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

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

"At first, I didnít believe Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis had what it takes to be epicóor even great. In truth, ďgoodĒ was all I really expected. "

At first, I didnít believe Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis had what it takes to be epic--or even great. In truth, ďgoodĒ was all I really expected.

Without question, itís the cleanest, most visually stunning game Iíve seen on the Playstaion 2, but those graphics are lent primarily to backgrounds and still frames. Excluding the gameís intro, Manaís cut-scenes are tragically few and far between.

Manaís story was reminiscent of a retro RPG, with a main character--Vayne--whoís quiet, somber and suffering with a case of amnesia. It gave him a cast of zany characters--like a flirtatious catgirl and teddy bear-toting ghost--to interact with and a shadowed, mysterious past to overcome. Initially, it built interest, mixing a world of intrigue with humor; antics with ambiguity. But Iíve seen that played out countless times before, and Mana had a bad habit of introducing new questions without solving any of the original ones. I got only glimpses and pieces of the puzzle between fairly long chapters, and no real end in sight.

But if Iíve learned anything from the last 15 years playing RPGs, itís that all it takes is one thing--one outstanding, captivating thing--to make a game great.

For Mana Khemia, it was Alchemy.

Donít think, in reading that, youíre going to encounter another simple, optional side-quest like that seen in Dragon Quest VIII. Manaís encompasses the entire game, makes it the driving factor and focal point for everything else, and itís done so brilliantly that you canít help but get obsessed.

The one drawback I found in DQís Alchemy were its limits. If I wanted to make an item, but didnít have the ingredients I had two options: scour the earth looking for it, or give up. Not so with Mana. If youíre missing a key item, you can substitute with another. For example, if youíre looking to make a Flea Necklace (Vayneís weapon) one of the main ingredients is Dietary Fiber. However, if itís missing from your inventory you have the option of replacing it with a Spinacherb, Gash Twig, Eicheloa or Poison Shroom.

Itís here where Mana becomes complicated, but also incredibly addictive. Each item has certain elements and attributes when used. Using Dietary Fiber will most likely garner you nothing, where as using the more rare Shroom will add a poison strike to your weapon. Most items have some element or attribute. Some will allow potions to heal more HP, add an element of fire or lightning to a weapon, or even increase your HP when added to armor. The most beneficial items are typically the hardest to find, but it pays off in the long run.

Instead of gaining levels to increase your stats, your over growth is dependent on Alchemy and the items you make. Much like Final Fantasy X, Mana uses a chart boost your character known as the ďGrowth BookĒ. Itís filled with broken nodes of every kind--from increasing the number of attacks you get, new skills or an increase in one of your stats. These nodes can be purchased with AP during battle, but where it differs from FF X is accessibility. You canít simply move from node to node once youíve garnered enough points. In order to fix a broken node, you have to mix the item--not buy it--thatís linked to it. Sometimes itís as simple as flour, other times itís a rare weapon or armor. The harder the item, the more beneficial the increase is.

It sounds painstaking, and I thought the same thing but itís actually nowhere near. Most nodes are shrouded, so you have no idea what youíre going to unlock until you move closer to it in the book. Many a nights I was up well past when I wanted to be, grinding and item hunting just to unlock the next node, waiting for a new skill to use, or a boost to prepare for a boss fight.

And I appreciate that I donít have to search for every single recipe. In most instances, you will stumble on new items while making others. Vayne will get an idea to tweak what heís currently making, or a friend will implement a suggestion after heís finished and a new recipe will open up. As it was with the Growth Book, your next step can be a blind one, and the enjoyment lies in the mystery of what youíre going to discover. I could--and did--spend hours making items, tweaking their ingredients and making them again.

Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis is lacking in areas ďgrandĒ RPGs typically excel--cut-scenes, innovative combat or a powerful, moving story wrought with emotion. And yet, it doesnít matter. Shining Force didnít have those things either. But it did one relatively new thing--strategy--extremely well and still stands as one of the best because of it. Mana is no different. Alchemy is without question the most innovative, addictive, interesting aspects Iíve seen in the last decade.

It makes you think. It makes stat building a test of intelligence rather than patience, and makes every second you spend grinding entertaining and well worth your time. And to me, thatís epicÖjust not in the way you would think.


True's avatar
Featured community review by True (July 22, 2009)

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zippdementia posted July 22, 2009:

Sweet! A review that actually makes me want to try out the game being reviewed. I think the key to your success here is that you were extremely focused. Rather than try and cover everything about the game, you choose to focus on what made YOU want to play it, and I applaud that.
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psychopenguin posted July 26, 2009:

As I mentioned before, he did not even do the alchemy system justice. It's 'better than DQ8' sure, but most alchemy systems are. You can not switch items out at will. Most items consist of 3 ingredients, and each ingredient can be substituted 0-5 times. It's complex but simple at the same time. Hey wow, I just described it in 2 sentences better than he did.
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honestgamer posted July 27, 2009:

Psychopenguin: While I didn't think that this was one of true's stronger reviews, I'm not sure what prompted your vicious response to the text and to the quality control standards this site.

