What does it mean to fly? Are wings all that are needed? Or does it require something else—something that can’t be told, but must be lived and learned? Released in October 2002 for the PS2 by Media Vision, Wild Arms 3 is the third installment in the Wild Arms series. While not praised as often as Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest titles in the same generation over the years, Wild Arms 3 has managed to retain a smaller but no less dedicated fanbase who regard it as a classic for the console. And today I’m gonna try and explain what about this game manages to captivate players even 20 years after its initial release.
Our story takes place in a world of seemingly endless desert known as the Wasteland, a harsh and unforgiving environment to anyone who would dare to venture into it, but the call of adventure and untold secrets are powerful, and those who brave the danger are known as “drifters”. One night on a seemingly unsuspecting train, we meet four of these drifters: Our main protagonist Virginia, a young loner named Jet, an experienced drifter named Clive, and an ex-shaman named Gallows, who all suddenly find their paths and destinies crossing. After working together for a short job, Virginia proposes a request for them to form a long-term team. Seeing no downside, the other three agree (with only mild grumbling from Jet). What Virginia doesn’t realize is that her and her new friends will soon find themselves embroiled in mysteries and secrets that endanger the entire world. Questions involving how the world became such a desolate place, the truth behind the Guardians that protect the planet from harm, and most importantly for Virginia, the whereabouts of her father.
The story of Wild Arms 3 is a deceptively simple one at first, but as it goes on, evolves into a larger tale of memories, ideals, convictions, and duty. The Wild West tone of the setting can be deceptive, as the narrative actually holds a lot of sci-fi elements as the story goes on; the combination of the two manages to feel very organic. Complimenting all this is some very solid pacing throughout. Scenes rarely, if ever, feel like they’re dragging or taking too long to resolve, and the main mysteries at the core of the plot feel like they are given sufficient room to breathe to allow their eventual payoffs to be satisfying.
What really helps make all this shine are the four core party members, each of whom gets ample time to show off their varying backstories, personalities and character developments. As a group they click and bounce off each other incredibly well, which helps to enhance and prop up each other’s individual arcs whenever they’re in the spotlight.
Our main protagonist Virginia, is an idealist who decides to become a drifter to prove that she’s finally “gained her wings” while also looking for her father who has been missing for the past 10 years. Throughout the game Virginia’s initial idealism is constantly challenged by the realities of being a drifter, especially when it comes to other drifters who may not share her idealism. However, what makes Virginia especially interesting as a character is that she doesn’t take those challenges as a sign that her ideals are wrong or that there’s no place for them. Instead she takes it as a sign she needs to mature those ideals—to combine them with experience and realism to make sure that she can actually follow through on them. This, along with her charismatic attitude, leads to Virginia being one of the most unique RPG protagonists I’ve come across.
We then have our resident loner Jet, who is wandering the wasteland searching for clues about his past, as his memory is a total blank prior to a certain point. As a loner, Jet is the most standoffish of the four and the one most likely to challenge Virginia on a decision. Despite his attitude, his arc is incredibly fitting; despite being a loner, the game goes on to show that of our four drifters, he’s the one who needs comradery and connections the most in order to grow into his best self. Many of his scenes ended up being some of the most memorable for that reason.
Next we have Clive, an experienced drifter who’s traveling the wasteland to investigate the cause of the planet’s condition after his former mentor failed to reach an answer. He’s easily the most level headed of the four and this lets him take on an almost parental role to the younger and more impulsive members. Clive is arguably the party member with the least development, yet despite that he still gets plenty of opportunities to shine and show the depths of his character. As befitting his more scholarly mindset, he’s also a great source of a lot of the lore surrounding the plot.
Lastly we have Gallows, a former shaman in training of the Baskar colony of mystics. Gallows sets out as a drifter to assert control over a life he feels has been preordained for him. Despite his animosity, he’s still an incredibly powerful shaman who retains a deep understanding of the workings of the mystical components of the world; this dichotomy is what leads to his resulting character arc having such a strong impact—that struggle between who he’s been told to be versus who he’s already inclined to be. Like with the rest of the party, this leads to some incredible moments with Gallows at the center.
Beyond the main party, the game does have some supporting characters, though there aren’t as many as you would expect from a JRPG around this time. The most noteworthy of the supporting cast would be the Schrodinger family, specifically their leader Maya, who early on becomes something of a rival to Virginia as she begins her life as a Drifter. The game also has a surprising amount of villains throughout its runtime. This is sadly undercut, however, by a majority of the villains being very one-note and lacking a lot of depth. The sole exception to this is Janus, who you meet early on, and is a recurring villain throughout the game; he even undergoes something of a villainous arc of his own. It’s a shame the rest of the villains don’t follow suit and stand as the biggest negative to the game’s story and cast.
