Wild Arms 4 takes the series in bold new directions with a completely revamped battle system and platform-filled dungeon mechanics. The Wild Arms series has always had a rough Western theme to it, culminating in Wild Arms 3. In some ways it is a little disappointing to see the fourth regress from that standard, but that doesn't mean that the games is completely devoid of Old West elements; dusty little towns, Wanderers, and steam engines remain pervasive.
Nevertheless, the game delivers in quite a number of ways. The most apparent of these is the aforementioned battle system. Unlike the almost strictly player vs. enemy structure of past games (that is to say that the player chooses all character actions at once and then watches them play out depending on the reaction speed of everybody on-screen), Wild Arms 4 features a new hex-based arrangement. The battlefield is split up into seven hexagons, six ringing the outside and one in the center. Players and enemies can move between these spaces to set themselves up for certain attacks or defenses. Though multiple characters can be placed in one hex at a time, enemies and heroes cannot occupy them together. All battle effects and attacks are based on a hex instead of on an individual character. For instance, if you have one of your main character, Jude, shoot at a hex that has two or more enemies, it will hit all of them at the same time. Likewise, multiple members of your own party will take damage if they exist on the same space. Since many healing or enhancement effects can only be performed on the characters in the immediate or an adjacent hexagon, this opens up the possibility for a number of strategic choices. Do I spread my heroes out so that they don't all get hurt at the same time, or do I keep the together so I can keep an eye on their health and heal if necessary? These kinds of decisions could make or break a battle. Furthermore, positioning in battle will determine which enemies you can and cannot attack. Usually, you can only attack in a straight-line, so you'll sometimes end up having to use a turn to move a character instead of executing a technique.
The possibilities of the new battle system don't end there, though. Three hexagons (never next to each other on the field) will always have some sort of elemental lay line placed upon them. Thus, you'll have to plan accordingly depending on the elemental weaknesses/strengths of these special spaces. As usual in RPGs, wind (green) is opposed to earth (yellow) and fire (red) is opposed to water (blue). If a character attacks or uses certain techniques from a particularly-colored hex against enemies on an opposite-colored hex, it'll do a fair bit more damage and vice-versa.
Another new addition to the battle mechanics is a turn gauge at the bottom of the screen. Once again, unlike the previous Wild Arms titles, you won't be selecting all of your characters' actions at once. Instead, you'll execute them as their portrait comes up on the gauge. This allows you to plan ahead in battle, as you can see a good number of turns in advance. It updates in real-time, too, so if a character is affected by a haste spell, the number and frequency of turns he/she gets will immediately shift turns of other characters/enemies backwards on the gauge.
On top of all of this are a number of combination techniques when different heroes exist on the same space and a Detonator mode which ups all stats for a character for the duration of the fight. Needless to say, the strategic qualities of the hex system are numerous and help make this one of the best battle engines in RPG history. It's certainly a step up from past Wild Arms games.
Moving along, the game also excels in dungeon design. The series has always been strong on puzzle integration, making it a little more of an action-RPG than your average role-player where you just wander through areas waiting for enemies to strike. You'll find the trademark Tools in this game, as well, but they won't be locked to certain characters. In lieu, they'll be placed individually in dungeons depending on the situation and you'll have to be careful in using them as they are prone to breaking. A few more fundamental changes have been made, though. Jude can jump and slide at any time, in addition to the old techniques like hanging from grating or activating switches. There's no longer a dash function, but it isn't missed because Jude moves at a fairly decent speed. After unlocking his potential to use ARMs, he also has an Accelerator ability which can help him get through certain puzzles, fore go random battles, and find hidden Gella (the standard currency of Filgaia). Hidden Gella is multiplied by each piece/bag you pick up and, thus, will often be arranged in a certain pattern which challenges your platforming repertoire so as to maximize the amount you receive. Indeed, platforming seems to be a huge factor in the dungeon design, including some 2.5D sections which feature better platform action than recent offerings in that genre – which kind of says something about the state of platformers these days! Either way, going through dungeons in Wild Arms 4 is a lot of fun and, combined with the battle system, means that it features some strong gameplay elements.
What is ultimately a bit weaker is the story. It isn't bad, per se, but it is a little cliché and the dialogue hackneyed. You play as Jude, a young boy who's lived in a small village full of scientists all of his life. As the only child in town, he has a unique view of the world around him and likes to go exploring the nearby forest for berries. One day, as he's skipping out on sword practice, he decides to head into the forest to scrounge up some grub in order to satisfy his grumbly stomach. On his way out there, the sky suddenly cracks open and several flying ships come zooming through the hole, landing nearby. Intent on discovering what these invaders are up to, Jude investigates the scene and comes across two future allies locked up in the brig of one of the crafts: the Wanderer Arnaud and the stereotypical timid heroine, Yulie. It isn't long before he realizes what's really going on, though – the invaders are there to attack his village!
