The singular achievement of Fullmetal Alchemist in my eyes is the introduction of a magic system that is completely different from the usual Dungeon’s & Dragon-inspired magic systems with spells and often corresponding amounts of spell points. Instead we get a system that is, concept-wise, rooted in chemistry aided by a mix of telekinesis and matter transformation and explanations that imply to some extend that the rules of the universe hold true (souls apparently are a big source of energy, so rules of the universe are somewhat stretched).
But the real strength beyond the concept is the visualization, that shows the Alchemists creating various objects from the matter around them, from simple ones like walls and blocks that stretch up to higher places to pretty complex machinery. It’s an impressive feat and something that showcases the strength of the comic medium versus prose fiction.
Not that the story and the rest of the setting aren’t remarkable on their own. How often do we get a fantasy world that has a tech-level similar to the early 19th century, a conspiracy that uses blood sacrifices on a national level to crack open and then control the consciousness of the entire world. Fullmetal Alchemists is nothing if not ambitious.
At the same time, while handling these big concepts, the plot always concentrates on the growing cast of characters, each of them with a unique voice and an interesting story to tell. It’s the perfect mix of big ideas and well-written characters that shows were the highest of ambitions can lead people to and what the costs is on the individual level. Nobody gets forgotten, though nobody is really save either and people do die (though main characters mostly have plot-immunity, at least until they don’t).
And while the mood of the series grows darker with each volume, more desperate and threatening, it’s never a depressing read. Occasional injections of silliness and goofy humor keep the dark at bay without feeling out of place and the characters convincingly pull it off that when they face overwhelming odds, it doesn’t feel like characters resorting to stupid bravado.
I even like the finale, despite that it does bring out the old and boring cliche and the Life Lesson we learned is friendship. The whole homunculus vs humans conflict is one of the oldest hats in science fiction and fantasy, the physical superior monsters with no emotions vs humans who have them and thus will inevitably win in the end. I don’t really like it when Star Trek, Doctor Who or any other science fiction and fantasy series does the same and did hope for something more clever in Fullmetal Alchemist. Even the final master plan of the big bad was disappointing and didn’t amount to much.
But I’m okay with it. The finale wasn’t exactly the smart brainy twist I was expecting, but it did provide ample emotional closure. Few writers manage to pull that off, so I was more than satisfied. Not every writer aims to overturn the natural order, especially fantasy writers prefer to hark back to the common human element. And I can get my SF fix elsewhere.