No, this isn't another NFL post with a bunch of Herm Edwards-isms, but rather a post about the Japanese-style RPG on the Xbox 360, "Enchanted Arms". You see, a week or two ago I commented that picking up this game at the TRU sale was a mistake. Well, that comment was a mistake. And this is exactly why it's important to not make sweeping claims about a game (which I didn't do entirely) before really playing it and giving it some time.
One of the things that's wrong with videogame criticism these days is that reviewers, gamers, and armchair analysts all tend to put too much emphasis on first impressions. For example, I know of one highly regarded critic who actually blasted "Morrowind" and swore to never play it after just watching the opening 5 minutes over my shoulder (and I regularly saw posts on forums by him in which he ripped the game vehemently). While nine times out of ten, I really respect this guy's opinion and his writing, this was damningly revealing and always made me take his reviews with a grain of salt after that.
But we all do it. And at $50 a pop (and now $60), shouldn't we have the right to expect a game to make a good first impression? We should to an extent, but we also have to really consider the genre of the game and give it some time before pronoucing it as a "steaming pile" prematurely (the juvenile language of game criticism is another issue entirely -- hey guys, we're laughing at you not with you). Naturally, puzzlers, sports games, and most fighters all pretty much show their hand within the first hour or so. You needn't play an entire 162 game season of the latest baseball sim to know whether or not the game is any good.
But what about RPG's? I understand it's impractical for a reviewer being paid anywhere from nothing to maybe $250 per review to spend upwards of 50 hours on a single game, but there has to be a minimum as well. I and many others were quick to slam "Enchanted Arms" for its by-all-accounts miserable first two hours of gameplay. Few games had ever turned me off so bad so quickly, as this one did. And the stacks of used copies of the game at many of the local GameStops and Electronics' Boutiques testify to the fact that most people didn't bother to continue beyond this early disappointment.
I did, however, and I'm glad for it.
The first two hours of "Enchanted Arms" essentially serves as a very weak prologue/tutorial where you are faced with mind-numbingly boring gameplay, an on-rails "adventure", and dialogue that makes the shrieking of a McDonald's birthday party sound like a meeting of the Brookings Institute (see, it doesn't take a game "journalist" to write with copious amounts of absurd hyperbole).
However, after those first two hours, the game really begins to open up, the story gets under way, and the gameplay and battle system really take flight. In short, the game becomes both fun to play and also begins to let you think and explore for yourself. Just like an RPG should. I'm now roughly 10 hours into the game and, according to the in-game completion meter, I'm 18% through the story.
What I learned in these last eight hours is that the battle system and the way in which characters level up is very unique, allows for plenty of customization, and also provides an interesting element of strategy to what is otherwise a turn-based, menu-driven RPG not wholly unlike the other games in the genre.
Here's basically how you get prepared for battle and level up your party.
* Your main battle party consists of 4 characters and you can swap from another 8 or so at any time. Only your main character, Atsuma, has to stay in the party at all times. In addition to these 12 slots, you can swap out Golems (think collectible monsters not unlike Pokemon) at any of the shops. Eventually, you'll have a collection of dozens.
* Each character and Golem levels up by gaining experience like in any other game (through random battles) but you can also increase each of their parameters (HP, Direct Attack, Ranged Attack, Agility, etc.,) by spending exponentially increasing amounts of Skill Points. SP is also earned through battles and you can spend it to upgrade the parameters of the character or to learn new skills/attacks. This is an excellent addition which allows you to really customize your fighters, especially when a simple +15HP increase begins to cost thousands of SP.
* Players use money earned through fighting and chests to purchase "Cores". These Cores are the nucleus from which a specific weapon or Golem can be created. But Skills and items also cost money. This presents another strategic element to the game: do you spend your money buying new weapons, adding new Golems to your party, or on buying recovery items to keep your current party healthy?
* In addition to money and Skill Points, you also earn various gems at the conclusion of each random battle. These gems are the necessary ingredients that go into the Cores and help give birth to the various weapons and Golems you then "synthesize". Do you sell the gems for extra money or do you continue to collect them in hopes of synthesizing something more powerful later?
* Perhaps the coolest feature of all is the use of VP. I'm not really sure what the letters stand for, but basically each character and Golem has a certain number of VP and they are reduced during battle. Whenever an enemy turn is performed, whenever a character is downed, or hit by an Overbreak attack, more and more VP are lost. They reduce slowly, but they basically account for how many turns that character/Golem has left in them before needing replenished. Once they're down to a few VP you have to swap them out of the battle party, else they'll begin the battle with 1 HP and be useless. This system keeps players from using the same 4 characters all the time and adds some extra strategy to the game, as deciding how hard to use a Golem at a given time becomes a risk analysis -- what if there's no VP restoring thingamajig between here and the next tough battle?
* Lastly, another design decision that I really like about "Enchanted Arms" is that the random battles occur on a grid and each of the character's movements and attacks all have specific ranges just like a turn-based strategy game on the order of "Fire Emblem". This helps separate the game from the Final Fantasies of the world and helps make you actually think about what you're doing in battle. And since many of the battles feature tough enemies, your party automatically regains all HP and EP (used for skills/attacks) after each battle. This allows you to take on tougher foes, as your stash of curing potions and whatnot can actually be used in battle instead of between battles.
I'll be honest and say that I'm not the biggest fan of the RPG genre, especially those of the Japanese style such as this one, but there's something about it that I really like. Maybe it's the methodical nature I've taken with my battle party and how I'm looking forward to seeing them get stronger. Maybe I'm really fond of the collectable Golems and am a closeted Pokemon fan. Or perhaps it's just that the Achievements all unlock gradually as you play through the game. I don't know if it's any one aspect of the game that has pulled me in. In fact, I think it's more of a case of the sum being greater than the individual parts. One of the biggest complaints leveled about the Xbox 360 is that there aren't any RPG's on it besides "Oblivion". I'm saying there's a pretty good one in "Enchanted Arms" if you just hold your opinion for a couple of hours and give it some time. Besides, with a game reportedly lasting 40 or more hours, making a decision after just seeing 5% of the game doesn't really make much sense.