The PlayStation 2 doesn't seem willing to let RPG fans go without a fight. Despite the PlayStation 3 and Wii having been out for a solid year and the Xbox 360 for two, the aging black box continues to prove that it isn't dead yet. Every time it seems like the PlayStation 2 has finally decided to give up the ghost, Atlus or Nippon Ichi or XSEED announces yet another game to further extend the system's life. When combined with the fairly lackluster number and quality of next-generation RPGs, it should come as no surprise that the PS2 remains the number one system for niche gamers eight years after its original release. Even now, with the upcoming release of Disgaea 3 for the PlayStation 3, Nippon Ichi hasn't forgotten its dedicated fan base, so they've brought us the much-anticipated next title in the popular Atelier Iris franchise, Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis.
Mana Khemia puts you in the shoes of Vayne Aurelius, a novice alchemist with a nasty case of amnesia. The son of a deceased alchemist, Vayne was living in the forest with his Mana, Sulpher, until the prestigious Al-Revis Academy, the only school for alchemy in the entire world, discovered him and invited him to attend. The academy is located in a hidden land far from civilization, and anyone who seeks to use alchemy must attend Al-Revis and graduate before they're allowed to use it in the outside world. Intrigued by the concept and without anywhere else to go, Vayne decides to attend, hoping to finally make some friends and discover what happened to his memory. Of course, things are never quite that simple, and before long, Vayne finds himself caught up in student rivalries, school contents and the never-ending quest for top grades.
Mana Khemia is a bit unique for an RPG in that there is very little world-saving involved. There's no grand quest to battle an evil wizard, no mysterious empire plaguing the land, and no evil religion out to steal hearts and minds. Indeed, Mana Khemia is mostly about the characters and how they interact with one another, with a healthy dose of high school hijinks. This actually works in the title's favor, as Al-Revis is host to some of the most amusing and enjoyable characters in the Atelier Iris franchise. Between Flay Gunnar, the surprisingly likable and completely unflappable slacker-turned-Justice Hero, to Muppy, an alien from outer space who speaks almost entirely in anime references, the cast is just plain fun. The supporting cast is similarly strong, and while few of these characters get much plot, you grow attached to them anyway. Al-Revis does a good job of being a school that feels alive, not unlike fellow school sim-turned-RPG, Persona 3, although much more lighthearted than Altus' attempt.
Gameplay in Mana Khemia is actually fairly linear. The game is divided into chapters, each of which is divided into a set of "weeks," and for the first part of each week, your goal is to pass your classes. You can choose which classes to register for, and each presents you with a specific set of goals to complete, for which you will then receive a grade from A to F. You're also given an appropriate amount of credit for your specific grade. Complete the task to the letter, and you'll get a B. Do nothing and get an F, and go above and beyond the call of duty to earn top grades. Get enough As and Bs, and you actually can earn some weeks off from class, but earn Cs and Fs, and you'll not only have to take extra classes, but you'll also have to do tedious detention work to make up for your failure. Luckily, most classes are incredibly easy. Except for a few obscure ones that require a bit of fooling around to get an A, earning Bs in most classes can be accomplished in your sleep. Considering the stress and focus placed on earning the top score, one would almost hope that these challenges would be … well, challenging.
Once you've earned your required number of credits, the game switches over to Free Week mode, where you can take jobs from various people around the school. You'll perform tasks such as slaying monsters and creating alchemic items, which are important because not only will you earn money, but some of the tasks will also yield rare alchemy recipes. However, the main focus of Free Week mode is character quests. Each of the characters who join your party has a set number of quests that you can complete for them. Complete each week-long quest, and you'll find out more about the characters, although the real draw is the occasional new recipe or ability! Character Quests are important for more than just hanging out with the eccentric cast of Mana Khemia, and they actually determine how your game ends. Form a strong enough bond with a character, and you'll earn a special character-specific ending in addition to altering some of the final chapters. The real fun is in just doing the quests, which are often goofy, silly and enjoyable — a welcome relief from the usual RPG focus of "save the world."
Classes and jobs tend to send you into monster-infested areas of the academy, although you're limited in where you can go until your character reaches a specific year. Naturally, these areas serve as the game's dungeons. If you've ever played Atelier Iris 3, things are actually very similar here. Each dungeon is divided up into a large number of sections you can explore, each filled to the brim with treasure, alchemic materials, and monsters. Monsters roam the map as blobs, with the blob's shape and color telling you what sort of monsters you'll face. Small red blobs are average, large red blobs are strong, blue blobs are so weak that you can defeat them without fighting, and spiky red blobs or blobs wearing crowns represent bosses.
