Buffy Summers did it somewhere around season six or seven. Andy Clark, Brian Johnson, John Bender, Claire Standish and Allison Reynolds did while being detained in the Breakfast Club. Igby did it during summer vacation. Heck, even I did it, although I'm not quite sure of that some of the time. Coming of age seems to be an easy thing to do. Nevertheless it remains one of the main themes played upon in today's popular culture. So why not transfer it to a media which by itself is always a little in danger of being regarded as childish? The fourth installment in developer Media Vision's Wild Arms series tries exactly that.
In the preceding three games (and one remake of the original) the world in which the adventures took place was an oddball, but very original mix of steampunk, fantasy and western. In the current release, the John Ford vibe is radically toned down towards a less exotic take on a post-apocalyptic tech-fantasy. Four young heroes are asked save the world and in the process grow a little and learn about the responsibilities, and also the restraints and hardships of becoming adults. So far, so ambitious.
Unfortunately Wild Arms 4 tends to make all of its various points in a rather uninspired way. While the story touches a lot of themes centered around the coming of age phenomenon, it fails to inject life into the subject matter. Instead of acting out the characters' various standpoints, the subtext is simply turned into text. Everybody is discussing their problems as if they were giving speeches in Philosophy 101. Furthermore, if our four brave heroes constantly babble about growing up, why is it that I seem to have read that exact same phrase a couple of hundred tiresome dialog boxes ago? Spelling everything out for the player in such an unvarnished, sober fashion kills every possible chance to actually start thinking about the subject matter instead of feeling like one is listening to prep talk. That's a major weakness in what could have been a very thoughtful game with an ambitious story.
Speaking of weaknesses (and of progress), although Wild Arms 4 sports likable characters, various original locations and illustrious enemies they all are not exactly a feast for the eyes. The graphics generally feel a bit dated, and even the pre-rendered cut-scenes fail to impress. The characters and monsters look uninspired and generic; anime stereotypes lacking a unique style and personality that would differ them from the vast back catalogue of like-minded software. Sadly, these shortcomings are present in all aspects of the game. I don't mean to sound harsh, but as far as I recall, Final Fantasy VII on thePlayStation had more impressive battle animations, which is especially shameful since the battles are the one aspect of the game where Wild Arms 4 really stands out.
Instead of sticking to the tried and true formula of its predecessors—and almost every other Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) in recent memory—Media Vision decided to try something a bit more evolved. The battlefield is divided up into seven hexes, each of which can be occupied by various allies and enemies. Furthermore, three of the hexes are assigned to one of the four basic elements, water, fire, earth and wind and by that, alter offensive and defensive stats and the effects of spells and special powers. Combat is tactically rich and demands a lot of well-thought-through decisions by the player. Splitting the four brave heroes up into different hexes for example makes it easier to corner an enemy but cuts out the possibility of using powerful combos or casting spells which affect the whole party.
This fresh approach on combat puts a lot more emphasis on non-damage-dealing magic and makes smart spellcasting an absolute must. By locking certain hexes and then allocating magical effects to them, important advantages can be gained. What puzzled me though, is that experience multipliers are solely distributed based on the damage dealt, resulting in a gross disadvantage for at least one character who nevertheless plays an important role in battle by casting supportive spells. But besides this little disturbance the joy of fighting an array of ever changing and always challenging creatures is what saves Wild Arms 4 from being a lackluster me-too JRPG.
That's not to say Wild Arms 4 wasn't a pleasant experience now and then. Spending so much time with the four main characters inevitably grew on me, with all their stating-the-obvious cuteness and following the diverse turnarounds of a well-paced (if not very original) storyline kept me engaged. My pure greed for more experience points, better items and more effective spells did the rest. But, it was mainly the innovative battles which posed a very welcome diversion from the less successful parts of the game. Because of that, Wild Arms 4 evolves a little compared to other titles in this genre, but infantile graphics and immature, uninspired sections hinder it's full growth into JRPG-post-puberty. After all, coming of age ain't as easy as it seems to be.
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