On the surface, the glitzy anime style and catchy music of Wild Arms XF scream "come play with me, I'm shiny." But underneath that, the hardcore strategy-RPG gameplay and complex battle system warn "noobs need not apply." Some familiar trappings of the Wild Arms series are there to sweeten the deal - an engrossing story, ARMs combat, etc. - but the desperado cowboy lore of old gets ditched in favor of a greener, more medieval fantasy setting.
The story begins in a dusty town that looks right at home on the dying planet of Filgaia, where natural resources are scarce. But after the first scene, the plot moves to the healthy-looking (and relatively peaceful) Elesius Kingdom, where we have peasants and knights instead of townfolk and cowboys. Our main character is Clarissa, a girl who may or may not be the princess of Elesius. Together with a band of knights, she vows to resolve the political turmoil in Elesius and regain her mother’s sword which apparently does cool stuff but nobody can figure out how to use it - including the nefarious thief who stole it.
The look of the game isn’t all that different from Jeanne d'Arc, except that its turn-based battles play out on hexagonal grids instead of square ones, and the more generic setting is just one of the things that make Wild Arms XF a tough sell for fans of both the series and the genre. As for any other kind of gamer - unless you're a glutton for punishment - this game just isn't for you.
Wild Arms XF is kind enough to hold your hand through the planning phases of its turn-based battles, even giving you a tactical assessment that you can review while gearing up your party pre-fight. But the gameplay itself is unabashedly hard and follows the rules of dominant strategy, meaning that if you don't play out a battle with the exact strategy that the game intends, you're doomed to lose over and over again until you either figure it out or get really lucky. The challenge is tempting, but the difficulty is frustrating, and - like the setting change - this is something fans of the genre will have to take or leave.
In that way, Wild Arms XF is almost like a puzzle game instead of a strategy game. Each battle in the main quest requires at least one class change for a party character, and thanks to the myriad job classes in Wild Arms XF, there are tons of combinations - meaning the winning combination is that much harder to find. And once you do figure out who's supposed to be what, you've got to re-equip weapons and items for any characters that changed class. By making you take the time to set up your party before each and every battle, the game deliberately slows its pace from quick, decisive battling to slow, strategic chess-playing. That's definitely not a plus in a portable game, and the class-changing keeps your characters from getting good at any one profession - not a plus in an RPG.
If there's one place that Wild Arms XF excels, it's in its presentation. The music is great, the graphics are cute, the voiceovers are decent and the plot about Clarissa pretending to be a dead princess (or is she really the princess?!) is compelling. And the battle system, however complicated, works - but it's just not that fun, and the sense of savage satisfaction that comes from finally winning a battle after numerous failures isn't enough to make up for the frustration. If you're the hardcore type or a deeply invested Wild Arms fan, there's definitely something here for you - but the rest of us will have to find something else.
Mar 18, 2008