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From Software has a track record for making some of the worst RPGs for the last generation of consoles. Both Evergrace and Eternal Ring were woefully poor; and Evergrace's sequel, Forever Kingdom, was only mediocre. When they announced Enchanted Arms (originally [eM] -eNCHANT arM- in Japan) as their debut title for the console, everyone's expectations were low. It seemed that From Software would rush their projects to hit shelves soon after a console's release; as a result, the end product would be shoddy.
Originally scheduled as a launch title in Japan, Enchanted Arms was pushed back a month after the Japanese Xbox 360 release date. Along with the low expectations came low sales and low review scores. The big surprise, then, was that Ubisoft announced the US release of Enchanted Arms soon afterwards, and even showcased it as a playable title at E3 2006 in May.
While specific scores do vary, the general public reaction to Enchanted Arms has, so far, been similar to what we saw in Japan: low sales, bitter reviewers. Keeping an open mind and 45 hours of free time allowed me to make a fairly objective assessment of the game (unlike so many who put the game down and judge it after playing the introductory 5 hours...or less!). Considering how jaded I am from playing so many RPGs, I was surprised by how much I simply enjoyed From Software's surprisingly decent title.
The game opens with two typical RPG clichés: destruction of your hometown and talk of a destructive war 1000 years prior. But before either of those things happen, you meet three important characters. You control Atsuma, and are school chums with Toya and Makoto. Atsuma is a clumsy, goofy guy with an ultra-powerful right arm; Toya is the all-star student, top in his class, as well as in athletics and social standing; Makoto is the openly and flagrantly homosexual member of the group, nursing a hopeless crush on Toya. This unrequited love, among other things, allows for a unique dynamic of character interaction that is rarely found in RPGs. Even early on, the dialogue is a treat.
Atsuma and his friends are at school, listening to a lecture from Professor Kou about the legend of the Golem War, which supposedly took place 1000 years ago. Through this (and a few other opening narratives), you learn that there were especially powerful "Devil Golems" from each of the three cities that nearly wiped out the civilized world, if they had not been sealed away. These three golems came from the three major cities: Yokohama, London, and Kyoto. Note that a "names and places are fictional" disclaimer precedes the game's opening, despite these cities being aptly named to describe our real world.
Atsuma convinces Toya and Makoto to skip afternoon classes so they can attend an ongoing festival. All goes well until a powerful earthquake (the most recent of several) shakes the city up. Then, the town's golems go berserk and start attacking people. Atsuma inadvertently gets to the bottom of the situation (literally) by going under Yokohama's school and meeting the beautiful but evil Queen of Ice, one of the three devil golems. A series of unfortunate events occur from here, separating Atsuma from his two friends and leaving the powerful Queen of Ice to do as she pleases. For starters, of course, she massacres all of Yokohama with her icy powers, leaving none alive.
Though he has no idea how he got there, Atsuma wakes up in a jail at London City. Here he meets up with two more of the three remaining playable characters. Lady Karin, also imprisoned for the time being, is a noble of London City who seems to know a lot about Atsuma, though Atsuma does not recognize her. The two of them are rescued by Raigar, Karin's strong-and-silent-type personal bodyguard.
The game continues, spanning approximately 50 hours of a fairly standard linear plot. The final character, Yuki, eventually joins the team as well. This young up-start is the self-proclaimed "number one Golem Hunter" and the only character in the whole game dressed like a country cowgirl. Their adventures take them across all three major cities and many corresponding dungeons. Atsuma is adamant on finding and rescuing Toya, and the party is frequently aided by a blond-haired "Mystery Man." He, among many of the other "mysteries" of the game, are easily solved long before the game is finished. Many of the game's turning points are predictable by design, as the scenario writer saw fit to give hints along the way.
The one thing I have failed to address along the way is the power of Atsuma's right arm, and how it relates to enchanting, magic, and golems. Much of the tale centers around Atsuma's "enchanted" arm, which had the power to break the seal on the Queen of Ice and seems to have a number of other extraordinary powers. However, it seems that the arm is sentient; it has a mind of its own, and it likes to tell Atsuma what to do. Atsuma generally replies to these commands with the words "shut up!," but oftentimes his verbal resistance happens in vain.
