The dating simulator is one of the most prolific and popular genres of video game in Japan. Unfortunately, it’s a genre of video game that would garner you much ridicule in the US. You’re less likely to get beaten up in the locker room if you admit to playing Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater as opposed to Tokimeki Memorial. Extolling Tokimeki Memorial in a US locker room will likely brand you a pathetic loser with poor social skills who cannot interact with real women. Due to that stigma, the dating simulator is a genre of game the US is not quite ready for.
Thousand Arms’ biggest selling point was its inclusion of a Japanese-style dating simulator in it. It was released in 1999 in the wake of Final Fantasy VIII’s looming shadow. RPGs were still a fledgling genre in the US back then, and neophytes to the genre were still seeking comfort in familiarity. Many gamers slammed Final Fantasy VIII for its minor deviation from the comfortable norm set by its predecessor. Therefore, a quirky, offbeat RPG such as Thousand Arms would not be welcomed warmly by the masses because it is a wholly different flavor than the RPGs they are used to. Of course, I’m a fan of almost anything offbeat, unique, and quirky, and I found Thousand Arms quite an enjoyable experience. However, for many, Thousand Arms is an acquired taste.
Thousand Arms is a very cartoony RPG, as evidenced by its visuals. Like such games as Grandia and Xenogears, Thousand Arms uses 2D sprites on 3D polygon backdrops. These sprites are among the crispest, sharpest, and cleanest I’ve seen in a PlayStation RPG. They animate fluidly and have very little pixilation. The sprites are presented in an SD (Super Deformed) style on the field but are full-sized during battles. Both character and enemy sprites are crisply detailed and animate smoothly and fluidly during battles. Oftentimes, the animations of the sprites (both on the field and in battle) are quite comical to watch with their overly exaggerated expressions.
The polygonal backdrops in towns and dungeons have a clean, smooth look to them. There are some seams here and there, but overall a believable world is presented. Like the sprites, the locales have a very cartoony look to them, to complement the feel of the game. One thing I loved about Thousand Arms’ world was that it made use of industrial-revolution style steam technology alongside the traditional fantasy trappings. I describe it as steampunk without the punk. I’ve always found fondness in mixed environments, where the dichotomy of nature and technology weave a tapestry of something more interesting than either element alone.
Polygons are also used during battles for spell effects. The effects are rather simplistic and the spell animations are rather short. I prefer my magic effects to be of the short and sweet variety. There are summon spells used throughout the game as well, but their animations are fairly short, and nowhere near as impressive as those in the later Final Fantasy games.
Like with most modern RPGs, there are many cinematic cutscenes throughout. Most often, they are full-screen anime scenes. The dating segments make use of the full screen anime portrait of the girl du jour, and these portraits are often very expressive based on their emotions. The camera pans very smoothly to segway into the plot based cutscenes, rather than use a black ‘transfer’ screen. There are also CG cutscenes with the hand drawn anime characters superimposed on them. The CG in the game is quite good, with no graininess. While these CG scenes are not as wow worthy as those done by Squaresoft, they are very cool and had me grinning from ear to ear.
Where the graphics take a serious nosedive is on the overland. The character sprite becomes blurry and the polygonal overland is monochromatic and lacks detail. While many RPGs have overlands less detailed than the towns and dungeons, Thousand Arms’ rather dull and boring overland is a sharp contrast to the sharply detailed towns and dungeons. Also, navigation is quite difficult in the overland. You can press the triangle button to bring up a map, but it’s really no help at all. I often found myself accidentally wandering into more advanced territory rather than my intended locale. This resulted in many cheap deaths for me in the initial stages of the game.
The only good thing about the overland is that the camera is static unless you use the shoulder keys to rotate it. While you can rotate it in towns, it’s for naught, because the camera constantly follows you. I wish the camera remained static in towns. The dungeons are not rotatable, but the default camera angles for dungeon crawling are well selected.
