Enchanted Arms (Xbox 360) review
"Once known as the Japanese RPG with an odd name, From Software's latest is both an outstanding success, and a bitter disappointment. It's the type of game that screams for more development time, caught as it is in a vapid middle ground, languishing somewhere between "could have been" and "almost was". "
[eM] -eNCHANT arM-, a title like that deserves to be written in bold. Once known as the Japanese RPG with an odd name, From Software's latest is both an outstanding success, and a bitter disappointment. It's the type of game that screams for more development time, caught as it is in a vapid middle ground, languishing somewhere between "could have been" and "almost was". Originally destined for a dual disc release, [eM] -eNCHANT arM-'s curtailed game design and various visual glitches bear all the hallmarks of a desperate rush to launch. Had producer Masanori Takeuchi been able to fine tune this beast, its superb character driven narrative and surprising battle system could have competed with even the most accomplished of RPGs. Instead we got "almost", and with a fickle Japanese market at stake, that's not nearly good enough...
Golem hunting for fun & profit
If the truth be told, there's a reason I don't play RPGs, and it's not disinterest in the genre that's kept me away. Rather, I'm tired of the cliche - the angsty, guilt ridden young man, fighting the un-winnable fight against an ancient evil he's somehow responsible for. A formula [eM] -eNCHANT arM- replicates to a tee. Luckily for Masanori Takeuchi however, the difference maker here is an element of ridiculous, baka comedy that's kept the dramatic Yang in check. And though portraying each character as an anime stereotype is nothing new, the decision to do so has created an instant familiarity for players that's welcome and totally unexpected.
Set in a world not unlike our own, [eM] -eNCHANT arM- is the story of Atsuma, a young man enrolled with his friends, Touya and Makoto, at the Yokohama Enchant Academy. He's your typical sort of lad, always falling asleep in class and dreaming about the day's lunchtime special. Touya on the other hand, represents the brains of the group, while Makoto provides the yaoi love with his undying and sometimes troublesome affections... but don't worry, those homosexual overtones are just for show. As if you couldn't tell then, these boys are trouble, and it's while enjoying a local festival that disaster strikes, sending them back to the Academy where an ancient evil has just been summoned. Sound familiar?
What makes [eM] -eNCHANT arM- so enjoyable though, is the way its characters interact with each other by drawing on subtle in-jokes and personality traits. Golem Hunter Yuki for instance, presents a coherent blend of Pokemon's Ash Ketchum and Princess Amelia of the smash hit fantasy series, Slayers. She's one third "defender of justice", one third "gotta catch 'em all" freak, with the rest of her energetic spirit locked in a cycle of positive insanity. Likewise, [eM] -eNCHANT arM-'s leading villain proves to be a thoroughly well rounded and totally despicable nemesis. From her cruel, cat-like nature, to the way her curvaceous silhouette paints a picture of rampant sexual allure, the indomitable Queen of Ice is as evil as they come and twice as beautiful.
[eM] -eNCHANT arM-'s confusing duality though, extends beyond its vanilla plot and memorable characters. Consisting of three main kingdoms, its large game world packs an interesting mix of real-life cultures and traditional fantasy themes. While Yokohama, London, and Kyoto represent the three cornerstones of Atsuma's society (and thereby pin the game to our own version reality), their technology and customs are mostly alien. For example, Golems once used as weapons of mass destruction now service the inhabitants of each city, completing work that's too mundane for real people to perform. Indeed, it's having arrived at the opening festival that these potentially dangerous man-servants are seen running food stalls and entertaining small children with simple magic tricks.
Talk about asking for trouble...
As you'd expect from an Xbox 360 release, this celebration has been presented in rich detail with all manner of scene setting theatrics jostling for the player's attention. The descriptive elements invested in [eM] -eNCHANT arM-'s introductory hours are without parallel, and easily outcast anything the genre's ever achieved. Unfortunately however, roughly half of its 40 hour quest has been plagued by visual glitches and bland stage design. Characters appear disconnected from the ground beneath them, while empty rooms and murky color schemes look terrible on a high-definition TV. That the frequency of such ugliness increases as the game draws to a close proves troublesome, the obvious answer being [eM] -eNCHANT arM- simply wasn't ready to ship when Microsoft Japan came calling.
But enough jibber-jabber, what's the action like? Using two 3x4 grids, a surprisingly robust battle system asks players to arrange their characters (up to four at any given time) along one side of the screen while taking into consideration the position of their enemies. Actual combat is turn based, while some clever game design ensures decision making feels far more strategic than it really is. You see, each attack has a specific area of influence, and by arranging characters in such a way as their blows begin to overlap, combo counts become possible. Better yet, hit points are rejuvenated at the end of each battle, thereby increasing the overall flow of the game.
Of course, with so much already gone south, are you surprised to learn that even the battle system is flawed? Like almost every other RPG before it, [eM] -eNCHANT arM- uses a random generator in dictating the frequency of enemy encounters. The problem is however, they occur here with irritating regularity and often to the point of total frustration. In addressing this issue, From Software have wisely included an "auto-play" feature that can be relied upon to do most the hard work for you. What spells to use, what attacks to initiate, an entire round's worth of strategy may be dictated with the press of a button, though players are advised to reign in the AI from time to time in order to avoid critical mistakes.
If that sounds easy though, think again. While there's no denying [eM] -eNCHANT arM-'s obvious lack of difficulty, From Software have employed a "Vitality Point" system that forces players to be mindful of which character they use and when. Constantly throwing your four strongest heroes into battle will have a cumulative effect on their well being, eventually wearing down their energy reserves and making them vulnerable to first round attacks. To alleviate this, players have the opportunity to collect wayward Golems and are urged to swap between them whenever possible. Furthermore, From Software have sweetened the deal by including a range of support characters based on a few of their previous Xbox releases. Otogi's Raikou, Mr President from Metal Wolf Chaos, and the red Murakumo mech all make an appearance, and can only be collected by achieving particular in-game goals.
So [eM] -eNCHANT arM- isn't bad, it's just not finished. A general lack of cinema sequences, combined with Masanori Takeuchi's own admission that he wanted the game to ship on two discs, would seem to indicate the poor fellow was caught between a rock and a hard place. With the final credits rolling however, I was left with an idiot sized grin on my face and a strong sense satisfaction - something a lot of games fail to achieve. My time spent with Atsuma had been marred by technical problems and some occasionally weak visuals, but in the end [eM] -eNCHANT arM- had come full circle, finishing with a laugh, some good times, and a healthy sense of camaraderie. Had From Software fine tuned this release, it could have competed with even the most accomplished of RPGs. Instead we got "almost", and just this once at least, I think that was enough...
* Fun, strong characters
* [eM] -eNCHANT arM-'s conclusion is very satisfying
* A large game world gives you a lot to explore
* The battle system carries some nice hidden depth
* Battles may be set to "auto-play"
* Turn based combat, with combos!
* There's a huge number of Golems to collect
* Fascinating blend of real life cultures and fantasy themes
* Generic, overly familiar story
* Occasionally bland level design
* [eM] -eNCHANT arM- is lacking a visual punch
* Huge, scene setting CG sequences are conspicuously absent
Staff review by Michael Scott (April 05, 2006)
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