You ought to know the name Fullmetal Alchemist by now. Both the TV anime series and the manga have become increasingly successful in Japan and America, and there’s no doubt about why that is: the characters are some of the best and most well-developed in a series of this style we’ve seen in a long time; while sporting plenty of humorous banter, each character shows a lot of depth of emotion, especially due to the premise of the plot. For those of you who don’t know, Fullmetal Alchemist is the story of two Elric brothers who attempted to resurrect their dead mother through the use of a forbidden art in alchemy, and failed. Not only did they fail, but the younger brother (Alphonse, or “Al”) lost his body and had his soul “transmuted” to a giant suit of armor, and the older brother (Edward, or “Ed”) lost his left leg and right arm in the process. This premise allows for a deep storyline which asks all of the tough questions about life, death, God, and nature.
Of course, the anime is filled with action-packed fighting as Ed and Al continue their never-ending quest to restore their bodies. This is how the anime has been ported to a videogame. Actually, it has become a series of Action RPGs, developed by Racjin and published by Square Enix. The first title, “Fullmetal Alchemist and the Broken Angel,” was given poor reviews by every respectable videogame website and magazine that cared to give the game a chance. Broken Angel suffered from poor combat and camera controls, as well as a general lack of good production values.
Racjin must have taken this criticism to heart. I am not sure I could list all the improvements from the first game to this new one (particularly because I cannot remember every flaw from the first game), but let me give you a couple of key changes. The first, and most obvious, change is that Fullmetal Alchemist 2 uses cel-shaded graphics. In the few years that have passed since cel-shading first became popular, the graphical style has improved greatly, and I think it shows in this game. Everything looks smooth, and the environments, items, and enemies all look great. I have no complaints about this new graphical style, which comes out much improved over the dated, grainy, polygonal graphics of the first game.
Secondly, the first game only used voice acting in the animated cutscenes; this is not so in Curse of the Crimson Elixir. Every last bit of dialogue text is voiced, and more importantly, the English voice acting is spectacular! Honestly, I couldn’t find one singular complaint to make against the voice acting. These characters have charm written all over them. While the dialogue itself can sometimes border on the cliché or downright cheesy, the fact that it’s voiced well is what really counts. Now if only they had offered the Japanese voice track. Maybe they’ll give us that option in the third game, because that’s the only way they could improve any further in this manner.
Other slight improvements have been made as far as gameplay goes. For one, Al is a much more useful AI character than he was in the first game, as he can actually take care of enemies pretty well on his own. Also, Al is now able to do a number of interesting things that he was unable to do in the first game, such as throw Ed to reach higher areas, use transmuted weapons (including stationary turrets or vehicles), and equip certain semi-hidden accessories that change his behavior (more defensive, more aggressive, etc).
Unfortunately, while the presentation and production values of the game are top-notch (more about this later), the game itself comes off as a lackluster attempt at being a Kingdom Hearts clone. The largest complaint I can level against this game is that the controls are sloppy, and controlling the camera is the single biggest hassle in the entire game. Jumping is very difficult to execute properly (which isn’t good when you run into the game’s few “timed jump” puzzles), and knowing how far you’ve moved horizontally while in the air is almost impossible to tell, even with the mini-map in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen.
There are only two ways to change the camera angle: one is to manually change it using the right analog stick, and the other is to “reset” the camera by hitting L1. The “reset” puts the camera directly behind Ed, so that you can see what Ed would be seeing with his own eyes looking forward. The manual camera movement, which is your only alternative, has no customization features in the options menu (this is a real problem!) The camera moves slowly, when I would prefer it to move more quickly. The camera works inversely: when I hold right, the camera moves to the right, showing me what is to Ed’s left. I would prefer it the other way, as if I were playing Halo. Having customization options for both the camera’s speed and direction would have been simple, but because Racjin did not include it, I was stuck having some of the worst camera controls ever.
The result of the poor camera control is that you can rarely, if ever, see the enemy you’re fighting. Most combination attacks leave you on the other side of the enemy (that is, the enemy is now behind you). Your options are to either turn your character around and hit L1, or wait a good two to three seconds as the right analog stick brings you to where you want to be. I wouldn’t have minded them stealing the “target lock” feature from Kingdom Hearts, but alas, they didn’t do it. This would have been fine if the enemies didn’t move as quickly as they do, but alas, some of the random enemies and bosses happen to be real speed demons, and it becomes nearly impossible to land a good hit on them.
