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PSP Fanboy review: Wild ARMs XF

The western-themed RPG franchise finally hits the PSP with their strategy title, Wild ARMs XF (crossfire). Throughout the franchise's history, they've battled lukewarm reviews, netting them the title of a catch-all RPG. Traditional, but different. Easy, accessible, and more or less for everyone. However, the titles have garnered a cult following, where they yearn to traverse Filgaia once again and explore its barren desert exterior. It seems the folk over at Media.Vision and Sony have been secretly working on this title for a long time, plotting to destroy everything you know about Wild ARMs, but keeping everything as familiar as possible. The result? Pure genius.

Gallery: Wild Arms XF

Something has always bothered me about strategy RPGs. I've played many of them. Not all, but quite a few. I always wondered why they gave you an "objective" or "condition" for victory at the start of each battle. 90% of the time, your route to victory lie in defeating the enemies in front of you. Occasionally, you had to reach a point on the map. This is generally through the one time you're making some sort of "escape". Other times, you had to protect someone from dying. Usually, this was either someone important to the story or a member who would join you after the battle. That was really it. You would grind your levels, overpower the enemy, and get a wide spread of classes available to you so many different moves are at your disposal. It got old. It got boring. Then the world gave birth to Wild ARMs XF.

What makes this game so different from other SRPG's is the notion that battle objectives should be varied -- widely varied. There are, of course, fights where eliminating the enemy is the focus, but most of those battles also have you perform certain tasks in addition to that. There's never a dull battle. In fact, after the first hour or two of introduction gameplay, there's never an easy battle. This game is hard and no amount of grinding will help you. Level grinding isn't even really possible, as free battles on the world map give you paltry experience in comparison to event battles. In truth, the only way you'll survive some of the battles is in the name of the genre -- strategy.

For example, one of my more difficult battles involved protecting the entrance to a village. There were broken fences and boxes set up along the straight road out of town, creating a very simple sort of maze obstacle for the enemy to overcome. The enemy class were Excavators and Berserkers -- the former can move moderate distances and are relatively fast, the latter can move great distances so long as they move in a straight line. Since this game uses hexagons, there are six directions for the Berserker to move. You're given a hint that you may need to create a "wall" for the enemy so they can't get past. I didn't really know what that meant, so I just got my best classes suited up and gave it a try. I lost horribly. So, I thought about the different classes and the skills presented to me. I needed fighters to fend off the enemy. I needed magicians for distant attacks. I needed Geomancers too -- they have a skill that locks a hex, preventing the enemy from moving into it. I could create invisible walls. Setting my party up that way -- two of each class -- resulted in an epic struggle where I barely made it through alive. Maybe I still did it incorrectly, but I survived. It was epic. It was challenging. It was rewarding. This is how strategy RPG's should be.

That's just one battle, one objective. You have to protect villagers, solve puzzles, sneak around guards, and use a plethora of class skills to pass each event battle. Most of the time, you'll be fighting enemies as well. It's brilliant, but also carries a fatal flaw: you don't really get the opportunity to level your characters or classes. The game demands you switch classes for pretty much every fight, so you really don't get to build the party you want. You build the party you need for each fight. Fighting zombies? You need a handful of Sacred Slayers, even if you don't have anyone necessarily built for it. Sure, you could hire a lot of drifters (mercenaries) and assign them each a class to call their own, but then you're wasting another valuable asset: the ability to equip skills from different classes. Having the right mix of Class A and Class B skills becomes imperative in later missions, so keeping your party small and as experienced as possible in multiple classes is a must. It's a small gripe, because I personally like having one of every class available to me, but when you get the hang of it, it's not that big of a deal.