Michiru Oshima’s soundtrack lends itself extremely well to the cartoony look and story of Thousand Arms. The simple, catchy arrangements, and liberal use of synthesizers are reminiscent of the soundtrack of Ranma ½. Many of the tunes presented in Thousand Arms are downright hilarious sounding, even outside of the game. I played some of the tracks to a friend who had never played the game, and he noticed the comedic quality in them. Being that Thousand Arms is a comedic anime game, a comedic anime soundtrack is in full order. While many found the soundtrack rather unmemorable, I found the Boyzby town theme and the more comedic themes stuck in my head for a long time. None of the tracks were ever grating or offensive, and all fit well with their intended places.
A nice surprise in the music is the two vocal themes sung by Ayumi Hamasaki. She was an up-and-coming pop star then, and has now become one of the most popular pop singers in Japan. The title track, “Depend on You” is a wonderful, catchy, and upbeat song. Her other song, “Two of Us” is a nice pop ballad. These songs made me an Ayumi Hamasaki fan. “Depend on You” is the most memorable song on the soundtrack.
The sound effects are a mixed bag. The main character’s default speed is running, and when he runs he makes a shuffling sound that can get annoying. It did not bother me, but it may bother you. During battles, the sound effects are quite decent. When using a water spell, there is a cool splash sound. When using a healing spell, there is a cool chime sound. My personal favorite is the synthesized flute sound made when a sleep spell is cast. The enemy attacks usually have the lion’s share of the cool sounds, whereas the regular attack sounds of the hero characters are somewhat pedestrian.
The shining point of Thousand Arms’ sound is in the voice acting. While not every line of dialogue is voiced, a huge portion of it is. The voice actors were consistently good and really brought their respective characters to life. One criterion I use to judge good voice acting is whether or not the voice actors sound like they’re having fun with their roles. In Thousand Arms, every voice actor sounded like they were having fun with their role and brought a lot of personality to the characters.
A good majority of the voice acting comes from the female characters during dates. All of the acting is excellent, and it’s always amusing to hear some absurdly ridiculous lines delivered with such straight faces. Nobody ever breaks character, and all are very convincing. And, as with any anime or cartoon, over-the-top villains are a must. Gary Gillett, for example, goes wonderfully cuckoo as Bearing- one of the villainous robots. And how could anyone not love the evil Emperor whose voice is heavily drenched in reverb? I always applaud when a game company hires top-notch voice talent for its games.
Now, all of the aforementioned qualities would be for naught if Thousand Arms did not have such an amusing story. The story is easily the most hilarious RPG tale I’ve experienced. Meis Triumph is easily the horniest RPG protagonist I’ve ever had the pleasure of adventuring with. And unlike such RPG womanizers as Final Fantasy VIII’s Irvine Kinneas (who’s all talk), Meis walks the walk. He unabashedly and shamelessly ogles and flirts with any and every attractive female in sight, much to the chagrin of Sodina- the girl he meets near the start of the game.
After his hometown, Kant, is attacked by the Dark Acolytes, Meis, a novice spirit blacksmith, ventures off to the town of Boyzby where he makes a failed attempt to rescue a pretty girl (Sodina) from a band of thieves. He embarrassingly breaks his sword in the process and finds himself unconscious in Sodina and Jyabil’s house. Jyabil is Sodina’s brother, and a skilled spirit blacksmith who takes on Meis as an apprentice.
During some early fetch quests, we meet a few more of the colorful characters in the game such as Muza- the heroic swordsman who literally freezes at the sight of a beautiful girl or woman, and Schmidt- an arrogant, blue-haired blacksmith also under Jyabil’s training, among others. After a slow moving, but amusing, beginning, tragedy strikes Boyzby, and Meis, Sodina, and Muza venture off into the world to fight evil.
The tale is a classic RPG tale of ‘teenage hero travels the world, makes friends, and fights evil.’ However, throughout this tale are a slew of comical and romantic hijinks. Meis’ ability to date his female party members is not only fun and funny, but also a terrific way to gain insight into the female characters of the story. The cast of characters has a lot of charm and adds a lot of life to the story. This is a classic case of a clichéd plotline being saved by a colorful and likeable cast of characters.
