It has often been said that the Xbox family of consoles suffers from a lack of decent Japanese titles. This has been mostly true for the majority of the brand’s lifestyle, and Microsoft’s struggles getting the Xbox to be properly accepted in Japan have been well documented over the years. A lack of high-profile JRPGs has almost certainly exacerbated the issue over the years as games from the Tales of… and Persona series remained PlayStation exclusive and the Xbox lost out on some killer titles like Bloodborne and, until fairly recently, Yakuza.
What often goes unnoticed, however, is that the Xbox family has had some truly killer Japanese releases – particularly during the earlier days of the Original Xbox and Xbox 360’s lifespans – and while not all of these were exclusives, many of them were criminally overlooked. A number of these titles fell by the wayside entirely due to being passed over by the general public in favour of more instantly recognisable titles like Final Fantasy and many of them receiving middling reviews from the games media at the time. Games like The Last Remnant failed to capture the mainstream audience due to a number of convoluted and difficult systems typical of most games that Akitoshi Kawazu is involved with (his Romancing Saga series seems to be picking up well deserved mainstream attention recently thanks to a wave of ports; go check them out!).
Square’s other JRPG experiment of the era, Infinite Undiscovery, was mostly known for a few cringe-inducing cutscenes that gained it a reputation as ‘that game with the Dinner Dance scene’; both were games deserving of far more recognition than they received, but were unfortunately released during a time when a focus on bigger budgets and celebrity voice acting was becoming the norm and the indie boom hadn’t quite kicked off and introduced the mainstream to the joy that can be found in lower-budget games if one is to look past the small flaws.
Speaking of flawed but brilliant games – Dark Souls, that was a bit good, wasn’t it? We’re fast approaching the release of Elden Ring and I’m sure I’m not the only one who has had the urge to go back and enjoy some From Software classics; time to replay the Souls series? Armored Core, perhaps? How about Enchanted Arms? Yes, let’s go with that one.
Enchanted Arms released for the Xbox 360 in 2006 and holds the honour of being the first JRPG for the console – a distinction that might have helped the game shift a few more copies, were it not for the genre’s waning popularity at the time. The general consensus was that turn based battles were a thing of the past, real time action was the way forward apparently; Final Fantasy XII had divided opinion with its ‘gambit’ system, which tried to automate the majority of the process (just wait until they see Final Fantasy XIII) and there was an idea that selecting commands from a menu was an archaic compromise to weaker technology, as opposed to a conscious design choice. This unfortunately meant that some brilliant RPGs didn’t get the recognition they perhaps deserved (I’m pointing my finger squarely at everyone who didn’t give Lost Odyssey glowing reviews) and subsequently sales declined and less of them came to western shores. The JRPG was, it seemed, no longer the juggernaut it was during the PS1 era.
FromSoftware, then, took a gamble releasing Enchanted Arms as a timed exclusive for the Xbox 360, but did it pay off? The game follows perennial plucky-anime-teenager Atsuma, a student at the Enchant University (imagine a school for wizards, except the pointy hats have been replaced by belts, lots of belts) where students learn the history and power of Golems, which mostly act as robotic assistants but we learn early on that self-aware Golems, led by powerful beings known as Devil Golems, once wreaked havoc in the aptly named Golem Wars, setting the stage for events to come. What follows is a fairly standard slice-of-life anime story as Atsuma and his companions (the resident know-it-all Toya and his fawning, flamboyant fanboy Makoto) skip class to enjoy a festival which is suddenly interrupted when an ancient evil is awoken – and we all know that kind of thing will really ruin your day. Thus begins Atsuma’s journey where he must learn to control the mysterious power contained within his right arm, develop from being an idiot slacker to hero and save the world; along the way, he must make new friends and recruit a small army of Golems to assist him in defeating the Queen of Ice.
It all sounds a bit much, really, doesn’t it? And it can feel that way, as a great deal of the early game is taken up with expository dialogue being vomited all over you by various characters without a great deal of context (what does an Enchanter even do?) What results is a surfeit of worldbuilding dialogue, which, for a game with such a simplistic story, seems unnecessarily crammed into the first couple of hours. This can feel somewhat overwhelming, particularly as the majority of the cutscenes are not fully animated, instead acted out with characters on either side of the screen talking back and forth, as is typical with some lower-budget RPGs. Embracing the minimalist writing of Hidetaka Miyazaki is probably the smartest thing FromSoftware ever did.
While Enchanted Arms’ story is unlikely to wow anybody who has played a JRPG before, it is certainly helped along by a cast of voice actors who are hamming it up to nth degree, giving the story a light-hearted edge as they positively revel in the cheesy dialogue. Makoto’s voice actor Liam O’Brien, in particular, stands out as he chews the scenery at every opportunity. It’s a quality of the game that could be a criticism in a more grim, sombre affair like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice; as it stands, Enchanted Arms is a light-hearted, power of friendship sort of romp that benefits from the silly dialogue and over the top anime voice acting, as well as a main character who is constantly thinking about food (I can sadly relate.)