Combat in Wild Arms 3 plays out like many turn based RPGs, but with a few added wrinkles that make for a very unique system. The first of these is the FP (short for Force Points) gauge which increases every time you deal damage with physical attacks or take damage. Once it rises high enough, you can begin using either magic or abilities, however, the twist comes with how the gauge is used. If you decide to use magic, then the gauge isn’t actually depleted; as long as your FP is high enough you can use that particular spell as many times as you want. However, if you use an ability then the meter is properly depleted and you now have to build the meter up again. It makes for an interesting balancing act of using enough normal attacks to build up the meter and then deciding the right moment to use your meter for magic and abilities to help you in battle. Those abilities come in handy, and are unique to each character, such as Virginia’s mystic ability allowing her to spread the effect of an item through the whole party.
Magic in Wild Arms 3 is granted by equipping “Guardians” to the characters, with different Guardians granting different spells. That on its own is pretty standard, but what makes them unique is how you can apply items to individual Guardians that grant them different passive abilities such as resistance to certain status effects, or a higher critical hit chance.
All of these different mechanics combine into an interesting combat system that can lead to some very dynamic fights. The bosses in particular often do a great job of making you think about all your options, especially as they often feel more like puzzles than traditional boss fights. For example, early on you encounter a giant turtle enemy with a steel shell. Attacking it normally does little damage but a note earlier in the dungeon hints at a weakness. If you hit it with a fire spell then cool it down with an ice spell, the shell will become brittle and shatter with the next attack. Most of the bosses are like this—unique battles that often require an out of the box approach to overcome. Honestly the only real knock I have for the combat is that despite the puzzle-like bosses and in depth mechanics the overall game ends up being pretty easy as it’s not terribly hard to keep yourself alive and by the time bosses start hitting harder you should be well stocked on healing items.
Another key aspect to the gameplay of Wild Arms 3 is exploration both in dungeons and in towns. Dungeons are often maze-like set pieces with a variety of puzzles to test your wit. These puzzles are decently head-scratching, especially when they sometimes ask you to use the various adventure tools the party receives throughout the game in interesting ways. While you’re traversing the world map, as well as in dungeons, you also have access to a meter in the top left of the screen that allows you to ignore random encounters for as long as you have points to spare. As you go through the game, the amount of points and rank of the meter will increase with certain items, allowing you to ignore a greater variety of encounters and with more frequency.
Some of the most unique mechanics, however, lie in towns. As is typical for the genre, the world is littered with NPCs that you can talk to get a better understanding of your surroundings and where to go next, but Wild Arms 3 puts a greater emphasis on it than you normally see in an RPG. Frequently, as you’re talking with NPCs you see certain keywords highlighted green in their text box. If you select these they’ll give you more information regarding that keyword, whether it be just more backstory, a side quest or even possibly directions to a new location. This is tied in with the next major mechanic which is the world map scanning. You see, aside from the first town, the entire world map is barren and it’s up to you to scan your surroundings with the push of a button to find and access new dungeons and towns. On paper that sounds like an obtuse mechanic, but with the NPC information gathering it actually leads to a very unique world map and exploration. NPCs now have incredible importance as they’re necessary to figure out where to go next, then once you have that information it’s up to you to follow and find your next destination. I feel it helps put you in the mindset of a drifter. Asking around town for any juicy information before setting your sights on a new direction and physically looking for it yourself, and it can lead to some fun finds like hidden items, or even a series of pyramids that house optional puzzle rooms.
There are a few negatives I have for it, however; the game lacks any kind of journal feature to keep track of all this—not even for the main story, so unless you’re keeping track of the NPC information in the real world it’s more than possible to get a bit lost. Along with that, it’s definitely possible to end up pixel-hunting a bit because you’re not in the exact right spot for your scanner to pick up on a new location.
Visually the game doesn’t look half-bad. The unique cel-shading and menu style is reminiscent of old parchment paper, which helps give the game a unique visual style that suits the Wild West aesthetic very well. The style also helps to mask the lack of raw fidelity the game has due to being an early PS2 title. Character design and boss designs are also a keen highlight of the game’s presentation. The main party obviously gets the most attention, but the rest of the supporting cast also have very striking designs that both offer unique silhouettes and good use of colors.
Easily the best aspect of the game’s presentation is the music. Composed by Michiko Naruke, the game’s score absolutely nails the Wild West tone and atmosphere, with slow guitars, piano, violins, and even some whistling to really add to that aesthetic; the OST manages to do all that while still having a great range of tracks as well, from the heart-thumping battle themes, to slower, more melancholic pieces. Personal favorites would be Fate Breaker, Long Days of Rest, Crossfire Sequence, Ready Lady Gunner, and The End of the Beginning.
After all this, it’s not hard to see why Wild Arms 3 has managed to hold on to such a devoted fan base over the years. While lacking the budget and graphical fidelity of many of its JRPG contemporaries, its unique battle system, great artstyle, memorable soundtrack, along with a wonderful story and cast of characters, help it to punch well above its weight class.
Thankfully Wild Arms has seen a re-release on the PS4’s online store for only 15 dollars USD, which is a steal as far as I’m concerned. Alternatively if you do want to track down an original copy, Wild Arms 3 is actually surprisingly affordable from various resellers, hovering around 20-40 dollars, in contrast to many of the other PS2 Wild Arms titles which often go up to triple digit prices.
If you’ve never played the series before, Wild Arms 3 is a more than worthy addition to anyone’s JRPG diet.