"Between fighting slimes that look like little Puyo-Puyo's and enlisting the aid of the fairy yakuza Pilke, Atelier Iris is a fun adventure with enticingly colorful graphics and vibrantly peppy music. Sure, it lacks the touching drama of a masterpiece like Emerald Dragon, but far better to be fun than generic."
Even though I've never actually played the other games in Gust's long-running series, I knew what to expect from Atelier Iris: an alchemy RPG starring a cute girl named Iris. I was very surprised and somewhat disappointed to discover that the main character is actually a young man, and Iris herself isn't even listed as part of the cast! This may have represented something new and different for developer Gust, but the concept of "male embarks on wild adventure with playfully snide (female) love interest" is par for the course in the North American RPG world.
Main character Klein is an alchemist trying to increase his knowledge! A perky female inducts him into the Galgazit (monster-hunting) trade! That very same female slowly falls in love with the hero! Klein hooks up with a boozing womanizer tough guy! Deep down inside, the tough guy is really a sweetie! There's a powerful silver-haired man trying to take over the world! None of those concepts are very exciting at all!
But after playing the game for a while, I really don't mind. For one, Atelier Iris simply wouldn't have worked with a female lead (unless you're a fan of lesbian love triangles). More importantly, even if the main plot isn't shockingly extraordinary, Gust proves they know exactly how to touch the heart of hardcore RPG fandom with memorable characters, inventive gameplay, and irrepressible charm.
Quests to save the world come and go every year, but people remember strong characters like Tidus, Cloud, Lucia, and Tamryn. Atelier Iris understands this mentality and exploits it to incredible effect. Like Alex and friends from Lunar, lead alchemist Klein and his monster-hunting partner Lita chatter frequently about irrelevant but amusing subjects. The developers even exploit Lita's stereotypical crush by actually adding a believable alternate love interest for Klein. This adds a tension to the puppy love that's not present in other, more clear-cut RPG romances.
Shopkeeper Veola initially comes off as an icy antagonist, but it quickly becomes apparent that her hostility is reserved for rival Lita. As you engage in "shop synthesis" (where you can add items to the shop's menu to make the shop more popular), Veola starts to warm up. She'll even start to ask Klein for favors (such as bringing her books to read), which drives Lita up the wall.
Klein: "I found a book for you. It's called Magic in Seven Days."
Veola: "Thank you. Perhaps this will give me some ideas for new products."
Lita: "Magic in Seven Days? That sounds like a book for beginners!"
Lita: "It's perfect for you, Veola. A novice like you could learn a lot."
Veola: ".....I don't want it."
Despite Veola's words, Klein leaves the book behind because "it's too heavy", which is of course a thinly-veiled lie. Veola understands this and can't help but comment on Klein's kindness... once he's safely out of earshot. The more you visit Veola's shop, the more her story unfolds -- in fact, her sidestory is nearly as well-developed as the main plotline, featuring its own series of optional sidequests and exciting events (including a beautiful scene on the moonlit cliff).
I have to admit, I've never played an RPG where shopkeepers (not just Veola) actually change their attitudes based on player-controlled behavior. When one love-struck shopkeeper finds out you like another girl's hand-made sweets (which only happens if you buy lots of food from the bakery), she tries her own hand at cooking... and produces such wonderful delights as lumpy bread and tragic bun. It's so cute that she's trying so hard... and it's so cute that her efforts are so woefully inadequate.
The quickest way to influence a shopkeeper's behavior is by synthesizing new products for them to sell. Alchemy is the hero's forte, and he'll use that power to create bread, forge weapons, and heal party members mid-battle. Even though many uses of alchemy are just an alternate way of casting spells, the mix-and-match interface (which involves combining different elements) is a lot more interactive and a lot more fun than just picking "Heal3" or "Fire2" from a drop-down menu.
Since Klein is studying alchemy, he'll learn new abilities throughout the entire quest, which gives Gust a perfect excuse to include frequent tutorial sessions. Similar to the tutorials in Magic Knight Rayearth, they're hosted by characters from the game. Full of frequent jokes, these events are humorous... but more importantly, they makes it feel like you're really learning alchemy along with Klein. The addition of new abilities throughout the adventure also helps make exploration more fun; previously unattainable objects (like those damn treasure chests carelessly left on the roof!) somehow become accessible if you learn and master the proper abilities.
Awesome shop and alchemy systems wouldn't redeem a boring adventure. Fortunately, this is an interesting adventure! Atelier Iris is a lot more random than most quests -- at one point, when you've got a pretty good idea where you should be going, the characters are literally sucked into an interdimensional vortex. In most RPG's, that would be pretty irritating. The good thing about Atelier Iris -- the thing that kept me going through all the tangents and digressions -- is that I really didn't give a crap about meeting or beating the final boss.
RPG's have to have a world-saving story. That's rule number 1. The thing that makes Atelier Iris so refreshing is that it's NOT a slowly-building, dramatic escalation to the final battle. It's a deluge of moments so adorably charming that the endgame feels like an unnecessary afterthought. Everyone -- even the "evil" knight Sir Beggur -- exhibits an innocent charm that makes it easy to care about every encounter. As leader of the Alkavana sect, Sir Beggur wants a powerful alchemist (like Klein!) to join the knighthood... so he constantly harrasses and tries to overpower our hero. Presented in fluid 2D anime style (it looks like a PC-FX game), Beggur turns and swivels and poses with each knightly attack -- it's like seeing Berserk's "Adon" reincarnated. "LEGENDARY HOLY DRAGON BLADE!"
When you perform a favor for the stout, bald blacksmith, he says: "There's only one way to thank you properly... it's time for a song!"
Then he breaks into a manly techno number reminiscent of Choaniki's "Adon". It's a wonderful "WTF?!" moment in a game that's loaded with "WTF" moments. Whenever I thought the game was about to turn boring and typical, it sparked back to life and sucked me right back in. In one random battle, a werecat showed up as my vicious opponent... but instead of fighting, she slinked towards the party, looked up at cat-girl Norn, and said: "Let's be friends! I want to do something for my new friend!" Then I had the option for Miss Werecat to "do something" for the party, or for her to give me something. I asked for a banana.
BUT I MUST NOW OFFER A WARNING. When you load a game, you always have to switch the voices to Japanese if you don't want to listen to Klein's dorky American voice yell "BARREL!" every time he looks at... a barrel. It's annoying because you have to go into options every time, and the language toggle is the only option that doesn't save when you quit.
Between fighting slimes that look like little Puyo-Puyo's and enlisting the aid of the fairy yakuza Pilke, this is a fun adventure with enticingly colorful graphics and vibrantly peppy music. Sure, it lacks the touching drama of a masterpiece like Emerald Dragon... but if an RPG can't be a stirring epic, it's far better to be fun than generic. With its memorable characters, inventive gameplay, and irrepressible charm, Atelier Iris is one of the more refreshing RPG's in recent memory.
This game earns bonus points for including the vicious BATTLEMACE.
Staff review by Zigfried (August 04, 2005)
Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.
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