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WA4: The Pension Grillparzer of Video Games

Posted : 6 years, 7 months ago on 23 October 2012 10:13

Entertainment. It goes without saying that the people of this world love entertainment, whether it’s the latest Hollywood blockbuster (that is usually far from being original) to the latest TV sitcom, entertainment is big business. Yet as we are bombarded by products from left to right, we often overlook the true purpose of entertainment: escapism. Escaping from the actualities of life is something people take very seriously – at least on a subconscious level – and the masses are more than willing to pay for it. Simple as the premise is however, the real debate begins when one starts analyzing the value of each form and how it influences the culture of society.

Given that this review is posted on a website focused on video games, it’s probably best to admit that video games suffer from a slight identity crisis when it comes to this. That said, with the oldest of gamers growing older, gaming has garnered a bit more acceptance in this arena (the topic of video games being art or not being rather widespread) but games still haven’t reached the plateau that books and movies are proudly perched upon. Yet its books and movies, well a certain book that was turned into a movie in 1982, that really gave me an inside look at the latest game to reach one of my game consoles: Media Vision’s Wild Arms 4.

Released on the PlayStation 2 in early 2006, what could John Irving’s 1978 novel “The World According to Garp” possibly have in common with Wild Arms 4? At first nothing, but the more I thought about the themes in the protagonist’s short story “The Pension Grillparzer” the more I realized how the book I was reading acted as a parallel to game I was playing.

So what’s “The Pension Grillparzer” all about? A “pension” is a type of boarding or guest house. In the story we follow a father and his family as they travel throughout Europe and secretly rate the pensions they come across for a travel bureau. Initially, the Grillparzer has a C rating – the lowest classification – but the establishment is applying for a B. The Grillparzer seeks the increased rating to attract more business but there have been some rather unsavory rumors and complaints about the pension. “A class C trying to be a B” quips the father. So how on earth does Wild Arms 4 factor into this? Easy. Wild Arms 4 is the Grillparzer. It’s a class C game trying to be a B even though – through and through – it’s a C, and just like the business it parallels it leaves the player (the family) with plenty to judge:

“When it comes to localizing J-RPGs, you’d think that localization teams would learn this one rule.” said Ashley.

Really, I can’t believe I have to bring this up. Recording English, in-game dialog for English-speaking audiences is fine. In fact, it’s expected. What’s not expected – and is downright not appreciated – is trying to shoehorn English lyrics into a J-pop song. Stop that. Bad Xseed, bad! Why companies feel the need to introduce fragmented lyrics into a song simply not designed for them is beyond me. If a song is good I should be able to enjoy it despite the language barrier and if I want to know what they’re singing about I’m sure someone on the internet with the expertise has already translated it. Compounding this even more is when they remove the native Japanese lyrics from these tracks and turn them into instrumentals. This needs to stop as well. If a developer is so worried that a J-pop song with Japanese lyrics will turn off Western audiences they should really create a piece to replace it so there is no leftover void. The original Wild Arms accomplished this devilishly well with its ending credit sequence.

“Brionac’s a little more than the late night snack I remember them being.” said Yulie.

Okay, this one’s been a long time coming – six years – but I’m willing to admit that the members of Brionac are a little more interesting than I originally thought. I’m not putting them on the same level as the Metal Demons from the first game or Odessa from the second but they are more than just temporary obstructions. Additionally, you can’t underestimate how you must adopt a different strategy to defeat each member. That kind of diversity really pays off and is instrumental in forging the path forward for the HEX battle system.

“Children are to be seen and not heard. They should also be occasionally spanked by the Brionac forces.” said Marivel.

I guess if I’m going to play and critique Wild Arms 4 I have to deal – and live – with the fact that Jude Maverick is only thirteen years old. *rolls eyes* I know J-RPG characters are always young (and Pokemon has always taken this to the extreme) but come on. The only role-playing game that really got away with such a ploy is Breath of Fire III and that’s because Ryu doesn’t say a single word during the childhood portion of the game. Simply brilliant. Here we have to put up with Jude’s constant inability to approach anything – or any situation – with any kind of caution or forethought and it’s absolutely exhausting. It’s like being around an actual child who has had too much sugar. I wish I could say the story leaves it at that but it doesn’t…

“The adults are bad but children are AWESOME!” said Tim.

