Say what you want about Ubisoft’s Enchanted Arms, it doesn’t try to pretend it’s something that it’s not. It’s a story-driven, turn-based Japanese RPG for the Xbox 360 that doesn’t break new ground in its admittedly niche genre. It takes production shortcuts left and right, has a soundtrack with only a scant handful of songs worth a second listen, and features a plot so linear you’d be tempted to call Final Fantasy open-ended. And it’s great!

The original Xbox, God rest its soul, suffered from a painful lack of quality support from the Land of the Rising Sun, which isn’t all that hard to understand when you consider how poorly the system sold there. Microsoft seems determined to remedy that with the 360, and the creation of Enchanted Arms probably arose directly out of that desire. While many aspects of the game — the static character portrait dialogue and limited, grid-based battle system — could have been done on any system since the Super Nintendo, its graphics inside and out of combat are like nothing any other console on the market even approaches. For as many corners as may have been cut in terms of side quests and barebones cutscenes, you’d be hard pressed to tell by its visuals that put everything before it, including any Final Fantasy or Xenosaga game, to shame. While the Playstation 3 (and the overbudgeted Square-Enix titles it will bring) will change all that, its Xbox Live access and rewarding Achievement integration, together with [currently] peerless graphical delivery and a compelling (if simplistic) storyline make it, in my opinion, the first step of this venerable console RPG genre into the latest generation of videogames.

It’s certainly not a perfect game, of course. Its characters, focusing on the dim-witted, young protagonist Atsuma and his quest to save the world and solve the mystery of his seemingly all-powerful right arm, are almost intentionally clichéd. Square did the ambitious hero, spunky princess with her stolid retainer, and bratty tomboy schtick and have long since moved on to exhausting the other combinations of the apparently only ten or so Japanese RPG character traits (see Cloud the ambitious loner, Zidane the bratty thief, Cecil the mournful retainer; Squall the UNambitious emo, rinse and repeat). However, Enchanted Arms does get props for the first openly homosexual, flaming and sexually in-your-face transvestite I ever recall seeing in a game, though to call just adding another painful stereotype to the mix a blessing is up for debate. Likewise, character development is a simple “collect SP points, spend on relevant stats” bag, and the Golem creation is more than a little reminiscent of the 108 Stars from the Suikoden series (both in its variety and the frequent uselessness it produces). Combat takes place on a mirrored 4 x 3 grid and its direct vs. ranged, counter-the-opposing element attacks are nothing fans of the genre haven’t seen before, but it manages to stay engaging and challenging enough till the very end.

With the notable exceptions of its stunning presentation and thorough Xbox Live support (for a single player RPG), Enchanted Arms adds very little new to the traditional console RPG. But in a niche genre increasingly populated with entries that seem to change things just for novelty rather than utility, this game delivers an excellent, “old school” gaming experience far more worthwhile and entertaining than today’s jaded critics give it credit.

Score: 7 / 10


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