Besides the numerous cutscenes, much of the game takes place either in the field screens, where the player controls Atsuma and explores fairly linear maps (think something along the lines of Final Fantasy X but not quite as pretty) or in one of many (and I mean many) random battles. Exploring the cities and dungeons of Enchanted Arms is a straightforward affair; there’s the odd side path that usually leads to either a treasure chest or a battle with a Golem that will grant the player that Golem’s ‘core’, which can then be used to add the Golem to your team (some of these can also be bought or won from defeating bosses, more on this later.) To say that the player explores the game’s world is probably a stretch, though – there’s little in the way of exploration, and the early parts of the game are frustratingly riddled with tutorials, nearly all of which stop the player in their tracks in order to instruct them to ‘press A’ to climb a ladder, press a switch, or a number of other self-explanatory systems. It’s an annoyance that is, thankfully, starting to feel like a relic of an era when developers assumed the average player had a room temperature IQ and needed their hand holding so badly that players would often get bored before a game truly hit its stride.
The bulk of the actual gameplay comes from the game’s battle system, however, which is a strategy-RPG-lite. Fought on a 6×4 grid, battles consist of positioning your team members around the grid in order to best take advantage of the range and scope of their various attacks and the offensive and defensive advantages provided by clever placement. There is a lot to consider here, some characters take up more squares on the grid than others, attacks have a wide variety of ranges hitzones and stacking characters behind one another limits the damage they take during the enemy’s turn. A battle system that is, on the surface, very simple then, boasts surprising depth, as – much like a game of chess – the general flow of a battle can easily be determined by a clever (or not so clever) first move. Boss fights can be especially exhilarating, as clever tactics determine whether you’re going to spend the next 10 minutes struggling to just survive, or practically pin the boss down and make it feel like John Romero made me feel the first time I saw an advert for Daikatana.
After a successful battle, your characters earn the usual XP and currency, as well as a resource called SP which can be spent either on unlocking new skills or on levelling up stats, a kind of multi-purpose currency system not entirely dissimilar to From Software’s later Souls games. The combat system ends up being engrossing and rather challenging and tactical at times. If the number of random battles gets too much, you can even give that right trigger a quick pull and set it to auto-battle mode, allowing you to breeze through some of the less challenging fights.
When it comes to gameplay, Enchanted Arms’ focus on the bonds between its main characters actually ties in quite nicely, but also highlights a key weakness in the game’s combat. As the player progresses through the game, they collect a number of Golems to add to their team, building a posse of monsters with various abilities and elemental attributes. These Golems can level up and improve their statistics, however, they crucially cannot learn new skills – only the human team-mates can. This leads to an unfortunate situation whereby, after a certain point in the game, the vast majority of Golems are pretty useless as your human team outclasses them in almost every way. There are certainly some very powerful monsters to add to your team, and the game is certainly completable with your choice of creatures, but if you’re planning on challenging some of the games more difficult optional bosses, you’re unlikely to use most, if any Golems. Equally, if you aren’t much of a completionist, you may find little value in the monster collecting side of things, which is disappointing.
Another disappointing aspect of Enchanted Arms’ battle system lies in the visual side of things. The combat arena is incredibly bland to look at – mostly just an approximation of the location in which the fight takes place with all detail removed and a grid on the ground; it kind of fits the games science-fantasy feel, but I didn’t even realise there were different backgrounds to the battle arenas until I went back to review my screenshots. There are a few nice battle animations, but for the most part you’ll find yourself holding that fast forward button to skip them once you’ve seen them play out once or twice. This is a shame, because the visual design elsewhere in the game is actually impressive. Yes, it has that early-Xbox ‘everything is shiny’ look to it, but that holds a certain charm to some people and is a product of its time. When one looks past the dated aspects like low texture resolution and lack of dynamic lighting, there are some visually pleasing locations and fun (if tonally inconsistent) character designs. Locations often look more expansive than they actually are, and this enhances the feel of going on a grand adventure, while areas like the Sealed Ward are atmospheric and do a better job of adding worldbuilding flavour than an hour of cutscenes about Devil Golems and Nuclear Golem Bombs and Golem Pizza Salesmen manages (incidentally, I only made one of those up.)
Enchanted Arms, then, is a real mixed bag, and at times it’s easy to see why it was overlooked when it first released. The story is something we’ve all seen before, the music is barely existent at times, with a few high points (and one or two lows, with one piece sounding like someone standing on a cat inside a cave) but mostly sounding like it was lifted from one of the shops in Shenmue. The graphics are pleasant but unlikely to wow anybody in 2022 and the voice acting is probably too cheesy for some peoples tastes. What the game has, however, is soul. Lots and lots of soul. Despite the derivative nature of many of Enchanted Arms’ tropes and systems, it really feels like a game that somebody wanted to make because they had a fun idea that they thought others would enjoy – and it works!
If you can overlook its flaws, Enchanted Arms has a lot to offer; a light-hearted adventure caper with a fun battle system, some real challenge and depth, plenty of laughs and that comfy, JRPG atmosphere that felt like it went missing for quite some time during the Xbox 360 generation. If you’re looking for a JRPG to add to your library, you overlooked Enchanted Arms back when it came out, or simply want to delve into FromSoftware’s back-catalogue a bit because you have correct opinions and love their newer games, I would definitely recommend giving it a go.
Enchanted Arms is finally backwards compatible (playable on both Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S) and pretty cheap for a game that should last you 20+ hour and I didn’t even mention that Makoto attacks enemies by playing a saxophone at them. How did I forget that?
Go buy this game now from the Xbox Store.