…it only gets worse. Sure, every time I see that portrait of Jude with his nose turned up like a brat and that scowl on his face when someone says something he doesn’t like I want to reach through the screen and give him something to really cry about but then I find that much more tolerable then the whole “you kids don’t understand how the world works” yet “children are the future” but “adults are corrupted as is their vision” and yadda yadda yadda. This is really unfortunate because beyond this pandering crap (yes, its crap) the game’s script is really well written. A lot of the conversations sound pretty natural despite their heavy gravity and you have to give the writers and Xseed credit for that.

“Wait, there was a war?!” said Jude practically unphased.

A lot of players pick on Jude’s initial reaction – or lack there of – to the barren, war-scorched land of Filgaia. Without going into it too deeply they’re right. It definitely breaks down the believability factor (even though the entire concept behind the Ciel Shelter is enough to do that alone) but let’s not let it taint what the game does right. Seriously, I can’t be the only one who gets chills when the war and immediate post-conflict era are explained when traveling through the ruins of Celesti. This, the game’s first “real” dungeon, and the pacing of the revelations to Jude by his comrades is just insanely well done and it’s a shame that it has to be so brief. Still, I thought the game did a great job of parlaying that into the atrocities committed by the Global Union within the White Orphanage – another particularly powerful segment of the game.

“It’s nice to see someone can write characters that effectively blur the line between good and evil.” said Jack.

This is important because a lot of games attempt this and completely blow it. The Mega Man X series would become notorious for this in its later, adult diaper wearing years and Mega Man X Command Mission would really try - and completely fail - at driving such a point home. Unfortunately for Capcom a maverick is a maverick and I’m going to “retire” (talk about your gross evasions for a word as simple as “destroy”) them. No, I’m not going to feel bad about it (unless it’s Iris from X4) and they were in my way. Anyway, as laughable as Capcom’s attempt to play this card is, nothing could be further from the truth when Media Vision plays it. There are very few inherently evil characters in Wild Arms 4 and those that are don’t play a real prominent role in the story. A lot of your adversaries are mostly blinded and possessed by their noble ideals gone awry. Sometimes they even do the right thing for the wrong reasons. I’ll admit it’s easier to understand an enemy that’s one dimensional and unapologeticly evil but are these kinds of characters always interesting? No… and if you need some proof take a quick look at Kartikeya from Wild Arms 5.

“A twist in a story can be a marvelous thing, but don’t insult the player’s intelligence by making it insanely obvious.” said Dean.

Those who have played Wild Arms 4 should know what I’m talking about, but in case you don’t, if you didn’t guess who the eleventh member of Brionac was when Asia and Fiore were babbling all about it you probably expect to fight someone other than Dr. Wily at the end of a (classic series) Mega Man game. If this applies to you I’m sorry for being so harsh but the game makes it so tearfully obvious that you just have to question the intelligence quotient of the members that comprise your in-game party for not noticing all the signs. Also insulting are action scenes so outlandish that they have no credibility even in a fantasy setting. Yes, video games are a place where imaginations should be able to roam free – and where the laws of physics should occasionally be suspended – but at some point the audience is going to draw a line. Cross that line as a developer and you might find it hard to get back into good graces with the player. Unfortunately for those that have played beyond this entry, this is a course that Media Vision has failed out of more than once.

“While Michiko Naruke’s absence is regrettable the soundtrack is a little more resilient than you’d think.” said Clive.

Many people, including myself, were initially disappointed that series composer Michiko Naruke only composed about one fourth of Wild Arms 4’s soundtrack before handing off her duties due to illness. To this day I have no clue as to what illness she was afflicted with (in a certain sense it’s none of my business) but this shift in personnel is easily one of the most interesting aspects of the game as a whole. Still, despite the heavy heart and the fact that the music of the series has been on shaky ground since the second game, perhaps giving the reigns to Masato Kouda (who previously composed music for Capcom) was the right choice. To this day I find it hard to believe that “over the wind” – the overused world map and crossover dungeon theme – was actually penned by Kouda since it sounds like something Naruke would compose. “Shadow Territory” is another track that quickly proves its worth when exploring the previously discussed Celesti Ruins and the application of “From Your Tears…” in battle is simply astounding in its serine splendor. Also of note is the thunderous “Ghost of the Nights” by Ryuta Suzuki that pumps an exceptional amount of adrenaline into armed conflict and acts as a wonderful precursor to some of the music in the fifth installment. Now if only the field music didn’t reset after the conclusion every battle.

