D. Bethel jokes that I’m evangelical about Wild Arms 3. It’s not an unfair conclusion to draw. Like we discussed in the podcast, the Wild Arms series is sort of weird. The original was pretty much a fantasy-esque RPG with a little bit of a western look and feel. One of the characters had firearms as a “special power” and another guy looked like he was wearing a duster. It was alright and laid down some of the peculiar tropes that would come later, but I wouldn’t really call it groundbreaking or definitive. My love is for the third entry in the series: Wild Arms 3.
Wild Arms 3 is a peculiarity in the vast history of Japanese RPGs because it feels like the design team was trying to do something different than practically every other JRPG that had come before. I always joke that the page for the game on the website TV Tropes.org sums up a lot of the weirdness:
Wild ARMs 3 gives one the impression that its creators were told to make a JRPG, but had never played a JRPG before. Far from making it a bad game, this means that they approached the genre from a new direction and did a lot to shake up old cliches[.]
Perhaps, given the history of the console role-playing game since the release of Wild Arms 3, what we were witnessing was the JRPG market starting to adapt to the changing player base. Like Dan said, most developers and players have acknowledged that the JRPGs of today have departed heavily from their roots, for better or worse.
Serialized Anime Delivery
One thing that I never really noticed my first time playing it in 2003 was the presentation choices made that make the game feel more like an anime series you’d watch on television and less like an ongoing video game. Every time you load your saved game, the introduction movie plays like the opening sequence to a television show. Whenever you save your game and say you’re done playing, you get a textual summary of your characters with an ending song playing in the background. Every time you start and stop playing is like an “episode” of this show you’re watching.
But there’s a bit more. The game is divided into separate chapters. In a certain way, these chapters are like seasons. They have a villain that you have to defeat and a theme that directs the narrative. Although it’s all related to the overall plot, it does have its own sense of beginning and ending. To top it off, the animated introduction that plays changes every season to match the changes to the story line. Pay attention closely!
Although the original Wild Arms did something similar with its narrative and villains, Wild Arms 3 more definitively divided it along chapter/villain lines in a cool but effective way. It was a narrative style rare among JRPGs at the time, as most of them tended to be extended single story lines with depressing characters and sadness. It feels like it would be more at home in the “episodic delivery” style common in adventure games of the 21st century than the more typical JRPG storytelling style. When I look back on JRPGs from the late 1990s and early 2000s, Wild Arms 3 is one of the few that I get excited about because its narrative structure was so different from the norm.
Breaking the Character Tropes
After a while, it starts to feel like every JRPG features a moody, mostly silent male lead with an oversized sword, busty women with overly revealing armor, and a few other standard characters thrown into the mix. Maybe it was just the popularity of Final Fantasy VII, but it seemed to be rather difficult for developers to shake that model. In that regard, I have always appreciate what Wild Arms 3 did to break away from all of that.
Sure, the game features a moody teen and a bespectacled older figure, but they end up not quite fitting into the standard JRPG archetype. More importantly, the game’s female main character occupies a space very different than so many JRPG women. No ridiculous cleavage, short shorts, or otherwise ungainly clothing. In terms of her appearance, she’s relatively conservative. With respect to personality and character, she approaches the narrative in an optimistic (albeit naïve) manner that is a change from the norm. When reality stands in the way of her optimism, she doesn’t give up; she tempers her optimism with a little practicality. And, unlike so many JRPG main characters, she has a lot to say, a stark contrast to the multitude of silent (or near silent) protagonists.
The other three main characters bring something to the table as well. At first, they present as characters that fill standard JRPG archetypes but eventually distance themselves from that role in their own individual ways. In a genre filled with specific character tropes that we get to see in every game, every time, having something as strange and off-beat as the characters of Wild Arms 3 is surprisingly refreshing.
A Fistful of Setting
It’s not every day that game developers try something different when it comes to JRPGs and setting. Games like Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy built a legacy on iconic fantasy settings, each developing their own flavor over time. Final Fantasy eventually broke in a different direction, taking the series into weird futuristic settings full of giant robots and nonsense. Occasionally, you see somebody try something a bit different, but it’s not especially common, especially among Japanese development houses. Generally, fantasy or sci-fi are king.
Although the original Wild Arms was fantasy-esque with a dose of western, Wild Arms 3 took a bold step towards the full western. Of course, there are fantastic elements in the game along with some future-tech nonsense; the game is at its root based in western themes and motifs. That is one of those things that makes this game stand out so much fifteen years after its initial release. But how western is it? I would say that it gets the balance about right.
It’s important to realize that it’s not an actual western, of course, so don’t expect Clint Eastwood, Deadwood, or even Deadlands. It still has that anime style and feeling to it. But from dusty landscapes to native villages to trains to dirty saloons to horseback riding, Wild Arms 3 tries to capture all the thematic identity of your classic western. And, as well as any JRPG can capture those themes, this game does.
A Game Worth Your Time
In a field filled with so many different games, Wild Arms 3 stands out. It’s not the best game, or even the best on the system. But it does something that doesn’t get done that often. It does wild west in a genre that doesn’t normally have a lot of wild west, and I think that’s important. I’ll always be a big fan of the game, even though it’s a bit wonky at times and sometimes misses the mark on what it’s trying to do. Given its recent re-release on the PS4, it is worth a play-through for anybody that still appreciates variations on the classic JRPG style game.