The big selling point for Enchanted Arms, in my opinion, is character interaction. Though sometimes redundant, the dialogue is always charming and sometimes quite heartfelt, striking genuine cords in this player's heart. Along with the four playable characters, many other characters become major players in the story, and even the villain herself is an interesting character, as her motives are veiled until the end of the game.
As a plot, the game is telling a standard "man vs. machine" tale, which is derived from the "man vs. man" archetype, as the machine (golem) was created by man. Though the final boss sequence holds little that is deserving of praise, the ending is quite satisfying.
All of From Software's RPGs actually had interesting premises in their "enchanting" worlds, but this is the first one to have decent execution. Also, Ubisoft did a fair job with the translation, which was frequently tweaked as a dynamic (rather than static) translation. Some of Atsuma's dialogue was corny, but when things got serious, Ubisoft's translators did an excellent job at expressing complex ideas and emotions. This game's story is getting an 82% from me for being enjoyable in terms of writing, though highly unoriginal in scope.
Someone recently commented to me about how they weren't impressed by screenshots for Enchanted Arms. Either the screenshots were poorly taken, or my acquaintance has a strange taste in graphical content.
Suffice it to say that Enchanted Arms lives up to "next-generation" graphical standards. The game is simply gorgeous. All the environments are breathtaking, as are the frequent FMV sequences (something I've found lacking in many recent PS2 titles). My one and only complaint about this game's graphics is in regards to the text. In short, the text is too small. However, as I own a small TV, I suspect that the game looks fine on a larger and/or high-definition TV.
I cannot stress this point enough: generally, games late in a console's life are refined, but games early in a console's life are prone to both graphical and programming flaws. From Software's graphics teams (which, according to the end credits, included a very long list of Chinese and Japanese individuals) overcame the obstacle of developing for a new platform and made this game look stunning. It's one small notch above Final Fantasy XII's graphics, and it will probably not be outdone by rivaling RPGs until Final Fantasy XIII comes. I mean that.
Also, in a somewhat related note, I'd like to point out that all Xbox games are shiny. Light seems to reflect off of every surface, and certain objects seem to emit their own light. Fans of Bungie's Halo have surely noticed this, but it seems that most games developed for Microsoft's console had excellent (if overdone) lighting effects. There is a certain glowing feeling to Enchanted Arm's graphics that demonstrate this capability; I for one appreciated it.
Let's give the graphics a 96% and move on before naysayers come after me with pitchforks.
From Software's old lineup of of music composers, led by Kota Hoshino, seems to have been replaced by a new team, led by Yuki Ichiki. Ichiki and co. have their own sound that is just as eccentric as Hoshino's, though for entirely different reasons. Many tunes are atmospheric; mechanical dungeons are accompanied with music that has clanging metal sounds and other sound effects, such as the emitting of smoke from a small contraption. Other songs rely on very unique melodic and rhythmic loops mixed in different ways. Very few songs are simply tonal in nature, but it actually works quite nicely within the game. I reviewed the stand-alone soundtrack months ago and enjoyed it for what it was, but I appreciate what the composers did much more having experienced it in the game.
Sadly, Ubisoft took a step backwards and felt the need to cut the Japanese theme song, Mai's "Reborn," from the game. They didn't even use an instrumental version; they replaced it with an entirely different song. In contrast, however, Ubisoft did keep an option allowing players to choose English or Japanese spoken dialogue. I frequently switched from one to the other to get a taste of both casts.
The Japanese actors remind me of your typical anime cast. Our hero, Atsuma, is the go-getter kind of guy you'd expect based on his facial expressions. Toya sounds serious and pensive, while Makoto squeaks and squeals. Karin is reserved but stern, as is Raigar. Yuki is the stereotypical annoying girl that nearly every RPG has as a rule. The villains sound dark and ominous, and random NPCs are well-played. The Golems (friend or foe, they say the same stuff) are an added touch that the Japanese did well.
