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Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis (PlayStation 2) artwork

Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis (PlayStation 2) review

"Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis takes you to school. In its world, ordinary people can't begin to understand the basic principles of alchemy. In fact, strict laws prohibit the practice of the art by anyone without the proper training. That's why Al-Revis Academy exists; its hallowed halls are the only place gifted youth can grapple with mastering this powerful craft. Students explore the best locations to mine for valuable, rare ingredients. They hone combat techniques to slay th..."

Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis takes you to school. In its world, ordinary people can't begin to understand the basic principles of alchemy. In fact, strict laws prohibit the practice of the art by anyone without the proper training. That's why Al-Revis Academy exists; its hallowed halls are the only place gifted youth can grapple with mastering this powerful craft. Students explore the best locations to mine for valuable, rare ingredients. They hone combat techniques to slay the fierce monsters that lurk around those bounties. Most of all, though, they learn how to synthesize items. Lots and lots of items. School life and the exhaustive practice of alchemy drive the day-to-day activity of Mana Khemia, so much so that the game's grander plot operates virtually in the background.

The star pupil here is Vayne Aurelius. He's led a solitary life in the mountains with only one steady companion, a black cat named Sulpher. Vayne can understand Sulpher's mewls and yowls, which may be one reason why nearby villagers shun the kid. A more likely explanation: there's a mysterious, even unnatural, aura about him. (Even besides his gray hair, or his overly dramatic tendency to trail off the end of sentences.) And these singular qualities are exactly why, one day, a professor abruptly appears to recruit Vayne to the Academy.

For no particular reason, he accepts. Despite being a teenager with no discernible social skills, he makes friends rather easily. His first contact is Jessica Philomele, a bubbly, clumsy girl in his homeroom. Almost immediately, the pair is roped into the workshop of an upperclassman named Flay Gunnar, a brute with cutoff sleeves who is more interested in ridiculous heroic quests than attending class. That's where they meet Nicole Mimi Tithel, a reckless blonde beastgirl who prefers flirting to studying. This workshop is Vayne's base of operation, a place to do homework or just hang out between assignments.

Stranger and stranger students keep trickling into the group. Roxis Rosencrantz appears as a resentful, refined, bespectacled rival. Anna Lemouri is a young samurai wise beyond her years, unless some silly notion takes hold of her mind and possession of her actions. Then she's a menace. At one point, she even attempts to exorcise fellow party member Pamela Ibis, a cute little ribbon-clad ghost who never ventures anywhere without her teddy bear (yet loves to terrorize freshman). Rounding out the team is Muppy Oktavia Vanderchek VIII, a bloodthirsty alien conquistador. Because he's a cuddly pink ball, though, Muppy is basically an adorable mascot (who likes taking hostages). Forming deep relationships is a central task in this game; ignoring a character can severely limit their fighting potential. Plus, the person (or thing) Vayne bonds with the quickest can determine which of the seven special endings he achieves. Unfortunately, the casual localization results in the use of common names like Jess and Nikki, but the interaction of this tightly knit group is one of Mana Khemia's highlights.

The workshop begins with the straightforward goal of graduating from Al-Revis. Those seeking a loftier enterprise should inquire elsewhere or exercise great patience; three years are required to work through this curriculum. Each year is divided into several terms, and each term is subsequently broken down into weeks. Terms follow a pattern: first come classes, they end with a major event, and free time is whatever remains in between. Courses cover important skills in the game like combat, exploration (while avoiding the always visible enemies), and item creation. They fluidly progress from explaining the basics (kill a monster) to harshly testing advanced knowledge of the techniques (kill a monster while accumulating high combo counts in a stressfully short timespan). At least two classes must be completed each semester, but the number increases if Vayne earns poor marks. Fortunately, there's always a complete selection of subject matter, but that does give less incentive to tackle areas of weak understanding. Once credit requirements are fulfilled, the leftover topics disappear. At this elite school, students should be pushed to do more than scrape by!

