"The PlayStation 2 has been a very prolific platform for RPGs during its lifecycle, and even long after the PS3's release, a select few developers continue to service it. Gust is among them, choosing the PS2 for Mana Khemia (2007 in Japan, 2008 in the US). An alchemy-themed game in which gathering recipes and ingredients to create your own items, weapons and armour, Mana Khemia plays so similarly to the three Atelier Iris games that it's tempting to just consider it Atelier Iris 4 and be done wit..."
The PlayStation 2 has been a very prolific platform for RPGs during its lifecycle, and even long after the PS3's release, a select few developers continue to service it. Gust is among them, choosing the PS2 for Mana Khemia (2007 in Japan, 2008 in the US). An alchemy-themed game in which gathering recipes and ingredients to create your own items, weapons and armour, Mana Khemia plays so similarly to the three Atelier Iris games that it's tempting to just consider it Atelier Iris 4 and be done with it. It is certainly a faithful spiritual successor. It is also very similar graphically, using sprites for characters and monsters that are more often functional than gorgeous, although character portraits, as we've come to expect from Gust, are beautiful and vibrant.
Mana Khemia's setting is an academy for aspiring alchemists, to which protagonist Vayne Aurelius is invited on account of his father having been a famous alchemist. The game's events take place in and around the academy (which only feels slightly like Hogwarts) and spans a period of three years in which Vayne and his classmates grow from freshmen to full fledged alchemy seniors. Each year is broken up in trimesters in which courses are given and items must be created or monsters slain to earn a grade. Once the required grades are met, free time follows in which the player can take on side quests (which, to be fair, also involve the creation of items and the slaying of monsters) or get to know their party members better through plot-advancing character quests. The player is eased into this mechanic and halfway into the first year it'll all come naturally.
At the core of Gust's alchemy games is the creation of items, called synthesis. Toward this end, the player obtains recipes, and must then collect the necessary ingredients to create them. That new sword you'd like to use? Better find a blue steel, a specific kind of fish, and a steak (or other such outlandish combinations). Various areas around the academy can be explored to hunt monsters and - more importantly - gather these ingredients. They may be dropped by monsters, found by cutting grass, hidden in smashable crates and barrels, or even fished up from lakes. Each trek through one of these areas, which basically function as the game's dungeons, is sure to fill your stocks of ingredients and is usually followed by lots of item creation once back safely at the academy.
The creation of items is even more important than it used to be in the Atelier Iris games (where it was already pretty much the central mechanic) because levelling up is tied to it as well. Mana Khemia does not use traditional experience points or levels, but rather grow charts which are reminiscent of FFX's sphere grid or even moreso, Rogue Galaxy's revelations. Each character has a chart with items to be created on it, and each time you make one such item, that slot is unlocked and associated skills can be bought. For instance, creating your first Heal Jar might allow Vayne to buy small increases to his hit points, attack and defense values, or another item might allow him to purchase a skill. The currency for these purchases are action points which are gained by defeating enemies in battle. It sounds more complicated than it is, and in effect it keeps your characters from powerlevelling as you need to keep creating items or have nothing to spend your supplies of action points on. Since recipes are usually only available from a certain chapter in the game on, you can never quite go crazy, but there's still enough to be created and enough hard-to-find recipes that careful exploration is rewarded with more potential for growth.
Battles are turn based and not random. Enemies can be seen and often avoided on the map, which gets in handy if you're really just after a few outlying ingredients and not interested in action points right now. In battle, characters can attack or use their learned skills (and a few skills that can be added to weapons and armor through item synthesis). This starts simple enough but gets more complicated over time as your party size increases and their options do as well. Three characters are in the front row where they can attack and be attacked, and up to three characters can make up the "support" row, which is waiting just off screen and can be swapped in for a front row character. This can be done either on the attack - letting them strike the same monster right after - or on the defense, rapidly taking the place of the character about to be attacked. This is especially useful as you have a few seconds to decide who to send in, e.g. bringing in your fire resistant character when the enemy's about to unleash a fireball. Late in the game characters will learn unique skills that further increase their usefulness when swapped in as either an attacker or a defender. What starts as trading low damage blows with the enemy in the first chapter becomes a chaotic mess of situationally swapping characters late in the game, often peppering the enemy with your most powerful, magic-draining spells, then to quickly retreat to the support row where your magic reserves are refilled for the next round. A late game Mana Khemia battle is certainly very YouTube friendly, and a lot easier to pull off than it looks.
