"As Vayne arrives at the academy for the first time, the first thing you may notice is that the graphics are blurry, low-res 3D that look like someone popped a PS1 game in their PS2 and turned on texture smoothing. You may also notice just how long the game had to load said images. Nearly everything you do in Mana Khemia causes the game to stop and load something. Even simplistic tasks like jumping from one ledge to another will cause the PSP to halt everything for a moment to load the jumping animation. This has the unfortunate side-effect of disorienting your jump and often (at least in my case) leads to Vayne landing squarely on a monster's head. There's another battle that could have been avoided!"
Vayne Aurelius is a young man living deep in the woods with little more than the rags on his back and his magical transforming cat Sulpher. This all changes one day, however, when a professor from the Al-Revis Academy of alchemy visits Vayne and invites him to study alchemy at the school. So what does a cat-loving hermit do when he's asked by a complete stranger to abandon everything he knows (except his magical cat, of course) to attend a school whose curriculum consists of a subject he's never heard of, much less attempted to study before? Why, go with him of course! And thus Mana Khemia: Student Alliance opens.
As Vayne arrives at the academy for the first time, the first thing you may notice is that the graphics are blurry, low-res 3D that look like someone popped a PS1 game in their PS2 and turned on texture smoothing. You may also notice just how long the game had to load said images. Nearly everything you do in Mana Khemia causes the game to stop and load something. Even simplistic tasks like jumping from one ledge to another will cause the PSP to halt everything for a moment to load the jumping animation. This has the unfortunate side-effect of disorienting your jump and often (at least in my case) leads to Vayne landing squarely on a monster's head. There's another battle that could have been avoided!
Luckily, the game's mission-based structure fares much better and makes it perfect for on-the-go gameplay. Time in Mana Khemia is divided into weeks. Each week is enough time to complete one mission, disguised as assignments that the academy gives you. These assignments can range the gamut from simply gathering a certain ingredient to taking out a particularly nasty monster, but they're never complex enough to ever take more than a few minutes. These easily-digestible chunks of gameplay are by far one of Mana Khemia's shining moments, even if you'll spend more time on the loading screens than actually playing the game... especially when fighting the vast array of monsters.
Before you even see what it is you have to fight, you'll see the "Now Loading" screen. If it's your first fight in that area, prepare for it to last well over a minute. Expect the action to chug along at a blistering 4 frames per second until everything gets loaded. Anticipate the moment that the game will completely freeze up, requiring you to shut the PSP off and lose progress. I didn't even know games still did that, at least not ones that don't say "For Windows PC" on them.
Thankfully, once you actually can fight, it's much more enjoyable. Battles are turn-based (ala Final Fantasy X), with a list along the top of the screen to let you know who's attacking next so that you can plan an effective strategy. As should be expected, certain attacks will allow you to attack again sooner and other abilities have a time-based effect, such as one character's Healing Echo that continues to heal the character with lowest HP over several turns. Winning battles earns you cash and AP, which you spend to beef up your characters in what should have been the most enjoyable aspect of Mana Khemia.
Giving yet another nod to Final Fantasy X, characters don't "level up" in the traditional sense. Instead, you spend AP by unlocking nodes on each character's Growth Book, a large Sphere Grid-esque area that opens additional paths as you complete alchemy recipes. Each recipe can allow you to unlock several nodes that increase your characters' stats or give them additional abilities in battle. However, it's here that the terrible loading times rear their ugly heads once again. In order to complete an alchemy recipe, you must first gather the ingredients. This can be done by visiting one of the many shops around the Al-Revis Academy, or by going off campus and into various fields and dungeons to search for ingredients. Be they looted off the corpse of a monster or found in the tall grass that you can chop down (expect lag while you hack), ingredients are plentiful. You'll need as many as you can find if you want to complete the multitude of recipes Mana Khemia has to offer.
The actual completion of these recipes is not nearly as enjoyable.
First, you have to go to your workshop, where your cauldron is located.
Then you have to go through your list of available recipes, one at a time as the PSP struggles to load the associated image accompanying each item. After that you have to select what ingredients you want to use. The PSP will pause to load their images too. If you have the good (or terrible) luck of stumbling upon a new recipe, the PSP will stop to load an image of Vayne to say little more than "Oh, I'm so close to discovering a new recipe!" The constant loading turns the focus of Mana Khemia, which would have been enjoyable, into a chore to sit through. Even then, it would have been forgivable if the characters weren't such one-dimensional halfwits.
First there's Vayne, the lead character and hero of our story. He's the "naive" one. His three best friends don't fare any better. You get: Jessica, the cute pink-haired girl with a bomb fetish; Nikki, the requisite slutty catgirl; and Flay, the upperclassman with ADHD and the intelligence of a rock. There's a few other characters thrown in as well, most of them equally forgettable. The only exception is a ghost girl who apparently is a recurring character throughout the Atelier games. She likes to scare people. It's amusing.
Between the terrible loading times, the PS1-quality graphics and unlikeable characters, there's little to recommend about Mana Khemia: Student Alliance. It's a shoddy port of a PS2 game that should have been much more enjoyable than it was. It's a shame that beneath all of the horrid screams of agony that your PSP will be wailing as you attempt to load Mana Khemia, you can see the framework of a truly enjoyable RPG. There's a lot of depth in the alchemy system. By linking that to character growth, the developers created a system that feels fresh (even if it's not completely unique).
It's just too bad that the gameplay is constantly broken by loading times.
Freelance review by Kyle Stepp (April 04, 2009)
Espiga likes big butts, and cannot lie.
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