Yes, the bit about calling the game out for not having an intuitive battle system is strange given how unique it feels (there are many who have trouble adapting to it after playing many of the other RPGs that true seems to feel it copies), but true probably just didn't place as much significance on those innovations or adapted to them quickly enough that he didn't see them as special. Similarly, his decision to not comment on a late-game twist that you felt was significant also speaks to his differing perspective... or perhaps just an attempt to avoid spoiler territory. In any event, it's clear that he wasn't as sucked into the plot as you were, so a betrayal by the writers at the end probably wouldn't have hit him as hard.

After reading the review, my impression was that true probably just thinks the alchemy system in this one is epic because he hasn't played the numerous other RPGs that incorporate deep alchemy systems (including numerous Atelier Iris games that preceded Mana Khemia, and possibly the Ar Tonelico titles). As someone who has played a few alchemy games, I was disappointed that he didn't cover ground that would have let me know where this game stands compared to those. Even so, the review did a good job of summing up what made the game worth playing for true. It's sure to resonate with its target audience: other people who are looking for a great new RPG to try and who may share his inexperience with alchemy-heavy RPGs. They'll probably find much of the text illuminating. Not everyone has experienced a bunch of alchemy RPGs, after all!

The worst sin this review is guilty of is the occasional oversight. I see no attempt to mislead. It doesn't deserve the thrashing it got. If anything, it deserves a well-reasoned response that perhaps examines other aspects of the game. Your response leaves me thinking that in this case, you're probably not the person to provide that. I hope that you'll continue to respond to reviews in the future, whether you agree or disagree, but I hope that you'll do so courteously. There are some sites where a person doesn't have to be obnoxious to have his voice heard and I'd like to think that this is one of them.
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psychopenguin posted July 27, 2009:

Because he reviewed Atelier Iris 3 and called it a Mana Khemia review. Seriously, he didn't describe one thing in this review that didn't apply to AI3. I didn't know liked form reviews, much less felt they were the best the site had to offer that week.

Also, "Similarly, his decision to not comment on a late-game twist that you felt was significant also speaks to his differing perspective"

The game makes you do 5 of a character's quests, without warning, over the course of the game, and if you don't, you can't fight the final boss. That's, um, a tad different than 'a late game twist'. That's bullshit game design at its finest. THE GAME DOES NOT EVEN IMPLY YOU CAN DO THESE QUESTS, AND YOU HAVE TO DO THEM REPEATEDLY

But hey, it tweaked AI3's alchemy system, hooray let's talk about that for 600 words or so then act like the combat system is like everything else ever.
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EmP posted July 27, 2009:

'Innovative' is in the eye of the beholder. Jason will have you believe that Chrono Cross has an innovative battles system, but it doesn't. It just has a crap one.

As someone who's not played this game, neither the way True or PP sell the battle systems sounds any different from those I've experiences a million times before.
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zigfried posted July 27, 2009:

Most battle systems aren't innovative. I haven't played MK yet, but I've been switching out front- and rear-line party members for a while now in other games. If it's innovative, then there's got to be more to it than what PP described elsewhere. Otherwise it's like praising an apple for being red instead of green. It's still a damn apple!

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honestgamer posted July 27, 2009:

I don't think that an RPG system has to change so much to the point that it's no longer even RPG-style (or turn-based, as some seem to be implying) to warrant the tag of "innovative." To go with zig's example (sort of)... when someone produces a new variety of apple that tastes different or has purple seeds or whatever but is still an apple, that's about as innovative as an apple should ever get. Some people will love it and some won't, but that's not really the point. It's doing something different within its inherent constraints and that is what makes it innovative.

I see a lot of people calling for radical changes to the RPG genre in the name of innovation. If they have their way, RPGs will eventually "evolve" into nothing more than hours-long movies or brainless "adventure" games with no intellectual stimulation... and the people who championed that change will be happy for a short while before they move onto something else and leave the RPG genre a pathetic shell of its former self. I see that happening already.

Let's not call for the reinvention of the wheel. There are a lot of people who like RPGs much the way they are and will be perfectly content to see the genre stick to what made it worthwhile in the first place--while benefitting from new levels of polish and refinement that successive hardware generations allow--instead of getting erased and replaced with something so "innovative" that it doesn't even feel like an RPG. I'm one of them, absolutely. If you're not, I humbly invite you to play the genre that already exists and caters to your preferences. That genre exists, I assure you.
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threetimes posted July 27, 2009:

The review didn't describe the battle system at all. That's part of the problem, so a reader can't judge whether or not it's innovative unless they've already played the game. (I have, and it is.)
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zippdementia posted July 27, 2009:

The point here was that True didn't feel the battle system was as cool as the alchemy system. The alchemy system was what he enjoyed, and what brought him into the game. Why are you criticizing him for that? He did a good job of reviewing the aspect of the game that was most interesting to him and thus would be most interesting to relate to a reader. If you're so enthralled with the battle system, then write a review instead of bitchin' at True.

