Swords & Zippers: Shaking Up the Formula

Arguably the most common criticism levelled at the JRPG genre — usually by those who don’t play them much — is that they are bland, formulaic and predictable. And while in some cases developers do get lazy and fall back on the same conventions we’ve been using for over twenty years now, there are just as many titles out there that buck the trend and do something completely original. Even the Final Fantasy series, regarded by many as the poster child of Japanese gaming’s stagnation, has reinvented itself constantly over its lifetime, as we discussed a few weeks back.

This week I wanted to talk a bit about a game from the PS1 era that I remember enormously fondly. It subsequently spawned a whole series of successors — none of which I’ve played, regrettably, so I’m not sure if the series kept up its creativity — but it was striking from the get-go for me, largely because it refused to follow the trends of the time and instead provided its players with a highly distinctive experience.

That game was Wild Arms from Media.Vision and Contrail. There were a ton of unusual aspects about Wild Arms, not least of which was its setting, which was heavily inspired by the American Wild West, albeit through a Japanese lens and with a dash of fantasy thrown in. Wild Arms marked a conscious attempt by its developers to move away from the predictable fantasy settings of many other RPGs of the time, and was all the more memorable for it, blending the swords and castles of medieval-style fantasy with the guns, deserts and frontier villages of the Old West. Even its distinctive soundtrack called to mind images of cowboys. Everyone mentioned that “Western” is an underused setting when Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption came out a while back; Wild Arms is further proof that it’s a good fit for the RPG genre as well as open-world sandbox titles.

The setting wasn’t the only interesting thing about Wild Arms, though. Aesthetically, it eschewed the then-fashionable “3D characters on 2D backdrops” approach popularized by titles such as Final Fantasy VII and Resident Evil and instead adopted a traditional top-down 2D approach for its field screens, and compromised by rendering its battles in full 3D. By keeping the field screens to 2D, however, it allowed for a variety of old-school puzzles to be incorporated into the gameplay — an aspect of the JRPG genre that many noted is often lost in the transition to 3D, even now. Compare and contrast the things you do in earlier Final Fantasy games to the relatively “straight line to the finish” seen in some (though not all!) of the later ones, for example.

Part of the implementation of old-school puzzles into Wild Arms also marks another interesting aspect of its gameplay as a whole: the use of three distinct protagonists, each of whom has their own unique features, special “tools,” and each of whom feels very obviously “different” to play. The game begins with players taking control of Rudy Roughknight, who is notable for being an “almost-silent protagonist.” He has a single line in the entire game, but is otherwise treated similarly to Link in Nintendo’s Zelda games: as a cipher for the player, with his “lines” being delivered either by the player’s imagination or through occasional dialog choices. Rudy’s special “tool” is a Zelda-style bomb, allowing him to blow his way into hidden areas or clear obstacles out of the way.

Subsequently, the player is introduced to roguish treasure hunter and swordsman Jack, who has a grappling hook at his disposal, and Cecilia, reluctant princess and powerful magician. Both Jack and Cecilia have fully-developed personalities, unlike Rudy, but you’ll find yourself in control of all three of them at various points in the narrative — and even switching between them at will to solve puzzles. The fact that you also control Jack and Cecilia directly throughout the game makes the decision to turn Rudy into a silent protagonist all the more bewildering — particularly as the game doesn’t appear to play Rudy’s apparent muteness for laughs. A missed opportunity for a bit of self-referential humor, perhaps?

Wild Arms’ plot, once it got going, wasn’t the most memorable thing in the world — indeed, looking back on it now many years after I played it, I can’t remember much about it at all — but, for once in the typically story-focused JRPG genre, narrative wasn’t the primary reason to check this game out. No, instead what Wild Arms provided was a compelling game that made you think about what you were doing rather than simply going from point A to point B and engaging in battles along the way. The clever use of the three characters to solve puzzles made dungeon crawling a lot more interesting than in many of its contemporaries, even if the battle system was relatively conventional in its execution.

Interestingly, the original Wild Arms saw a subsequent remake for PlayStation 2 in 2005. It offered full 3D environments, five new playable characters and a bunch of additional content. For those who played the original, the dungeons and puzzles were completely revamped so you couldn’t just sail through, though the plot was mostly the same. It also incorporated some features from Wild Arms 2 and 3, allowing players to skip random battles.

If you want to play Wild Arms today, you’re in luck, as you can just download it from the PlayStation Store to play on PSP or PS3. While its graphics haven’t aged as well as some of its contemporaries — particularly in the 3D battles — its gameplay is still rock solid, making it a title well worth checking out if you’re looking for a JRPG that does something a bit different to the norm.

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Swords and Zippers is our weekly JRPG column in which we explore the best, worst and most interesting of this diverse and long-standing genre that has fallen somewhat from grace in recent years. You can follow Pete, author of this article and GrE’s managing editor, on Twitter.

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