WILD ARMS 2 / Sony / Playstation 1
With the first Wild Arms, I got the sense the design team was just kind of patching together ideas from better and more successful RPGs and didn't really entirely know what they were doing. Wild Arms 2 was released 4 years later and ... I get the feeling they somehow didn't learn anything at all in this time.

This time the pastiche is kind of a jock on Xenogear's visual style (and plot, unfortunately) just kind of pasted over / hammered in to the original game's engine (as evidenced by the same kinda slow save and menu screens, as well as the battle system looking almost identical.)

Wild Arms 2's story basically goes like 2000 years into the future to avoid having to have any connection to the previous game, so they could start over with a blank slate on which to copy from Xenogears. As with the previous game, you start out playing each of the three major characters separately in a brief introductory chapter, before they join forces for most of the rest of the game (and any promise of interesting character-switching is flushed down the toilet.) And as with the previous game, the introductory bits are the most interesting by far, before the game proper turns into a tedious plod.

The game really seems like it was created by 12-year-olds, just blithely unaware not only that ripping ideas off blatantly from other games isn't something you *do* in a commercial product, but how embarassingly amateurish and goofy their attempts at "serious philosophical pretention" are. I'm loath to say the writing is worse than Xenogears, because at least here it doesn't take itself so suffocatingly seriously; the game constantly is teetering unevenly between an often inappropriate comedic tone, and the crib notes version of Xenogears' melodramatic plot points. Taken as a whole it's probably not as bad, but the low points are even more cringingly embarassing.

Here's my absolute favorite moment:


As with Zelda 3's dash boots in the first game (which are back, given that this is exactly the same engine warmed over again), you get the occasional idea blatantly lifted from a game other than Xenogears, just because the developers thought it looked coooool. For example, whenever a boss appears, you get this hybrid ripoff of Ocarina of Time and the death screen of Zelda 2:

OK. But the first Wild Arms did just about all of this same stuff, and still came out rather charming and playable, falling apart only when the poorly-balanced difficulty leaned on fast enemies spamming multiple obnoxious status effects over and over to generate any real challenge. So you'd figure if Wild Arms 2 just refined the combat a bit, we'd be looking at a minimum of 3/5 territory here, right?

Yeah, again, we come back to the "didn't learn anything at all in 4 years" thing. Admittedly I didn't finish the game, so I didn't get the full sample of combat to examine, but from what I did get in 10 hours or so of play, the designers just totally gave up on any idea of balance and made the whole game a cakewalk instead. They just lazily recycled the exact same combat engine (with the exact same dated polygonal graphics), and not only is combat overall rather easy if you just fight normally and with little imagination, but eventually all your characters get a ridiculous "Kill Everything" move that makes even the boss battles a joke.

The one challenging aspect is in the sometimes very obtuse dungeon puzzles, which can be enjoyable ... but only in small doses, as walking around having to fight random battles while you look things over and flip switches and whatnot is really irritating.

There's some other small but completely baffling design decisions that make me think the dev team was at least moderately incompetent. For some reason, the intro cinematic automatically tries to play every single time you load a save. You can skip it with start, but you'll quickly get tired of that tooty little trumpet riff you have to hear in the first few seconds before it registers. Because the game is such a direct unrefined copy of the 1996 original's engine, it still doesn't have analog stick support. The overworld map is the absolute worst of the bunch, though. For some reason, every location you can enter - towns, castles, dungeons, etc. - is initially hidden from view. You have this "sonar" button you have to constantly spam that detects things around you, when you're close enough to a location and use sonar it becomes revealed on the map. Aside from being bafflingly unneccesary as a mechanic, apparently some locations arbitrarily can't be "sonared" even if you know where they are, until either some plot trigger happens, or you get directions from some obscure NPC asshole standing around somewhere. Add the poor translation and sometimes poorly explained objectives to the mix and you can wind up with some long clusterfucks of wandering around not sure where the hell you're supposed to go next.

So that's Wild Arms 2. A half-baked rearrangement of Xenogears' ideas, with a worse localization, worse gameplay and sometimes even worse writing.
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