LET US CONSIDER FOR a moment the Japanese role-playing game (or JRPG as those with slow typing speeds like to call it). A bizarre genre bound by the strict rules of tradition, where epic tales are told in a strange mix of high fantasy, low soap opera, turn-based battles, and a whole lot of cutscenes and menus. They're long and samey but also pulpy and addictive, like those fat airport novels, and in Japan they're so popular that every new Dragon Quest is played by millions of housewives, OAPs, and probably the smarter varieties of domestic animal. We don't get many JRPGs on Xbox 360 though, which makes this translation of From Software's Japanese launch title (originally called [eM] -eNCHANT arM-) quite refreshing. And it's a very decent one too, which sticks to standard RPG tradition in some ways, breaks with it in others, and is never beyond sending itself up.
If you've played any Final Fantasy game you'll know what to expect from the story: boisterous, angsty teen hero with a mysterious past, an outlandish supporting cast, an outbreak of monsters, cataclysmic events, feathery hair and silly clothes. Atsuma (whose right arm has strange powers) and his fellow enchanting students are embroiled in a disaster when the wacky, man-made 'golems' of their world - creatures halfway between robot, pet and demon, this game's Pokémon that you can collect and use yourself - run amok. An ancient and terrible Devil Golem is released, things get messy and Atsuma begins his inevitable quest for redemption, truth and, maybe, a kiss from a girl. It's by-the-numbers stuff, and is completely over-the-top, but it's kept entertaining by a smart, knowing and funny translation that takes every chance to exploit its campy nonsense for laughs.
Enchanted Arms is a typically linear trek, with a bare minimum of sidelines and branches. And sure enough, between all the talky bits and the towns to chat, gamble and shop in, you'll find a pretty, but empty world where you can't walk ten steps without being whisked into a randomly-generated battle with oddball monsters. But that's exactly when Enchanted Arms deviates from the JRPG norm, and introduces a mild element of strategy.
The grid-based battles mean you have to think about positioning your characters and the range of their attacks and spells. It's a very simple tactics system, but it's very effective in making the incessant random battles more involving and stopping you from just mashing through them on autopilot - although, brilliantly, there is a built-in autopilot option, if you want to level your character up but can't be bothered to think for yourself.
That's one of many forgiving touches that make this a breeze to play: your characters' health regenerates after every battle, you can run away if you don't like the look of a scrap, and you can save at any point you like.
If you run away, waste turns and get knocked out, your characters will tire and need to be replaced from the small army of golems you can carry around. Their skills are more limited, which is a pretty good incentive to fight smart. A far better incentive is the smug self-satisfaction you get from finishing a battle in one or two turns.
It's a fine balancing act Enchanted Arms pulls off: removing frustrations, spicing the JRPG recipe with just enough depth, tinkering and collecting to keep you constantly engaged, but not so much that it stops being what a JRPG should be, the videogame equivalent of comfort food. The range of absurd characters, wickedly bizarre golems and general tongue-in-cheek melodramatics go a long way to redressing the balance, making this perhaps the most likeable cult oddity on Xbox 360.
A REFRESHING RPG, BUT NOT FOR EVERYONE
- Involving grid tactics and structure
- Deranged weirdness by the bucketload
- Doesn't take itself too seriously
- Clunky, linear, and old-fashioned
- Graphics vary from pretty to plain