In a dying world where water and flora are becoming more and more rare, there are still lots and lots of guns.
Released in 2002, Wild Arms 3 is the first in the series to make the jump to the PlayStation 2. It was developed by Media.Vision, the primary developer for the entire series (who also went on to work on the Valkyria Chronicles series and recent Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth), and Contrail, an internal team for Sony Computer Entertainment. Translation work was handled by Squaresoft, leading to a higher quality script than the first two games, though with some continuity errors.
This past December, the ESRB re-rated the game for PlayStation 4 along with Siren, Ape Escape 3, and Okage: Shadow King. Having beaten the game this month and with a port on the way, I figured I would share my thoughts.
Of my four games for this year’s Four in February, Wild Arms 3 is the oldest, and I’ve had an odd history with it. I’ve had to restart it numerous times due to rentals and the game coming in and out of my ownership. Last year, it fell into my backlog when my PS2 began experiencing disc problems. Luckily, I managed to get it working again with some finagling, so I decided to jump back in. As soon as I loaded my save file, I realized I had completely forgotten what I was supposed to do next in the story. So with some more shenanigans/GameFAQs, I finally got back up to speed and finished the damn thing. Commitment? Yes. Foolishness? Definitely.
If you’re not familiar with the Wild Arms series, they can be best described as games with tropes from anime and Japanese RPGs dropped into a Wild West setting. If you can think of a character archetype or story cliché, Wild Arms probably uses it in some fashion. The Wild West setting is much more apparent here than the first two games. Guns are the primary weapon of the day, as opposed to the usual mix of guns, rods, and swords. Here, guns are called the titular ARMs (Artifacts of Ruins: Memories), and they are sentient relics from another age. Horseback is the preferred method of travel unless people have money for the few railways around. The world, Filgaia, is an arid wasteland riddled with monsters and remnants of previous civilizations. The oceans have dried up and the number of areas with any greenery can be counted using your fingers. Despite the planet being mostly covered in desert, there are quite a few small towns and communities scattered around the world, filled with wooden buildings and saloons. Many people leave their hometowns to become Drifters, adventurers who travel the world just to explore, hunt down treasure, or seek personal glory. Life is harsh, but the atmosphere is oddly upbeat.
Virginia Maxwell is one Drifter striking out on her own in hopes of locating her missing father. During a fateful train ride one night, she encounters Jet Enduro, an absolute bundle of joy with a mysterious past; Gallows Carradine, a mystic from a local tribe running away from his duties and any semblance of normal-looking lips; and Clive Winslett, the mellow bounty hunter who gets to go home and be a family man. Though they get off to a rough start, it’s decided that they team up and travel together with the overly optimistic and idealistic Virginia in the lead, and they quickly get involved in the villains’ plot to somehow make Filgaia worse.
Virginia is undoubtedly the main character of the game, with Jet, Gallows, and Clive taking a backseat to her. She is the most prominent of the four in promotional artwork and box art and gets the most screen time during cutscenes. Virginia’s desires and goals drive the plot almost as much as the villains’, and she also has the biggest character arc. With four playable protagonists, the distribution of focus feels uneven. Together, the team is functional, but individually, they aren’t all that compelling. They have personal stakes, but the men don’t quite hit the same level as Virginia, whose wish to meet her father again and bond with people around the world is repeated again and again. It’s an unfortunate lack of attention and development that is noticeable when Virginia speaks out against the antagonists alone or her early optimism and stubbornness get her into trouble. Throughout the story, the cast does touch on themes such as duty, idealism vs. realism, and existentialism. There is also a dash of environmentalism, but it is never considered a lesson to be learned.
Wild Arms 3 is part of the early set of games that utilized cel shading, and there’s also a subtle sketch filter applied. The 3D models are stylized and light on minute details, instead focusing more on swaths of solid color and black strokes to stand out against the backgrounds with an often too-high camera view. It’s a decent look when combined, but with the addition of hand-drawn character artwork and animated FMV cutscenes, it lacks a certain cohesiveness. On the other hand, it runs smoothly, aside from the occasional video “hiccup” and some minor slowdown during party-wide magic effects in battle.