Jude forms a temporary alliance with Arnaud and they rush back to town to check it out. One thing leads to another, Jude finds out he can use ARMs (in this game, they are little, microscopic machines that can be "congealed" into various tools and weapons by people known as Gene Drivers), and the invading military forces trigger a self-destruct mechanism within the village. Jude and the others are ushered off into escape pods and propelled down to Filgaia proper. Apparently, as one of only two natural Gene Drivers in existence, he's been kept sheltered in a domed island far above the planet's surface, unaware of the war which ravaged the country below and brought about his existence.
From there on out, they meet the swords mistress Raquel, encounter a rogue's gallery of enemy bosses from the elite military force known as Brionac, and Jude is introduced the terrible consequences of a war that ended several years ago, but, apparently, is not quite as finished as people believe. Though aspects of the story are par for the course in the realm of RPGs and the dialogue can, occasionally, be quite preachy, I actually really enjoyed the characterization and some of the issues that they tackled. There was a hint of maturity in the way they handled concepts of war and the reasons for fighting. Plus, many characters had some real demons to overcome, instead of just wandering through life being overly emotional and anti-social. Arnaud, for instance, though just recently becoming an adult, still has issues with being treated like a kid and yearns to break out of the naivete/cowardice he's lived with all these years, as well as his reliability on mental strength alone. The ending of the game is rather bittersweet, too, though it would obviously be quite wrong to spoil it here. And I do mean bittersweet in the sense that it is both happy and sad, not in the idea that it is a cop out. Despite the problems cited above, I felt satisfied about the narrative by the time I finished.
Each of your four player characters (Jude, Yulie, Arnaud, Raquel) has their own special abilities, as dictated by their Original Skills list. These lists include abilities that allow characters to move and attack in different ways, new spells to cast, passive skills which activate automatically in battle, and status improvements. The skills you receive are determined by level, up through 100. Every ability has its own required number of points to unlock and is considered "mastered" by the time you reach the equivalent level (one that requires 14 points will be mastered when you hit Level 14). On top of that, though, are bonus points you get for leveling up. These can be applied to unmastered skills and providing you have enough, you can earn those before actually reaching the required level. If you decide you'd rather put them towards something else, you can remove these applied point at any time, though you'll lose the skill you take them from. Once something is mastered, any extra points you had given to it will go back into your pool and you can reuse them elsewhere. The purpose of this system is to give the player some say in what skills he/she earns and when without being restricted wholly by the confines of experience points. In addition, each character has a special technique that can be used depending on the number of FP you have accumulated in a fight (the FP gauge is a red bar on the right side of the screen). Jude can use the effects of any item and apply them to the entire party and Yulie can summon elemental creatures (the Guardians found in previous games) depending on the properties of the hex she is on, for instance.
Aesthetically, Wild Arms 4 isn't exceedingly special. The series has never exactly specialized in this area of game design, but it's never been horrible, either. A few memorable tunes stick out amongst more ambient, forgettable ones and the graphics don't really take advantage of the PS2's capabilities. Like most Japanese RPGs of this caliber, the art design wins out over technical prestige. The game runs very smoothly, though, and loading isn't too big of an issue.
There are a few other nagging problems to digest. The overworld is portrayed as a flat map, a la Final Fantasy X, without the exploration elements present in other Wild Arms games. This does, indeed, get rid of the annoying "Search" ability used to manually locate towns and dungeons, but compacts the game into a smaller space. That is to say that there are only four real towns in the entire game, with some odd pacing between them (one part has you traversing about six or seven dungeons before reaching civilization again), and that the main game is relatively short, as well. It'll probably take between 20-25 hours to complete. There is some extra content, though, such as a battle arena, several optional bosses, collecting all of the badges (special accessories characters can equip that give them certain bonuses/properties), activating all the EX Files (when certain conditions are met, these can activate New Game +, a Sound Test, among other extras) and synthesizing the most powerful equipment in the game. The problem is that engaging in these activities requires a fair amount of effort. You'll need the most powerful items to compete in the battle arena and fight bosses, which means you'll need the best equipment in the game. In order to synthesize those, you'll have to acquire a lot of gold to buy basic items, and also shop at the Black Market for the rarer elements and weapons. The catch is that you pay for things in the Black Market with your levels and the only good way to level up after a certain point is by encountering creatures known as Grow Apples, locking them into a hex before they can escape from battle, and then dealing an excessive amount of damage to them while using Lucky Cards which double the experience on your characters at the end of the fight.
If you're willing to put that much effort into the extra content, the game easily doubles in length, but it can be tedious at times. Overall, though, Wild Arms 4 is a fairly enjoyable RPG. It's going to slip under the radar for most people, but it is worth the effort. It's a lot of fun to play due to the battle system and dungeon mechanics and even though it wanders too far into the realm of role-playing stereotypes at times, the plot and characters are reasonably enjoyable.