Enchanted Arms

From Software, the creators of the stylish Otogi series, Armored Core, and the oddball Metal Wolf Chaos, brought Enchanted Arms to the 360 in Japan in an opening salvo to try and appeal to a market that has largely avoided the new console but love their RPGs. It eventually found its way over here to the States thanks to Ubisoft which has had an interest in publishing the occasional title from Japan such as Drakengard or Genki’s Import Tuner Challenge, giving us the opportunity to experience From Software’s idea of a next-gen RPG. In many ways, Enchanted Arms feels like an old school experience. Unfortunately, much of what it takes from the previous generation are a few things that its most memorable titles have deftly avoided.

Enchanted Arms was explored on the 360.

I Left My Heart in Yokohama

Enchanted Arms‘ plot is filled with some of anime’s most abused cliches making it both predictable and somewhat annoying to those that don’t particularly like the genre. Not being a fan won’t protect players from being able to guess what is going to come next, though, as much of it draws from some of the more common pieces found in many other JRPGs. Fortunately, the entire story isn’t like this and there are moments that the characters can stand out, but the good stuff only comes around on occasion especially towards the end.

The story takes place a thousand years after a devastating event known only as the Golem War in which the world was very nearly destroyed by automata known as ‘golems’, the greatest of which were the Devil Golems. It ended when the Devil Golems were defeated and sealed away, but the art of Magic was lost to the world leaving only the skills of Enchanting to be passed down to the survivors. Golems today are made by enchanters for a variety of purposes, from serving pizza to upholding the law.

In JRPG fashion, EA’s story focuses around the village idiot, Atsuma, who has a unique gift making him special. Unlike some other RPG heroes, he actually remembers who he is which is a great relief seeing as how he doesn’t know much of anything else. His right arm has the unusual ability to destroy enchantments which doesn’t make him popular at a school for enchanters. He’s friends with Toya, the resident shoujo heartthrob and genius along with Makoto whose flaming passion for Toya makes it clear that a woman is trapped in his body. The three of them are student Enchanters, those that are training to create automata called golems or enchanted devices, at the Academy in Yokohama.

It isn’t too long before an earthquake shatters this peaceful idyll urging Atsuma to run back to the Academy to find his dog, Cota. Toya and Makoto follow and unexpectedly discover that one of the infamous Devil Golems has awakened from beneath the city. In a brief fight with the horror, Toya shields Atsuma from a deathblow, falling in his place. At that point, a strange power awakens within Atsuma’s right arm from his anger and a voice urges him to go forward and destroy that which is before him. He very nearly does, but the Devil Golem laughs as she seems to know more about Atsuma’s strange arm than he does as it suddenly fails him when he thinks he has won. All seems to be lost as the game fades to black as he apparently loses consciousness with the Devil Golem’s laughter in his ears as she leaves him to his fate. All of this is a blur when he suddenly awakens within a cell, captured and imprisoned with only vague memories of what had happened.

What is Makoto’s fate? What happened to Toya after the Devil Golem took him away? Why is he a prisoner and what had happened to Yokohama? And what is so special about his right arm that even a Devil Golem would give him grudging respect?

That is what the player will try to discover.

Gameplay

EA starts off with Atsuma at the Academy, learning the ropes of getting around the world and getting introduced to his friends, but players will also get a taste of how linear the game will be. In many regards, the linear world of Enchanted Arms has a lot in common with that found in Grandia III, although that RPG had an exciting combat engine and a somewhat livelier world to make up for its failings. The rest of game is set up much like a typical console RPG with a strategic element thrown in along with a few other interesting additions. One thing that RPGers will immediately appreciate is the ability to save anywhere. There’s no need to check into an inn or find a special node where you can save your progress. The player can rest easy knowing that they won’t have to worry about losing what they’ve gained if they’re deep inside a dungeon and want to take a break.

