Aug 31, 2007
Outside of the Wild Arms series, the only heroes with cowboy boots, hats and whole wardrobes of denim are country singers, and they aren't nearly as fun as Wild Arms 5. So we're happy to finally get to play the formerly Japan-only fifth game in the Western themed RPG. Underneath the unusual look, the game is a classically built RPG, with turn-based combat and villagers with single sentences of information to happily and repetitively dole out.
The story is, well, very traditional, but after you happen upon the unlikely event that propels our simple hero, Dean, into a series of events (amnesia is involved) that end up shaping the fate of the world, you get to start fighting monsters. Generally fantasy and sci-fi themed monsters.
Going up against everything from orcs to giant insects to a race of arrogant alien overlords makes for an odd mix with the western motifs. The collage of themes doesn't get in the way of gameplay, because hidden underneath it is a fairly familiar turn-based combat system with only a few quirks. A nice unusual characteristic of Wild Arms 5 (and its predecessors) is that battles play out on small hexagonal grids. Some panels offer special elemental characteristics that can be exploited for bonus damage or protection, and spells and abilities target everything in a grid space. You can group together and perform powerful team attacks, or spread out to disperse damage.
Aside from the extra strategies that arise from the grids, fights are built on good old-fashioned RPG goodness, and plenty of it. Magic and skills are learned from preset templates, which can be swapped by equipping devices called Mediums (except for a few character-specific abilities). If you want, you can swap some of your character's HP to unlock powers at lower levels.
Choose wisely because dungeons are packed with strong monsters and bosses - often two or three bosses per area. The fights are tough, so the right skill to HP ratio can be a balancing act. With too little life, even regular monsters can take you down in a slam or two. Once you clear an area, it's no problem to backtrack, because you can turn off the encounters. Why don't all RPGs let you turn off the monsters for backtracking? You can also skip past long combat animations, turn down the silly one-liners characters often spout (although, they're unusually varied and sometimes even enjoyable) or even speed through the many cut-scenes.
Ok, so the monster-switch isn't a huge deal, but it is a good deal. This Cowboy RPG generally doesn't mosey too far from the old dusty trail, but when it does (hex battles, spurs and... well, that's all we can think of) it's a good thing. You'll see the plot twists coming from a mile away. Sometimes farther. But the game well-balanced, full of action and is inarguably going to be fun for turn-based RPG fans, and probably quite a few of the rest of us too.