Run into monsters unprepared, and they'll start off with an advantage, but slash them with your sword, and you've suddenly leveled the playing field. However, unlike most RPGs, Mana Khemia specifically discourages you from fighting every monster, as each dungeon is pseudo-timed. At the corner of the screen is a clock, which counts down from sunrise to sunset, and advances as you move around or engage in battles. When the clock reaches sunset, the sun goes down, and all hell breaks loose because the monsters change. They grow much faster, significantly stronger, and even the formerly weak blue blobs require a fight. While it's possible to continue in the dungeon or wait for the sun to rise again, it's quicker to leave and come back another time, thus encouraging speed and not slaughter. You want to dodge foes by either slipping past them or jumping over them, which can be a bit touch-and-go. The hitboxes on monsters are bizarre, and you'll sometimes find yourself getting into a fight you were sure you had dodged, or missing a slash at an enemy who was right in front of you. This becomes extremely frustrating when you've only got 10 minutes left before sunset.
If you have to get into a fight, Mana Khemia offers a surprisingly enjoyable battle system. For those who played Atelier Iris 3, the time card battle system has returned. The turn order of combat is shown as a series of "cards" at the top of the screen, with each card representing a minute. Characters and enemies alike can only act when a card with their face reaches the marker. You can cast spells that create your own "time cards" and thus activate when time runs down, and it's even possible to alter the time cards by moving up characters or knocking back enemies to change the turn order.
You can have up to six characters in combat at one time. Three are in the Vanguard, who are doing the actual fighting, while three others are in the Support row, recharging their magic-fueling SP. You can switch characters between the two groups at any time; you can move a character in to attack, have that same character support the attack when another character is fighting, or even switch him in to take a hit.
Later in the game, you get the ability to use character-specific support abilities. Flay, for example, can lower enemy defense on a support attack or automatically count on a support defense, while Ghostly Pamela can nullify any one attack and suck SP from her foes. Switching lets the character rest for a brief period before he or she can switch again, and this is the primary focus of Mana Khemia's battle system. Once you master switching, you're untouchable on the battlefield. The character abilities, especially their advanced support powers, are incredibly useful, and if you're smart, you have a nearly infinite amount of SP to power special moves, allowing you to use them with impunity. Switch unintelligently, and you'll have a much harder time in battles.
Combat is fairly straightforward: Each character can attack, use a special ability, run, defend and use items. Also returning from Atelier Iris 3 is the Burst mode, which is sort of like a "super mode." Every action that your characters adds a small amount to a Burst Bar at the bottom of the screen. Fill it to max, and your characters enter Burst mode, where all attacks do way more damage. When Burst mode activates, you're given a certain condition, ranging from "use lightning attacks" to "score a critical hit on foes" or "buff your allies." Complete this condition, and you'll fill up a special Finishing Burst bar. When the Finishing Burst bar is full, any of your characters can activate a special attack that ends the Burst mode but does a ridiculous amount of damage.
Mana Khemia's difficulty level is directly connected to how well you take advantage of the game's features. If you've mastered switching and Burst mode, the difficulty level simply plummets. It is a testament to Mana Khemia's solid design that the low difficulty level doesn't detract from the fun of the fights.
As a spin-off of the Atelier Iris franchise, it should come as absolutely no surprise that alchemy is a major part of Mana Khemia. Every game element is related to alchemy in some way; almost all of your weapons are created through alchemy, all but the most basic of items are synthesized through alchemic recipes, and even your characters gain power by performing alchemy. Thankfully, alchemy in Mana Khemia is a fairly simple, if sometimes frustrating, process. Once you find a recipe for an item, you can create it, or choose to alter it by replacing certain ingredients with other ingredients to increase or decrease the quality of the item. Sometimes, you can even make new items from old recipes by changing around the materials.
Once you've got the ingredients set, you enter a minigame of sorts. A spinning wheel, with each of the four elements (earth, fire, water and wind) and a blank square appears. Stop the wheel on the same element as the ingredient you're currently synthesizing, and the quality of the item you're creating increases; pick the opposite element, and the quality decreases. Note that high quality elements are not always the most powerful, as certain items get better at low or medium levels, and some even require you to arrange the quality to a very specific number in order to get the maximum effect. You can also use your allies' alchemic abilities to alter the outcome of the creation. They can boost or decrease the quality, change the wheel to all one color, or even perform an auto-synthesis. Learning when to ask your friends for help is the key to creating the best items.
