God, I'm naïve. I haven't enjoyed a game based on a movie or a TV show for years. If they aren't watered-down versions of better games, they are the digital equivalent of getting my arm hacked off. But every time a new one comes along I think: "Maybe this one's different. Maybe somebody's actually worked on a game instead of just hoping a popular franchise will do the work for them." Though Fullmetal Alchemist 2: Curse of the Crimson Elixir doesn't quite grant my wish, it comes awfully close—much closer than most other film- and TV show-inspired games I've played.
Fullmetal Alchemist is the story of Edward and Alphonse Elric, two brothers who tried to bring their dead mother back to life using the ancient art of alchemy. In the process, Ed lost two of his limbs and Al lost his entire body. Ed was able to bind his brother's soul to a suit of armor and to get some metallic prostheses made, but it's just not the same. All the boys want is to be normal again, and they hope a mysterious stone called "the crimson elixir" can help them.
Square-Enix describes the game as a "strategy RPG," but it really isn't. Ed can change ("transmute") everyday items into weapons—bombs, perhaps, or throwing-stars. He can also give simple orders to his brother Al. (Unfortunately, Al doesn't always hear his brother calling and moves very slowly when he does, so getting him to do anything is usually more trouble than it's worth). And when their "rage gauge" is full, the boys can perform a "rage attack"—a move that strings lots of combos together for extra damage.
All these elements don't make me think of a role playing game at all. Rather, they remind me of combo-counting fare like God of War or Devil May Cry. The boys gain experience points and use items to affect their stats, but when they get stronger they don't learn a lot of new skills. Ed's "learned alchemy" skills—i.e. Ed's ability to pull weapons like swords or hammers out of the ground—are learned at set points in the game, not when he levels up.
Mostly, players just kill things and get graded on how well they do. After every boss battle, I got a "boss scorecard" that measured how long the fight took, what my longest combo-chain was, and how much damage I received. A player's final score affects what items he receives after the battle, and how many points he can allocate to stats like Strength, Defense and Alchemy to make them stronger. It also affects one's need to play through the game again—if someone wants to get As and Bs on all his boss scorecards, he'll have to play through Fullmetal Alchemist 2 at least twice. In fact, there's a boss I couldn't even kill on my first run through the game.
The problem with the game's incentives to play through it again is that the gameplay isn't rich enough to make replaying Fullmetal Alchemist 2 very rewarding. Yes, as Ed gets stronger he's able to transmute more powerful bombs, throwing-stars and cannons, but the "battle system" is still a hack-and-slash affair that gets old really fast. Part of the reason battle is so tiring is because fighting is all the player gets to do. Puzzles are very straightforward: when Ed needs to close some floodgates in a sewer, all he needs to do is transmute a cannon and shoot at the gates to make them fall. There's no money in this game, so players can't buy new items or sell the stuff they don't need anymore. There aren't even friendly non-player characters to talk to. All dialogue is triggered by events, not by walking up to someone and pressing "X."
What kind of RPG is this, again?
It's too bad that the gameplay is repetitive and not quite what Square-Enix advertises, because everything else about Fullmetal Alchemist 2 is pretty darn good. Graphics are nicely cel-shaded, which fits with the game's anime roots. All characters have voices, which are provided by actors from the TV show. The story about a powerful red stone kept me guessing until the end—probably because I'm not very familiar with the show the game follows—and I cared very much about Ed and Al. Ed's a megalomaniac with an inferiority complex while Al is very sensitive to the world around him (and loves cats), but keeps his brother on an even keel.
Though I'd never really watched Fullmetal Alchemist before playing this game, now I watch it on Saturday nights and know what I've been missing. Indeed, Fullmetal Alchemist 2 has proven to me that its parent anime is a good show. But I've yet to be convinced that Fullmetal Alchemist 2 is a good game.