The English cast replaces all the voices except that of the Golems (I'm guessing we're to assume that Golem-language and Japanese are one in the same). The cast is led by Johnny Hawkes, the voice actor for Atsuma. Among all the characters, I will say flat out that his performance was the worst. For starters, he would regularly mispronounce Japanese names ("Makoto" becomes "Makato" and "Yokohama" becomes "Yokohoma"). I know he's supposed to be a dopey guy, but this was plain ignorance on the part of the actor. Other English voices got their Japanese names right (for the most part), but this discrepancy grated on my nerves more than any single thing in the game. It was also apparent that Atsuma recorded his lines out of context from conversations. Example: Karin says "what do you mean?" to Atsuma. In reply, Atsuma returns with an expected "what do you mean?!" (emphasizing the "you," which would be expected). However, in the recording, Mr. Hawkes says "what do you mean?" as though he was the first one to say it. The result in-game is revolting, and unfortunately, it happens a lot. In Hawkes' defense, he had more lines than anyone else; but I did not catch this problem with any of the other characters, so I think it does say something about the main character's voice talent that these problems were so frequent.
The other characters are generally on par with the Japanese actors, though their delivery was often less enthusiastic than that of the Japanese. Being the purist that I am, I can easily say that I preferred listening to the Japanese voice actors; that is, until my eyes were tired of reading the small text and I needed someone to say the words to me aloud.
With a better lead for Atsuma and the inclusion of Mai's "Reborn," I would have given the game's sound an 85%, maybe even a 90%. After all, I do appreciate the music and the option to listen to the Japanese voice actors. However, these flaws simply cannot be overlooked. And, considering how much Atsuma talks, I'm going to have to give a major deduction and give sound a 78%.
I'll be splitting gameplay into three, general categories: exploration, battles, and character customization and growth.
As a lengthy turn-based RPG, the game's exploration is remarkably similar to Final Fantasy X, which has become the standard for the genre in the last half-decade. Generally, the game works like this: third-person with the camera centered on the character, a mini-navigator in the top-right corner of the screen, and buttons to talk and/or interact with NPCs and objects, go to a menu, and check the full area map. Though short tutorials in the form of dialogue are forced upon the player, anyone who has played even one RPG prior to this game should be able to figure things out without the help of these explanations.
Taking a cue from X-2, there are some action-based exploration options, such as the grappling beam and the obligatory box-pushing. Obviously, if there is box-pushing, there are puzzles. Nearly every dungeon has a puzzle, and some near the end of the game have many puzzles. True to form, the puzzles become more challenging as the game progresses, but none of them had me going to walkthroughs for help.
Whole hour-long sections of the game involve town exploration and trigger-based dialogue to allow the game's plot to continue. This was a point of frustration for me, to the point where I did have to grovel and beg for help from an online walkthrough (just once, though, and only because I didn't want to waste time).
Everything happens on foot. There is no world map, and there are no vehicles.
Now, on to battles. With the exception of optional golem fights (allowing you to acquire hidden golems that appear on the map), the game uses random encounters. More specifically, it's used a lot. Though it seems to vary when traveling through areas with weaker enemies or areas you've visited before, the encounter rate is fairly high.
Battles are entirely turn-based, with no "ATB" feature of any kind. Your side goes first (up to four members), and then the enemy gets a turn. The twist on the turn-based action is that the battles take place on a 4x6 grid, cut down the middle to create a 3x4 player's side and opposing enemy's side (this line cannot be crossed by you or the opponent). The last RPG I've played that worked in this manner was Squaresoft's Super Famicom import title "LiveALive." It's good to see the grid-based system return.
Each character has a set of skills (up to five, which can be chosen and customized in the main menu) that affect targets on the grid. Support skills, which highlight squares in green, will only work on the player's side, whereas attacks will show up red and only work on the enemy's side. Direct and ranged attacks exist; some will have a wide range, others will be a straight column. Some may have a "dotted" aspect to cover particular spots in range, and others will take up large portions or even the entire enemy side. Setting up your skills to allow a diversity in attacks is wise, but each type of skill (direct, ranged, or support) is effective based upon three status parameters of the same name; and different weapons (the only equippable piece of gear) emphasize different stats accordingly.
