Genre: Action RPG
Release Date: July 2005
FMA2 was one of the only five games that Square-Enix was showing off at E3, along with Kingdom Hearts 2, Radiata Stories, Romancing SaGa, and Dragon Quest VIII. All of the titles looked impressive, but FMA2 won out as our choice for preview thanks to an in-depth preview session of the game with the producer, Tomoya Asano, alongside with publicity manager Koji Taguchi. One of the greatest parts of the E3 experience is getting shown a new game by the guys who've been working on it, and with Japanese developers this is particularly rare. It can add immense to depth to what you can write about a game, and really heightens your understanding of where a game is coming from and where it's likely to go.
Not incidentally, this game is shaping up to be a lot of fun. Aside from the scenarios being shown on the in-floor demos, we were allowed to play most of the first level, looking at both the tutorials and cut-scenes. The version of the game we played was completely localized, with English voices and text laid down, so it's just a matter of time until Square releases it.
FMA2 shares much of the spirit of the original game, but doesn't carry any continuity over. As with the first game, any fan of any portion of the FMA franchise will be able to sit down and play the game easily. Even gamers unfamiliar with the premise should be able to easily pick it up and figure out what's going on, thanks to an opening sequence that introduces the premise. The level we played was an essentially exact retelling of the beginning of the story according to the anime and manga both, but Asano was quick to promise that the story would become original by the game's end. The game flow was a bit more freeform than the original title just in what we played, although still what most America gamers would consider very linear.
Gameplay has been vastly improved from the first game. The responsive camera system is still in place, but Al's AI has been improved to the point where he'll do whatever the situation calls for at the tap of the R1 button. The combo system for attacks has returned, with the interesting twist of adding a new attack type for Ed. Now the square button triggers a “normal” attacks, punches that will chain into kicks when you score a combo. The triangle button will cause Ed to unleash his arm-blade, changing up the flow of the combos. Along with the rockblockers and stonespikes you trigger with the circle button, the different attack types make it easier to create long combos and juggle them into whatever suits the situation. Alchemically transforming objects into useful weapons and traps can now be accomplished at the tap of a circle button, and producing genuinely useful items seemed much easier in the segments we played. Controls are tight and precise, and enemy AI has become aggressive enough that you need to mow through opponents quickly.
The attacks are also more visually spectacular, particularly Ed's new slashing and kicking moves. FMA2 uses a new cel-shading system that more perfectly mimics the look and feel of the anime, from thinner outlines around the characters to more expressive faces and body poses. Everything from backgrounds to design of incidental characters meticulously duplicates the look and feel of the anime to a far greater degree than the first title; Ed's polygon model is even noticeably shorter and more closely matches his anime incarnation. Asano mentioned that this was the result of lessons learned from the first game, which was Racjin's first work with Square-Enix and first attempt at what the Japanese industry calls a “character game”.
The concept of a “character game” like FMA2 is similar to Western license games, but not quite the same. Character games are often intended as pure interactive fanservice for people who love a particular property, rather than ways to turn a property into a game that will add lustre to the franchie name. In contrast to things that fundamentally appeal first to gamers, like Activision's Spider-Man games, a “character game” usually targets people who would never self-identify as gamers. For all that FMA is being showcased alongside Square-Enix's other titles this E3, Racjin still approached it primarily as a character game in design and concept.
The Racjin team mentioned that the tie-in with the anime in Japan had lead to about 40% of the game's audience being female. The standard percentage for a game without such a tie-in is about 5-10%. The Racjin team confirmed that the surge of female interest in Japan could be directly attributed to FMA running in a timeslot with a proven reputation for drawing female anime fans. Trying to make sure the sequel's gameplay was enjoyable to this sizable audience drove a lot of the gameplay refinements seen in this title. It may seem odd that smoother, faster gameplay and subsequently more intense action would result from trying to appeal to a female audience, but this does appear to be the case. The attempt to reach female gamers also shows in the increased range of “still art” for the characters, and the nicely streamlined menu interface.
The range of sound for the game was similar to the first game. Music was tolerable but not remarkable, and many sound effects from the original game have been re-used. The English voice cast was back, but seemed more comfortable with their roles and delivered a more polished performance. There was less in the way of the in-combat voice clips that could get a bit too repetitive in the first game. No Japanese language option will be available in the localized version of the game, but Asano and the other representatives at the meeting seemed very interested in the prospect of implementing this sort of feature, if possible, in future titles that might be produced. The previous assuption made by Square-Enix in general was that American fans would simply not be interested in such feature, but the team we spoke to confirmed that the company's representatives have begun hearing requests for dual audio releases at this year's E3.
Taguchi concluded the meeting, after the play session was complete, by noting that production on the series was finished and that the Japanese cast would be recording voices for the feature film this weekend. The manga will continue, and more new video games will always be a possibility. With the anime wrapping up for the foreseeable future, the games may very well turn into the only way for big fans to see more of the FMA cast outside of the comics page. This is an interesting direction for Square-Enix to take with their new franchise, and it matches up with a game that is shaping up to also be pretty interesting when it ships this summer.