When the first Wild Arms was released back in 1997, many RPGers embraced its tricky puzzles and deep (and sometimes jumbled) storyline. The game did a decent job of blending some nice Super Nintendo-style 2D graphics with a modern 3D-battle engine, bigheaded anime characters and all. But the game was soon overshadowed in a massive way by the release of Squaresoft's epic Final Fantasy 7. Soon after, a flood of RPGs hit the Playstation and it became the system of choice for the genre, but poor Wild Arms ended up a bargain bin special in more than one shop. Three years later, the sequel, Wild Arms 2 arrives in stores, and while it does a great job at updating some aspects of the first game, if you compare it to some more recent releases, there's just too much that's not been changed. Which of course, leaves you with one really good, if unspectacular game.
Like the first game, you have the choice of three characters to choose from in any order, and you play each of them until they all link up at one point in the game's story. This takes a while, so it's good to take full advantage of this to level up and try out any new powers or attacks you gain. The game also keeps the Crest Graph spells and the ability to link powerful elemental creatures to your equipment and use them in battle (a feature "borrowed" by Square for FF 8). The game sports an updated, 3D version of the original's graphics, complete with a manually adjustable camera. This is good for those of you who played the first game and hated the numerous hidden doorways and passages in the first game. The puzzles are back as well, and they range from simple flip switches to some real head-scratchers, as before. I like the fact that the developers kept the same typefaces, western-style gear and other little details from the original- the game feels like more of a true sequel than Alundra 2 or the last couple of Final Fantasy games did.
The game's plot has little to do with the first game, as far as the old characters and some of the events. I like the idea of the older game's main struggle used as a legend of sorts in this installment. It's hard to explain fully, but if you start the game off with Ashley, the story plays out a bit more natural. While on an army mission, he and his buddies get shanghaied by some evil scientist-types that conduct experiments on them, which end up with Ashley the only survivor. Soon after (well, after you do all three heroes' scenarios), he hooks up with the scatterbrained sorceress, Lilka, and the heavy weapons expert (and ex-con), Brad. Together, they set out to put an end to the evil forces out to destroy their world. Yes, it's straight out of Cliché City (just south of Typo Gulch), but I guess that some things have to remain constant, at least as far as certain types of console RPGs are concerned.
The graphics retain the same basic look of the first game, but everything's rendered in full 3D. The bigheaded characters have been made over as well, and look more or less the same in the map and battle screens. Of course, if you compare the character art to games like Vagrant Story or even Grandia, you may find some faults, but hey- it's a different game, so deal with it. Again, some players will find that the game really doesn't break any new ground visually, but if you were drawn to the first game, you'll like what they've done with this one. I thought the music in Wild Arms was great, but this time around, it's simply fantastic. The battle tunes get a bit repetitious, especially with all the random battles, but overall, the score is one of those that will stick with you for a while. The game's battle system is exactly the same as the previous installment, with it's relatively simple to use interface. If you power up early on, most of the battles become extremely easy by the middle of the game, but gaining access to some of the better skills and spells takes some work, and a bit of wandering around.
This is where my small list of complaints both begins and ends. I guess that there were some issues with the first game, in regards to some players getting lost in the huge overworld, so now, a few of the important places you need to get to remain hidden until you read a sign somewhere or someone tells you about them! Then you have to head in a general direction and occasionally hit the square button to send out a locator signal. Paradoxically, the end result makes travel easy, yet complicates the simple act of walking from point A to point B. You'll receive a hovercraft and a means of air travel later on in the game, but I'm sure a few RPG novices will find this system a bit frustrating at first. There's also no analog control, despite the 3D environments, but it's no big deal, as the game doesn't require any furious button mashing.
And while I shouldn't single out this game in particular, I'll have to finally admit to being fed up with puzzle dungeons in general. I guess that all the evil forces in every other RPG are closet Mensa candidates, big M.C. Escher fans, or both. I'll kiss the shoes of the next developer who makes an RPG with REAL hazards in its dungeons. One more thing: just like the first game, the characters in the anime portions of WA2 look little if anything like their 3D counterparts, but I guess if there's a third sequel on the PS2, Contrail will be able to either implement more exact looking artwork. Or perhaps borrow a page from the upcoming Popolocrolis 3 on the PS2, which uses the power of the new system that makes its characters look like 2D sprites, even though they're not.
In the end, Wild Arms 2 is one of those good games that ends up being overshadowed by much better or more interesting titles out there, but stands up on it's own as a decent entry in the series. The problem is, with so many other stellar releases out or on the way, this is exactly the sort of game that will probably get overlooked in all the rush. If you're a game snob looking for the next "big thing" in terms of graphics and such, you'll probably be disappointed, but anyone into RPGs will enjoy it just fine.
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