Threetimes, this is only partially aimed at you, and more generally aimed at everyone who continually complains about this review.
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zigfried posted July 27, 2009:

The concept of innovative RPG battle systems itself is ridiculous. Even in the mid-90's every RPG had its special system:

"Active Battle System!"
"Chain Combination System!"
"Tactical Action Element System!"

...and so forth. It was a running joke back then to see what game could come up with the longest name for its system.

Tweaking has become so commonplace in RPG battle systems that it's not innovative to simply be different. So, if someone says something is "innovative", they'd better have a lot more to say than just the ability to swap around party members during the fights.

That all being said, I don't care if it's innovative or not. I don't play RPGs for innovation, I play them because I like RPGs. I care about whether it's easy to learn the combat system, and if it's fun to play. If a review doesn't complain about the battles, then chances are they're not an issue. Like in 90% of all RPGs.

Tell me about the battles if they're important (Panzer Saga, Star Ocean 4) but otherwise I don't need to read about the latest tweaks.

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threetimes posted July 27, 2009:

That comment: if you don't like it, write your own review, seems misplaced. So, I'm supposed to write a review of a game I've played just to prove a point about someone else's review?

Anyway, Honestgamer's explained quite a bit of my perspective on it, as someone who also has played a lot of alchemy based RPGs. And it's fair enough that someone who has no experience of this kind of game before, was enthralled by the alchemy system. Great, and I hope they go on to play the rest of the AI games. Then they'll find out that it's the Grow Book and battle system that make MK stand out, not alchemy.

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zigfried posted July 27, 2009:

Threetimes, your comments have been completely appropriate. The purpose of a feedback thread is to provide feedback without needing to write a full review.

I'm just surprised because I've not heard much of MK's battle system until now. And, although it may be fun, I'm skeptical of its innovation.

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psychopenguin posted July 28, 2009:

Did he edit this review? I don't remember there being all that Grow Book stuff in there, but at least he helps confirm part of what makes this game different from the others, and that's a start.

I'm just surprised because I've not heard much of MK's battle system until now. And, although it may be fun, I'm skeptical of its innovation.

Even if it's not innovative, it's fun. And again, what other RPG lets you switch out characters WHILE THEY ATTACK and let them attack also? It's not the most innovative idea ever, sure, but i makes battles a lot more fast paced and strategic than your average turn based RPGs. I remember this one boss that really made me think, constantly switching my current characters to give me the best shot of damaging it or preventing damage. It's like Breath of Fire 4 on steroids.
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zigfried posted July 28, 2009:

I think I missed the "while they attack" aspect in your previous post. I've done that in another game (recently even), but I can't seem to put my finger on which one. I must admit, it was pretty cool.

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psychopenguin posted July 29, 2009:

I might have not included it. I'm real good at forgetting the extra details in conversations.

I am ssure at least one other RPG has done it, but definitely not many.
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True posted July 29, 2009:

Did he edit this review? I don't remember there being all that Grow Book stuff in there, but at least he helps confirm part of what makes this game different from the others, and that's a start.


No... I would never do such a thing. Except for that one time I completely rewrote No One Lives Forever because I didn't get it... but that was years ago.

And that one time I changed the score on Landstalker, mainly cause EmP yelled at me. But that was the last time...for now.
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sashanan posted July 29, 2009:

There'd be no shame in it if you did though - your review, your right to adapt it whenever you feel you should.

Now then, as someone who has in fact reviewed Mana Khemia recently as well...I think your essay obviously focuses on the aspect of the game you found important. This is not new - it's a pretty common format on HG. It does so at the exclusion of other aspects of the game. Whether or not that is "wrong" in terms of whether the end result is technically or not a review is, IMO, a different discussion that risks getting blurred with the question of if your piece did what you set out do. It did that. My review *did* talk a lot about other aspects as well, because that's what *I* set out to do. Whether your piece is better than mine or the other way around (if such comparisons can even be made at all, outside of a largely for fun tournament), and whether or not one is truer to what the definition of a review is or should far as I'm concerned, those are two completely separate questions.

And either way, as an opinion piece, a review is going to be very much slanted by how the game affected a specific person. I was strongly affected by the mood swing in the story and atmosphere at the end, so it was a prominent factor in my review. You were strongly affected by its alchemy, probably more strongly than someone who had happened to play through the three Atelir Iris games first (like I have). And if Psycho Penguin were to review it, there'd be a stiff mention of how the game's obscurity in pointing out the importance of and your progress in the character quests cheated him out of his final boss battle after nearly 60 hours of play.

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