“Whether it’s wrecking the enemy stronghold or tugging at your heart strings, Raquel is one dynamite lady.” said Arnaud.

When it comes to my favorite character in Wild Arms 4 there is no need to mince words: Raquel, the voice of reason, wins my vote. Why Raquel? The better question is why not. Making the quintessential “tank” and “heavy hitter” of Jude’s entourage a woman? An unusual and alluring combination. Ripping through a wave of enemies with a full force gauge backed with five turns via Intrude? Priceless. A character that marches forward with a clear mind while battling the never ending questions of her own mortality? Astounding. Really, I like Arnaud and Yulie (and their back stories) well enough but Raquel is just something else entirely. And even though the game does not revolve around her it is definitely better because of her. What would I change? The game is awfully cryptic about what ails Raquel as a character and I can’t resist the urge to learn more even though there is nothing more to discover. But then that’s what makes Ms. Applegate so interesting; the tinge of mystery topping of one of the best characters the series has ever seen. Regardless of the reason, Raquel has certainly captured my mind and heart and I’m sure she’s captured those of others as well.

“Can the hexagonal-based combat system rescue Wild Arms from one of its most antiquated and uninspiring aspects?” asked Brad.

In the simplest since yes – but it’s not that simple. It’s common knowledge that some people were displeased with the Hyper Evolve X-fire Sequence but even these players have to admit that Wild Arms desperately needed to segregate itself from its original, plebian combat system. 2005’s Alter code:F could get away with it because it was a remake but the lack of advancement was obvious as way back as 2002 with Wild Arms 3. Such rustic ventures aside however the real burning question brought fourth by Wild Arms 4 is how much depth and strategy do these changes bring to the table? This is where the base of players making up the potential audience for this game divides upon itself. The more gingerly and forgiving crowd are more likely to be pleased with what the HEX system has to offer because it *feels* like a proverbial gold mine compared to the previous combat engine even when it isn’t. The more introspective and wide-eyed crowd will forgo such a focused observation and compare Wild Arms 4 to other J-RPG fare. If this was all Wild Arms 4 had to worry about it might have been able to mount a more capable offensive against such preconceptions but since there are countless other factors that contribute to the J-RPG market the series sadly winds up where it started before all these changes.

“Art shmart. It has nothing to do artistic license and everything to do with money – it always comes back to money.” said Virginia.

I’m probably going to make a few enemies with the section but I feel it’s something that needs to be said. I have read review after review for Wild Arms 4 praising the comic book style presentation of the conversations between the game’s characters. In general the approach is well executed yet I feel that many players overlook the blatant truth. These art-filled sections weren’t employed by Media Vision by choice but rather by necessity. The console can easily handle cut scenes rendered by the Wild Arms engine (which is good but average anyway you slice it) but the development team simply didn’t have the required capital to produce all the animation they wanted. I don’t say this to disenfranchise the company or reinforce the opinion some hold that the series is or has always been “filler” for players to paw through between the more popular and bigger budget titles; I say this because at some point you have to admit there is a reason why SCEA (Sony Computer Entertainment America) stopped localizing Wild Arms games after the tiresome Wild Arms 3. As unkind as that truth is, fans should be a little more grateful that there are smaller studios willing to bring games like this over, which leads me to:

“It’s been six years people. I think it’s time to forget a few measly oversights and move on.” said Rebecca.