With a new sense of 3D space, Media.Vision seemed fit to really utilize it here, especially during battles. Both party members and enemies scramble around the field between turns in real-time, making each battle feel chaotic. You can also battle on horseback, leading to dramatic galloping face-offs as each side tries to pick off the other. Dungeons are designed with some kind of vertical aspect, whether its multiple passageways intersecting each other at different heights, various levels of platforms, and even usage of a grappling hook you obtain later on.
Several features were brought over from the older games, but they’re hit-or-miss. Each character acquires Tools over the course of the story, items that have specific functions in getting through dungeons. Virginia can toss fire element cards to light torches or burn objects or use wind element cards to zip across a room, while Clive can set bombs or use a grappling hook to boost himself up to a ledge. You can even combine effects at times, such as freezing an object with Gallows, then quickly heating it up with a fire card from Virginia to weaken its structure. You can switch characters and tools on the fly so there’s no trouble in getting to the tool you need. Each dungeon slowly introduces new obstacles to overcome, and while they have a tendency to run a little long, they manage to stay interesting through the use of puzzles.
Unlike most RPGs with a world map, there are no landmarks indicated. You’re required to manually locate towns, dungeons, and other points of interest on the map by pressing Square to use the Search function. Green radar waves shoot out from your character, and only locations within the radius will suddenly materialize into view. I think this was a tactic to force you to explore the frontier and prevent you from going to certain areas ahead of time, but the result is a tedious scouring process. You receive clues (and rarely, exact X,Y coordinates) to locations from NPCs, books, and notes, but it doesn’t help much considering how much land there is to cover.
The control scheme is another feature that hasn’t changed much from Wild Arms 1. The camera is controlled using L1 and R1, but it can’t be inverted. The lead character walks by default and can only dash by holding X. Dashing has a start-up animation and the direction you dash cannot be changed until you let go of the button to stop, so trying to cover a lot of ground will have you stopping and starting repeatedly. The button choice is also confusing since X is also used to advance dialogue, confirm choices, and grab onto movable blocks in block puzzles, meaning you’ll likely be aborting a dash and slamming into people and walls throughout the whole game. Holding Circle lets you sneak, but it’s only important for a handful of areas, so why devote an entire button to it? Even worse, there are still three or four more buttons on a PS2 controller that don’t actually do anything.
The way ledges are handled during platforming is also a problem. If there is a lower ledge you can access, your character will stop at the edge, and you can dash to drop down. However, if there is a bottomless pit, your character immediately falls in, no questions asked. It’s easy to assume that sneaking would prevent you from falling, but it doesn’t. It’s especially grating during the optional Millenium Puzzles, which are sliding block puzzles on top of platforms floating over an abyss, similar to the pure platforming sections in Super Mario Sunshine. It’s way too easy to slip off, which resets your progress. Heaven forbid you accidentally let go of a block and dash away. Thankfully, falling off is a slap on the wrist, and you’ll quickly be back in place when you recover.
There are some interesting aspects that I really enjoy though. Filgaia is vast and there are numerous sidequests to tackle. The soundtrack is nice, and in keeping with the Wild West theme, composer Michiko Naruke employs lots of whistling in the instrumentation. It works incredibly well. There are no random encounters in the typical sense; you can expend a rechargeable resource to bypass battles when they pop up. There is no traditional equipment for your party members, so customization comes in the form of upgrading their ARMs and equipping summons.
One particular bit I like is the player-induced episodic structure. Most games that feature an episodic structure use it as a way to outline story beats, so it stays outside of the player’s control. Wild Arms 3 itself isn’t episodic, but by framing your sessions with intro and outro sequences, you can make it that way. The intro plays as soon as you load your save, and the outro plays when you save and stop playing when the game asks. The animations also change depending on your progress. It’s a nice little addition that can be easily ignored when you could just turn the console off, but it’s worth checking out for the music piece that plays during the outro.
Wild Arms 3 has a serviceable plotline that is long and winding and takes under 40 hours to complete. However, the actual meat of the game leaves something to be desired. Media.Vision’s decision to stick to design choices from six years prior without improving them or innovating upon them makes them time-consuming and potentially frustrating. It’s at odds with a decent soundtrack and some charming characters. If you’re interested, proceed with caution, and be prepared to either set aside plenty of time or look up a guide. Because there is so much information given to you, it would also be wise to keep notes nearby. Don’t make the same mistake I did!