Publisher: NIS America
Release Date: May 24, 2005
Pre-order 'ATELIER IRIS: Eternal Mana': PlayStation 2
The Japanese RPG changed forever after the release of Final Fantasy VII for the PSOne. Stories had been getting more serious and dramatic as the 16-bit era drew to a close, but the sheer angst and tragedy inherent in FFVII was simply unlike anything gamers had seen before. Other publishers were quick to try and capitalize on FFVII's success, and as a result both the PSOne and PS2 have been dominated by a dark, serious, epic style when it comes to RPGs. It has often lead fans to wonder what RPGs today might look like if FFVII had never happened.
Chances are they'd all look like Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, and this wouldn't really be a bad thing. While Atelier Iris offers all the depth and complexity gamers expect from modern RPGs, it also has the bright 2D graphics and cheerier approach to characterization that vets of the 16-bit era will remember well. The result is a pleasing blend of old and new design elements that just doesn't look or play like anything else out there.
Atelier Iris is nominally a turn-based RPG, as opposed to the strategy RPGs that NIS America is otherwise known for. There are six playable characters, each with particular strengths, skills, and weaknesses, but of them the main character, Klein, is most important. He's the alchemist of the game, a role previously only filled by female characters in the Atelier series, and through him you'll experience the game's alchemy system.
Alchemy in Atelier Iris is a far cry from the more simplistic sort of transmutations you see out of a game like Full Metal Alchemist, instead a rather complex system that involves managing roughly sixteen different types of mana, and an inventory containing hundreds of seemingly mundane items. In order to manage your mana, you need to manage your relationships with your nine or so Mana spirits, some of whom can transform into more powerful bodies with different properties. You can only use mana when there's an appropriate Mana spirit helping you, and your transmutations will become less efficient if you allow your Mana partner to become overworked or unhappy with you. If this sounds fiendishly complex, well, it can be, and it will definitely appeal most to hardcore RPG fans who love to micromanage their inventories. Casual gamers shouldn't shy away, though, as there's still plenty of fun to be had with it even if you don't want to obsess over that last mana point.
You, via Klein, can do a lot of things with mana in Atelier Iris. You can run around the map, smashing certain objects to extract raw mana. You can pick up items that spawn randomly on the map, or buy items from shops. Once you have these items, you can break them up into mana, trade them for other items, or use them in "shop synthesis" fusions with certain shop owners to make newer, rarer, and better items. Another option is giving items to your Mana spirits as presents, which will increase their love for you and their sense of physical well-being. During the game you'll pick up especially powerful one-use items called Mana Items, and you have them you can begin synthesizing more of them with alchemy. You can have Klein do this in battle, or create stockpiles of them out of combat. Either way, synthesizing Mana Items will consume mana from pools of the appropriate elements. You can try to minimize the amount of mana used by juggling which Mana spirits you use in the synthesis process, which becomes essential once you start dealing with rare mana elements like Evil and Holy.
Your Mana spirits can also convert special items Mana Stones into "Mana Crystals" that you can then use to customize and strengthen certain weapons in the game.
Mana Items function basically the way spells do in most RPGs, letting you spend mana in order to heal allies, do damage, or mess with enemy status effects. They can be synthesized in-battle, consuming power directly from your mana pool, or the Items themselves can be consumed. Klein is the only character who can use them, being the alchemist, and when consuming Mana Items outright can use them in conjunction with skills like "Power Item" and "Wide Item" that power-up the Mana Item effect in various ways. The other characters also have distinct skills, but they just pull from that particular character's personal store of Mana Points and tend to focus on different ways of doing lots of damage. Since Mana Items are the trump card in this game, that means Klein is often your best healer and biggest damage-dealer, which forces you to make some tough decisions about what to have him doing in combat.
Klein's importance in combat is reflected in the plot, which is basically about his adventures in Kavoc with some fellow adventurers. One of them is Lita Blanchimont, a heroine he ends up wanting to help after she saves him early in the game, and much of the storyline is taken up by his efforts to repay his debt to Lita. The other characters appear as Lita and Klein's friends, driving along the plot with their own personal storylines: Delsus the veteran monster-hunter, Norn the catgirl apprentice sorceress, Marietta the lady knight, and Arlin the mysterious swordsman with an enigmatic past. They spend most of the time trying to help people out, and running afoul of harmless villains like the Alkavana Knights, and the incredibly harmful evil alchemist Mull. The storyline is mostly focused around light comedy, but the portions of it concerned with Mull pull out a dramatic twist or two. The story itself is pretty engaging, by virtue of being terribly funny without ever becoming an outright parody.
Music is always of particular importance to RPG fans, since the games are so long and so reliant on establishing a proper mood. In that regard, Atelier Iris is one of the best games to come along in some time. The sheer amount of different musical pieces in the game is amazing, and this gives the game music a lot of variety. The score changes as the plot progresses, so you cycle through many different battle and world map themes. The town music tends to be light and engaging, not too repetitive, while the powerful Celtic chant pieces that accompany the game's most serious story revelations are simply beautiful. There's also a healthy variety of pieces that accompany the games more humorous and sad moments, all beautifully reminiscent of the great old 16-bit RPG scores given the fuller range and superior instrumentation of a modern console. Accompanying the score is an amazing amount of voice acting, which does much to give depth to the characters and bring out the humor of the situation. It's unclear from the current build if both Japanese and English language tracks will be present in the final version of the game, but the English language voice acting is excellent and really helps bring out the humor of a situation. The original Japanese track is also good, though, and hopefully NIS will be able to present both in the final version of this game.
The graphics for the game also hearken back to the 16-bit era, but in a very good way. Atelier Iris is 2D, but uses hi-resolution sprites instead of the somewhat simpler sprites usually seen in their strategy RPGs. The effect is rather beautiful, creating an elegant world that moves with all the color and fluidity of the best animation. The game maps are an isometric view, also rendered in 2D, which can make figuring out which parts of a level you're allowed to move freely in and which ones you aren't difficult. However, some of the dungeons offer some truly stunning designs that wouldn't have been possible without the isometric view, so the trade-off is pretty easy to live with.
Atelier Iris is very much a game for RPG die-hards with a sense of humor about themselves, and any such person who owns a PS2 doesn't want to miss this game. It seems to start off very slowly, but after the first 15 hours becomes to frantically pick up in pace. Playing it ultimately is sort of like building an onion from the inside, with the gameplay constantly acquiring new layers as you progress. Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana hits stores on May 24th, and RPG fans looking for something a little different need to make sure they don't miss this one.