If you've played role-playing games in the past 10 years, chances are you've dabbled in Wild Arms. Most famous for being the game everyone bought during the agonizing wait for Final Fantasy VII, the first Wild Arms was popular, but uninventive. The series hasn't really amounted to a hell of a lot since.
Aside from a sloppily-implemented Wild West theme, previous entries in the series haven't really offered much to grab your attention away from the huge variety of more original, interesting RPGs readily available. Happily, that's changing as of this latest game. Wild Arms 4 does a number of things both new to the series and unusual for RPGs, and in doing so adds a little color and verve to something best known for drab browns.
The series has always had more puzzles than an average RPG, but the fourth installment ramps up the action. Main character Jude can double jump, slide, climb poles, break boxes, swing swords and throw pots. He can even slow down time to cross collapsing bridges or collect hidden rewards. These abilities tie well into the RPG-style switch-flipping and box-pushing puzzles you'd expect. WA4 won't test your reflexes if you've played a Ratchet or a Devil May Cry, but how this action breaks up the typical battle-explore-battle-explore makes this game feel so much livelier than most RPGs.
The core of any RPG, though, is the battling. Wild Arms 4 revitalizes itself here, too. Though the balance is out of whack, with too many devastating attacks available to both the players and the enemies, battles are still fun. The battlefield is a grid of seven hexagons, laid out with one in the center and the other six circling it, like petals on a daisy. Both you and your enemies can move freely between these hexagons. This is mostly important because your attacks and spells fixate on the individual hexagons themselves rather than targeting specific enemies. Thus, staying mindful of your and your enemies' positions on the battlefield, as well as whose turn comes when, is critical. Every ability your characters learn relates to these battles very well, which will drive your desire to power them up. The even interplay between all elements of its gameplay makes this an unusually smooth RPG.
The most unusual (and by that, we mean lousy) element of the game is its story. The lead, Jude, is a 13 year old, and that's the crux of the problems. The story is aimed at young adolescents, and a lot of its themes are centered on how adults screw over kids and what it means for kids to grow up. Not so bad in a classic novel; but told blatantly and straightforward here, it's a real eye-roller. Worse, the elements used to frame this story (a corrupt government, a group of whacked-out anime super soldiers, a psychic girl) are the mustiest of RPG clichés. The characters, on the other hand, are sometimes unpredictable and often appealing, balancing it out somewhat.
Wild Arms 4 is a game of delicate balances. The battles are unchallenging, but complex. The story is trite, but entertains. The exploration is fun, but easy. This game is an enjoyable, even essential turning point in the Wild Arms saga, and a great new starting point for its developers to build from. This game just doesn't use any of its pieces to anything like the fullest extent. It's a game you can plow through and forget, albeit frequently with a smile on your face.