Editor's Note: This review is based on the UMD version of this title. For the review on the PlayStation Network version, check out this review.
Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-revis was a cutesy, fun RPG for the PlayStation 2. It wasn't the most innovative RPG to come out in 2008, nor was it the most entertaining, but it was worth the price of admission. Just under a year later, NIS America has published the PlayStation Portable version of this title, and while it still remains the same game at its core, it is, bar none, one of the worst PSP conversions of a title I have ever played. With horrid visuals, loading every few moments, and laggy gameplay, there is very little that's redeeming about this port. Much like the Generation of Chaos IV and Spectral Souls ports, NIS America has given us a PSP title that's not worthy of being published - stateside or elsewhere.
Rather than go incredibly in-depth into the game itself, which is virtually identical to the PS2 version, I'll link to our review of that version of the game here and give a brief overview of the game before delving into the changes. Mana Khemia combines life simulation, traditional RPG, and item creation together into one package. Players need to complete dungeons and create items to get passing grades in their classes, allowing them to continue through the story. Item creation plays a big part in this, as players level up not from standard experience points, but also need items to unlock new skills. All-in-all, it works well, and the positive review of the PS2 version of this title is not undeserving.
In porting the game to the PSP, however, Gust let things slip. I can't blame NIS America for any of the faults with the development of the title - the localization, which was good in the PS2 version, remains in the PSP version. However, the simple choice of them bringing out this title bearing their logo kills a bit of their credibility. The first, most obvious issue is the game's graphical component. Most games see a graphical downgrade when they hit the PSP - cars in racing games look worse and your favorite football player looks like everyone else in Madden. For a game with 2D sprites on simple 3D backgrounds, however, you'd expect not to see a great difference in the graphics, especially considering that the resolution of the PSP's screen isn't that different from a standard-definition television. That is true to some extent - the 2D sprites look about the same as the first iteration of the title. The backgrounds, however, look like they've been put through the washing machine and didn't come out looking anything like they should. The textures are incredibly low-resolution, so the floor, the walls, just about everything in the environments looks very blurry. It's almost as if Gust didn't create a new texture for the PSP version of the game, but simply tooled down the resolution on previous textures to fit the PSP screen. It's very, very sloppy.
That's not where the issues with the graphics stop, however. Despite the fact that the sprites look sharp on an otherwise blurry background, they are subject to a significant amount of hiccupping. Any time players engage in animations other than the standard walk, the game will probably need to pull that animation from the disc. Want to jump? That's some load times. Enter the save point and it needs to animate to show that you're there? That's some load times. Need to get the small artwork for a character during dialogue? That's some load times. To be fair, it's not as bad as the loading times in Spectral Souls PSP. That's like saying Unlimited SaGa wasn't as bad as Deep Labyrinth, though - you really don't want either. It's understandable to have some loading times in a game for the PSP, a relatively high-storage disc device, as there's bound to be something that games need to grab off the disc. That said, it's a bit absurd that things such as basic animations for the player character aren't loaded into the RAM for easy access.
The game's load times aren't limited to getting data during gameplay. In fact, it would make it a bit more tolerable if the game simply hiccupped a fair bit and didn't have load times between environments. However, there seems to be a load time after every single story sequence, before every battle scene, and when players enter a new room on the map. It's almost sad that for years after the initial release of the PSP, some developers aren't able to create a cohesive loading system for their titles. Gust, however, added a feature to the port of the title called Jump Start. Jump Start is supposed to alleviate some of the loading times in the game by installing a portion of the game to a Memory Stick Duo, and the game will simultaneously load from the UMD and Memory Stick. It's a novel concept that a lot of games could use - if it functioned correctly. Taking the five minutes or so it took to install the game to the memory stick, I have created a full list of what I believe this function does:
Unlike installing games like The Last Remnant to your Xbox 360's hard drive, I could not find a discernable difference between the game playing only from the UMD and using the Jump Start feature. While I didn't pull out a stopwatch during the review process, neither the in-game hiccups nor the between-scene load times were shortened or eliminated by the use of this feature.
There are no noticeable problems with the game's control scheme when mapped to the PSP controls, no issues with the game's audio itself, though it suffers from the same load issues as the graphics, and the story and characters are still cute and likable. In fact, there's little that's wrong with the game proper, it just seems that the game has suffered from the same problems as many first-generation PSP titles. Much like when I played Generation of Chaos and Spectral Souls - both titles that NIS America decided to localize as well - I discovered that there was an absolutely fantastic game under the guise of a horrible port. Perhaps Gust, like Idea Factory before it, will learn from its mistakes and release another PSP port of a future title that's not rife with these problems. Maybe it will be released as a download off the PlayStation Store, where it can be played entirely from a memory stick. As it stands now, there wasn't a whole lot of effort put into the translation of the game to a handheld. To cap off the laziness of the port, there's a typo on the front of the game's instruction booklet. "Al-Rebis Student Handbook" in a game originally subtitled "Alchemists of Al-Revis"? Super spiffy. Do yourself a favor, pass on the PSP port of this game and go find a copy of the PS2 version. Mana Khemia is a cute, enjoyable game - just not on the PSP.