Honestly, enough is enough. Yeah, it looks pretty shabby when I’m throwing a “ hamtom Line” rather than a “Phantom Line” with Jude but I’m not upset. I’m also not upset about the inaccessible EX Key and the two features it blocks. People act like a voice acting library (where the voice acting is good to decent) and a art gallery (an art gallery doesn’t mean anything to me unless it’s outside the confines of the game – see the awesome 80 page art book that came with the 10th Anniversary Edition of Wild Arms 5) are make or break bonus features. They aren’t. You know what’s a make or break bonus feature? New game + and it is unaffected by the removal of the Dalawa Bunny and Accident Rabbit. Things happen. Did people really expect Xseed to send them re-pressed copies of the game? Considering that gamers are completely accustomed to getting whatever they want when they complain now (Mass Effect 3) I’m sure they did. I hated the ending of Mega Man X8. For over a decade I played those games and felt cheated by the “conclusion” I got. Did I write to Capcom and tell them to change it? No. I put the game away and just reflected on the good times I had with the better games in the series. You know who I really blame for these oversights? Sony. If the PlayStation 2 hard drive and online community wasn’t such a big joke patches for console games would have come into existence much earlier and this wouldn’t have become a “problem.” Still, I count my blessings that didn’t happen. In the pre-DLC era 99.99% of games worked as intended. Sure, gamers ran into balance issues and in turn exploited the hell out of them but they still loved those games. This is why Xseed’s minor slip-up should have been dead and buried years ago. The games that Xseed has brought over since Wild Arms 4 (their first effort) have been a more than adequate apology - and those that really think about it will agree. I mean did you really want Agetech to be the ones who got the rights to localize Wild Arms Alter code: F in the first place? *shudder*

“While no one likes to admit it, there nothing as reassuring as a punch in the gut to remind one that they are still alive.” said Jet.

As simple as a premise as it may seem, I don’t think there is a person alive that will deny that pain is an effective tool in building a character. Well, not so much pain itself, but in how that character deals and overcomes that pain. While there have been numerous examples throughout the history of literature and film (perhaps you can even think of a real-life example) the one most gamers are familiar with – somewhat unfortunately – is the fate of a particular character in Final Fantasy VII. Granted I wouldn’t be so hesitant to reference this event if the fanboys hadn’t placed the game on a sky-high pedestal but they’ve made their bed with that one and they know it. Anyway, while you can’t quite say this is an original plot device, it sure as hell did at that moment, and the way that scene was presented with “Aerith’s Theme” playing in the background and the commencement of a sobering battle it’s easy to see why it was not just a defining moment in the game but for the genre itself. So what does this have to do with Wild Arms 4? Well, a lot actually. Wild Arms 4 is home to a similar scene and it couldn’t be anymore beautiful and brutal if it tried. It’s “brutable.” Also, you DO NOT talk about fight club. Oops, sorry, wrong piece of entertainment. Regardless, when it comes to these two scenes I think Wild Arms pulls slightly ahead (*Final Fantasy fanboys gasp*) because the event is a little more untelegraphed – e.g. surprising – than a certain black caped man’s assault. Surprise is another feature of narrative you can’t underestimate, whether is revolves around a pink dressed flower girl or former heretical ARMS researchers from the defunct Global Union.

“Puzzle solving: a previous passion rejuvenated or an illusion of lies leading to the darkest depths of the abyss? inquired Cecilia.

One of my favorite aspects of the Wild Arms series has always been the puzzles. It’s true that Media Vision owes a lot to Zelda when it comes to this but then it’s not quite the kind of sticky-finger grab that manifested itself as a mere carbon copy. Wild Arms, or more specifically, Wild Arms and Wild Arms 2 made this type of gameplay theirs and I absolutely bathed my brain in its utter delights. Then something happened. That something was Wild Arms 3 and a lot of unfortunate things happened in and with that game – one of the biggest victims being the brain teaser. Gone where those intelligent puzzles that would have me stumped for a few days, hours or until I broke down and looked on the internet or that horrible text-only Prima guide. Much like the series’ combat the puzzle solving aspects of Wild Arms 3 joined the growing list of things damaged by retread; the watered-down solutions and un-evolving set of tools proved quite damaging. The only real escape from such a freefall was Alter code:F’s wonderful take on the puzzle box quest. Given such a dire diagnosis, does Wild Arms 4 provide the cure or postpone the inevitable? Media Vision mostly postpones the inevitable. We’re still a long ways away from recreating the magic of the first two PlayStation entries but there are some definite glimmers of hope here. Some dungeons are extremely well done (the Valley of Oblivion easily taking home the top prize) and I have to commend the effort. However, this is only one side of the coin that is Wild Arms 4’s puzzle solving; the other, more platform oriented variety (with it’s somewhat “borrowed” identity) really needs to be discussed on its own.

