FMA is a long series: 51 episodes, plus a movie. Most long series either derail into endless side plots, using tons of stock footage. FMA is not like that -- not at all.
The series maintains a narrative thrust that is impressive. There is never a dull moment, and the focus is always on advancing the plot. There aren't even flashback episodes! There is a lot of plot too.
The series is about two brothers, Edward and Alphonse, who seek the Philosopher's Stone. They both are alchemists, and they need the stone to be exempt from the principle of equivalent exchange. When they tried to resurrect their mother, Ed lost his leg and Al lost his body -- Ed paid with his arm to bind Al's soul to a suit of armor. And now they are looking for a way to get Al's body and Ed's body parts back -- but they need to bypass the equivalent exchange clause of alchemy.
Under the patronage of Colonel Roy Mustang, Edward becomes a State Alchemist, which means he gets a stipend of the government, but with the provision that he will need to make himself available in case of war. The government, by the way, is a fascist-like military state (the 'king' is called 'führer'...). Some people in the miltary are looking out for the greater good of the people, but there are some unsavory elements for whom an order is an order...
And so, the two brothers travel around, in search of rumors about the Philosopher's Stone. Pretty soon, their information points to the Ishbal uprising which was bloodily supressed -- something was going on with the Ishbali and the Philosopher's Stone. This is also when they meet Scar, an Isbal man who has a right arm that has been infused with alchemical powers. He uses these powers to hunt the state alchemists, in retaliation of the massacre in Ishbal.
Ed and Al find out that the military has been behind the whole uprising, and they meet homonculi -- whenever an alchemist treis a transmutation on a human body, the resulting mess becomes a homunculus. Homunculi have a body and a mind, but don't have a soul. Their mind comes from beyond the Gate, which is the source of all alchemy. (Parallel with Warhammer's Warp Gate, I guess.)
The homunculi have been manipulating the military to attack the Ishbal, in order to get the Ishbali to create the Philosopher's Stone. You see, they want the stone to become human. And guess what is the main ingredient for the stone? Yup -- human lives.
Through various trials and travels, Scar ends up saving Al by making him the Philosopher's Stone. Pretty soon thereafter, the whole mess is exposed for what it is, the master of the homunculi is revealed, as well as what is beyond the Gate. In the end, Al's body is recreated, but he has lost his memories, and Ed is lost beyond the Gate.
In the movie, we get to see how Ed is doing in the other world, in the Munich of the 1920's, just before the rise of the Nazis. The Thule society wants to open a portal to the 'other world' (through the Gate) in order to use the resources over there for their new war. Of course, Ed and Al have to stop them...!
The designs are pretty simple, but the animation is quite fluid. Sure, there are some scenes where you know they have skipped some animation to save the budget (you only see the back of the head of talking characters in some scenes...), but that's not any worse than with other series and so doesn't really detract. And there is no stock footage.
Every episode advances the plot, and the series is exciting all the way through. There is a lot of stuff going on, and the action plays itself out on multiple levels: there are the fights Ed and Al get into, but there is also the more subtle political infighting going on in the military. Add to that the conspiracy of the homunculi, and you get an explosive mix that gives quite the rollercoaster ride.
It is clear that this series was made with a Western (American) audience in mind. All the text in the series is in English, for instance. (Try to read Ed's letter to Winry after he has passed the State Alchemist exam!) There are also no typically Japanese idiosyncracies present -- there are no bathing scenes, there are no fireworks festivals, there are no temples or shrines. This also makes it very easy viewing for people not as versed in the typicalities of anime.
- Excellent and exciting plot;
- Decent animation and passable designs, no stock footage!
- Quite a lot of characters and plot-threads to keep track of.
All in all, there's not much to dislike here. A 9.