wild arms V: the Vth vanguard

a review of Wild Arms V: The Vth Vanguard
a videogame developed by media.vision
and published by sony computer entertainment japan
for the sony playstation 2 computer entertainment system
text by tim rogers

4 stars

Bottom line: Wild Arms V: The Vth Vanguard is “brilliant, subtle, and pretty low-key for a Rube Goldberg device.”

Previous entries in the Wild Arms series of games have had problems, either political, corporate, or technical — one of them stars a silent protagonist (a staple of the Japanese RPG genre) who doesn’t know he’s actually a robot, though since he doesn’t talk, why would we be shocked. Another one actually dares to begin with a title card proclaiming “It was a dark and stormy night”, which breaks Elmore Leonard’s first rule of storytelling, which is that you never open a story with a description of the weather, and it goes on to break its own rules, too, because it’s later revealed that it never rains in the world the game takes place in. There’s even a boat that skims over sand. That same game, which opens with a brilliant protagonist-selection screen wherein the four main characters have just pointed guns at one another as they all stand around a treasure chest, advertises a nasty gimmick on the back of the box: it lets you ride horses. Players went nuts over that one — it’s an RPG that lets your ride horses on the world map! Final Fantasy had been letting you ride giant ostrich-like birds for over a decade at this point, and Final Fantasy II had even let you slide over glaciers in a little boat with a wheel on it.

 

The first Wild Arms game had been positioned as the first “good” RPG on the PlayStation, with gorgeous 2D graphics in the main maps (and a wonderful effect where the roofs of houses fade out when you enter) and blocky PlaySkool 3D battles. It was supposed to be the game to tide people over until Final Fantasy VII. I guess it kind of worked, and then it was forgotten. Wild Arms was a clash of different entertainment styles — classy animated intro with classy hi-fi western-flick music, classy attract mode with awesome game-like music, classy intro that has you playing four mini scenarios before seeing all of the characters meet up, weirdo battle graphics, mealy-mouthed story. Yet it yearned to be free. It yearned to be solid. Well, when Final Fantasy VII showed up with its hands on its hips and proclaimed to Japanese game developers that zippers, pleather, and extreme depression were the hot topics for kids with controllers in their hands, everything slipped out of focus. Wild Arms 2 piled on stuff, stuff painted the color of Velveeta cheese. Wild Arms 3 was actually applauded by one or two college drop-out critics who had never read a “book with chapters” to completion, because it mixed Norse mythology with the American wild west, and it let you ride horses. Wild Arms 4 went so far as to feature a scene where a character with super anime hair jumps out of an airplane and punches a missile headed for a village full of crying orphans, which then explodes, killing him. Where did things go wrong? you might ask, and that’s a horrible question, because things didn’t “go” wrong — things were wrong, plain and simple, from the start. The talented developers at Media.Vision sharpened their game over the years, and as their game got sharper, and as Final Fantasy spawned Kingdom Hearts — as spring turned to fall, so to speak — Media.Vision’s sponsors at Sony Computer Entertainment, who had perhaps been preparing from the start for the day when Squaresoft would leave them the way they left Nintendo, started petering away the budget for Wild Arms games. Wild Arms 4 is a mind-boggling mess; the scenario seems written by a man who might have occasionally Freudian-slipped to his friends and family that it was something he went to the office every day to “program”. It jumps all over the place, and so does the game’s presentation. There might be scenes with moving 3D backgrounds, and there might be scenes with static backgrounds. Maybe sometimes characters will talk to one another while a 3D camera moves; maybe sometimes it’ll be talking anime portraits and text boxes, with voiced or un-voiced dialogue. I can imagine the marks in the scenario script — the writer was probably using asterisks to mark which scenes should be voice and which should be just text. “*****” would mean a strong recommendation for voice work, et cetera. That’s how they do things. The real tragedy is that Wild Arms 4 had many good things actually going for it — neat little timed platform segments in dungeons and a rough draft of what might have been the most brilliant battle system ever devised for a game like this.

“What we wanted all along, from the beginning of the series,” spoke the lead producer, whose name I can’t recall, “was a writer. We wanted a dedicated, talented, previously published author to write the story for us.” He announced this in an interview with Weekly Famitsu, after prefacing the comment heavily with a “We hope we don’t disappoint the die-hard series fans.” If it were me, I’d have said “We hope we don’t disappoint the ten thousand or so die-hard series fans in our attempt to make a story that is accessible to millions of nice people who deserve to be entertained just as much as people who claim one series of game is their favorite because too many people like all of the other games.” Maybe that’s why I’m not a game producer — I’m too spiteful.

Novelist Kaori Kurosaki, a female writer of pulp fantasy novels, was recruited to write the scenario. She insisted that the story would need to have multiple branches, because that was, quite frankly, the only way to make a story in a long role-playing game interesting. What’s more is that the branches would have to be subtle. They wouldn’t be red-hot pokers in the eye, title cards saying “WILL YOU FOLLOW THE GIRL? OR GO BACK TO THE VILLAGE TO SAVE YOUR DAD?!” It wouldn’t be like stealing a loaf of bread in Oblivion and going to prison, either. It would just be subtle-like.

Whether it was the influence of a dedicated writer that did it, or what, who knows. Who really knows. Wild Arms 4 had been released back when people were already talking about Xbox 360. Wild Arms 5 ended up released a month and a half after the PlayStation 3. It’ll be released in America over a year after the PlayStation 3’s release, which means it might go ignored, which is rather sad, because it really is something of a goofy masterpiece.