Which goes for combat in general. With a few late game boss exceptions, enemies usually don't put up much of a fight. Your characters can so mercilessly pummel them with endless chains of attacks that there's rarely a risk of failure, and if things do go poorly, battles can be retreated from easily (or as previously mentioned, avoided altogether). There is a time mechanic where prolonged exploration of an area results in night falling, making the monsters much faster on the map, giving them initiative in each battle you fight, and suddenly making retreat a lot harder. But this is easily avoided by parking the party in a safe corner and waiting a few minutes for morning to come, and since there are no incentives for fighting at night, you'll quickly learn to do so. Even if you do get ambushed and defeated at night, death is a slap on the wrist, with the party waking up in the academy's infirmary with no penalties other than having to walk back to where you were. Chapter bosses are the sole exception, falling in battle to one of them is a game over. Yet every one of them has a save point right in front of them, so lost progress should never occur.
Apart from the item synthesis being strangely addictive, much of Mana Khemia's charm comes from the colourful cast of characters. Among them are a sassy girl obsessed with the creation of medicine with dubious effects and items that explode (not always intentionally), a buff catgirl who has the eyes of every male in the academy on her except for the stereotypically clueless protagonist, a boisterous slacker who is so obsessed with his perceived quest to fight evil that he rarely attends a class, and a ghost (who, incidentally, revives quickly and automatically if struck down in battle, and soon becomes completely immune to physical attacks). Each of these characters is explored in detail over the game, throughout the main story and in optional character quests, and further in hidden scenes that you will see if you regularly visit each area in the academy. The story is very lighthearted for the first two thirds of the game or so, and you'll learn to love the bizarre antics of each character and the way they interact with each other. With so many memorable people in your party, the protagonist stands out like a sore thumb, being quiet, timid, and making sure never to assert himself as one party member or another drags him by the arm into their latest zany scheme. The reason for his apparent lack of personality is eventually revealed, but until then he is surprisingly uninteresting.
The game goes through a sudden mood swing about two thirds in, and the game's soundtrack is a large factor in this. Up until this point, the soundtrack is mostly cheerful and uplifting, with plenty of tunes easy to hum along with. Walking through the academy treats you to an especially happy tune that sets the mood to relaxed and keeps it there. Until the turning point comes, that is, and many of the game's tunes (such as the academy tune and the regular battle tune) are replaced by much darker and ominous themes. The effect is jarring and at the same time, meshes perfectly with the plot's events and paints the game in a very different light. The story's conclusion, depending on which party member's character quests you've chosen to complete (you can only pick the final quest for one of them), may range anywhere from happy to hilarious to downright weird, as well as one heck of a downer ending for not doing anyone's final quest.
All considered Mana Khemia does just about everything right. Fans of the Atelier Iris series can safely dive into it, knowing that it has everything they love about these games and does it well. Skeptics after Atelier Iris 3 can rest assured that there's enough different things to do. Sidequests for items and money are just a small part of the package now, when in Atelier Iris 3 they were basically the entire game. The overall lack of difficulty is a potential weakness for those who like their games to have more bite, although a postgame bonus dungeon exists that provides said bite. Chances are, though, that the memorable cast, the excellent soundtrack (included on CD with the game, no less) and the everpresent lure of crafting just one more item will see you through the 30-40 hours for completing the game before you know it.
Community review by sashanan (June 08, 2009)
Sashanan doesn't drink coffee; he takes tea, my dear. And sometimes writes reviews. His roots lie with the Commodore 64 he grew up with, and his gaming remains fragmented among the very old, the somewhat old, and rarely the new.
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