Take a pinch of the Wild West, throw in some high-tech weaponry, like guns that genetically fuse to their users, and insert a group of teenagers on a journey of discovery, and you've got an idea of what to expect from Wild Arms 4. The latest entry in developer Media Vision's long-running RPG series, Wild Arms 4 brings us back to the troubled word of Filgaia for some all-new adventure, as well as some significant changes to the traditional Wild Arms formula. Featuring a sparkly new battle system and changing up some of the signature puzzle-solving action, this role-playing game looks set to carve itself out an interesting little niche in the genre.
Young Jude Maverick is a happy if somewhat lackadaisical youth who favors skipping his swordwork classes in favor of exploring the forest near Ciel village. When his roamings uncover what appears to be a rip in the fabric of the sky and a small host of soldiers moving through to set up camp in the woods, there's nothing for the boy to do but sneak over and investigate the intruders. The mysterious crew brings with them a surprise, a young woman by the name of Yulie. She's quite a revelation for Jude, who's somehow gone his whole life without ever seeing a girl--let alone such a cute one, or one held captive by an unknown army. In an effort to free her, Jude meets up with a Drifter named Arnaud, a congenial fighter-for-hire who was duped into helping the soldiers capture Yulie.
Together, they head to the village to find the townspeople rounded up by the invading forces, who bring out a chest of strange silver sand. When Jude touches the sand, it transforms via some sort of gene fusion into an ARM, a powerful gun. Though he's quickly able to send the soldiers packing, he can't control the ARM's power, and bolts of energy strike machinery located all over town. Yulie helps calm Jude, but by then the jig is up--the village of Ciel is revealed to be a stealthy sphere floating over the vast seas of a world called Filgaia, and it's rapidly ceasing to float. The townspeople bundle the three new friends into an escape pod and jettison them from the wreckage to wash up on Filgaia's surface. Jude learns that the planet of Filgaia was thoroughly devastated in a war some 10 years previous, and its natural environs are almost completely destroyed, its people exhausted. The young people set off to get their bearings, and there the true adventure begins.
Fans can take a few things for granted in a Wild Arms game: The main character will always use some sort of ARM weapon, and each character has a special set of tools that let you solve the many dungeon puzzles you'll come across in the game. Well, the ARM weapon's here, but instead of the various characters carrying tools, you'll find pertinent items located in shining spheres throughout dungeons. You'll be able to pick them up and wield them to get past various obstacles, but you won't be able to jump with them; you'll have to know where and when to use and discard them correctly. Wild Arms 4 also adds something called the accelerator, which is a skill that lets you slow down time. When you trigger the accelerator, you'll be able to move across unstable surfaces and see and collect otherwise hidden treasures. But using the ability rapidly depletes a special meter, so you need to be brisk in picking up your goodies.
The battle system is a unique creation. Battles are still randomly triggered, but upon entering the field, you're faced with a grid of seven sections, called hexes. Multiple enemies or party members standing in the same spot can share the same hex, and depending on the type of attack your character is able to use, you can attack enemies in a single adjacent hex, multiple adjacent hexes, or even long-range targets. You can use up a character's turn to move between the grids, positioning your party to limit an enemy's range of motion, or to take advantage of ley points. In every battle hex, three of the hexes on the outer rim are ley points that have the elemental properties of earth, wind, fire, or water. Standing in a ley point augments a character's special abilities. For example, Jude's blast attack from his ARM will take on different properties depending on which element he might be standing on. Yulie is capable of calling Guardians to her aid, and the type of mighty beast she is able to summon likewise depends on where she is standing. It's an interesting system that allows for a certain amount of flexibility in battle, spreading your allies out to avoid damage or concentrating them in a single grid to take advantage of each other's special abilities, or moving to specific ley points to trigger powerful attacks.
Previous Wild Arms titles let you avoid some battles by hitting a button at just the right moment, but Wild Arms 4 tweaks that system slightly by tying encounters to an item called a break point, which is also where you save the game. Certain break points in dungeons are dark, due to the influence of a powerful boss monster nearby. When you defeat this monster, the break point lights up, and you can totally deactivate random encounters for that dungeon if you so choose. Of course, battles are how you level up and earn growth-customization points that you can use to beef up your characters' abilities, so you probably won't want to avoid too many if you can help it.
The game offers up a 3D world with a fixed camera perspective, and the characters are bright and fairly well detailed. The look of the game in the initial areas tends towards subdued sepia tones that convey something of the wretched state Filgaia is currently in, but the port town and nearby ruins that we investigated seemed to be fleshed out nicely, even if they were a tad somber. The music was light and pleasing, and it features some of the same melancholy whistling tunes that have been the series' trademark sound.
Wild Arms 4 has some interesting twists to entice role-playing gamers looking for something a bit different, but still seems to keep the series' adventuresome spirit that has always appealed to fans. Look for more coverage and our full review soon; this Western-inspired RPG is due on store shelves next week.