Developer: From Software
Release Date: August 29, 2006
No matter how much research you do on a title before you pick it up start playing, it can still surprise you. Enchanted Arms is one of the most pleasant surprises I've run across in at least a few months. Early on the game gave the impression of a desultory, perhaps even desperate release; something Microsoft could use to claim "Look! See, there's Japanese RPGs on our system now! Forget about that Final Fantasy thing!"
What's refreshing about Enchanted Arms, though, is that the only aspect of the Final Fantasy series it really embraces is an emphasis on epic scope and beautiful cut-scenes. Otherwise the story tempers its epic, slightly cheesy melodrama with a dose of the wacky sense of humor you'd expect from a Nippon Ichi title. Running on the 360's hardware, the cut-scenes in Enchanted Arms destroy the in-engine offerings of Kingdom Hearts 2 or Valkyrie Profile: Silmeria and make Final Fantasy XII look a bit too much like an attempt to squeeze blood from a stone. Enchanted Arms is effortlessly beautiful, both in the mind-blowing cut-scenes and then in the equally beautiful in-engine renderings. There simply are not words for how eye-poppingly gorgeous an Enchanted Arms battle, even a random battle, is. Playing this game on an HDTV by itself is enough to validate any qualms that might be lingering from a costly 360 purchase.
While beating the FF franchise at what is pretty much its own game, Enchanted Arms goes in a wholly different direction for its combat and gameplay. The turn-based battle system is innovative and hard to describe succinctly. The best a hardcore J-RPG fan could do is to describe a simplified blend of Disgaea grid-based tactics with Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne's sophisticated monster training and exploiting elemental strengths and weaknesses, but there's not really anything else it's easily comparable to. Basically, combat takes place on a 4 x 6 grid that's divided into two sections of 12 tiles each.The enemy occupies one section and your party occupies the other. Most characters occupy a single tile although larger creatures, like bosses, may occupy two or more. Characters may move and attack once each per turn, but all characters must attack as a group after assigning everyone's actions Each character's attack techniques cost so many points (called EP), and have a certain inherent power (called PP) that affects so many tiles and whatever enemies are standing in them.
To use a one-tile attack you must be adjacent to an enemy on the first row of the enemy section of the battlefield, but there are also attacks that affect all enemies in, for instance, a 3 x 3 grid or a long four-tile column. Generally attacks that affect more tiles tend to be weaker in terms of inherent damaging (or healing, or stat-altering) power. Characters spend EP each turn to attack and recharge by spending turns inactive. Obviously, more damaging moves are frequently more expensive. Special moves called EX that attack the entire enemy grid and are only available to story characters are monstrously expensive and can't be used in every battle.
There are two critical crinkles complicating this battle system further. The first is VP, or Vitality Points. Every turn you spend in combat deducts one VP from your character's total amount, and this amount never increases. VP amounts range from 30 VP for weak Golems to 100 VP for Atsuma, who can't be taken out of the party. If you enter a combat and win on your first turn without letting the enemies act, then you don't lose any VP for the battle. As long as your characters have VP, then they begin every battle at full HP and EP, which encourages you to go completely all-out in every battle. Once VP runs down to zero, then you begin battles with only 1 HP and 1 EP. You can replenish VP at Recharge Stations, and there's usually one Recharge Station in every area you visit. Alternatively, you can take characters besides Atsuma who've depleted their VP out of your regular party and put in characters that've been waiting in the wings. This is a very viable strategy, since you can carry up to eight golems and any number of story characters with you at any time. While running out of VP never seems to be a truly serious threat in Enchanted Arms, the stat inspires a player to try to win as many perfect one-turn victories as possible and rewards extremely aggressive playing. It makes the random encounters in the game a joy that rarely feels tedious.
Next is the elemental system, which is deceptively simple but has tremendous influence over the course of a battle. Essentially, each character has an elemental attribute, which you can see as a little colored gem-like dot next to their face on their profile in the combat and main menus. Everything the character does is influenced by their elemental attribute, including how their attacks deal damage and how they take damage. Generally a character deals double damage to enemies of an opposing element, but also take double damage from attacks of an opponent element. Likewise, a character deals only half-damage to enemies who share their elemental attribute, but also takes only half-damage from their attacks. The random encounters in most areas use a limited number of enemies, so you can quickly formulate a team of characters and Golems you've acquired to try and take them on.
The elemental system in Enchanted Arms is quite simple, consisting of three pairs of opposing elements: Water and Fire, Earth and Wind, and Light and Dark. You only have four party slots. Go offensive and pick characters that oppose enemies you know you'll encounter? Play defense and use the same elements? Use unrelated elements so you won't be affected by the attribute? It's both a matter of your own playing style and strategy. The game allows you to save at any time, though, which leaves you with plenty of wiggle room for experimenting with different party loadouts. Characters you use frequently in battle acquire SP that can be used to improve their stats, while characters not use in battle still level up but can't acquire SP. Whether you invest in your party evenly or choose to boost characters you particularly like while letting those you don't like language is also a matter of both personal style and strategy.
Gameplay is heavily focused on dungeon crawls interspersed with cut-scenes and dialogue sequences. There's some light puzzle solving in the dungeons, but nothing that would make even the laziest Zelda fan break a sweat. The story is half-epic Final Fantasy angst and conflict, and half Disgaea-like comedy and silliness. In particular, the protagonist Atsuma is played for comedy about as often as the audience is asked to sympathize with his problems or marvel at the power of his amazing arm that seems to destroy ancient magics of its own accord. The characters are all broad stereotypes for the most part, but many of them are archetypes more commonly seen in anime or manga than in video games (like the flamboyantly gay Makoto, or cool and bookish Toya).
The result is a story that's familiar but still colorful enough to hold your interest and leave you wondering what's happening next without becoming too ponderous. Particularly welcome is the main antagonist, Queen of Ice, who's one of the handful of female RPG bosses and refreshingly blunt about her goals. The game is full of full voice acting, with the option of swapping freely between the Japanese and English tracks despite the presence of tons of full CG cut-scenes. The localization is honestly a little on the weak side, but vastly improved from Ubisoft's previous effort at localizing a Japanese game (the frankly unfortunate Lunar: Dragon Song).
Enchanted Arms fills a niche in the 360 library, and does it in a way that may leave you longing for other J-RPG developers to start exploiting the hardware's possibilities. Much like FPS, RPG is a genre that frequently becomes a vehicle for showing off technological advancements in terms of everything from graphics, to music, to AI. It's impossible to play Enchanted Arms and leave without realizing how the genre has suffered from being, for the most part, shackled to Sony's increasingly outdated PS2 hardware. Enchanted Arms is a great title to pick up if you just snagged a 360 for Dead Rising and want something else to play once you're done, and hopefully it won't be last of its kind for this console.
More articles about Enchanted Arms