“Does anyone know if the chambermaid switched my copy of Wild Arms with Crash Bandicoot when I wasn’t looking?” asked Greg.

I know the idea of that comparison makes me laugh, especially when you phrase it that way, but it’s downright crazy (and a little sad) that Wild Arms finds the need to emulate another series and genre. But what’s crazy is it manages to work and pry at your reservations even though it never quite assimilates those elements as well as Castlevania did those from Nintendo’s Metroid. But this side-scrolling disguise Wild Arms seems intent on wearing this time around is important for other reasons; namely, making the experience feel more brisk than its predecessors. As it turns out this is one of the underlying principals the game is built on, but when it combines with the fact that your characters don’t make tremendous gains in combat or have a permanent set of tools the pace of the game is once again slowed down. The only thing that really pushes the game forward or advances it is the narrative. This isn’t instinctively wrong as most role playing gurus out there will be quick to admit a good story is fundamental to any self respecting role-playing experience but it fights against the grain of what fans have come to know and expect from more compressive packages.

“And just like that the myriad of pointless and soul-sucking sidequests were banished from the landscape of Filgaia.” said Gallows.

For those that are interested you can complete Wild Arms 4 a little less than twenty hours. Why am I stating this? Because it is one hell of a beautiful and wonderful fact. After spending sixty hours on Wild Arms 3 and Alter code:F (remember that Alter code:F touts it’s sixty hours of gameplay on it’s back cover like a badge) I imagine someone at Media Vision had the balls - or the ovaries – to say “enough is enough.” “We are diluting our product with all these stupid and mindless tasks” they’d say. “Do we really believe players want a one-hundred level dungeon with no save points?” “Do we really think this makes the game better?” I may be deluding myself in thinking this fictitious person actually exists but if they did someone should have given them a medal. No. Someone given them a half a dozen Sheriff Stars. This is part of the reason Wild Arms 4 is so attractive: it lacks these things, these obstructions that masquerade as being worthwhile. They are not. No, I don’t want to fly around the map trying to find the one stupid little square I haven’t crossed over yet and I really don’t want to cast Analyze on half the monsters I come across during the game. When did Wild Arms become synonymous with the words insane and absurd? So yes, the short completion time and manageable list of extras is something the game can hold above its two, mal-proportioned predecessors and it undeniably creates a better end product.

CONCLUSION:

So now that the father’s (our) notepad is filled with observations about our stay at the Grillparzer/Wild Arms 4 and the troubling habits of its make-shift employees/elements what’s the final score? Well, in the story the family leaves the pension in a hustle the following morning with much more negative than positive to say. Then the father interjects and gives the Grillparzer Pension the B rating they are seeking – not because they deserve it – but out of pity. This is where the story and my opinion start to differ. I’m not giving Wild Arms 4 a B because I “feel sorry for it.” No. I’m giving Wild Arms 4 the B rating because - in some ironic way - it deserves it.

But the story is not over. Years later, one of the children that traveled with the family in the story would revisit the Grillparzer pension with their own family. The pension didn’t hold its B rating very long (mirroring the cold fact many people won’t remember Wild Arms 4 for very long) and most of the people that were involved that one peculiar evening long ago have met rather unapologetic ends. So what does the end of this story teach us? What theme is T.S. Garp trying to drive home? Death. The fates of the characters in the story parallel what Wild Arms is desperately trying to avoid – and despite putting forth a good effort here one still gets the feeling that the days of the series (and the viability of the console J-RPG) are numbered. As a product Wild Arms 4 is all about death. It doesn’t do that intentionally but the mood and the feelings are there and are unmistakable – and time would ultimately prove it to be true. Wild Arms is now gone while Media Vision tries to avoid its own “death” by working on uninspired, licensed products. Art often imitates life they say, but like the characters in Garp’s own life that inspired his writing there is no denying that “we are all terminal cases” – Wild Arms included.


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