Alchemy isn't without irony, it would seem. Fullmetal Alchemist is one of the most popular and well-liked anime series worldwide, but somehow its conversion to the Nintendo DS diminishes the series from gold to lead. This short adventure that skews toward the macabre tries to cram the entire running length of the anime into a short beat-'em-up. In doing so, it completely saps the anime's story of its personality, and it offers a pretty unsatisfying beat-'em-up to boot. However, it does act as a shining example of why the anime's vaunted law of equivalent exchange is a fallacy, if only because you'll feel gypped after sinking your time and money into this game.
Typically, when a developer tries to cram, oh, say, 51 full-length anime episodes into a four-hour game (including gameplay), a few of the details, itty-bitty or otherwise, get pragmatically sidelined. And wouldn't you know it, such is the case with Fullmetal Alchemist. What seems to have been left out is the humanizing portion that counterbalances the stark, Machiavellian world in which the story takes place. So instead of the inspirational heroes' journey of Ed and Al to reconcile their hopes and aspirations with the realities of the world, you get a story that harps on Nazi-esque human experimentation, mass genocide, and the futility of our own existence from the perspective of a few kids who seem to have no problem aligning themselves with the group most likely capable of helping them reach their own ends, regardless of whether that force is the physical incarnation of evil. There's also some matricide and religious doom and gloom thrown into the mix, presented with equal moral ambiguity. The storyline as it is presented here in many ways misrepresents what the series is actually about, because in its haste to get through the story it leaves several downright abhorrent faults in logic unresolved--so the game really might not be suitable for those who lack a proper perspective on the world. And aside from the heavy delivery, the game makes ample use of the ever-helpful "... ..." response, as well as several sequences where characters are essentially just yelling other characters' names, accompanied by ambiguous visuals on the top screen, which makes digesting the story even more of a task.
With the story being in such shambles, it's problematic that the gameplay plays second fiddle to it. Between the prolonged cutscenes, you work your way through a series of stages and boss fights. Defying the traditional beat-'em-up style of play, the action here is for the most part extremely easy. On your first play-through, only the normal mode will be available, and in this mode it is simply a matter of jamming on your attack button as you stroll from one side of the screen to the other. Making things easier is the one wrinkle that Fullmetal Alchemist introduces to the formula, that being the alchemy powers. By tapping on the touch screen with your thumb (the stylus isn't practical), you can activate an alchemy attack or erect a wall. Both of these have three power levels, where the first level is free to use and the others require a certain amount of transmutation icons, which float around on the touch screen to indicate how many you've got. These powers trivialize all regular encounters, because the free attack is enough to one-shot kill most enemies and the artificial intelligence isn't smart enough to go around the walls, which, incidentally, you are able to shoot through. Occasionally, one of the enemies will have a gun, but your gun is much, much larger, so it rarely ends well for them. The several bosses are able to arbitrarily dodge most of your alchemy attacks, so you'll need to figure out the usually obvious opening when they are vulnerable. Also, the game is stingy with health pickups, but dying has no real penalty, as you simply restart the current area you're in, not the stage, with a full health bar.
Once you make it through the story mode on normal, you'll unlock a hard story mode as well as a character mode. Character mode lets you go through mostly the same adventure you just went on, except you'll be able to play through it with a character other than Edward. It also gets rid of all the cutscenes and most of the terrible minigames, so it's in many ways far more enjoyable than the story mode. You'd be hard pressed to extend each run-through here to longer than 45 minutes, but at least you do unlock a number of character-specific assets once you complete the mode. These include screens from the show, character profiles, and voice clips, among others. It's all nice, but there's really nothing here that you can't find a better version of on the Internet...for free. Other bonus features include a truly puzzling fortune-telling mode and an alarm-clock mode, presumably for when you fall asleep playing this game.
The look of Fullmetal Alchemist is better than the sound, but neither shines through in any way. There is a lot of the same hand-drawn artwork you'd expect from a game based on an anime, and most of the dialogue is delivered with a still shot on the top screen and a face shot of the speaker with some text on the bottom. Several typos and grammatical errors appear in the dialogue text, which is bordering on inexcusable in this day and age. During the brief fighting periods, the game recycles the same few enemy sprites throughout, but at least the main characters' sprites are distinct and recognizable. Occasionally accompanying the text, the actors from the anime will chime in to voice the dialogue. However, they do so rarely and the sound quality is extremely poor, sounding as if it were recorded at a lousy studio. Also, many of the sound effects are quite archaic, including a Super Mario Bros. fireball sound when you hit A to advance the dialogue. The music sounds as if it's taken straight from the anime, so if you like it there, you'll probably like it here.
As benign as most beat-'em-ups are, the ESRB wasn't kidding around with the T it slapped on the cover of this box. Because the story has been stripped down to its bare-bones essentials, a lot of the charm of the anime falls by the wayside and is replaced by a disturbing storyline that lacks redeeming qualities. Plus, the lousy beat-'em-up action and undistinguished bonus media do little to salvage the package, so it's probably best to just avoid this one altogether, even if you're a fan of the anime.