Mana Khemia: Student Alliance on the PSP is a port of a PS2 title that came out about a year ago. The original PS2 game, Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis, was also developed by Gust, who has done a series of niche RPG titles over the years, most notably Ar Tonelico 1 and 2, along with the Atelier Iris series. Mana Khemia bears a pretty strong resemblance to both of these titles, not only in how it looks, but also in how it handles the robust crafting system that makes up the heart of the school-based gameplay. While I enjoyed the title on the PS2, this PSP port seems to have been handled quite poorly, and it's not the idea way to play the game.
When you begin Student Alliance, you'll be greeted with a small scene involving the main character, Vayne Aurelis, a young orphan who's been approached to join a school that specializes in teaching alchemy to its students. His only "friend" is a physical manifestation of Mana called Sulpher, a small black cat that not only speaks to Vayne; this also allows him to use the cat as a weapon in combat. Think of the game as a strange distant cousin to Harry Potter, and you'll have a slight idea about where the plot is headed. Upon arriving on the school grounds, you'll quickly be introduced to a few more central characters that you'll be controlling, like the over-the-top warrior Flay, classmate Jess, and fellow freshman and catgirl Nicole. These four will make up your early party when the game begins, with Flay occasionally jumping in and out of the story. You'll quickly gain more friends and a few enemies as the story progresses, and the title doesn't take a lot of time to get going.
Along with being introduced to your new classmates, you'll be shown how the school life in Student Alliance works. If you've played Persona 3 a bit, I'll warn you that this handles the school formula differently. It's very focused on interactive exams and a daily schedule that's structured to allow you to fulfill requirements within a certain span of time. For instance, when you begin, you'll have two days of school ahead of you, wherein you'll be shown the ropes when it comes to alchemy and combat, along with exploring the grounds outside of the school gates. After that, you have three days or so of free time, and you can do whatever you want, whether that's interacting with students, taking on side-quests, or exploring the outside grounds for more materials and items to create better tools or equipment. Usually, there's also some story-related task that needs to be completed, and you'll often be taking care of this outside of the actual "schoolwork."
The alchemy and item creation system in Student Alliance is really addictive, and it's easily the best part of the game. When you're given the recipe to create an item, there are usually three ingredients involved. Each ingredient has its own color or element property, and when you combine things, you'll have a small wheel that pops up under each component. On this wheel is a series of colored spheres, one of which should match the color of the item. If you manage to match up all colors, your chance of creating a better item becomes higher. The same holds true for equipment creation, and along with that, when you start to craft your own equipment, you can then visit a small upgrade board for each character that allows you to apply SP (points gained from battle) and upgrade your character stats or teach them new attacks or other skills. It's a pretty diverse and deep system, and you'll be surprised how addictive it can be to try and max out items or create different things, along with just going out and gathering the items from the locations outside of the school.
Combat is pretty fun, but it's not quite as inventive as the crafting system. When you're exploring outside of the school, you can run into enemies on the field that are usually represented by these small colored blobs. When you run into one, a battle begins, with your side on the right and the enemies on the left. At the top of the screen is a series of cards with the faces of the enemies and your team being shown. This is your turn order, which becomes important during battles because you have the chance to knock out an enemy by delivering multiple hits, effectively changing the turn order. The idea is that you keep the enemy subdued and string together attack after attack without giving them an opening, making most battles feel pretty simple. However, the enemy can make use of the same technique and throw the turn order out of whack for their benefits as well. Actual fighting is menu-based and pretty much standard stuff for any JRPG out there.
So why don't I suggest that genre fans pick up this port? One reason is the absolutely annoying load times, and this is playing on a PSP-2000 model. When playing from the UMD, you'll notice that it takes a well over 10 seconds to load up the initial game from the title screen to the school menu, and from there, every location you visit will take some type of loading, giving you a load screen to stare at every time you need to move around the menu. It's even worse when you're crafting or involved in battle, as the game will stutter during animations or any real activity on-screen, causing you to miss animations or just think that the game froze. This even occurs when you're simply chopping away at the grass in various areas and trying to find materials. It really brings you out of the game every time it pops up, which is far too often.
Student Alliance offers a Jump Start option, which allows you to load certain aspects of the game onto a memory stick to help alleviate the load times. It doesn't load the entire game onto the stick, so when I did this, I really didn't notice any difference in how the game played. The loading was still far too slow between areas, and I still had the frame rate and stutter problems during combat and field actions. I'm not sure what this option was supposed to fix, but it didn't do anything noticeable for me.
Along with that, and this is less of a gripe and more of a reality about porting a PS2 title to the PSP, the visuals take a hit in the transition. The backgrounds and school areas all have a strange blur effect in place, making everything look like it was smeared with a layer of Vaseline. The actual characters are usually crystal clear sprites, which makes them really stand out in contrast to the backgrounds. The character take on the same blurred effect anytime a dialogue window pops up, which is pretty often, and I don't remember seeing the same thing when I played this title on the PS2.
The technical issues keep the PSP iteration of Mana Khemia: Student Alliance from being something that I'd encourage anyone to pick up. The game isn't the greatest, and it's certainly only for a certain group of RPG fans, but I still found it fun to play, at least on the PS2. However, this PSP version is a really weak port and definitely isn't the ideal way to experience the game. Pick up the PS2 version instead, and unless you're really dying to play Mana Khemia on the go, avoid this one altogether.
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