Combat in the game is handled on a set grid, with opposing parties confined to their own side in random order. Within this grid, the player moves their characters in order to take the best advantage of their skills. Some skills target adjacent squares, others do so at a distance and it’s up to the player to decide how best to deploy them. They are limited only by how far they can move, their hit points, and how many EP they have which determines what they can actually do. Every move that the party members make on the battlefield are determined by how much EP (ether points) they have, whether it is having someone swing their sword or in using their ability to heal as it acts as a kind of endurance limit to their actions. EP also regenerates in small portions on a round by round basis to help keep them fighting. SRPG fans expecting this to be somewhat like Final Fantasy Tactics, Disgaea, or similar to earlier shining Force titles might find EA’s system to be a watered down experience. It can be challenging, but it’s not as tactically diverse fans may hope it to be with its relatively small grid area and the fact that it ignores the terrain that you may be on. The party might be swimming, but combat pulls them back onto dry land for the fight before dumping them back into the drink.

Elements play a large part in combat as it can play out into an elaborate “scissors, paper, rock” game. Each character, including golems, have an affinity for one of six major elements in the game. Opposing elements do double damage against each other, for example, while similar elements can only do half as much. This adds another layer of detail to the combat system that will make players think twice about simply having everyone attack whatever is in front of them. They can even start combat with whatever orders they’ve already given, skipping other characters in order to get things going.

Even death is handled differently in EA. “Overbreaks” occur whenever a target takes damage that goes past whatever their limit is. This results in a kind of “knockout” condition that gives the characters, or their opponents, a chance to revive their fallen comrade as long as it’s done within three rounds. After which, they’ll disappear from the playing field. However, there are also “Overbreak Upper” conditions that occur whenever a target takes damage far in excess of what they are capable of taking. This results in the character immediately leaving the battlefield. There are abilities and items that allow the player to revive fallen friends and keep them alive, as long as they can plan ahead to make the best use of them. Some of the battles, especially towards the end, can be exceptionally brutal with area effect attacks and specials tearing into their ranks.

After battle, experience, money, and skill points are tallied up. Characters level, but they also earn “Skill Points” (SP) that they can spend to learn skills. They can even spend these points on their attributes to improve them without having to wait to level, although the cost does go up with every enhancement. This added a lot of opportunity to focus on your characters and have a direct hand in how they would grow. In an interesting change, all of your characters automatically revive (if they ‘died’ in battle) and heal up in both HP and EP. There’s really no need to visit an inn to get ready for the next fight, or turn into walking potion pharmacies.

In true From Software fashion, they’ve also added a twist that will either aggravate players or provide some interesting gameplay. While the party might not need to heal up in the traditional way here, players do have to watch what the game calls “Vitality Points”. EP and health are restored following a battle, but Vitality Points (VP) are not. It’s a set number for each character and does not improve with levels and is an annoying ‘feature’ that acts as a leash on the party rather than as something that could have added to the experience.

Vital Statistics

All of party characters and their golems are bound by “Vitality” points that decrease every round that they spend in fighting. Not all of them have the same number of vitality points and there’s no way to really restore them outside of expensive potions during combat for most of the game. Why are they important? If you run out of vitality points, your hit points and EP don’t regenerate after battle and actually drop to 1. There’s an item later on that alleviates the VP cost, but it doesn’t make up for being one of the most restrictive ideas that I’ve ever seen in an RPG. There are places that act as ‘healing’ spots that restore the party’s vitality as well as that of the golems with them, but whoever was in charge of placing these things must be some kind of masochist.

This is made even worse by the insane number of random encounters that EA throws in your face further hitting your VP and reminding you not to wander too far. This felt too much as if it tried to force the player from exploring too much and from fighting far from home for over 90% of the experience. I have no problem with random encounters in an RPG as long as the fighting system feels efficient, combat is fun, and you are aren’t drowning in monsters which you will more often than not in EA. Dragon Quest VIII had a balanced number of manageable random encounters, all easily handled by a smoothly flowing and simple to use engine that allowed your characters to do what they did best instead of micromanaging an additional layer of distraction. When I found the in-game ability to shut off the random encounters, the game actually started being more fun.