Once you've got a solid set of items, you can use them to create equipment, which is slightly different from item alchemy in that there is no need to match elements, and your friends can't help. Instead, the items you create are synthesized together into the equipment, and all of the items' quality attributes are thrown together into a pool. The player can then pick any two of those attributes, as well as one special skill, and equip them on the item to further alter its abilities. It's a simple and rather fun system to learn and use.
However, this isn't to say that the alchemy system is perfect. There is one incredibly aggravating element of the system, and it has nothing to do with alchemy itself. Items, key items and alchemy materials are created in your team's workshop, while weapons, armor and accessories are created in a room down the hall. This means that every time you want to create or alter a weapon, you have to go to your workshop, create items, walk all the way down the hall, create your weapons and armor, then back to the workshop for more or new materials, and then back down the hall. It's a long and tedious process, and it serves absolutely no purpose. There is no apparent reason for splitting up the various kinds of synthesis except to artificially extend the game's clock time. Considering how important alchemy is to every element of the game, running back and forth between the two areas quickly becomes tedious.
One of the most interesting elements of Mana Khemia is how it handles powering up your characters. There are no experience points or levels; instead, each character has a "Grow Book," which is a giant character-specific book of every alchemy recipe you've created thus far, linked together in board-game fashion. Every time you create a new alchemic item, its respective slot on the Grow Book is unlocked. Each spot has a different set of attributes or abilities that are exclusive to that spot. Some give your character more HP or SP, others improve their basic stats, and others unlock new and more powerful attacks or defenses for your characters. Some slots only have a single ability, while others can have up to three.
There are a few limitations, though. First off, every attribute in a slot doesn't come free as soon as you unlock it. You must "purchase" it using AP, which is earned through battle or by going on a "Search" mission. The more powerful the ability, the more it costs, ranging from a scant 100 AP to a mind-boggling 10,000+ AP for some of the late-game status boosts. Additionally, slots can only be purchased if they're connected to an unlocked slot. You can create certain items fairly early, but you can't purchase them until you move along the "board" to the point where your character's starting point is connected to that slot.
The Grow Book is a fairly interesting idea, but how well it works for you depends entirely on how much of a completionist you are. Many of the recipes necessary to advance along the Grow Book are hidden within dungeons or unlocked by completing optional jobs. If you don't search every nook and cranny, you may find your character stuck without the ability to move forward. One other minor problem is for gamers who enjoy grinding their way past challenges. While Mana Khemia can't be called difficult by any sense of the word, it also isn't really a game where you can power up to level 99 in the first dungeon. Since your "level" is determined by the number of alchemic items you've created, there is a set maximum for each chapter in the game, so some of the game's later chapters will require you to learn at least the basics of the battle system, instead of just pounding your way through every battle.
In some ways, one doesn't even need to discuss the graphics in Mana Khemia. It's a Gust game, so you know exactly what to expect: high-quality sprite animations, charming and emotive characters, and unique and interesting locales to explore. It's a delight to watch, but so little has changed from the other Atelier Iris titles that it's almost starting to get boring. A lot of familiar monsters appear almost unchanged from their Atelier Iris 3 counterparts, and indeed, there is quite a bit of recycling to be found. It's mostly Gust's beautiful hand-drawn sprites that stop this from getting tiring, and the fact that there really isn't too much you can do to change a Puni. Of course, this doesn't go for the characters, each of which is a new and expressive sprite and quite fun to watch in motion. Battles and quick and basically lag-free, and really, the worst you can say about the graphics is that it's more of the same.
The same goes for the game's soundtrack. There music is solid and generally catchy, with a few truly impressive themes here and there. The voice acting is the usual Nippon Ichi mix of competent and ear-grating, although a few of the actors do surprisingly good jobs. A few can grow aggravating if you have to listen to them for long, such as Pamela's bizarre "10-year-old going through puberty" voice, but they're mercifully few, and the Japanese voices are always an option. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese cast is fairly good, headlined by noted seiyuu Akira Ishida as Vayne, and most fans will probably find themselves switching over to the Japanese voices after a while.
Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis is fun. That's basically the only word to describe it. It isn't particularly deep or thought-provoking, or noticeably challenging. It's just fun. Spending 30 hours or so with these characters is an enjoyable time, and while it won't be the sort of RPG you replay often or will remain with you long after the credits roll, you'll have a fun time with it. The school setting is unique enough to really set Mana Khemia apart from most of the bombastic "save the world" RPGs, since even fellow school-based RPG Persona 3 was far more focused on symbolism and drama than goofy fun, and the gameplay is enjoyable enough to keep you going. Don't play Mana Khemia expecting a life-changing experience or the new baseline for RPGs. Play it expecting to smile.
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