Thousand Arms
   Atlus is aiming to strike it big in the American RPG market with Thousand Arms. While the company is well known for Revelations: Persona and various titles in the Ogre Battle series, they've never really had a true breakthrough title. Atlus describes Thousand Arms as its "most ambitious project to date," a project originally in development for over three years at Red Company, the group responsible for Bonk's Adventure and Japan's Sakura Taisen series. It's not quite a Final Fantasy-killer, but Thousand Arms merges colorful anime artistry, an unprecedented and enjoyable dating simulator, loads of voice acting, and a fantastic sense of humor together with a solid RPG base to deliver an above-average experience.
Of Meis and men

   Thousand Arms' hero is a young lad by the name of Meis Triumph. Meis is the youngest in a long line of Spirit Blacksmiths -- a once-respected family line whose honor has diminished over the years as each successor progressively degenerated into a shameless womanizer. The flamboyant Meis certainly carries this trait, but regains his nobility by (eventually) setting off to save the world after his hometown of Kant is attacked by the mysterious Dark Acolytes. Meis' power as a blacksmith grants him the unique power to strengthen and improve upon his party's weapons as players progress through the game. With each level raised, and with the assistance of a lovely female companion (a vital part of the blacksmith process, of course), Meis can imbue a number of elements (fire, light, earth, etc) into a blade as he strengthens it, as well as add a special attack (which depends on the "intimacy level" Meis has with his assistant). It rarely seems useful to pick which element to use on a weapon, but it's absolutely necessary to reforge weapons often in order to keep attack stats high.

   To simply call Thousand Arms "anime-inspired" would be insulting. From the obligatory sweatdrop emotion to the off-beat brand of humor -- and the flood of anime artistry, of course -- Thousand Arms is as anime-heavy as you can get in an American videogame, but still manages to appeal to a universal audience. Fantastic cel-drawn artwork is used throughout the game, particularly in key scenes where the camera shifts to a full-screen anime scene display with limited animation -- a welcome change from the standard top-down sequences. As well, there are a number of movies which blend hand-drawn anime with CG renders, similar to Xenogears' intro cinema.

Tongue-in-cheek dialog

   The plot may be filled to the brim with tired old RPG cliches, particularly near the end, but like Lunar: Silver Star Story, the storytelling is often more important than the story itself. Atlus USA has done a fantastic job at localizing Thousand Arms in every way possible -- while characters are horribly one-dimensional, their singular character traits are exploited in every way possible for laughs. The tongue-in-cheek dialog is extremely fluid and natural-sounding, and the game never takes itself too seriously. ("This town is Boyzby," a little boy says early in the game. "And if you talk to me again, I'll say the same thing! Funny, huh?") Sexual innuendo is also worked heavily into the game, as befitting the heavy dating aspect, but is rarely crude or obscene. (With some exceptions: "They're sooo perky!" we hear a dirty old man -- audibly, in breathless excitement -- exclaim after being left with two of the female heroes at one point in the game.) The 12 hours of voice acting are also top-notch. While a few supporting characters are flat and poorly voiced, most of the voice talents used in the game have done professional work in cartoons and anime before, and add considerably to the overall feel of the game. It's all overacted like a Saturday morning cartoon or some of the more eccentric animes out there, of course, but the voice acting fits the game's style perfectly.

If RPGs were dating prospects, Thousand Arms would be...wait a minute, this game IS a dating prospect!

   Much will be made of Thousand Arms' dating aspects, and not without reason -- they provide an enormous complement to the game without ever being an absolute necessity. At each town, Meis can head over to the "date statue," which allows him to carry out one of three things with a woman of his choice: go on a full-fledged date, give a present, or play a mini-game. Dating is the most involved of the three; Meis begins by selecting the lucky lady and taking her to a pre-defined date spot somewhere around town. There, the scene shifts to an up-close anime portrait of Meis' female companion, and she proceeds to ask him a variety of questions. Meis scores points if he answers correctly, which is usually a matter of avoiding the most offensive answer of the two options presented, such as "I like making secret gases in bed." If you do well enough, your initimacy level with your companion rises, and you may even get a chance to ask her a question before she pecks you with a goodbye kiss. Thanks to the range of emotions displayed, the fantastic voice acting (though it feels almost embarassing to hear some questions), and the downright hilarious question/answer pairs, dating is an incredibly amusing distraction. 9 different girls to choose from -- some of whom are only available in their respective hometowns -- ensure that the system stays fresh. Alternatively, Meis can choose to give a present to one of the ladies, or play a mini-game -- each girl has their own, from an extended rock-paper-scissors tournament to a "whack-a-mole" affair. All in all, the much-lauded dating aspect of Thousand Arms does indeed add a considerable and enjoyable value to the game.