Rotating Servants

Golems are the other stars of the game and the player will have the opportunity to collect more than a hundred of these little beasties as they explore the world of EA. Although you can only have four characters in your party at any time, you can swap three of them out for golems (Atsuma can never leave the party). Weapons and golems are created by ‘synthesizing’ their ‘cores’ at the shop nodes in the game. You can buy their cores at a shop or by running into special encounters and fighting them. However, buying them is only the first step. When they are synthesized, they’ll also need a variety of gems to finish making them which can either be bought, found within dungeons, or recovered as prizes after battles. The same thing goes for weapons that the characters will stumble across.

Extra characters outside of the standard party of four are benched and can earn experience, but no SP, during battles. This waiting bench only has so much space and the extras outside of that are parked in the shop nodes. Aside from synthesizing, you can also swap out your second string in case you want to start leveling some of the other golems that you are interested in developing. The golems have their own set of attacks and special skills, but these are set and they can’t learn anything else unlike the main characters.

In my playthrough, though, once the four main characters are found, the party pretty much has a diverse set of elemental attacks that can be used in battle. The only reason I saw for swapping any of them out was in case their VP was too low to continue fighting. But given the eclectic set of skills that each character can have, I tried to avoid having to take them out for a golem that only had a limited, although somewhat powerful, number to choose from. For me, the golems were nice, but the main characters were far more practical than their substitutions which were only useful on occasion. But for those that love to collect these, From Software has created a unique set of golems to find and players can even discover several characters from their previous titles making cameo appearances such as Raikoh from Otogi and even the President from Metal Wolf Chaos armed with Justice.

Exploring the World

Outside of combat, the rest of the world of EA is a lot less exciting. JRPGs tend to be, traditionally, pretty linear affairs with a distinct path to follow and little else to do outside of it except in talking to NPCs for local flavor. But this isn’t always the most obvious rule followed. Dragon Quest VIII and Grandia III, still have a linear progression of events that pertains to the main story but they at least provide some illusion of freedom by allowing the player the ability to explore outside of that arc. Dragon Quest VIII, in particular, was stoutly traditionalistic but it at least injected its world with fascinating characters and a bombastic world, retelling the traditional fairy tale story in its own way that did not make it seem as much “old school” as it could have been. Unfortunately, much of Enchanted Arms feels like it’s firmly set on tracks and makes little attempt to take advantage of its world.

Most of the areas and “cities” that the player will explore have little to see aside from what you have to do. The best RPGs try to hide this linear progression with a bit more subtlety so as not to remind players that they are on the RPG Express Train to “Where the Designer Wants You to Go”. Even when you get out into the countryside, you’ll find that all you really need to do is follow the open path on the “map” to go where you are needed for the next act.

This isn’t a new thing, but EA makes it feel as if it is the only thing to look forward to in the course of its gameplay. There are few distractions outside of the story to really explore. Grandia III, in comparison, had a world that felt empty because of its one real city, but at least it had an exciting combat engine to make up for it. Even then, its world was filled with just enough color and lively design to make it feel as if there might just be something else behind that corner. EA’s world has very little of that. Even the names of its cities are somewhat bland, taken directly from real-world locations and patterning them after the historical stereotypes that they evoke. London City is filled with chimneys straight from Mary Poppins, and Kyoto is based off of shogunate era Japan complete with it’s isolation. It could have worked if the areas were even trying to be interesting, but they’re just there to provide a venue for Atsuma and his party to explore with little interaction other than what they are there to do. Even the NPCs are bland copies of each other. In one conversation, I watched as the CG portrait of the person that Atsuma was talking to simply changed the colors of his clothes when someone else chimed in.

The Sound of Burning Fire

The flat nature of EA’s unexciting world is made worse by its graphics that, while looking good within its cinematic cuts and are technically nice to watch as characters mouth their lines and express a variety of poses and facial expressions during conversations, paint a boring canvas. The golems easily steal the show, showing off a huge variety of different creatures. It’s too bad that this kind of color wasn’t shared with much of the rest of the world. There are a few locations that look spectacular such as several of the outdoor areas and their vistas, such that seen in the Spiked Mountains of Junk City, the forest of Kyoto, or the final dungeon. But then the beauty is marred by the sudden appearance of flat textured blemishes, bland interior lighting, and locations that feels as if someone had stitched together blocks of polygons and had hollowed them out. Most of the dungeons themselves are threadbare experiences without a lot of personality to them aside from some cool special effects.

