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Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm (PlayStation 2) artwork

Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm (PlayStation 2) review

"If you spend too much time aimlessly running around an alterworld, you’ll get zapped back to town before accomplishing what you set out to do. Same thing if you get into too many fights against tough foes. If you’re able to beat them in the first two turns of battle, you won’t be penalized any time, but a lot of tougher enemies are capable of lasting longer than that."

If you’ve played as many role-playing games as I have over the past couple of decades, odds are that you’ll go through a period or two where a touch of boredom sets in. Let’s face it, regardless of how many bonus dungeons, sweet spell effects and wacky plot twists these games have, at some point most of them start to blend together. You start in a town, kill a bunch of stuff, buy better equipment, go to the local dungeon, find the next town and start over until you’ve beat the game an ungodly number of hours later.

That makes me appreciate games like Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm a lot more. NIS America’s offering doesn’t perfectly reinvent the genre, but it definitely isn’t some unoriginal clone of the Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy games.

Let’s start with Iris. As you’ll find out after a brief period of playing, she is one of her world’s few proficient users of alchemy -- the ability to combine various items to make powerful weapons, durable suits of armor and potent medicines. Many games utilize this concept, but I haven’t played one where it’s so important. Dragon Quest VIII’s alchemy pot was a nice addition that I eventually lost interest in and barely used for a good portion of the game. And you know what? That had no effect on my ability to beat the game.

Things are different in AI3. If you don’t make good use of Iris’ alchemic skills, you aren’t going far. In fact, the entire game revolves around her ability to find recipes for new items, dig up the necessary components to craft them and start producing goods -- whether they be pieces of equipment for her or comrades Edge and Nell OR items that need to be delivered to various townspeople in order to satisfy the terms of any of a multitude of guild quests.

Those quests are the mechanism by which AI3 moves. Iris, Edge, Nell and a slew of supporting characters are known as Raiders. These fine folks accept quests of all kinds from their town’s guild and venture into various monster-infested dimensions (known as alterworlds) to fulfill their terms. There are a number of different quest varieties that Iris and company can accept.

Fetch quests are simply that. You find (or create) enough of a certain item and give it to the petitioner. Battle quests involve the heroes killing a certain powerful monster or groups of weaker ones. Most important, though, are the Guild and Help quests. While completing Fetch and Battle quests give the heroes money, items and recipes, the Guild and Help ones move the plot along.

Most of these quests tend to revolve around the game’s minor subplots, whether it be to help a researcher in his awkward attempts to woo a ghost residing in one alterworld or to bring a halt to an amusing war between two cuddly species of beastmen in another. A few others result in the party rescuing a number of spirits (known as Mana) who can then be junctioned to either Edge or Nell to give those two a completely different set of battle abilities. And most importantly, they all give the party points toward raising their guild ranking.

Each time that happens, all of these minor quests are put on hold and one of the game’s major missions begins. You see, Iris owns this legendary magical book called the Escalario that happens to be sealed. The only way to get the book open -- which supposedly will grant any wish the book’s owner has -- is to collect eight magical gems to unlock the seal. Virtually all of these chapter-ending missions concludes with Iris obtaining a gem and coming one step closer to opening the book.

But, of course, things can’t be that cut and dry. Every time Iris touches a gem, she pays a visit to a mystical void where she hears a disembodied voice that seems to really spook her. A dastardly mage seems to REALLY want Iris to collect those gems, while Nell’s older sister has set her sights on getting the book for herself. And, Ash, the most famous Raider the local guild has, also seems interested in the Escalario. Iris, Edge and Nell will be spending a heck of a lot of time in those alterworlds trying to get to the bottom of this game’s mysteries.

They just won’t be spending too much time in any of them at one time. The instant they enter any of the game’s five alterworlds, time starts ticking away. While heroes can go back to town at any time, if they don’t have their business done when time runs out, tough luck. Mist envelops Iris’ party and they wind up back in her house. This is a nice touch that keeps the game moving along at a pretty brisk pace for quite some time. If you spend too much time aimlessly running around an alterworld, you’ll get zapped back to town before accomplishing what you set out to do. Same thing if you get into too many fights against tough foes. If you’re able to beat them in the first two turns of battle, you won’t be penalized any time, but a lot of tougher enemies are capable of lasting longer than that.

Fortunately, it’s possible to avoid virtually any battle, as there are no random encounters in AI3. Enemies appear on the screen as slime icons of various colors. Blue icons represent weak enemies that can be eliminated with a sword swipe before battle is even instigated, while white ones are of a comparable level to the party and red icons indicate tough foes to watch out for. Of course, oftentimes, harvesting those red-icon monsters are the most lucrative for the party, as they tend to be worth huge amounts of experience and blade points, which are used to power up Edge’s and Nell’s Mana junctions.

Despite all the positives I found in this game, by the time I reached the final couple of chapters, I was more than ready to put it down. With only five alterworlds and one town in AI3, Iris and company cover the same ground over and over again. Many of the quests, especially later in the game as they get more complicated, can get pretty tedious -- especially when they involve such less-than-thrilling tasks as delivering messages to the five beastman chiefs scattered through four different alterworlds or handing out four kittens to a like number of town residents. Oh....and those two are quests that bestow guild points, which means you’ll likely WANT to do them in order to advance to a given chapter’s main mission.

This game’s also a bit easier than I’d like my RPGs, as the main challenge with most encounters involves beating them quickly enough to not drain any precious alterworld exploration time. By connecting with enough attacks on any foe, the party will quickly enter Burst mode, where all their attacks and spells cause a massive amount of damage for a little while. Even many of the toughest bosses couldn’t stand up to more than two or three Burst mode assaults, which tends to make it pretty easy to outlast the vast majority of foes.

Still, while AI3 does leave a good deal to be desired in certain aspects of its gameplay, I have to say I had a pleasant experience with it. Its originality in a genre where so many games tend to follow the same basic formula definitely made playing it a breath of fresh air. It can get tedious at times due to an overall lack of challenge and because a lot of its quests feel more like busywork than anything else, but I’d still highly recommend this one to any RPG fan who’s looking for something a bit different than what they’re used to seeing.

overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (June 28, 2007)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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