Publisher: NIS America
Release Date: April 25, 2006
Last year, Nippon Ichi brought the old-school Japanese RPG, Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, to gamers stateside. Eternal Mana was a quaint title with a cute hand-drawn art style and a standard random encounter, turn-based battle system, in addition to a very deep alchemic synthesis system for magic and item creation. An enjoyable game, Eternal Mana took no real risks and adhered to many of the fundamentals cemented by its RPG ancestors, quite happy with being good, but not great.
Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny is the next entry in the long-running Japanese Atelier series ("atelier" meaning workshop in French) but only the second to reach our western shores. The opening of Atelier Iris 2 sees a young girl named Viese graduating from alchemy school and taking the rites of a full-fledged alchemist. The world she inhabits is called Eden, a place where mana and alchemists live together peacefully. Mana are creatures linked with the various elements of the land, from earth to fire to metal, and alchemists can join with these mana to invoke their powers, in addition to creating items and magic. Young Viese leaves the school and is given the task of binding with a mana of her own.
Back home, Viese lives with her childhood friend, Felt, who is also a young alchemist but much prefers swordplay over alchemy. He also dreams of entering the Belkhyde Gate, an ancient, inoperational portal supposedly leading to another world. Together they go into Dour's Forest, looking to bind with a wood mana for Viese, when suddenly, chaos erupts and tremors wrack the landscape. It is soon realized that powerful mana landmarks have disappeared all around Eden, vanishing into thin air. Felt and Viese flee the forest but are stopped when the Azure Azoth, the protecting sword of Eden, communicates telepathically with Felt and orders him to remove the Azoth from its ancient resting place. They retreat to the alchemy school, where it is learned that the Azoth is a key to the Belkhyde Gate and the world beyond. Felt volunteers to explore the mysterious realm and search for answers as to why Eden is disappearing, while Viese stays behind to practice her alchemy, and so begins their tale.
The first impression of the game's appearance calls to mind Atelier Iris 2's predecessor, Eternal Mana. In fact, the graphics are nearly identical, with some character and mana designs being recycled. That doesn't mean the game isn't still beautifully crafted in 2D sprites, because it is, but the similarities are readily noticeable. Atelier Iris 2's landscapes are colorful and lush, and the attention to detail in many areas is astounding. Atelier Iris 2 hones the visuals just a bit for its sequel, but they still remain very old-school in appearance. Many RPGs may have abandoned 2D in favor of polygons for a while now, but Atelier Iris 2 doesn't seem to notice – or mind – that it's a bit behind the times. Why should it? The game has the look of a well-crafted cartoon, and these aesthetics are extremely pleasing.
The first Atelier title had a very traditional battle system, triggered by random encounters. In Atelier Iris 2, developer Gust has decided to swap around a few things by spicing up the battle engine. Taking a page from the book of Grandia, Atelier Iris 2 uses a new meter that determines enemy and allies' attack turns. As your character's portrait moves up the bar, you become closer to getting your chance to strike. When it's your turn to attack, you have the option of attacking normally with what is called a charge attack, or using another technique called a break attack. By using charge, you essentially fill an attack bar that can be unleashed on enemies by later selecting the break option. When a break attack is used on an enemy, he is thrown back down the turn meter. This not only disrupts his pending attack, but it can also stun him temporarily, making him vulnerable to combo attacks by your other characters.
The battle system has otherwise remained intact, but the turn meter and break attacks have added enough to the art of fighting that it becomes enjoyable rather than the tedium associated with other turn-based games. RPGs live and die based on their battle engines, and Atelier fortunately surpasses its predecessor in this respect. The battles are still played out the same as many traditional RPGs, but the turn meter and break attacks add a new twist of strategy to the gameplay.
Synthesizing also makes an obvious return, as it was the main draw of the first title. Viese may be a newly anointed alchemist, but she can make some very useful items in her alchemist's cauldron. This system plays out much like the previous games and, as always, Atelier Iris 2 gives you in-depth, yet easy-to-follow tutorials into creating your own magic, items, and equipment. This usually just entails tossing together a few mundane items you have found in the overworld or bought from various markets. Some ingredients for recipes are better than others, but by substituting and experimenting, you can stumble upon entirely different creations. It's a great system and one that can siphon away many game hours unexpectedly.
The game incorporates full-anime cut scenes at appropriate times, and a good portion of the game's dialogue is voiced by real actors. The voices and dialogue are pretty well done for the most part, but many times, the spoken words do not match up with the written text. Since this is just a preview build, it's pretty much a given that this will be corrected in time. Even so, it doesn't hinder the character interactions a bit.
There is still a bit of English translation to be done to Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny before it makes an appearance in North American stores this April. From my short stint with this preview build, I have high hopes for the final outcome: an engaging story spanning two different worlds, a new cast of interesting characters, a slightly improved battle engine, and the always-exciting synthesis system. Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana may have been cast from an overused RPG mold, but thankfully, its sequel is shaping up to improve or add just the right amount of ingredients to synthesize an exceptional RPG experience.