Along with the four playable characters, over 80 golems are available throughout the game to join your party. A small fraction of these can be kept in the "reserve" party to gain experience points from battle. Should you choose it, any and all main characters other than Atsuma can be swapped between battles with golems. Each golem has a specialty in terms of type of skills and elemental alignment (the four main characters are also aligned by element). All of this amounts to battles that are generally more strategic than your standard turn-based RPG.
However, should you choose, every turn can be run on an "auto" mode, and the battle can be fast-forwarded with the power of the Y button. Because most random encounters weren't too challenging, I'd say I fought nearly all of my random encounters on auto mode. In terms of convenience, it's wonderful, and very much akin to Lunar. The AI isn't exceptional, but it's definitely a timesaver. The only danger with this feature is when you hit your first difficult boss and you know nothing about your character's abilities.
Speaking of bosses...in all RPGs, they generally come in three flavors: pathetically weak, decent challenge, or tear-your-eyes-out atrociously difficult. The latter category usually happens due to a gaming imbalance; i.e., the boss is over-leveled or has "cheap" abilities. The bosses in Enchanted Arms run a steady progression up the ladder to the point of the last boss, who is extraordinarily difficult unless you take the time to level grind. After three hours of failed attempts, I spent three hours fighting mindless random encounters and boosting my character's stats with leftover SP; then, finally, I was narrowly able to beat the last boss (particularly the hardest section of the chain of end fights).
Character statistics come in a variety of points. There are the typical HP and EP (health and "ether," which is magic/ability points), FP (friend points, used for combos), TB (tablets, the monetary unit), SP (skill points, used to acquire new skills and boost specific statistics), VP (vitality, like the "life points" of a SaGa title), EXP (duh), and the EX gauge (a shared party meter from 0 to 100 that is used for special attacks). I probably missed some other type of points during that explanation. The point is that Enchanted Arms is "point" happy. It's a lot to remember and manage.
Anyone who cares to collect every golem in the game will be hard-pressed due to two constraints: money and gems. Gems come in three forms: power, mind, and speed. These three gems can be purchased for a moderate fee and are regularly dropped from random encounters. They are used to synthesize golems from cores (obtained from battles or purchased for a hefty price) or to synthesize weapons. Despite all the tutorials, no one ever says to "choose wisely," but given the constraints, your options are "choose wisely" or "fight a ton of battles," because there isn't a lot of money coming around.
As I said before, the game takes roughly 50 hours to complete, and there are some bonus dungeons with your obligatory "super-hard" secret bosses to take on, each with worthwhile awards. Other than that, mini-games are few, but they do include a casino and some fetch quests, offered throughout the game and especially at the near-end point. It's all standard procedure, I'm sure you'll agree.
I appreciated the many conveniences of the battle system and the game as a whole, and I was pleased with the challenge of most boss battles. I loathe end-game level grinds, but that may just be a personal gripe. For having a fun and interesting battle system, and for otherwise being a very functional game in terms of play, I award Enchanted Arms' gameplay a respectable 89%. It's not innovative enough to warrant an "A" level score, but it did bring back some relatively obscure gameplay features (such as the grid system).
There's little to say about control. Everything is functional. I would have liked to leave the "fast forward" during battles on without having to hold the Y button. That was my only issue. The game could have used a little more diversity in button management (the "A" button does everything during exploration). The right analog stick controls the camera well, so that's good news. Otherwise, that's about it. Nothing impressive, and nothing problematic. Let's go with an 85%.
I don't understand what it was so many critics had against this game. I'd like to point out that, in my own personal opinion, the game bears a striking resemblance to Sony's Legend of Dragoon (for PlayStation) in style and manner, though not in gameplay. And, similarly, I thought Legend of Dragoon was a solid, above-average RPG, even as others mocked it, calling it an "FF clone."
Penny-Arcade recently ran a strip about this very title, poking fun at reviewers that reviewed the title so scathingly for the sole reason that it plays like a traditional turn-based RPG. This, of course, is sheer lunacy, and I for one will not stand for it. From Software's older RPGs were barely playable, but this one was one of my favorite RPGs of the year. The eye candy is the game's defining feature, but it doesn't attempt to stand on that aspect alone. And, stand it does: I give Enchanted Arms an 84%. Skeptics can eat it.