Maybe we got ahead of ourselves. Wild ARMs XF takes place on Filgaia, the name given to the world in every Wild ARMs title. It's a dying planet, so it's mostly barren. The story opens up with Clarissa and Felius, her bodyguard apparent, attempting to reclaim her mother's sword from a dirty-looking drifter named Rupert. What happened before this event? Who knows. It's revealed later in the story, but it's quite a strange place to enter. He gets away, the duo give chase to the continent of Elesius. The country is being oppressed by a Council, because the king has fallen gravely ill. Clarissa, being selfless as she is, decides she'll help out by fighting the Martial Guard, the Council's policing force basically, from one of the towns. Someone remarks she looks a lot like their princess who died last year. Clarissa is not the princess. This is the big twist in the story. Still, she pretends to be the princess and vows to free the country from oppression. Booyah. She didn't lose her memory of being a princess, she didn't hide her identity from everyone else ... she was just a girl that looked like a dead princess. It's an interesting premise, but far from the storytelling you find in classics like Tactics Ogre or Final Fantasy Tactics. The story is ho-hum for the most part, but keeps things moving at a swift enough pace. Your main concern eventually lies in finding a way to restore Filgaia to an abundant, green planet. Like in every Wild ARMs game.

So what's great about this game? I mentioned the challenge, a plethora of classes to choose from (with a wide range of weaponry ... each with their own nuances, like being strong or weak against another class), varied objectives, crisp 2D sprites ... but then there's the story. The story is familiar Wild ARMs fare, so fans will enjoy it. Heck, fans will enjoy the soundtrack too. There are a few original trakcs, which are very good. But you'll hear a whole lot of remixed, remastered, or familiar tracks from the previous games in the franchise. For example, the world map music in XF is the same as one area of the world map in Wild ARMs 5. It works. Some of the character designs, too, are incredibly familiar and the conversation between characters acknowledge that fact. Levin, a boy who joins you after a few hours, looks strikingly similar to Wild ARMs 5 main character Dean. Different color hair, though. So, when Levin asks Clarissa to name her army, she mockingly suggests he use a name with "Vanguard" in the title. In Japan, Wild ARMs 5 had a subtitle: The Vth Vanguard. Get the joke? Oh well. Other conventions are mocked, like Clarissa commenting that "her being the princess after losing her memory is something that only happens in fairy tales". Something along those lines. It was cool. But ... not all is peachy in Wild ARMs XF. There are a few problems that get rather irritating.

I used the plural "problems" because I thought I could think of several issues. Turns out, there's only really two that bug me. First is the menu system. Most tactics games give you access to a menu that have your army lined up and you can easily manage their equipment, skills, and check their status all in the same place. Not this game. Finding out what skills a certain class has isn't as simple as checking the "status" of that character. You have to go all the way into the "Change Class" menu, hit triangle for "help", and then it displays the skills each class has. There might be an easier way, but I never sat around to figure it out. Another issue with this menu system: when you change class, your character is completely stripped. Of equipment, equipped items, and skills. You have to re-equip all their skills, weapons, armor, and items every single time you change a class. If you read above how often you do change classes, you'll see why this gets annoying. And it isn't like you can re-equip them easily. There's the Skill Equip menu, the Equipment menu, and the Item Equip menu. It's a chore, but after a while, you get surprisingly skilled at breezing through the menus. My other issue is a minor one and sort of contradicts what I said before -- not enough battles focus on annihilating the enemy. Later in the game, you get plenty of enemy death opportunities, but early on the game forces you to try out all the classes so you can figure out what to do in later fights. You don't actually have "strong" characters or classes ... everything is based on usefulness in the current fight. As I said before, you can't really grind to get stronger, so it's all up to your strategy. It's different from other SRPG's and takes some getting used to. Overpowering the enemy isn't a solution in this game. Not usually.

Overall, even with the minor flaws outlined above, I feel Wild ARMs XF is not only the best Wild ARMs game I've played next to the second one, but it's one of the best SRPG's I've played. The story might not be as full of political intrigue and backstabbery as other popular titles, but the gameplay outshines anything I've played by a longshot. This title shows off how SRPG's don't have to just focus on eliminating all the enemies on screen, but really innovates the way you progress through battles. With a very wide variety of classes to choose from and a game length of at least forty hours, you'll leave this game and go back to Jeanne d'Arc and think: "wow, this sure is boring."

PSP Fanboy Score: 9.0

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