Everything goes right in Wild Arms 5 from the opening moments. There’s a quick run through an ancient ruins site, where you dig stuff up with a shovel and learn to push blocks, jump, and solve puzzles. You meet up with a female friend in the village, and tell her you want her to come to the local mountain with you. She asks why, and you don’t want to tell her. She comes with you anyway, and when you get to the designated spot, it’s revealed that this is the place where the two of you, as children, witnessed something that has tugged at your adventurestrings ever since. You have taken her up here because you want to tell her that you’re planning to leave your small town and head off in search of adventure.

In other words, the first dungeon of an RPG, using the tiny emotions of a character as motivation for reaching the goal. It may not seem like it, though that’s something of a revolution right there.

Not minutes after this, a giant robot fist clenching a cute, mute young girl falls from the sky, and the future becomes uncertain. The story begins. The chase is on, et cetera.

The dungeons have puzzles, occasionally as refreshing, logical, and interesting as the great challenges of Lufia 2: Rise of the Sinistrals. And the Hex battle system, returning from Wild Arms 4, has been fine-tuned to a point of masterpieceliness. In Wild Arms 4, the Hex battle system had been pure potential, spoiled by bland boss battles and rather boring, easy normal fights. One might call Wild Arms 5‘s battle system a patch, in which “compatibility to challenge” has been updated.

For the unitiated billions of people who have not played Wild Arms 4, the Hex battle system is amazingly simple and formidably deep. It sets each battle — regular encounter or boss battle or what have you — in a field of seven hexagons. That is, six hexes on the outside, and one in the middle. The middle hex can attack all of the other hexes. However, it can also be attacked by all of the other hexes. Multiple enemies or allies can occupy one hex, though enemies and allies can never occupy the same hex. During a turn, you can move a character from one hex to another, though you cannot travel through a hex occupied by an enemy. Attack a hex containing multiple enemies, and score damage on all of the enemies. Cast a heal spell on a hex containing multiple allies, and heal all of the allies. Cast a “poison” spell on one hex, and set a “poison” effect on the hex. The effect will attach itself to any enemy or ally crossing through that hex. Turns are determined based on characters’ agility statistics and the action they performed in the previous turn. You can view the lineup of characters in the form of a horizontal bar running along the top of the screen.

That’s about all there is to it. In 4, the battle system was brilliant and totally underutilized. 5 sees Media.Vision’s battle programmers behaving like an idiot savant in a purple sweatsuit and “Eraserhead” hair who’s lived in a garage all his life and only now realized he can make a fascinating, noise-making, hydrogen-atom-fusing Rube Goldberg device out of all the junk in there. The frequently occuring battles become like a second heart to this game (the strong, focused story being the other), never frustrating or exasperating the player. They’re little, fast, breath-mint-like challenges. They’re freshmakers. Every once in a while, the game approaches a little Fire Emblem-like strategic peak, and you win the battle and scream “Yeah! I’m so good!” And it’s true — you are so good.

 

BOY MEETS WHIRLED 

 

Why would a Japanese RPG, of all games, be the first game ever awarded a four-star rating from Action Button Dot Net? Because we’re really just a bunch of fanboy fairies at heart? For trivia purposes? A little bit of either, actually — and also because it represents a rather crunchy leap forward in a genre that has been boring as stuff for years (even though I personally can’t stop playing these things, whenever they land in my lap). Remember how frustrating it was when you realized you couldn’t directly move your characters around in towns or wherever in Final Fantasy Tactics? Okay, well, maybe that was just me. Xenogears lets you move around these dynamic, huge, sprawling, gorgeous cities, and then has drudgey dungeons and a button-tacking battle system that sometimes shows your characters in robots. Why can’t they make an RPG of big, ballsy depth, with, I don’t know, the honed, refined, classy gameplay of those numerous Gundam action games as a battle system? Why not, huh? Why not make a whole giant-robot RPG that way? Because Japanese videogame corporate executives tend to be iron-haired, corn-teethed men who stuff coal tar? They demand the most money from the least number of developers — you there, make a robot action game with dynamic play mechanics and nothing between the lines. You there, make a longish anime-like story with characters that people would buy action figures of, with absolutely nothing interesting going on whenever the characters have to kill something. Two games! A million copies each or you’re all eating cup noodles for the rest of your lives!

Wild Arms V: The Vth Vanguard, in addition to having probably the most amazing title anything has ever been given, stands up in the raging sandstorm called “diminished funding” and “development on a dying platform”, and it emerges like a low-fi tape the local schizophrenic made in his basement, just a piano and soft vocals, carrying the twin tones of genius and hope. Sure, the quality is a little rough, though hell if there’s not a brilliant light shining through. It flows, it’s frightfully playable, has excellent, spooky, folky music, brilliant battles and an actual story written by an actual writer, which uses anime-faced characters to disguise heart and an emphasis on a twist as emotionally loaded, casual, and mature as the one in Lufia 2.

Ahh, Lufia 2. Wild Arms V is your successor in many more ways than one. Arriving near the death of its platform, it may very well go just as ignored — even in Japan. Only now, it’s the old-school gamers who are rejecting the changes made to the series — apparently, people don’t like the characters or the presentation, or how the series has “abandoned” its “roots”. Some people also say that the save points are few and far between, which I think is great; more people should be complaining about the lack of full voiceovers, which is an obvious sign of budget constraints. Dear lord, if Kingdom Hearts II can back its pleather fetishism and mass-murderer Mickey Mouse plotline up with full voice overs, why can’t Wild Arms V? Also, why does the screen have to fully refresh every time I kill an enemy during a battle? It takes less than a blink of an eye, and I got used to it after a couple hours, though man, it’s kind of weird.

Oh no, now I’m nitpicking. Ignore the previous sentence. It’s really a lovely game with lovely ideas. Here’s hoping that you, jaded reader, will at least give it a rent when it shows up near you. Even if it rubs you the wrong way, even if you don’t like it, please understand the verve and risk-taking that went into its making.

–tim rogers

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