The Wild Arms series is fairly well established. The previous two games were both Playstation titles that had a relatively small but dedicated following. The game is set in a post apocalyptic world were civilization has returned to a bizarre sort of wild west environment and culture.
The first thing I should point out is that this game is not a Final Fantasy 'killer', and it's not intended to be. The game, although in the RPG genre, does not have the same ambitions as the FF series at all (though I probably will mention FFX several times during this review).
The game follows a more traditional RPG route. You control the main character Virginia Maxwell a drifter who is trying to find her place in the slowly decaying world. Virginia has three companions throughout her adventure, a cocky treasure hunter only interested in looking out for himself, a tribal man trying to deny his destiny and a relatively conservative sniper who's trying to find out the truth about the old civilizations. The games story has a few twists and turns and as always the enemies that you face at the start are part of a bigger plot. The story serves it's purpose but is by no means epic.
As for game play, the random turn based battles are back, with a few significant changes. It is possible to avoid some battles. Whilst you don't see enemies on the map, when your about to enter combat an exclamation mark appears above your characters head, pushing the circle button will avoid combat and use up points from your encounter gauge. As you progress through the game the gauge gets larger and so it avoiding weaker enemies will use less of it. The gauge can be restored by collecting crystals found in dungeons or by resting at an inn. This is a nice addition to the game and does reduce the frustration of constant battles. Throughout the game your characters can use various tools, these are used for the games puzzles, for example you might need to use a bomb to blow open a secret room and then once inside, use a boomerang to trigger a switch. These puzzles are quite simple and add to the game playing experience. The puzzles are far more obvious in this installment of the game and there are fewer translation problems than were found in previous Wild Arms games.
The world map is where you will do a fair amount of traveling. Instead of all of the games locations being highlighted on the map (like in FF games). You have to search for them. This can be extremely frustrating as you might be told that a dungeon is to the eats of your location though you will find that to the east is a huge expanse of land. Further more locations can't be found until a 'trigger' has been activated. For example, I could search on a spot of land and find nothing. I could then go to a village and be told that there is a dungeon to the north. I could go to the exact same spot I had previously searched and using the search function I would this time find something. This feature is frustrating and makes no sense whatsoever.
Many areas of the game are unavailable from the start and are opened up in the obligatory role playing game fashion. As you progress through the game, train stations will become available, as will different modes of transport such as sand craft and horses.
The combat system is turn based, instead of enemies being stood on one side of the screen and the player on the opposite side, all participating in combat are constantly running around, though at it's heart the game is strictly turn based, the game may have been better had it been given a combat system closer to Star Ocean. Also your mode of transport will affect the battle structure, for example, if your riding a horse the combat will take place on horses with your enemies running to keep up. Combat is relatively fun though it can get a bit boring after a bit of time. Another criticism of the game is that you can't change your weapons. Each character starts with a weapon and they are stuck with it. Weapons can be upgraded at the various 'ARM' shops found in the games villages, customization is extremely shallow. The games magic system is handled by using guardians. A character can equip a number of guardians and use there magic powers, all of the standards spells are in there such as the various elemental spells. You will also be able to summon these guardians to make a one off elemental attack. In addition to this a guardian will change your stats and give you special abilities, such as resist poison, or increased chance of critical hit.
Graphically the game is awesome. Instead of using highly detailed polygon intensive models. The game uses cel shading. Yes I know that cel shading is being done to death at the moment (Auto Modellista, XIII, Sly Raccoon and Jet Set Radio to name a few) but I've never seen it look so good in a game. The game looks extremely cartoony, and even though it looks a bit peculiar close up, the game is beautiful. Lighting effects are used subtly throughout combat and definitely add to the game. In fact I prefer this game to Final Fantasy X, and I found myself smiling during several parts of the game.
The sound in the game is well done, especially the female vocalist. Though I must warn you, if you don't like people whistling, you will hate the sound. Large chunks of the game have some guy whistling the tune to give it a bit of a Wild West theme, it works but I guess it could get annoying. The music generally suits the mood throughout the game.
In all the game is well done, though to get anything out of the game, you will have to put a substantial amount of time in. The game is less exciting than the Final Fantasy games and is comparable to the Super Nintendo RPG games. The game does feel basic throughout and lacks serious customization, the battle system could have done a hell of a lot more. The game is very pleasing to the eye and should provide plenty of entertainment to RPG fans. I wouldn't recommend this game as a rental because you probably wouldn't see all the game has to offer in such a short period.