Out on a limb.
The first thing to know about Enchanted Arms, the new and first Japanese RPG for the Xbox 360, is that its title is refreshingly literal. In the game, your actual arm is enchanted. To understand the clever irony of this title, you need to go back just twenty seconds to before you read the first few sentences of this review. What did you think Enchanted Arms was about just from its title? I bet you wouldn’t have guessed it was about actual arms. I bet you didn’t know that “Gears of War” is about building cogs and camshafts for Halliburton either.
But despite flying in the face of obscure and metaphorical RPG titling conventions, Enchanted Arms
draws from a long pedigree of adventure RPG’s, most notably Final Fantasy
. It’s both shinier and less personable than its illustrious forbears, leading to a pleasant, if somewhat familiar, escape from fifty hours of your actual life.
You play as Atsuma, a young student in Yokohama City who has, mysteriously, a magic arm. In this world, or should I say gaia, the main technology is enchantment, which is sort of like magic electricity. Enchantment makes the trains run, makes platforms move, and, most importantly, makes Golems, or magic robots. Your arm’s special ability is that it mucks up enchantment in all its forms. So Atsuma, a student at the Enchantment School, is almost universally avoided—his arm screws up science projects.
From this set-up, the rest of the story is a walk down RPG memory lane. Golems are the equivalent to robot slaves, and, as we all should know from experience, robot slaves are always a bad idea. The Golems run amok, an ancient evil force is released, and Atsuma is separated from his only friends and must make new ones to go and rescue the old ones. Atsuma’s arm is apparently at the center of all the bad mojo but also makes Atsuma one hell of a pugilist. There is a lot of story-telling, lots of dialogue, both voiced and unvoiced, and a plot that is as deep and complicated as it is predictable and familiar. On the story-side, Enchanted Arms is about par for the course.
The characters are a smidgen less compelling than the story. Most are shallow RPG stereotypes: Atsuma punches a lot (where have we seen that before?), the females tend to be healer and support types, and the males tend to be androgynous and, in one case at least, flamboyantly transsexual. That character, by the way, gets some of the best translation innuendos. For example, when he (or she) gushes over the “Makoto Love Lunch” that he has prepared for one of the more closeted characters, he mentions that it contains “the pinkest of pickles!” Hey, at least it didn’t include tossed salad
There are only a few human characters that will join your party during the course of the game, but many more Golem characters. By finding and defeating hidden Golems, you can add a plethora of robot monsters to your party. Whereas the human characters can learn new skills, use special attacks, and equip weapons, the golems only use a few set, but usually powerful, skills. Golems and human characters alike each have affinities to the elements, making them more vulnerable to opposite affinity attacks, but also able to take advantage of enemy vulnerabilities. This, like most of the RPG combat conventions, should be no surprise.
It is surprising, however, that the game’s simple grid-like combat system actually one-ups traditional turn-based combat. Battles takes place on a square grid, and with each turn you can move your characters then give them action commands. Each attack has its own area of effect, which means that fighter characters take the front lines while magic-users tend toward the back. Taking cover behind other characters halves damage, and certain attacks freeze enemies to their grid squares. Combat at first seems pretty simple, but as you acquire varieties of attacks, with differing effects and areas of effect, battles become intensely strategic affairs. Deciding who will move where and who attacks when is almost like solving a logic puzzle—and since your placement on the battlefield is always random, the puzzle is never the same. Cheers for a battle system that requires a new strategy every time!
Even more interesting is the fact that every battle begins with your party at full health. Any negative conditions (poison, unconsciousness, etc.) are removed after the end of every battle. Also, any lost battle can be replayed, and although this sounds like it means one would never lose, frequently—at least at higher levels—Atsuma and company will run into groups of monsters
they cannot defeat. Rather than making hit points persistent, the game introduces a new point meter, called Vitality Points, which reduces slowly during each battle, depending on how much damage the character takes. Run out of vitality points, and your character will begin the battles with only one hit point.
Okay, so that’s a lot of math, but what it boils down to is this: each battle is its own mini-game, and even if you just manage to squeak through one battle doesn’t mean your characters will be hurting for the next. However, as your VP dwindles, characters will have to be swapped out of your party for healthy ones. Since you can only take a set number of Golems in your travels (the others stay in a virtual warehouse), choosing your eight golems is as important as choosing your four battle characters. It’s a new system, and initially a confusing one, but it keeps battle fresh and fair and encourages you to try new combinations of characters.
However, one might complain about the number of numbers, all with acronyms that sound vaguely the same. You will have to keep track of HP, VP, EP, SP, and TB—all of which stand for very different things. I kind of prefer words to acronyms, call me old-fashioned.
Also, for all the variety in golems and in battle situations, there’s a palpable lack of customization options for the human characters. Weapons are few and far between, as are new and useful skills. Support skills, which are “always on,” help you make the characters distinctive, but you never really get to nerd out over a character’s abilities or equipment. Pretty disappointing for a game that features a transsexual
Enchanted Arms could also use some graphical variety, since the game itself is big on twinkle but short on visual distinction. Characters are nicely drawn and environmental textures are next-gen detailed, but the characters have few animations (in dialogue they have none) and the textures are frequently reused. The 3-D world itself tends toward cubism, and were it not for the quality of the textures and the brilliant skies (the skies are incredible) it might be interchangeable with the rectangular realms of the 64-bit era. Shiny glowing runes and sparkles seem to shout out “next-gen” but the giant swatches of uniform texture behind them whisper “first gen.”
And that whisper echoes throughout the game, because the world itself is as linear as a traffic tunnel. Rather than use a common over-world map, Enchanted Arms
trots your party through cave-like map after cave-like map, never really giving your characters a chance to free-roam. While there are still a good deal of secrets and hidden chests, exploring feels more like rooting through a closet than adventuring through a giant world.
The music is pretty good overall, which is important in a game where you will listen to the same theme for hours. The end-of-battle music sounds suspiciously familiar, but I’ll have to do a side-by-side comparison before saying that it is a copy of Final Fantasy’s all-too-familiar ditty.
The voices fare the worst, and, in some cases, make their characters detestable. I know that I’m supposed to find the crass princess kind of desirable, but just a few of her over-acted squeaky lines make Makoto’s pink pickles sound like a decent alternative.
Enchanted Arms is a decent, if forgettable, RPG romp through familiar lands, with familiar faces, for familiar goals. Its surprisingly thoughtful and intelligent battle system mostly makes up for its weak character customization, lackluster graphics and overly linear world. Overall, it’s not a bad first Japanese RPG for the 360, even if it isn’t first in anything else.