Genre: Action RPG
Release Date: January 18, 2005
Buy 'FULL METAL ALCHEMIST AND THE BROKEN ANGEL': PlayStation 2
Full Metal Alchemist and the Broken Angel is a strange little game. Although it bears the prestigious Square-Enix name, it's also basically a licensed game created to tie-in with the huge Full Metal Alchemist multimedia blitz that hit Japan last year, and is surging through North America now. A lot of reviewers have described it as a beat 'em up, but there's undeniable RPG elements to the title – things like leveling up, customizing stats, and managing an item inventory. Developer Racjin had to make a lot of very disparate groups of potential gamers happy with this one, and unfortunately, the final product falls short of the goal. Despite its flaws, it's still an interesting game, and definitely worth a look.
Before the game starts, a quick text narrative sums up the premise of the franchise for any players who might not have heard the story already. Full Metal Alchemist follows the story of two brothers who tried to use alchemy to resurrect their mother when they were children. However, one of the basic laws of alchemy is that you can't gain anything without giving up something of equal value … and, as a result, human alchemy is usually too deadly to be possible. Ed and Al's blasphemous experiment goes horribly awry, claiming Edward's arm and Al's whole body. Ed is good enough to sacrifice a leg in return for the ability to bind Al's soul into a suit of armor, but that's hardly a desirable state of affairs for the brothers. Ed does what it takes to obtain new "automail" limbs, essentially steampunk cybernetics, and then sets out with Al to try and find a way to set their mistake right. Their best bet is the Philosopher's Stone, a legendary item that can let an Alchemist violate the "equal exchange" rule of alchemy that got the Elrics in so much trouble.
Full Metal Alchemist was actually created by Square-Enix, as part of the same convergence trends that resulted in Bandai's .hack franchise a few years ago. Incredibly, many of the game's problems stem from how closely Broken Angel tries to tie itself in with the other facets of the franchise. Broken Angel's storyline follows the rough format of a TV episode, telling a story that adds flavor to the anime's universe while also working as a self-contained unit. In it, Ed and Al are interrupted on one of their many train journeys across the countryside by some outlaw terrorists who turn out to be alchemists. This draws the two brothers into an investigation of a mysterious town supposedly run entirely by alchemists, and possibly even founded by their old master Professor Eiselstein.
Some fully animated cut-scenes, produced by the same team behind the TV anime, are peppered throughout the game and help emphasize the idea that you're really playing through a "lost" TV episode. However, taking this approach to the game also means that it doesn't really advance the anime's plot at all, and that the plot seems somewhat unsatisfying by itself.
To casual players who can get into the anime-like format, Full Metal's gameplay will make up for the failings in the story. The engine is interesting and the levels are fun to run around in. The major problem is that it's a bit too easy and as a result quite short – I can't imagine anyone getting much more than 20 hours of gameplay out of this title. Of course, to someone who is more an anime fan than a gamer, this could be more of a selling point than a problem. The camera movement can also be awkward at times, mostly when Ed gets pushed into a corner or similarly awkward position. Still, in practice, this is really more of a minor annoyance than an actual problem, and the controls are otherwise excellent.
Full Metal Alchemist's engine and control scheme are basically similar to Square's other PS2 Action-RPG efforts, but a bit more streamlined and refined. You control Ed, moving him around with the right analog stick and controlling the camera with the left. Tapping the square button attacks, x button jumps, and the triangle button lets you equip or de-equip whatever weapons you're holding. The circle button controls the mechanic that's at the heart of the gameplay, the alchemy. If you tap the circle button, you'll create a defensive wall of stone in front of you, called a "rockblocker." Holding the circle button will build a charge that lets you transmute stone spikes that do a lot of damage to enemies. If you build a charge and walk up to certain map items, you'll be able to transmute them into all sorts of useful things. You can make traps and hazards that affect enemy movement, melee weapons you can pick up to do extra damage, or giant artillery placements like cannons and crossbows that let you pretty much annihilate everything around you. You can also pick up items that let you do customized transmutations, like reloading a spent piece of artillery or infusing a melee weapon with an elemental property. Getting a feel for what each weapon does is a lot of fun and helps keep fighting seemingly endless waves of enemies interesting.