   For the most part, Thousand Arms' graphics are well executed. As mentioned above, anime artistry plays a huge role in the game -- not just in dating and story cut-scenes, but with hand-drawn sprites appearing in towns and battles as well. The latter especially deserves praise; the large, colorful 2D anime sprites in battle are against a flat polygonal background, and smoothly come alive with countless different frames of hand-drawn movement. Outside of battle, sprites are once again placed upon a polygonal world, but in a top-down view and with 360 degrees of camera rotation available in 45 degree increments. Unfortunately, like most other titles with this sort of system, there are often moments where no camera angle will give an unobstructed view. This is particularly annoying in many of the poorly laid out dungeons where no camera movement is permitted at all. Still, the camera isn't an issue too often.

One-on-one battle system

   The largest flaw marring Thousand Arms' otherwise appealing veneer is the battle system. Instead of having multiple heroes attack multiple foes, Thousand Arms over-simplifies the turn-based battle engine with a one-on-one setup -- only the lead hero and enemy can exchange blows, while two characters stand on the sidelines, capable only of casting supportive spells or boosting stats through cheering. Atlus USA has increased the difficulty of battles over the Japanese version, but not quite enough -- battles still remain terribly easy, and quickly fall into the "attack, attack, heal" pattern plaguing many combat engines. When the lead character (or the "backup team") selects a command, a time gauge appears which slowly diminishes; when time's up, the X or O buttons can be hit to execute the selected command. Besides the standard attack/defend/spell/item/retreat litany, the lead character can also perform special attacks, summon beasts in extremely impressive graphical sequences, or completely leave the battle in order to allow a backup character to step in and fight. Still, the third character in battle is -- for all intents and purposes -- utterly useless. Like the second character in battle, he or she will rarely (if ever) be called upon to fight, and since only one backup character can cast a spell at a time, the one with the smaller complement of spells will serve little use in combat. It's refreshing to see the developers striving to create an innovative battle system which differs from the tired old norm, but sometimes it's better not to stray too far from the tried-and-true mainstays of RPG gameplay.

   A number of puzzling omissions in Thousand Arms also detract from the overall experience. First, the game is programmed to only allow 3 save slots on each memory card; this limitation may not affect all players, but will certainly be an issue in a household with multiple RPG fans. Second, even at the highest speed setting, text drags on at a Xenogears-like pace, only alleviated by hitting the triangle button with each new screen. With the copious amount of text found in the vast majority of RPGs, it's a mystery why some developers don't include a full range of text speeds. Third, it's become a standard to include analog support in all games -- something Thousand Arms lacks. While the vibration features of a Dual Shock controller are certainly put to use, players must use the D-pad to navigate the world along directions which sometimes don't run parallel to building walls and roads, making it a chore to walk in a straight line. Similarly, poor object detection can make it frustratingly difficult to interact with townsfolk and objects.

   Taking a cue from Working Designs, Atlus has crafted a number of extras for Thousand Arms: memory card stickers, an art-laden full-color manual, and a large lenticular card are included, while a massive 36" x 24" poster is available through major retailers at purchase. Disappointingly, the dual multimedia / soundtrack CD must be requested via mail (with a $2 shipping and handling fee), forcing gamers to wait several weeks before experimenting with the most interesting of Thousand Arms' extras. If the game's appeal hasn't worn off by then, one can look forward to character bios, theme songs, screen savers, desktop wallpapers / themes, links to "hot gaming web sites," and a seemingly hidden directory with "outtakes." Most of the outtakes are just that -- humorless recordings which were discarded before a perfect voice recording was made, but there are a small number of gems present as well, such as the techno-remixed "kyleen.mp3." The soundtrack contains 40 different songs from the game -- most are only about 1 minute long, but the tracks are well-chosen and make for an eminently listenable CD.

   The game's music itself, like the soundtrack, is well above average; a number of different styles are mixed with some fantastic instrument samples, and fit the game's atmosphere. Overall, Thousand Arms should appeal to most RPG fans' tastes. Solid gameplay is built upon with scads of voice acting, well-crafted dialog, an intriguing weapon forging system, and the addictive dating simulator. A considerable number of big-name RPGs are on store shelves this Christmas season -- Thousand Arms deserves to be one of them.

Review by Brian Glick, GIA.
Thousand Arms
Developer Red Company
Publisher Atlus
Genre Traditional RPG
Medium CD(2)
Platform PlayStation
Release Date  12.17.98
Thousand Arms released
Six movies / 100+ screen shots
"Seaport" sketch
9 character backgrounds