I was initially skeptical, to say the least, when I had heard that Square Enix owned the rights to an anime series, with the obvious expectation that there would be a game released connected to it. At E3 2004, I got to see the initial build of the game, and found out that it did manage to please the fickle Japanese public to the tune of 51 episodes of anime, in addition to a few games already out there. My interest was piqued for Fullmetal Alchemist and the Broken Angel there, but Square Enix spent their sweet time refining the game (and translating all of the anime), timing the first game's release to coincide with the first volume's appearance on DVD. The question, of course, is whether the game was worth the wait.
For those not familiar, or all that interested, in the anime series, the story takes place where alchemy is a hard science with predictable results, and follows the Elric brothers, two practitioners of the art. Abandoned by their father, they attempted to use alchemy, against all warning, to revive their mother when she died 4 years before the game. There was a reason this was forbidden: the end result was that their mother was not revived, elder brother Edward lost an arm and a leg, and younger brother Alphonse had his entire body destroyed, and only Ed's quick thinking and personal sacrifice made sure Al's soul was preserved in an empty suit of armor. Since then, the Elric brothers have sought the Philosopher's Stone, the only item with the power to restore their original bodies.
Okay, so we've managed to establish two things: the Elric brothers are out to seek some incredible power, and I have a future career in writing ad copy for anime series. Now, right off, how important is it to know the series background and watch the show to get into the game? Thankfully, not too much. Of course, the instruction booklet gives you much of that information, and the game establishes all of this right off the bat. If you have absolutely no exposure to Fullmetal Alchemist before (which I could see as possible, if you don't get Cartoon Network or feel like staying up until midnight on Saturday night watching the network), you can still leap in fairly quickly. Granted, you won't get some of the finer details (like what I meant by Ed's sacrifice for his younger brother), but you can quickly divine what's going on.
As for those familiar with the series, the game takes place fairly early on, as Ed and Al are accompanied by Major Armstrong of the State's military (guess who the State gets to fight? Not that it comes up in game, but if you said the Empire, get a cookie. I'm too cheap to give one to you). After an incident on a train, the Elric brothers are derailed near the town of Hissegart, where Professor Eiselstein, one of the Ten Alchemists (note the ominous capital letters) is working on something along the lines of the Philosopher's Stone. Of course, it turns out that there are plenty of lowlifes in the area, many chimera (beasts transformed through alchemy, also a no-no), and bizarre research. Naturally, it's up to the Elric brothers to solve things once and for all.
Though this is based on an anime series, this is meant to be a side story in the middle of the series, so sadly the characters stay pretty static throughout the story, and there really isn't any change as the story progresses. Ed is just as short-tempered and callous at the beginning and end, while Al is just as innocent, deferential, and protective of his brother. Moreover, as you'd expect, the tale ends not with Ed and Al finally restoring themselves to their complete bodies, but with clues about the Stone and lessons about how power can corrupt. If this was an episode of the anime (it certainly could be, with most of the fights that Ed and Al get into simply assumed), this would be tossed off as one of the weaker "filler" episodes. But yet, since the game is supposed to fit into the story cleanly, it can't end any other way. It certainly has its amusing points, and we are thankfully free of the villain claiming they're "just like" the Elric brothers (dialogue so cliche that they even mocked it in the anime's tenth episode). However, if you're hoping for any significant advancing of the series' plot, look somewhere else. This isn't .hack, where the two stories are intertwined.
For the game itself, it's mostly a 3D beat-'em-up, but with some twists. You always control Ed, but Al is there for almost the entire game. You get into a couple simple fights without him in the beginning, and you have to do a puzzle without him, but by and large Al sticks by his brother the entire time, controlled by fairly solid AI. You spend the game wandering from point to point (revisiting several areas multiple times), trying to clear through punks, enemy alchemists, and nasty chimera trying to solve the riddle of Eiselstein's Philosopher's Catalyst. And, of course, pounding the enemies into submission.
The twist comes with Ed's alchemy skills. At any time, he's able to create barriers for protection, and he's also able to create stone spikes to attack foes with. Moreover, you can work alchemy into attack combos, and in fact can clear yourself a ton of space with the maneuver. But the real fun comes in using alchemy to transmute the various object lying around levels into various items to help you out. You get to make duplicates that distract the enemy, weapons for Al and Ed to wield, and even vehicles the brothers can use to flatten their enemies (literally - one of the vehicles you get to make later on is a steamroller). Part of what keeps the action fresh is that you get a different array of objects, and consequently different transmuted items, in each level, causing you to consider carefully what to create to assist in battle. Another bonus is that several items can be transmuted multiple times - you can add elements to weapons, turn some objects further into healing items, and quite valuably reload the cannons and crossbows you end up creating. The ability to modify the background to suit your needs makes this much more engaging than most beat-'em-ups.
The only problem is that Al isn't always under the best control. He almost never tries to dodge, and he has an annoying habit of going for the smaller enemies that he has a harder time hitting. Al will also try attacking the closest enemy to him, which can be problematic if you tell him to jump into a weapon with a damage radius, like any cannon, and he decides to aim at the enemy you're currently engaging in melee. Another severe problem is that all of Al's weapons have limited strikes before they become useless. While I know that he's much more powerful than Ed and could be overwhelming if he got to keep his weapons, it's a constant frustration to have to look around for new candelabras and umbrellas to transmute into weapons for Al, particularly during boss fights. Having at least one permanent weapon for Al would be nice.
