Review: Hey Jude, growing up ain't so bad
Through 3 installments and one remake, the Wild Arms series has managed to resist the changing tides of role-playing games by keeping things very traditional, without a whole lot of pizazz or special effect tricks. This could be seen as good or bad; its design gives a nod to the old-school, pre-Final Fantasy VII days, but as demonstrated with the previous game, Alter Code F, it lacked the modern flair made famous by Square-Enix and other contemporaries making it just plain old rather than old-school, especially after seeing how well Dragon Quest was brought into the 21st century. Wild Arms 4 finally breaks that streak, by going all the way back to the drawing board. By designing a whole new battle system and a unique dungeon setup, WA4 is the first game in the franchise that feels like some real creative thought was put into its development, helping it stand out as a unique take on the RPG in areas aside from the wild west universe the game is famous for.
Your main character is Jude Maverick, a teenager who lives in a village known as Ciel, which he believes is a remote area without neighbors. That's until he witnesses a ship 'tear' into its atmosphere and lands. Curious, Jude checks out the ship and finds a young girl named Yulie, who is being held prisoner by some mean guys. Along with a new friend named Arnaud, Jude manages to free the damsel in distress and learns the real truth; Ciel is a world above the real one, the war-ravaged Filgaia, the traditional Wild Arms setting, though this time its not so much wild west but instead science fiction. The trio manage to escape from the bubble-world and along with a 4th member, Drifter Raquel, the party gets wrapped up in all sorts of messy post-war 'grown up' issues. The kids vs. adults storyline is the central focus of WA4, and though it has its moments, there's times when the whole thing gets pretty nauseating. When the focus goes more toward the struggle for the future of Filgaia, things are far more interesting.
Wild Arms 4 signals the end of the basic turn-based battle system, replaced by something known as the HEX system. As you can gather, there's 8 small hexagonal placements for characters to stand on, which together make up one big hexagon. From here you can command characters to move their spot in order to avoid an attack, or set up on one of the element-based hexagons for more powerful attacks. It's not really all too complicated and adds a bit more strategy to the usual mix. Some rules apply; you can't attack an enemy from a hexagon not in your line of fire, nor can you use an item to heal another character unless they're one hexagon over from you, unless you use a special item to allow it. Casting magic is different, as spells can be used anywhere. If you are in a hexagon with another character (only friends, any hexagon with an enemy is untouchable until all of them are gone), sometimes that'll unlock a new double team move, long as you meet the requirements to pull one off. Status effects, which normally affect characters, instead affect a hexagon; if an enemy casts poison, it's easy to just move to avoid it, unless a lock spell is cast which makes you unable to move. Same goes with buff spells; they apply to a hexagon, not a character.
To go along with this is a robust but somewhat cumbersome skill system. When a character levels up, you don't get a typical HP or MP boost; instead you get points to place on skills to learn them, and eventually they become mastered and those points can come back to be used for new abilities, or used to increase MP and HP. While MP takes the common path of being depleted after fights, HP is always returned to full after every battle; it makes things a bit easy but then there's no worry about wasting MP on cure spells unless a battle is taking place. However, if one of your party members gets KO'd in a battle and fails to revive during the same fight, they still get recharged to full HP ? but their overall health will be reduced until you reach a save point to regenerate it to its maximum. Due to this design there's an overall balance to enemies; the game is generally pretty simple save for boss fights that require a lot of strategy and management, but if your HP doesn't increase much they won't clobber you in one hit unless you've died a lot without getting revived.
Wild Arms 4 also ditches the common overworld map, replaced by a more linear system. This is actually pretty good, because there's no more needing to 'find' towns and dungeons like Wild Arms 3 and Alter Code F. Thank the maker for that one. However while you do click around on a map to reach areas, there's still plenty of fields and towns to go along with requisite dungeons. Almost every area where battles can take place has one special trick, and that's the ability to turn on or off the random encounters within that section. Once you find one of these special statues, which also save your game, it's possible to 'break' these by battling some extra tough enemies. Defeating them gives you the option of turning off battles or keeping them on; keeping them on actually increases the amount of encounters you had before. But regardless, the encounter rate is not overly high so there's no fear of getting into a fight every 10 steps.
To go along with this, Wild Arms 4 introduces a pretty novel concept to the RPG ? platforming segments. And not just the basic stuff that was shown in, say, Final Fantasy X-2, but the sort of stages that could come out of an 8-Bit game. Usually you get to do this in full 3D, but there's also some 2D segments that require Jude to jump onto ledges, break boxes, activate switches, deal with platforms that disappear, slide under narrow gaps, and the like. This was somewhat introduced in Wild Arms 3, but WA4 takes it to a whole new level and probably would survive purely as a platform game. The tool system of the past is here too for dungeons, though you don't really keep the tools, rather they're there for you if necessary. As a result of all this, dungeons aren't always so much about battling tough enemies who are guarding the boss, but instead traversing through tons of platform puzzles and plain old hopping around.
Filgaia is described as a desolate, barren world ruined by needless civil war, and the visuals represent this. Towns are depressing, the fields are full of destroyed buildings and tanks, agriculture is dead, and the whole vibe might make you take some Prozac. However because there's some more sci-fi stuff this time around, there's plenty of futuristic and/or modern looking environments, such as an underwater passageway and a secret research facility. As always WA4 keeps the anime roots with detailed character designs from that playbook, whether it's the polygonal sort or the hand-drawn character art during cutscenes. There's still nothing really flashy about the game; spell effects are pretty dull, with one exception; Yulie's CG-tastic summons, which are elaborate, but still not as elaborate as the stuff you've seen in other RPGs. Though artistically solid, everything is technologically behind the times, especially compared to some more recent games on the PS2. It might have looked good in the 1st generation of PS2 games, but it's been 5 years now and it looks aged.
Voice acting has finally been introduced in Wild Arms 4, and mostly it's pretty good with the lone exception of Yulie, whose voice could be compared to 1000 fingernails going across a chalkboard. You don't hear a whole lot of it, as most scenes are comprised of text unless it's a major scene, such as chatter before a boss fight. It's most frequent in battles though the selection of lines is minimal. And of course, Yulie sucks. Some of the enemies even have voices, which tend to be pretty funny. Much of the music will be familiar as it's pretty similar to the old stuff, so expect some 'western' style stuff and with the new sci-fi theme, some techno punk stuff to go along with it.