The special effects in battle and the animations give life to the characters and the golems that they encounter with flowing fabric, hair effects, and a variety of other little touches that look impressive. In combat, many special moves are highlighted with colorful splashes of color and explosions of light. But after you kill so many monsters, the tedium of watching all of these effects starts to wear thin and while you can fast forward these sequences, I wished that there was a way to actually turn the battle effects completely off.

There’s not a whole lot to say about the sound, either. The music is pretty forgettable aside from a few pieces such as the introductory theme and ending credits. As for the voice acting, players can choose between English or Japanese dialog which was great. Both are fully voiced and there are hours of dialog in the game that is spoken. The English voices aren’t horrid, there are worse examples out there and it’s come a long way since the early days, but some of them are truly awful…like the one for Yuki. Switching over to Japanese actually helped make her character far more enjoyable. Subtitles are also available, but several misspellings and missed translations make it feel as if they were added as an afterthought.

Running Shoes

But while the core of any RPG is in its story, EA’s predictable plot and drawn out melodrama kill much of the fun there was to find in it. Many of the characters and the villains are stereotypical cliches that you can easily find in any other RPG, and not necessarily that of the JRPG persuasion. The empty world of the game also doesn’t help but focus on how colorless most of the story is. The manga that comes with the boxed edition sets up a little of the backstory, and there are times that the characters can stand out such as Atsuma and his ongoing struggle to hold onto his ideals, Makoto’s flamboyant personality, or the chillingly taunting viciousness of the Queen of Ice.

But as you proceed through the main quest, it feels as if it checks off their development on a list as the party goes from place to place in a remarkable string of coincidences. There are few surprises. Only towards the end does it actually start to feel as if it is telling something interesting, much of this thanks to Atsuma’s realization of the responsibility on his shoulders. While it can be said that the journey is as important as the destination, in this case, the journey is what works against the player in getting to the better parts that EA has to offer.

Much of this also not only has to do with how linear the world feels, but also with the massive amount of backtracking that Atsuma and his team will also be doing as they train for a marathon. While the areas themselves can appear to be large, the few set paths through them require the player to literally go back the way you came just to leave. There are no easy ‘recall’ scrolls or spells that you can use to speed things up, and portals that do help out but open up only much later. And because many of these places can be large, convoluted, pathfests, it almost guarantees that the party will be blasted by the high number of random encounters that the game loves to throw at you. Even while exploring the puzzle areas, the party will usually get attacked for every move made. Fortunately, the puzzles don’t require much thought but can take some time to complete thanks to the fighting. As I had mentioned before, once I found the in-game skill that shut down the random encounters, the game actually started being fun again. It also drove home how much running there was involved and how much more aggravating it could have been if I had to continue fighting for every inch of the way. If anything, the high number of random encounters that the game should make powerlevelers happy as they race to the game’s stated level limit of 999.

The ending is actually worth seeing and the final boss battle is a brutal exercise that Kefka from Final Fantasy III/VI would have been proud of. Even when the main quest is finished, the Live! component of EA allows players to participate in online golem battles, using the saved data from the finished game allowing the use of the golems that may have been found and developed. In addition to the Casino scores that can be posted showing the player’s best winning streaks, it will also track their online golem battle statistics. Achievements are unlocked as the they progresses through the main game making it somewhat more rewarding.

Follow Your Destiny?

From Software is capable of much more than this given their history of unique and interesting titles. Enchanted Arms simply feels too much like a “by the numbers” experience that even hardcore RPGers may find difficult to plow through for all of the wrong reasons. On several levels, it’s as traditional a JRPGs as you will find, unfortunately mired in several of their worst habits. The experience improved when I was able to turn the combat off thanks to an in game skill and only then after I was already on the home stretch. Getting to that point is the real problem, and although it provides a rewarding ending, it didn’t feel as if it was good enough to make up for the forty plus hours that preceded getting to it as it. Surrounded by so much bland filler, Enchanted Arms next-gen moments of greatness may be too deeply buried beneath the mistakes of the past.

- World 1-1

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