It seems like the PlayStation 2 is the system that just won't die. Going on its eighth year of life while next-generation systems like the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 are already years old, the PS2 still won't give up the ghost. Between the sheer number of PS2s on the market and the cheap production costs, the console that could keeps chugging along. While this means that PS2 owners have a lot of half-baked license games and cheap ports, it also means that gamers who haven't yet upgraded to the next generation still have plenty of worthwhile titles in their future. In the wake of lackluster next-generation offerings like Blue Dragon and Enchanted Arms, the PS2 remains the system of choice for RPG gamers. Nippon Ichi recognizes the system's popularity among this group, so they continue to release great new titles for hardcore gamers to enjoy. The upcoming Atelier Iris spin-off, Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis, fits right into that niche.
Mana Khemia places gamers into the shoes of Vayne Aurelius, a novice alchemist who has just been invited to the prestigious Al-Revis Academy, which is basically Hogwarts for alchemists. Graduating from Al-Revis is a requirement for continuing to use alchemy in the outside world. As an orphan without even the slightest memories of his parents, Vayne joins Al-Revis not just to learn alchemy, but to discover the truth about his past. Along the way, he has to deal with school bullies, crazy catgirls, an overbearing senior student and teachers with mysterious agendas. While not an Atelier Iris title by name, Mana Khemia has all the trademarks of the franchise: Mana, many familiar monsters and items, and even a few cameos by certain series favorites, including the cheerful ghost, Pamela, who joins as a playable character for the first time in the franchise's history.
The school setting plays into every single aspect of Mana Khemia. In every chapter, the students of Al-Revis are given a specific amount of "credits" that they need to complete in order to remain in the school. This is done in the form of assignments, which are basically mini-missions that have objectives ranging from something as simple as finding an alchemy ingredient in a nearby forest, to as complex as creating a legendary elixir without a single hint.
However, completing these assignments isn't enough to satisfy the teachers, and simply following the instructions to the letter generally earns a "B" grade and three credits. For the top ranking and the most points, players have to go above and beyond the call of duty by creating a high-quality elixir, finding a better supply of herbs or completing the assignment in record time. On the other hand, if you continually slack off on the assignments, you may find yourself without the credits necessary to progress to the next semester. This means you'll have to take a detention class, which is harder than a regular class and takes up valuable free time that could be used for other tasks.
Getting high rankings has a benefit beyond academic success. Once your alchemists have successfully achieved the requisite number of credits for that semester, they get the rest of the semester off as free time, which has a number of benefits that you can't partake of while you're busy with studies. Once you have free time, you can take on jobs, which are requests from the Al-Revis students and faculty that can range from creating special alchemic items to hunting down deadly monsters that are terrorizing the populace. In return, you're rewarded with rare alchemic recipes and tons of cash.
The most valuable aspect of free time involves the other characters in your party. By having a day of free time, Vayne can compete in character quests, which are mini-stories focusing on the various members of his party, who each have his or her own unique stories and problems that Vayne must solve. Finishing these quests not only yields new items and abilities, but can also influence the outcome of the game's ending!
As a spin-off of the Atelier Iris franchise, it should come as no surprise that alchemy is an important part of Mana Khemia, although the title has a much higher focus on the science than prior titles in the series. Mana Khemia has done away with levels and experience points entirely, and instead, each character in the game has a Grow Book — a board game-esque series of interconnecting spheres reminiscent of the Final Fantasy XII license board. Every time you create a new item through alchemy, it unlocks one of these spheres. Assuming that sphere is connected to a sphere your character has already unlocked, you can then spend AP, which is earned in battle, to unlock the attributes within, which can range from simple stat improvements to new moves and upgraded abilities.
Without alchemy, your characters have nothing. This also means, however, that the time-honored tradition of grinding for experience in RPGs is severely capped. Since there is always a limit to what alchemic items you can create at a certain point in the game, you can only become so powerful before your characters are capped. This means that learning the battle system in Mana Khemia is more important than ever.
While much of Mana Khemia's battle system is nearly identical, both in interface and basic gameplay, to Atelier Iris 3's, it features a few new twists that dramatically change how combat works. Once you gain more than three characters, the game introduces the Support Offense/Support Defense system. You actually have two combat parties in Mana Khemia: the Vanguard, who are the guys on the front line battling the monsters, and the Support, the party members who are waiting on the sidelines for their chance.
Every time you attack or are attacked by an enemy, you can request support from one of the Support characters. Doing so causes them to either leap in and attack, or leap in and block the attack for whichever character summons them. In exchange, the Support character takes their place on the Vanguard line. After a brief recharge period, the Vanguard-cum-Support character can then be used to Support Attack or Support Defend him or herself.
Support Attacks can even be chained together with every character in the Support row, allowing the heroes to perform up to four consecutive attacks! Later in the game, Support Attacks and Defense can even be improved with special character-specific upgrades that make it even more useful. Series favorite Pamela, for example, can gain the ability to negate any one attack when Support Defending, which can do quite a lot for keeping an injured character alive. Swordsman Flay, on the other hand, can gain the ability to lower enemy defense when he performs a Support Attack, and you don't need me to tell you how useful that is.
Managing your Support row is the key to winning battles in Mana Khemia. Beyond allowing you to Support Defend and Support Attack, the Support row also has a number of other special features. For one, anyone in the row regenerates spell-powering SP quite rapidly, so if you master switching between characters, you'll always have access to your most powerful spells. This can also be upgraded later to regenerate HP as well, to allow you an endless supply of fighting-fresh warriors, as long as you plan carefully. Another valuable feature of the Support row is the ability to perform a powerful Variable Strike attack. If Vayne is in the Support row and is the last person to attack in a four-person Support Attack chain, he can unleash a Variable Strike — an extremely powerful special attack that's powered by character friendship and does massive damage to enemies.
Another change in gameplay evolves from Atelier Iris 3's Burst System, which functions as a sort of "super bar." Every time your character attacks an enemy, you fill up the Burst bar at the bottom of the screen, with critical hits and elemental weaknesses filling the bar significantly more. When it's full, the party enters Burst mode, where all their attacks do more damage until the bar runs out. The change here comes in the form of the Finishing Burst. Whenever Burst mode is activated in Mana Khemia, it also includes a Finishing Burst objective, which can range from the simple, such as "perform repeated combos" or "use lightning magic," to the more difficult, like "Perform a critical hit." Every time you successfully complete this objective, you gain a bit of Finishing Burst energy. Collect enough, and your characters can activate a special Finishing Burst attack, which does unheard-of damage, but also instantly ends Burst mode.
Naturally, Mana Khemia has the same high-quality sprite animation that has become Gust's legacy on the PS2. While it isn't a particularly significant improvement over their last title, that isn't necessarily a bad thing, since the graphics still look great. The battle sprites are large and well animated, and many of the new attack animations are a lot of fun to watch. The soundtrack is also quite good, combining old Atelier Iris favorites with a few new great tunes. As usual for Nippon Ichi games, the voice acting comes with both Japanese and American options, so those who hate listening to dubbed voices will have a choice.
It may not be named Atelier Iris 4, but Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis is Atelier Iris 4 in every other way. From the battle system, which is an improved version of the one found in Atelier Iris 3 onward, Mana Khemia is a true sequel. If you've enjoyed Atelier Iris or are a gamer looking for a fun and lighthearted RPG, you'll love Mana Khemia. Even PlayStation 3 owners may want to take a trip back to their old faithful PS2s when Mana Khemia hits this March.
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