Like many RPGs out there, Thousand Arms has its own mascot creature: the Damashi. Damashi are ghostlike creatures with long tongues and attack you by slapping you with their tongues. Unlike the other enemies in the game, Damashi level up with your party members and their HP increases as your levels do. They are also used as save points in the dungeons and are characterized as quite mischievous.
The story exudes an irreverent sense of fun for the first 25 or so hours of the game, but the final 12 or so hours feel like the ‘fun train’ ran out of steam. Thankfully, the game is short enough that this doesn’t hamper it completely. Other flaws in the story include an unfinished feel, broken continuity, and a rather poor ending that does not tie up the loose ends at all. I could understand this if there were sidequests that revealed plot insights, but the two sidequests in the game were plot irrelevant. One of them, finding and forging rusty weapons, was a useless sidequest since the characters’ default weapons become abnormally strong towards the end. The other sidequest, finding and dating girls in various towns, was a lot of fun.
However, at the end of the day, I was left with many nagging questions such as: Why does Schmidt give Meis a dark sword at the beginning of the game and why can’t Meis get rid of it? It just serves as deadweight. Was it dummied out of the plot? And the question I have many unresolved issues with: where is Muza’s hometown of Schutzren? Schutzren is mentioned in the manual, and by Muza himself in the game, but it doesn’t exist.
And what’s up with the name Thousand Arms? There is nothing about a thousand arms in the story. There are many other conundrums like these in Thousand Arms’ plot but I can’t mention them without giving away massive spoilers. Had the writers polished up the script a little more, it wouldn’t have these gaping plot holes that lend an unfinished feel to the game. However, I can forgive these fatal story flaws, because the game allows me to live the anime fanboy’s dream: to date anime girls.
Dating anime girls is easily the best part of Thousand Arms. Between the four girls in your party and the five girls scattered in various towns, Meis has a harem of nine girls to date. Everyone will easily find a favorite. There’s one girl for most every taste.
Here is how dating works: each town has a Goddess Statue where Meis can go to ask a girl out. A heart icon will be next to each datable girl’s name. The more pink the heart is, the better her mood. The more brown the heart is, the worse her mood. He will have three options: Date, Present, and Mini-Game. If you select Date, then Meis will be followed by the girl he chose and they will walk around town till they find a dating spot, where the game will cue you to commence dating. The screen will then show a full-screen anime portrait of the girl and she will ask Meis a bunch of multiple-choice questions. The questions range from coy to outright weird.
Depending on how Meis answers these questions, the girl will react in a number of ways. A successful date will yield a chime sound and reward Meis with a kiss on the cheek and a rise in the Intimacy level with that girl. Some of the most laugh-out-loud funny lines come when Meis responds badly on a date and annoys the girl. The only real flaw with the dating simulator in Thousand Arms is that sometimes the girls’ reactions don’t match up flush with Meis’ chosen responses.
If you select Present, you simply give the girl a present. You can either find girly gift items after battles, or buy them in the gift shops. If you select Mini-Game, you get to play a Mini-Game with the girl of your choice. Each girl has her own special Mini-Game. Said games range from a Simon type copycat game to a Whack-a-Mole type game, to even a Thousand Arms trivia quiz. These mini-games are a lot of fun, and I love the music that plays during them. Another fun little thing to do on dates is to have pictures taken at the Print Club machines to fill up the art book in your menu.
Dating is paramount to weapon upgrading. As the intimacy with the girl goes up, you can take her to a forge and imbue her elemental power, magic spells, and even special attacks into your party’s weapons. You must be careful, though, because of Meis’ Charisma statistic. If his intimacy level with a girl exceeds his Charisma, then you may miss spells and special attacks to imbue into weapons, so be sure to keep the Intimacy at or below the Charisma. Both have maximum values of ten.
