Thousand Arms is the story of Meis Triumph, scion of the venerable Triumph clan - overlords of the town of Kant and spirit blacksmiths for seven generations. One day, the dark acolytes attack the slumbering village, and Meis is thrown out of his ancestral home. Barely reaching the capital city, Boyzby, he meets Sodina, a young girl whose brother, Jyabil, happens to be a master spirit blacksmith. Jyabil takes Meis as an apprentice, but the Dark Acolytes have their sights set on Boyzby as well... thus, the story unfolds.
Thousand Arms is an RPG, and it's got all the standard trappings of one - if you've played any game in the genre, Thousand Arms should be immediately accessible. Red Company, the developer, has been at this for years, spawning many immensely popular titles - Sega's Sakura Wars, for example - that unfortunately haven't been released in the United States. The company's expertise shows; nothing seems awkward or out of place, and it all flows.
What makes Thousand Arms unique is the master system, in which you use your powers as a spirit blacksmith to reforge your party's weapons, adding power and spells to them. Where do you draw this mystical power from? Being a spirit blacksmith is tough; in addition to the master points you use to reshape the metal, you'll need the support of a girl to achieve your results. That's where the dating elements of this game come in.
Now, dating games have not historically been well received in the US. That's not exactly true; they've never really had the opportunity. Talk to a random sampling of people and you'll either hear derisive snickers or fanatical devotion. Either extreme is pretty silly - dating scenes might sound like the last refuge of the socially inept, but they're just a lighthearted aside to the game's main thrust: the tried-and-true RPG quest. They offer a welcome breather from saving the world. The format is this: Sodina, or whoever, will pose a question to Meis, and you must pick one of two options as an answer. Obviously, the aim is to please her. If the date goes well, your intimacy factor grows by a point, and your blacksmithing ability is thereby increased as well. In addition to normal "dates," you can play minigames that boost your statistics with a girl. Sodina's cooking attack basically plays like that old Simon smack-the-colored-lights game. Additionally, each town has a shop in which you can buy presents for girls, although the best presents are hidden in deep corners of dungeons.The graphics are simply excellent. Everything is polygonal, except for your characters, which are sprites. This holds true in the battles, as well. The level of artistry is quite high - the houses in the towns are littered with sundry items and decoration, and the texture maps are both detailed and varied. Your town/dungeon sprites are small, superdeformed, and generally humorous, but in battle you will be treated to full-size characters that look as though they stepped out of an anime cel. There's also a smattering of high-quality FMV, which is a mixture of computer-generated backgrounds and anime characters.
The game has a very humorous presentation and loads of cel artwork - any time a scene with any importance is about to happen, the camera swings around to a close-up shot of the characters in fully hand-drawn anime style. There is also a lot of extremely well-done voice acting in the game - Sodina and Meis, especially, are full of emotion, and they carry the weight of their lines extremely well. The dating scenes are extremely amusing, and a lot of it has to do with Sodina's reactions, which may vary from infatuation to disgust; it's always quite obvious how she feels.
One of the most important aspects of an RPG is the battle system; after all, you're going to be spending a lot of time with it. Thousand Arms' battles will feel familiar, but they are a little bizarre. It's easiest to compare them to other games: They have elements from Namco's LMB system (the Tales series) in that your characters are all flat anime characters on a 3D background. They're like Square's ATB system (Final Fantasy) because a real-time gauge governs the timing of attacks, and there's no action element. The strangest thing has to be that the front character (in both enemy and player parties) is the only one who can make any kind of offensive move, be it a physical attack or a spell. The only thing back-row characters can do is cast help spells and use items. Occasionally, they'll cheer you or taunt the enemies, marginally affecting stats. This might be the only game where those "spell in a bottle" items are extremely useful.
The game has a strong anime aesthetic - sometimes cute, sometimes wacky, and definitely attractive. The enemies are downright absurd and generally worth a laugh. The dialogue is too, though as is true of the genre, high drama can cut in at any moment. Atlus definitely has a great game on its hands here - the combination of solid RPG questing, graphics, dialogue, dubbing, and ambiance really push this game over the edge from standard to special. Game-playing anime fans will get a big kick out of it, and it's the first real example of a decent dating simulation in the US. Any RPG fans who like amusing situations, animated (in both senses of the word) characters, and challenging gameplay will enjoy this title. Fans of Lunar, especially, should check this one out. Because RPGs aren't that rare anymore, good ones stand out that much more. Hopefully, Thousand Arms won't be swept under in the fourth-quarter flood.