Traditional Japanese-style role-playing games (JRPGs) are a clearly-defined genre, and have been for quite some time. They don't appeal to me much after playing through the majority from the last three console generations, but I still keep my eye on them. With more technological tricks available than ever before, I'm waiting for someone to clear out all the effeminate amnesiac heroes and stale, overused clichés—the time is right for a boundary-busting title to shake things up and kickstart a role-playing renaissance.
Although its formula is a little unusual, Enchanted Arms is not that game.
The plot is weak and predictable. The characters are flat and dull. The bloated playtime is far too long for its own good. Dialogue is presented as two heads talking onscreen, completely lacking any cinematic energy. Menus are excessive, and should be streamlined for ease of use. The introductory tutorial sequence is one of the most drawn-out in videogame history...
...And I could go on, but rather than run down a laundry list of Enchanted Arms's flaws, I'm going to focus on a few things I liked. (Sort of.)
The first seems relatively insignificant, although in actuality I'd say that it was quite stunning; this game is the first I've played where a homosexual relationship between two men is treated as absolutely normal. I was quite impressed to see that this taboo topic was presented as a complete non-issue, and although the characterization wasn't the most mature, there's no denying the intent. Further in, this particular plot point took an intriguing turn by having one partner "controlled" by the female antagonist, stripped of his autonomy, and reduced to being a villainess's plaything. I couldn't help but chuckle at the boldness of the writers' thinly-veiled subtext, and applaud their chutzpah.
What does this have to do with the actual game? Absolutely nothing, but this treatment of alternative relationships is where the developers make their most successful statement...although they score a few points in other respects, every other positive is counterbalanced by a negative.
Similar in design to the PlayStation's Koudelka (progenitor of the PS2's Shadow Hearts RPG series), Enchanted Arms' combat system is refreshingly different from the usual turn-based affair; each battle takes place on a grid, and each character can attack only within certain areas. For example, the main character is proficient at attacks that strike straight ahead, another has diagonal attacks, and so on. Learning how to position characters is of utmost importance.
In another interesting twist, subtle pressure to end battles quickly is applied through "Vitality Points." By winning efficiently, characters lose a minimal amount of these points, and sometimes none at all. After a mismanaged scrap, the points are like grains of sand in an hourglass—when a character's points run out, he or she can no longer participate, and must be sidelined. It can be crippling to let powerful characters take a breather, so managing these points adds a nice layer of complexity.
By constantly evaluating the chess-like maneuvering and striving for maximum potency in every single battle, Enchanted Arms manages to feel pleasantly different from most of its RPG brethren. Further enhancing this flavor are the numerous Golems available to be recruited or purchased as supplements to the core group of characters.
Roughly analogous in role to Pokémon, Golems are artificial creatures which come in every shape and size, ranging from cute, petite humanoids to massive fantasy creatures taking up a quarter of the battlefield. Each one comes with a specific set of abilities that can't be altered, so it's up to the player to decide whether to bring a Golem that focuses on supporting and healing the main characters, one that dishes out heavy damage, or some combination of both. With around 100 choose from, finding and trying them all out can become an end in itself.
Ignoring everything else the game gets wrong, the chemistry created between the sectional battlefield, the characters' strategic attack ranges, and the addiction inherent in collecting the Golems would have been enough to give Enchanted Arms a pass in my book, but like I said...for every positive, a negative.
The richness of the puzzle-like combat is diluted by the high frequency of random battles and an auto-pilot feature where most fights can be completed by sitting back and letting the computer do everything.
The attraction of Golems is negated by the active party limit of four characters. When a main character gets rotated out to let a Golem in, that character misses out on status-upping points crucial to advancement. Those points can be purchased at a store, but money is constantly in short supply, and with so many other things to buy (weapons, healing items, and so on) it becomes easier to leave the Golems on the bench until a main character becomes incapacitated. Of course, by doing this the Golems are underpowered because they haven't had their stats upped through experience... and I think you see where I'm going with this.
Because of these missteps, Enchanted Arms is a very contradictory, frustrating experience, and I don't understand why every engaging aspect was hamstrung by an equally bad decision. However, I could probably look past these fumbles if the whole thing wasn't wrapped up in a subpar, obese adventure that fails to deliver dramatic thrills. Without a doubt, Enchanted Arms works best when flexing its strategic muscle. When asked to talk to villagers or backtrack for some silly story-based fetch quest, the excitement of combat rushed out the door and I went rushing towards GameFAQs to find the quickest way of skipping through overabundant prattle and getting back to the combat.
Although a reviewer is supposed to make their judgment based on what is and not on what could be, it's hard to do in this particular case. If they had trimmed all the meaningless RPG fat and reworked Enchanted Arms into something more concentrated, the experience would have played to the game's strengths and been more successful for it. The problem is that the developers have created what would have been the perfect eight-hour adventure (with plenty of bonus content) and forced it into becoming a forty-hour game that's so bogged down with irrelevant filler that it commits a smothering form of creative suicide. For me, the only thing worse than playing a waste of time is playing a waste of time that had potential. After twenty-six hours and walking away from a game whose spark is extinguished before completion, I can only shake my head.