But Meis needs more than Intimacy and Charisma to strengthen weapons. He also needs MP or Master Points. These are gained after battle or by pressing X at various locations in towns. Each weapon forging costs a certain amount of MP. I liked this weapon upgrade system, because I could give each and every character all the spells I found useful.
Unfortunately, I only found the healing spells truly useful in the game. Why? Because the combat engine is extremely flawed and in serious need of tweaking. Thousand Arms’ battle engine is like Final Fantasy’s ATB system and Grandia’s IP systems gone horribly wrong. Three party members can fight at a time, but only one does the actual fighting. The other two are there as backups.
The frontline fighter is given a list of commands; you select one, and then an ATB meter empties out then prompts you to press X to execute the command. This is done the same way as with the back row, but their selection of commands is limited to Standby, Item, and Magic. By selecting Standby, the back row members may either cheer you on or taunt the enemy. These animations are comical, but not very useful. The cheers and taunts affect the front fighter and the enemy in ways such as increasing your speed or decreasing enemy defense, but the changes are not noticeable.
Item and Magic are self explanatory, but what’s dumb is that the back row members cannot use any attack spells on the enemies. Hence, only healing spells are even remotely useful. I often just had a back row character cast a healing spell and let the ‘press circle button’ cue stay there till I wanted healing.
If a back row member wants to attack an enemy, they need to use spell-in-a-bottle items. The bottles become stronger as each person’s repertoire of magic in that bottle’s element increases. Also, when you switch a frontline character for a back row character in battle, that frontline character disappears completely. That makes no sense to me. At least all characters, even those that did not fight, gain lots of EXP per battle.
These primarily one-on-one fights make battles quite tedious and long. I wasn’t turned off by the battle system, but it’s one of the worst I’ve encountered. Speaking of encounters, all the fights are random encounters. The encounter rate was reportedly lowered in the US version, and the rate isn’t that bad.
Here’s how Thousand Arms’ battle system could have been improved. 1) get rid of that slow ATB bar and make it straight turn-based combat. Battles would go faster that way. 2) Allow everybody to fight. I’d have liked for my seven party members to be arranged as follows: 4 in the front row and 3 in the back row. The back row people would be able to use both offensive and defensive spells. The back row can’t use weapons, since no one has ranged weapons, but they can be switched with the front row people without penalty of a party member disappearing during a switch.
A few other ways Thousand Arms’ gameplay could be improved, along with the aforementioned overland navigation and battle flaws, are as follows: 1) I wished I could use analog control. For a PlayStation RPG released in 1999, there should be no excuse for there not to be analog character movement. The digital thumb pad works okay, but the smoothness of analog would make for fewer sore thumbs. 2) Fix the collision detection. Meis has to be at a particular spot near an NPC to interact with them. I often found myself running around NPCs repeatedly pressing the X button to try and talk to them.
Despite all these flaws that would make me outright loathe other RPGs, I loved Thousand Arms; heck, I played it twice to completion. Its quirky charm won me over and made forget all the fatal flaws. It is my guilty pleasure RPG and the only Japanese style dating simulator game available in English. But if you are fluent in Japanese, you’re better off importing more advanced dating simulators such as Tokimeki Memorial.
So all in all, I give Thousand Arms an A for effort/charm, but a C for execution. So overall, it gets a B in my book. Thousand Arms has a lot of potential, and with some work it could have been a truly great RPG. If there is a Thousand Arms sequel, I certainly hope it remedies all the flaws this game had. I also think Thousand Arms has wonderful potential to branch out into an anime series in the romantic slapstick comedy vein of Ranma ½ or Tenchi Muyo. The characters are certainly charming enough, and the fantasy/steampunk-without-the-punk setting is pretty unique.
I shall conclude this review with some wishful thinking: Given all the dating shows on US television now (like Blind Date, Shipmates, and The Fifth Wheel), maybe it won’t be long till dating simulators become cool in the US.