Wild ARMs 4
XSEED's first game is freakin' awesome.
Published: January 10, 2006
The inclusion of an almost mini-game-like smattering of hidden gella orbs that appear when the accelerator is kicked on (again, this is why reading the preview is a good idea if you're feeling lost right now) offers a great kind of race to beat the clock. Finding where the developers hid the orbs in plain sight and then hauling butt to get as many in a row as possible (they offer increasing payoffs the more you can get in a single go) adds the perfect level of distraction and side exploration to the normal movements.
It's really hard to overstate how fun just running around is, and the inclusion of a platformer element to things isn't a fluke -- the mini-games that use old ROMs in a sort of emulated 8-bit look prove the developers knew what they were doing. The level designs, clever placement of puzzles and bits of jumping around and the tightness to the controls all make for an amazingly addictive experience -- and that's before you even get to the battle system.
It's not all sunshine and rainbows, of course. The translation can seem painfully pedestrian at times, and stuff like limited cash and experience can mean the game can be unnecessarily hard at times, and what would normally be remedied by a bit of level grinding -- something I typically enjoy in RPGs because I'm a freak like that -- is all but impossible because for most of the game you can't backtrack to earlier locations and the enemies in surrounding areas (if there are any you can visit without progressing the storyline) don't cough up nearly enough cash or experience to make the grind worth it.
Eventually, you'll just start to throw experience and cash-doubling items on the players at the start of boss battles and hope everyone survives to gain two or three levels and rake in money at the end. It's a poor way to stay matched with the enemy difficulty in areas, and it can be frustrating. Not nearly as frustrating, though, as the enemies that can actually steal experience during fights, causing you to drop a level. It's probably the most poorly designed part of an RPG that features experience in such meager amounts.
The latter puzzles that force you to use a wand to shoot a stream at a teleportation bad can likewise border on controller-throwing frustration. They're featured sparingly, but they require a precision that the player movements just can't match most of the time, and it leads to a lot of running back and forth to get a seemingly straight line to fire off a shot that juuuuust misses the target.
The game is also quite short and linear for a RPG. My final play time -- with exploration and a bit of buffer time when I was goofing around with the game on -- was a few minutes over 30 hours. Up until the end of the game, you're forced along a straight path with no backtracking to pick up missed items, and though the developers buried plenty of extra goodies for those that want to head back and check up on old spots, most will probably just want to end the storyline at the final dungeon and boss fight (which the game alerts you to in yet another example of a little touch of refinement).
Nowhere has the series gotten its biggest improvement, though, than in the graphics. It's not just effects, though those are in there too (nobody will be confusing this with a Square effort, mind), but in the texture work that knows it's cartoony from the start, the lighting that is never over zealous but shines when it's really used and the rock-solid 60 fps framerate, which adds more than you can possibly imagine to a genre that classically has issues just holding steady at 30 frames.