EDITOR’S NOTE: This Building Character article contains SPOILERS regarding the plot and character development in Wild Arms 2.
The concept of “romancing” in video games has most certainly come a long way. Rather than create some degree of tension, or come up with some cheesy line like “Words aren’t the only way to tell someone how you feel” and then immediately fade to black…today’s role-playing games often allow you to take things to the next level, in order to portray a (much more) realistic sense of growth and romantic progression between two people. Prior to the new millennium, a game that actually showed romantic growth between two people versus beating you over the head with implied tension (sometimes lasting for years—I’m looking at you once again, Final Fantasy VII) was quite hard to come by.
Enter: Wild Arms 2 and its protagonist Ashley Winchester. The Wild Arms series itself isn’t exactly the most complex of volumes, oftentimes choosing to go with a simpler plot over something more….labyrinthine. And Wild Arms 2, specifically, isn’t without its faults. But, by the time I reached the end, I had to give the game credit for not roping Ashley in with the cheeky girl-sorcerer companion who joins you from the beginning and rarely leaves your side. Instead, the game chooses to build a relationship between Ashley and Marina Irington, a character that is around from the beginning of the story, but also a character that’s never once under the player’s control.
Wild Arms 2 begins just as the previous entry did—a brief prologue for each of the three main characters: Ashley, Brad and Lilka. It’s not long after the game puts Ashley back in the player’s control that you’re introduced to Marina (and the tension). Translation issues aside—the fact that things between those two are a little weird right off the bat comes off crystal clear. But…I think Ashley realizes his feelings for Marina pretty early on. When he goes to the Sword Cathedral, Marina makes him promise that everything will be okay and he’ll come back safe. When things take a turn for the worst, his last words before becoming a demon (briefly) and igniting one of a few overarching plots of the entire game were, “Sorry Marina.”
Thanks to the Guardian Blade, Ashley is given a second chance, and the game truly begins—except now the player controls a human who happens to have the demon who destroyed the world lying dormant within him. For the most part, the relationship between Ashley and Marina follows its predictable course as the plot continues. Ashley brings Marina back a pretty stone from a mission that allows the two to hear each other’s thoughts from far away, provided they’re strong enough. Despite that tender moment, the two have their fair share of communication issues, and…right, the screen pans from Ashley (who’s about to be trapped in space and, you know—die) to Marina looking up at the stars, wondering if Ashley’s going to be all right in the face of a force threatening the world.
There’s a twist. The main character of Wild Arms 2 would have been obliterated/lost in space, were it not for Lord Blazer sleeping within him. That’s always fun.
When Ashley stepped on solid ground after taking a brief pit-stop to some sort of Heaven/Afterlife, the game made a huge point of making sure it was Marina he went back to, not Lilka. Even though I couldn’t have been older than twelve or thirteen at the time….I was certainly intelligent enough to realize Wild Arms 2 was going to handle romance a little differently than Final Fantasy VII or most of its contemporaries.
From that point on, things get more intense between Ashley and Marina. The game actually shows the two kissing instead of spending twenty more hours beating around the bush. And there’s even a few moments where the player can clearly see some of the “dark times” in their relationship…like when Ashley transforms into KnightBlazer in front of her and she reacts with fear (despite being rescued). And when her fear is justified, and Ashley (who is being overpowered by Lord Blazer) attempts to take her life…she doesn’t hold it against him. There’s real growth in Wild Arms 2—growth I hadn’t seen in role-playing games thus far. Without revealing too much of the game’s plot…everything leads up to this climactic clash between Ashley and Lord Blazer. Once everything is right in the world, the game sees fit to end. And rather than imply that Ashley and Marina are going to live happily ever after, the game sees fit to show the player that the two had kids. Twins, no less!
I would argue that by themselves, Ashley and Marina aren’t particularly strong characters. Ashley questions his own identity time and time again while being possessed by a demon. Marina sits on the sidelines questioning if Ashley’s heroics are just a euphemism for needless sacrifice that don’t really count. When left alone, the two often wallow. Ashley is dedicated to saving the world, and Marina is dedicated to keeping Ashley safe. It’s only when they realize their true feelings for each other and manage to set selfish ambitions aside that the two can grow effectively as a collective unit and rid themselves of any and all issues.
Separate, the two are weak. Together, they truly build each other up. For a game created before the likes of Mass Effect, Dragon Age or any given franchise where “romancing” has become a major component, I’d say Wild Arms 2 has shown its merit, with Ashley and Marina serving as the trigger. Of course, theirs isn’t the only relationship in Wild Arms 2 worth highlighting, and Wild Arms 2 isn’t the only game brazen enough to portray an actual relationship between two people. Which older games from the PlayStation era or before have the best romantic development? I’d love to hear your thoughts.