Much like Sora in Kingdom Hearts, Ed fights with the help of his loyal sidekick. Unlike Sora, however, Ed actually gets a useful sidekick. Alphonse is an immense AI-controlled brawler who is actually quite good at killing enemies on his own. He doesn't take much in the way of damage, and even if he is knocked out, you can use Ed's alchemy to restore him to normal. You can use the R1 button to give him a variety of commands, such as calling him to Ed's side to soak up damage to tackle down nearby enemies. To make him extra nasty, you can have him equip some of the weapons that Ed transmutes. As if this wasn't enough, Ed and Al can also do a variety of special team attacks together. The standard one involves Ed transmuting a giant spiked bat for Al and then ducking while Al spins in place, basically killing everything near by, and they only get nastier from there. After getting a certain number of kills, Ed's blue "frenzy" meter will fill and send him and Al into a "Fighting Frenzy," which lets them both do more damage, gain more EXP, and do even more damaging special maneuvers together. The Frenzy ends if Ed gets knocked down (avoidable by tapping X in the air to Breakfall), Al gets KO'ed, or the brothers unleash one of their special maneuvers.
While you can transmute some wickedly powerful items in FMA, the game's engine is actually set up to reward players who make it through a level by using a minimum of power. While fighting enemies, you can chain blows together to create combos. Combos with lots of hits, like 10 or 20, reward you with bonus experience points in addition to what you usually get from killing enemies. Powerful weapons will usually kill your enemies in one or two hits, so if you want the big combos, you'll find yourself transmuting weak weapons like the ball peen hammer or just fighting barehanded. An enemy caught in a multi-hit combo usually can't recover to attack you, so the only real limit on combo length is your patience and ingenuity. How long you can get your combos reflects directly on the "Alchemist Rank" you get at the end of a level.
Full Metal Alchemist is a fine piece of work when it comes to graphics. The animations are smooth, the locations large and well-rendered, and all the anime characters have great-looking 3D models. The original characters designed for the game fit in well with the anime cast, particularly the large bosses and the new villain, Camilla. The mooks you fight on the street are a little on the bland side, but you'll usually be too busy beating on them to notice this. The lighting effects are accomplished by use of softly filtered light, which helps keep the 3D from clashing too much with the anime sequences and the 2D "portrait" art used during dialogue sequences. Each character has several portraits that go through different characteristic expressions, which helps add a lot to the game's attempts at humor. You'll also see Ed and Al's face portraits change when they take damage during battle, their faces looking increasingly serious and then sliding into wild takes as they slide closer and closer to death.
The game's sound is a little on the weak side, especially for a Square-Enix title. The problem isn't the voice acting, which uses the same cast as Cartoon Network's version of the series, so much as there being a rather limited selection of voice clips. By the time you're halfway through the game, Ed and Al's cutesy quips will start feeling a little stale. There's also no Japanese language option for the game, which would have been a nice bonus. The soundtrack work is also on the weak side, with most of the music feeling a bit too bland and generic for Full Metal Alchemist's distinct look and characters. None of the music from the anime is used in the game, either, which is sure to disappoint big fans.
If you enjoy the gameplay in Square-Enix's other action RPGs and have no basic aversion toward anime, then Full Metal Alchemist and the Broken Angel is right up your alley. If you're primarily a fan of the anime or Square-Enix's other RPGs, you might want to proceed with caution. While this game lives up to Square-Enix's well-deserved reputation for quality gameplay, it lacks the depth of their best and most famous titles. And while it goes out of its way to try and please anime fans, the game is just too different from the TV show to make a diehard happy. However, if it's your kind of thing, it's a darn fun way to relax with some mindless violence after a busy day at work, and sometimes that's all a video game needs to be.