If there's one thing Microsoft's consoles need more of it's RPGs. And while some real gems have been released in the past few years (Oblivion, Jade Empire, and Knights of the Old Republic come to mind), the Xbox has seriously lacked traditional Japanese-developed RPGs, especially when you consider the PS2's excellent line up. Fortunately we weren't the only ones keeping a watchful eye over Microsoft's limiting library, as Ubisoft decided to take a chance with Enchanted Arms, the first JRPG on the 360, and first next-gen JRPG for that matter. While it's totally unoriginal and follows just about every Japanese role playing cliché to a tee, Enchanted Arms also happens to be a joy to play, offering gamers a solid next generation entry to help wet their starving, turn-based appetites.
First and foremost, Enchanted Arms is a traditional Japanese RPG in every sense. In other words, don't go into this one expecting to see anything you haven't seen before, or a particularly strong narrative that will keep you begging for more. In fact, like many RPGs released these days (think Dragon Quest, Grandia 3 etc), the story takes a complete backseat to the action, offering little more than a reason to push each character forward from city to city.
In Enchanted Arms, players take on the role of Atsuma, a dim-witted, act-first-think-never, student of Enchant University - a school for the magically gifted. Along with his peculiar arm, Atsuma and friends embark on a journey to thwart the plans of an ancient evil, while simultaneously discovering the meaning of companionship, humanity, and sacrifice. Sound familiar? It should. Enchanted Arms is as formulaic with its story as it is stereotypical with its characters. Take Makoto for instance, Atsuma's flamboyant, transvestite friend, and cause of much unnecessary controversy within the gaming community. While I applaud the team for broadening its horizons and including a character of Makoto's nature, it's also distressing to see that he is completely stereotypical right down to his voice and mannerisms. Other standard characters include the strong female type who's tough on the outside, but gentle on the inside; a hulking brute who wields a freakishly large sword and is incapable of forming complex sentences; and of course, the game's protagonist, who is quick to rush into a dangerous situation and holds the only key to saving all of humanity. Yawn.
What Enchanted Arms lacks in storytelling, it certainly makes up for it in its character interaction. You'd be hard-pressed to find any thespians in the game, but the banter between characters is priceless, with plenty of pot shots here and there and heaps of subtle adult themes that the mature gamer will have no trouble picking up on (I'm thinking of a particular dialogue scene between an eccentric hotel worker and a particular character).
'While the boss battles can be a taxing affair, the rest of the game is straightforward and often tremendously easy.'
If you've ever played a JRPG before, you'll also be very familiar with the way in which the game progresses. Characters make their way through each town (of which there are only a disappointing four), and in each of these towns one of the said characters has a past and an unresolved conflict to be resolved. In between the cities are dungeons in which random battles occur with such frequency that you literally can't move more than a few steps before the game's battle theme begins to chant (one of these themes sounds eerily reminiscent to that of Metal Gear Solid 3). Luckily, that minor gripe is offset by the ability to put any battles on auto, and even fast-forward the battle animations if you so choose - two features that are a brilliant addition to the genre.
However, using the auto system and abusing it are two entirely separate issues. Because battles, even regular battles against relatively weak enemies, can take upwards of five minutes, and with the frequency of which battles occur, it's extremely difficult to resist the urge to just tap 'Y' and let the computer take over. On the flip side, turning on the auto system during a boss battle is absolute suicide. In fact, the bosses in Enchanted Arms are extremely difficult, and it often takes three or four tries to beat any of them, and even then, you often have only a single character left with single digit health points. On more than one occasion I was met with a situation where the outcome was in my favour simply because I managed to get the last hit off before the boss could. It makes for some very intense and gruelling battles, especially early on in the game where stats are generally low and the availability of strong golems is next to nil.
While the boss battles can be a taxing affair, the rest of the game is straightforward and often tremendously easy. Forgetting the fact that you can auto battle, characters also regain all their HP and EP after every encounter. That coupled with the fact that you can save anywhere in the game, and repeat any battle if you've died, means that making it through the 40+ hour campaign is a walk in the park for gamers of any level. However, at times the game treats you as if you've never played a videogame before, let alone an RPG. Enchanted Arms explains everything from how to climb a ladder to how to activate a switch despite the fact that all you have to do is press 'A'. And when you do approach something, a button appears on screen anyway, indicating that you have to press it to advance. Meanwhile, the game gives hardly any explanation on the crucial aspects of the game, such as how to upgrade your vital stats (HP, EP, agility etc) - an option that is buried within the menu system.
From an exploration point-of-view, Enchanted Arms follows a very linear path, rarely, if ever, veering off in another direction. And when you are given the opportunity to stray from the path, it's often not very far. As for side quests, the game does offer a few, but practically all of them can only be attempted once you've completed the main quest, or have built your characters up to extremely high levels. There's also a Casino that can be accessed fairly early on in the game, where you can battle golems, play roulette, partake in a game of bingo, and so forth. Win and you earn credits that can be traded in for valuable items, including a particular water golem that is especially useful against one of earlier, and tougher, bosses.