The control is fairly solid overall, although the game could really stand to have a remapping option for the controller. It would be nice if you could charge up an alchemy shot while unloading a few physical attacks on a nearby foe, but you can only do that by holding the controller at an awkward angle (and taking your finger off of the dodge button). If you simply remapped the controller to put the alchemy button on the left shoulder (switching it with the map toggle button), battle would flow much more smoothly. Beyond that, though, battle flows quite smoothly. You do have to learn the particulars of each transmuted weapon (if you like using Ed's signature transmuted spear, like I do, you'll find it's easy to accidentally do his three-slash combo with the spear), but overall it's really simple to get into the flow of the game.
The game is graphically solid and a huge jump over the initial build at E3, which resembled a first-generation Playstation 2 title. Square Enix decided to avoid the obvious choice of cel-shading and went instead with polygons all around. Square Enix has obviously worked extensively with them; each character looks almost exactly like their animated counterparts, and the lighting is relatively soft in effect and doesn't strike as exceptionally off (particularly when one polygon isn't in the light, or only one is). The animation is quite smooth on all of the characters, so they move more or less as you'd expect; it's difficult to say how smoothly an unnatural creation, particularly ones that appear to be failures, should move, but the movements seem predictably jerky.
The game also includes over a dozen video clips, for those who like the show's animation. Obviously handled by the same production company, it's notable because the coding on the DVD is much nicer than on most video games. Usually, there's something off on the quality that is pretty obvious in a game. This time, though, the game's interstitial anime spots look the exact same quality as you'd expect from the show DVDs. If you don't believe me, compare the scene of the Elric brothers' attempt at human transmutation (shown twice in game - once in the opening). Without any other indication, you'd assume this wasn't a game, and congratulations for someone finally getting the encoding for in-game movies correct.
There are two minor problems with the graphics, although you can at least explain one of them. The explainable part is that many enemies are simply palette swaps. Ah, Square Enix, hadn't we seen the end of that at the dawn of the 32-bit era? Still, lest you confuse this with the first six of each Dragon Warrior or Final Fantasy, keep in mind that the animations for each enemy are much more complex. Back then, they just used static characters with slightly different colors. It might be fun to rag on S-E for falling back on their roots, but at least you can understand why, given the overall quality of the graphics.
The other graphical issue that's totally inexplicable is Ed's size. To be blunt, Ed is short - every single episode of the show, every issue of the comic, and every other discussion in-game makes some mention of Ed's lack of stature (which naturally drives Ed up the wall). This is particularly evident compared to Al in the animated sequences, where the animated armor towers over his brother. However, during the game's action, Al is only a bit taller than Ed is, and not appreciably broader. At first, I thought this was simply rendering Al too small, but then I compared Ed to the enemies - most of them are about Ed's size. Either Ed likes to pick on guys his own size (and if you've seen the series, you'd know that Ed always bites off more than he can chew without thinking), or the artists for the game made Ed too large. Considering how this point is hammered home at every opportunity, I don't understand how Ed could suddenly appear to be a reasonable height.
For the game's sound... to be honest, it's difficult to say that won't get tons of detractors. First off, I'll say right off that I think that the English dubbing for Fullmetal Alchemist is perhaps the most solid dub I've ever heard - even surpassing the quality of Love Hina's dub (I never could get used to giving Kitsune a Southern accent in English). They even managed to find the two male voice actors who could convincingly do young voices (Aaron Dismuke deserves special credit for doing Al's voice well). With that, the timing and syncing of the voice actors is quite strong in the game, down to Al's apologizing when he accidentally blasts Ed with a cannon. The only disappointment is that they don't have a wide variety of clips - outside of the well-synced anime sequences, you will hear the same five or six clips repeatedly. My wife is extremely annoyed at hearing Ed yell, "thank you!" after every item acquisition. Basically, if you can deal with the dub, the voice acting in the game is solid, if not particularly diverse.
The in-game music, though, is sadly deficient. The anime series has some solid interstitial music, and I know I'm not the only fan of L'Arc-en-Ciel's "Ready Steady Go!" the theme of the American version of the show (originally the Japanese show's second season opening theme). You won't find any of that in the game. In fact, the music is trite and annoying, frequently not fitting the mood of the current area. Before their merger, Square and Enix were both known for some killer soundtracks. And they worked with a property that had some incredible music. I have no rational explanation as to why this game's music is so miserable. You may just wish to keep the television muted until the animated sequences begin to catch the rest of the story (should you care about it).
In terms of beat-'em-ups, this is one of the more solid efforts in recent years. Not quite on the level of the incredible River City Ransom remake for the Game Boy Advance, but certainly one worth picking up for fans of the genre. This is a huge step up in every way from Square's last effort in the genre (the laughable title, The Bouncer). With the options that you have in transforming the terrain, you can run through several times and pull off different tricks and have much different runs each time. Fans of the series will get a kick out of it, even as they find the flaws in the presentation. And newcomers can jump in and get the point without feeling the need to watch a dozen episodes of a cartoon first. Really, it comes down to the fact that unlike Pokemon, the game is meant to advertise the anime, instead of vice-versa. It's still fun, but not nearly the trip that .hack managed to be. Should the game give some meat to the plot, and actually establish something new for the series, then it would be really great. Until then, it has to settle for being merely decent.