Once the official assignments conclude, the real adventures begin. Or misadventures. Free time is the main opportunity to interact with teammates by participating in wild sidequests. For instance, Flay recruits (forces) Vayne to serve as his superhero sidekick, punishing imaginary villains. With Nikki, her horde of jealous fanboys begin to terrorize the workshop and must be forcibly rebuffed as they lose rationality. Finally though, each term comes to an end with a grand test. Maybe it's a journey into a deep, dark cavern to take on an unbeatable dragon. Maybe it's a school-wide team battle tournament. At Al-Revis Academy, the standard and the strange mix freely. This routine sounds strictly structured, but it's flexible within that framework. At any time, Vayne can venture out to the abandoned schoolhouse, dive into the haunted library, or wander anywhere else he gains access. Hours supposedly tick away – enemies do become stronger and more agitated at night – but upon returning to campus, no real time will have elapsed.

Not that excessive amounts of grinding up monsters will greatly benefit the party. Strength and ability in Mana Khemia are cleverly cultivated through a character-specific Grow Book; battle simply provides the currency to buy the upgrades. The Grow Book is why alchemy is vital in this game. It consists of an expansive web of open item slots. Whenever a new weapon, food, metal, or anything is synthesized, that action potentially unlocks a boost in life or magic, a special attack or latent attribute. Generating a new object is not difficult in of itself. Gather the raw materials, play a little color-matching minigame on a spinning wheel, and voila, item created. But filling in empty slots quickly explodes into a compulsion. It's the reason a new semester must begin with a trip to every little shop in search of new alchemy recipes. It's the motivation to comb desolate places like the Dragon's Grave, walking on the spines of fallen giants to discover rare ore. It's the impetus to complete every extracurricular job in hopes of obtaining the knowledge to construct a rare treasure. More than an addiction, though, the Grow Book works as a balancing mechanism. There's no way to ridiculously overlevel past the current competition; the ingredients necessary just aren't available yet.

That keeps combat honest. Mana Khemia's system of vanguard and support personnel keeps combat interesting, because it lets you dictate the pace of the turn-based battles. To show the order of turns, a deck of cards sits in the upper-left portion of the screen. Every enemy and ally has a card, and the deck is fanned out so all the faces are visible, as well as the dead space in between. After performing an action, the character's card will move down in the deck depending on their speed and chosen action. That amount is visible prior to committing to the move, so at the very least, it's possible to maximize damage on a monster before its next turn.

As the game progresses, more skills become available to manipulate the deck, like doubling your speed and knocking enemy cards back. But the best way to squeeze in extra attacks is through substitution. No matter how many monsters line up – sometimes they comes in waves – only three of your heroes can be active on the field. This is the vanguard. But another three fighters can standby for support. When a supporter is fully charged, she can jump into a vanguard's spot at almost any time. In an offensive maneuver, attacks will chain together in a flourish. For a defensive stance, the support will take damage for a wounded ally or even protect the entire party. An alchemist moving back to the support row must wait before returning, but during the delay magic, and eventually life, slowly regenerate. So not only does this feature keep you engaged regarding the timing of substitutions, it also reduces party fatigue while tramping through large dungeons.

Unfortunately there's really only one dungeon that requires a maximal understanding of the relationship between alchemy and attacks. Consider it the doctoral course. It requires equipment with optical critical rates, elemental damage, and other rare qualities. And there's a reasons that's a bonus area, available only after clearing the game once. Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis isn't supposed to be so serious. The cast is drawn in a bright, anime style, and they have crazy abilities; Jess can transform enemies into sweet desserts. I call the soundtrack a 'Toybox March.' Stately, but it uses woodwinds, animal sounds, and host of unexpected noises to keep a playful mood. Even the climatic finale eschews world-beating in favor of conquering inner doubts and fears. Like any enriching educational experience, this game is more about the journey than the destination.

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Community review by woodhouse (June 04, 2008)

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