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Wild Arms 3

Superficiality has rarely if ever bothered me in a woman, as much as todayís culture urges that it should, but Iíd always believed it would bother me in a video game. After all, arenít I supposed to be looking for depth there? Some unique appeal to make my investment of time worthwhile? This was my frame of mind until I picked up Wild Arms 3 — a game that convinced me of the joys of the superficial and the gentle pleasure of the shallow.

The Wild Arms series has always been about superficiality — though its creators might raise heartfelt denials of this, letís face it: this ìWestern-themed RPGî is mostly just Final Fantasy wearing a different hat, one with six-shooters and gunslingers and barfights — a cowboy hat. The first two installments could barely even carry that claim — the heroes of Wild Arms 2 wielded umbrellas and staves for weapons, not exactly a John Wayne sort of arsenal. This third episode does far better by its intended theme, and for this first time this really feels like the Wild West. But at heart this is a largely conventional game; innovation on the gameplay side is not something to seek in this title.

Nevertheless, a true Western setting is unique enough and charming enough to grab the player, especially one seeking a manly break from the Final Fantasy X-2s of the world. With horses on which you can roam the broad deserts and everyone packing a gun or two, the world of Shane seems to come alive in video game form — though in spite of all the firearms and equines, the one thing that locates this title better than any other is the creak with which doors open and the shuddering finality with which they swing shut, putting you in mind of the saloon doors in any of innumerable Westerns. A melodious soundtrack laced with guitar and delicate whistling adds to the mood.

Thrust into this Wild West atmosphere is a brat pack fit to face the Magnificent Seven: Virginia Maxwell, the courageous but questionably-qualified leader of the group; Clive Winslett, the intelligent voice of reason; Jet Enduro, a Tommy gun-toting teen mired in angst; and Gallows Corodine, a hulking Indian whoís deeply spiritual but brandishes a sawed-off piece in case the going gets tough. After a brief in medias res opening that finds all four characters involved in a train robbery, we are introduced to each character separately and discover how they came to such an improbable occasion. From here the story really begins, weaving a plot ambitious enough to keep a sixty or seventy-hour title entertaining. The quest of these four to defend the Guardians of Filgaia — mystical spirits who protect the world and give our comrades special powers — convincingly evolves into a quest to save the world from a wheels-within-wheels conspiracy of villains, each of whom projects enough ruthless cruelty or sadistic indifference to make them well worth hating.

Even though your characters are fighting with guns, battles work in typical turn-based fashion, albeit with a graphics engine that has the characters moving all over the place to avoid the stagnant effect of a Final Fantasy battle. Since all that movement means nothing to the actual fighting — no rear attack bonuses or the like — itís all a bit irrelevant, but since targeting is not hampered by it, itís a nice way to keep the battles visually engaging. As in Wild Arms past, with every action in battle your characters store Force Points they can eventually spend to unleash unique attacks. Essentially, though, youíre either shooting your opponents or trying magic against them, with magic mostly ineffectual unless youíre exploiting an elemental weakness. This makes for mostly bland combat.

Blessedly, there are numerous features to alleviate some of this blandness. One cool touch is the fact that while traveling by horse on the world map, youíll be beset by enemies as you ride; while this hardly affects combat at all, itís a very cool, very Western visual effect. But the most interesting addition to combat is the inclusion of an ìEncounter Gauge.î Before most random battles an icon will pop up above your characterís head, and a well-timed button press will permit you to skip that fight, with a mark taken against your gauge — a meter that initially holds just ten charges, renewable at inns. This wonít let you escape every fight, but does let you avoid distractions at moments of exciting exploring. Battles against low-level victims can be avoided without even depleting the gauge, making the pre-final-dungeon cleanup phase effortlessly no-encounter. Best of all, Wild Arms manages to reduce random battles without penalizing you in leveling-up; almost all of your experience points come from boss battles, so skipping random battles just deprives you of items and gold, not critical preparedness.

With the physical attack clearly the centerpiece of your arsenal, and the presence of an ìauto-battleî feature that spares you from hammering the confirm button, youíll suspect that combat is not too tough. And yes, thatís the case, except for the fact that many of the gameís boss battles are decidedly unbalanced. Frequently pitted against entire parties of bosses, youíll find yourself fighting the battle once to determine the weaknesses of these bosses, and than a second time to actually win. Imbalanced bosses are probably the gameís biggest weakness, especially in the first ten hours — the wise player wonít be intimidated, as this problem lightens up further in.

Luckily, thereís much more to the gameplay side of Wild Arms 3 than the flawed battling. Puzzles are a huge part of this title, both in getting through dungeons and defeating sidequests. Beyond the obvious — arranging blocks in a certain pattern, for instance — simply getting through rooms often involves strategic use of character-specific abilities called Tools. Clive might need to use his bomb tool to blast through a wall, with Jet then throwing his Boomerang to activate a switch; switching between characters and tools is effortless. The titleís emphasis on puzzles adds excitement to the usually dreary task of dungeon-crawling.

Visually, producer Media Vision steps into interesting ground, utilizing a cel-shaded style that allows the game to develop a unique visual style. Looking more like XIII than Wind Waker, this cel-shading feels not cartoonish but adult and artistic; the amount of detail worked into each character, from belt knives to tribal necklaces, excuses their blocky, solid-color design. Sadly, the very nature of the game forces it to be a bit bland — a desert world is just about the same all over. Yet where possible the designers have avoided this pitfall. Each foe from the enormous array of enemies is as distinctive as it is deadly — none of the palette-swapping that has plagued other PS2 titles.

Wild Arms 3, like its predecessors, simply doesnít have the presentation strength or storytelling depth to match up with the very best in its genre. But with an interesting array of puzzles, a likeable cast, and a unique Western motif, the game is able to set itself apart, however superficially, from the Final Fantasy clones of the world. And thatís the best thing you can say about the game, really: the fans of that pre-eminent Square series, always seeking entertainment in the off years, can find here all the elements that make Final Fantasy great, with sufficient superficial changes to make the game feel different and special. Dig too deep and itís the same thing youíve been playing for years — but if itís not broken, why fix it?

8 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2003.

Gentle persuasion

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