I must also complain about the game’s difficulty. For the most part, the game is quite easy: hack and slash your way through random areas (with loading screens between each room, which is another problem), save before the boss, and then fight the boss. Not counting two bonus fights that you’re required to lose, I never once died in my complete run through the game (which took a mere ten hours; I did this in two sittings). However, there were two or three boss fights that took me half an hour, and I was on the verge of death at the end of them. This would be fine if the bosses were sufficiently clever opponents. However, these difficult bosses were not so much challenging as they were cheap; preventing you from successfully completing any combo, resisting any items you create through alchemy, putting up an infinite number of smaller enemies as shields, that sort of thing. I would call this problem a balance issue, since the random enemies throughout the game do not prepare you for these “cheap” bosses.
The game is divided into seven chapters: one area per chapter. Averaging slightly over an hour in each chapter/area, I found that about one third of that time would be spent going through event dialogue, or some minor “exploration” (if you can call it that, seeing as the maps are extremely limited as far as where you’re allowed to go.) These were welcome reprieves from the mind-numbingly repetitive gameplay. The game’s plot unfolded at a decent pace, introducing new characters relevant to this story, as well as re-introducing well-known characters (Hawkeye, Armstrong, Mustang, Winry) from the anime/manga series. Honestly, this was my favorite part of the game. The cameos made the game seem like a semi-interactive “side movie” for the series. Counting what is probably a good hour of event dialogue, along with roughly thirty minutes of anime sequences (broken into eleven sections) shown throughout the game, what we have is a movie-sized story put into an Action RPG. Perhaps it would’ve been better told as a movie, but it still makes for a worthwhile game.
As a short aside, I must note that the game sports a “gallery” menu in the opening screen, which allows you to access the anime movies from the time you see them, as well as 64 pictures that can be unlocked by playing through the game a second time and finding hidden items strewn about the game’s not-so-extensive world. I did not bother hunting down every picture for the image gallery, as they certainly are worth next to nothing when compared to the eleven beautiful anime cutscenes.
As I said before, the voice acting was excellent, but the music is less than what I would desire. The opening song, “Ready Steady Go” (not to be confused with the techno-rock hit by Paul Oakenfeld) is a J-Rock song that just doesn’t impress me. The ending vocal, a standard J-Pop ballad, was more fitting than the opening, but neither was that great. Also, the number of songs used in the game has got to be less than twenty, because the same songs are used again and again in each chapter. This may be the sole area where the first game excels over the second game (I found the first game’s music to be very enjoyable, to the point where I even purchased the soundtrack.)
The game’s actual plot is decent, if a little short. The first chapter opens as a nice pre-cursor to the story, introducing some of the key elements and characters (though they are elusive and misunderstood from the start). Chapters two and three don’t fit the game’s plot at all, and are used merely as a device to get Ed and Al back to their hometown of Resembool, where the plot picks up. From there, it’s a very intriguing plot, though it is also predictable. What I found to be most interesting was the dialogue, especially Ed’s standpoint on the issues presented within the game. This game could actually be used to help demonstrate some of the intricacies of the present “right to live” vs. “right to die” debates popular in news editorials and political media outlets. Gamers who take an interest in these subjects should pay attention to the dialogue presented, as well as the tension between love and obsession which plagues both the protagonist and antagonist of the story.
Before I bring this review to a conclusion, I feel I must say that the game does make a solid attempt at being innovative, especially in terms of creating and using items through alchemy, and pulling swords/spears/hammers right out of the ground. The battling itself does have some inventive features: it isn’t just “attack” or “defend” (there’s even a timed counterattack feature that works fairly well on almost every enemy!). If these positive aspects of the gameplay didn’t exist, I promise you the game would have been given a much lower score overall. Improvements were made to almost every part of the original, and the game can be fun.
In the end, however, this game is only a worthwhile purchase for hardcore fans of the anime series (as this game is like a very long episode of the anime). For anyone else interested, I suggest a good weeklong rental to get everything you can out of it, and then be done with it. I enjoyed playing through the game, and I really enjoyed the dynamics of the story and character development, but that’s about it. By the end of the game, you ought to be ready to stop hitting square, square, triangle, triangle, triangle while running toward a mass of black-blob monsters: then you can just sit back to enjoy the game’s ending anime sequence.
I have awarded this game an overall 77%, or a C+, as it certainly isn’t revolutionary, and there are plenty of other games (both short and long) that are worth your attention over this one. The graphics were solid, the voice acting was great, and the plot was worthwhile, but everything else suffered from the awkward controls and poor camera angles. Remember my words of caution before paying retail price for this game.