a huge gun manages to put his revenge plot off to the side after a while to show his fatherly side, the blonde guy who looks like he’d be a real player happens to be quite modest about everything, the hyperintelligent little girl manages to be fun despite having a semi-annoying voice (that may have even been intentional) and the amnesiac girl central to the plot doesn’t fall into the typical amnesia plot problems. What’s more, the characters grow realistically and each and every one of them has a compelling story to them. They’re not western or fantasy stereotypes; their anime characters who work with the setting to make something special.

The plot itself manages to impress, by taking the idea of the first aliens to invade Filgaia, the Metal Demons of WA1, and inverting them. The Veruni in Wild Arms 5 are invaders who came from a world they pushed nearly to ruin… however, that world happens to have BEEN Filgaia, and the invaders are in fact a slightly different race evolutionarily from the humans. The decay of the planet is explained logically, the aliens explained logically, the plot paced MARVELOUSLY… in all, if the stories of prior Wild Arms games wouldn’t pass for a C grade anime, Wild Arms 5 has a plot that comes very close to the A range. A few minor quibbles here and there really can’t stop this well written game. It’s just a damn good story.

And then there is the gameplay, which fixes every last quibble I had with Wild Arms 4. Instead of the world map being a boring “go to this dot to go to an area” thing like Final Fantasy Tactics or Breath of Fire 4, it’s now a completely explorable overworld that almost matches Dragon Quest VIII’s in terms of scope. Dungeons are still platforming brilliance, but instead of having to find and carry expendable tools, your “tools” are special cartridges for your main character to fire from his guns, which can be pulled out and selected faster than even Lufia 2’s original tool selection option. In the end, the dungeon crawls are pure Lufia 2 style simple headscratchers with well designed platforming backing everything up. And finally… the battles are more than they were before, and character customization is something of an art, as the characters are individual enough to have SEVERAL ideal configurations based on how you want to play, while customizable enough that you have the option to make the big strong guy the healer if you want a challenge.

By the end of the game, my only real complaints was that there were some momentary lapses into weirdness in the plot… but I ultimately forgive it. Wild Arms 5 was the best Japanese RPG I played all year.

Now if only they’d explain just what the hell Dean’s gun-thingies are actually supposed to be…