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Project "A9" (that is, the ninth game in the Atelier series) shows that Gust can continue to adapt and evolve, even while using their classic gameplay and graphic styles. After five separate Atelier games that Americans have never seen (Marie, Elie, Lilie, Judie, and Viorate) and three Atelier games that Americans have seen (the three "Atelier Iris" titles), "Mana Khemia" puts a whole new spin on Gust's flagship series.
Though Mana Khemia is a traditional RPG with turn-based combat, it's also a school-sim and an item synthesis game wrapped into one. The gameplay elements in Mana Khemia borrow from each of the three previous Atelier Iris titles, but they also pick up some ideas from Square Enix's Final Fantasy series, as well as Atlus's Persona series. This amalgam of fun and exciting RPG elements is woven together magically, like an item synthesized with alchemy, into one extremely impressive whole.
In Mana Khemia, you're set to go through three years of alchemy school. With the exception of summer break, you're facing eight weeks of grueling classes. Okay, so they're not all that grueling. You're generally given an assignment, and then you receive a letter-grade based on how quickly or efficiently you complete the assignment. Sometimes you have to gather items. Sometimes you have to synthesize items with specific qualities based on ether level (which is a strange new addition to the Gust "item synthesis" formula). Sometimes you simply have to run out and kill a monster. Once you complete a course, you move to the next week, whether you passed or failed. You continue to take classes until you have reached the minimum number of "grade units," then the rest of the weeks are free time until the end-of-term "event," which varies from term to term. Over summer breaks, you are simply given free time.
During free time, you can take on mercenary-style jobs (akin to the job system in Atelier Iris 3), or you can do character-specific quests (which help determine the ending of the game; if you don't do enough of them, you're guaranteed a bad ending). You can also sleep away the free weeks and jump right to the end of the term. It's basically your call on how you want to spend your semester.
Along with the school system, we find time playing a crucial role in dungeon exploration. A day/night cycle determines the degree of detection and speed in which a monster will approach you on the field. The time of day also determines the strength of the monsters. Daytime is easy times, night time is bad times. Yes, the RPG staple that began with Castlevania II has made its way into Mana Khemia. Fortunately, you are not forced out of the zone after a set amount of time, like we saw in Atelier Iris 3.
Combat in Mana Khemia is nothing short of fantastic. Your party, at its largest, contains eight people. Two have to totally sit out. The other six are divided into a front/back row setup. The front row is your active party, which appears on the screen during battle. The back row is your "support" party. Here's the fun part: support members jump in and out of battle as you see fit, either to defend or to do a follow-up chain attack. As your characters develop, they can learn different support abilities. For example, one character is able to defend the whole party from an area attack if he is brought out to defend. Before each attack made by an enemy, and after each attack made by you, there is a brief pause in which you can select any one of the three support members to jump in on the action. Of course, there is some "refresh" down-time required for support members. But generally, this keeps the otherwise turn-based system fun and action-packed. The enemies are no pushovers either. Many battles are simply a matter of "kill or be killed," so they are short, but they are also challenging. Gust did an incredible job balancing the difficulty level this time around. And, for those of you who love burst gauges with big, ridiculous special attacks, there's plenty of that here too.
Then there's character growth, which is directly linked to item synthesis. Nobody "levels up" in Mana Khemia. There are no experience points, only "alchemy points" (AP) which you earn in battle and then use in your "Grow Book." The various slots in your license-board-esque Grow Book are filled through three steps. First, you must have unlocked one spot adjacent to the one you want to unlock (with a free center point, like Scrabble). Then, you need to have synthesized the particular item displayed in this point (what that item is varies by character, though there are some shared items). Then, you need to spend AP to "purchase" whatever is on that spot in the grow book. You increase stats, learn abilities, maximize support skills, and even increase the number of hits done per attack, by filling this grow book. Per Gust standards, items become available for synthesis either through the obtaining of a recipe, or making variations upon a recipe, so Gust is able to control just how far your character grows from chapter to chapter. This system works very, very well. It's also addictive, and I found myself frequently checking the Grow Book to see what new slots I'd unlocked.
Synthesis itself takes place at two different places: your own workshop, and the school's "Althanor," where equipment is made. In your workshop, you are able to synthesize with the help of your party members, who help you determine the item's "ether level." The ether level (ranging from 0 to 100) determines the qualities given to the particular item you're synthesizing. For example, if you make a bowl of soup and give it an ether level of 100, it will be warm and spicy. If you take it closer to 0, it will be cold and flavorless. This applies to every item in the game, and these qualities change the effects of each item as you use them in battle or in synthesizing equipment. The level of detail is unparalleled. The good news is that once you've synthesized an item once, you can "mass produce" based on that formula, granted you have enough ingredients in supply. You don't have to re-synth over and over, hoping to get a high ether level each time.
I'd also like to note that Mana Khemia uses a "rumor" system to slightly alter the game on a numerical level. Some rumors can give you discounts in stores, others boost your character's statistics, and still others have unique effects. I haven't seen a good rumor system incorporated in an RPG since Persona 2: Eternal Punishment.
In short, Mana Khemia packs more fun into it than any previous Gust game. The gameplay is definitely its strength; I literally couldn't stop making new items, checking the grow book, and taking on odd jobs to bring down gruesome monsters in the heat of battle, thus earning more AP. The experience is holistic, fluid, and simply wonderful. I didn't think Gust had it in them to make a game that was this much fun.
For all its fun, however, Mana Khemia falls short of the Gust standards for excellent story presentation. Though they use original fantasy settings, the concepts and character relationships upon which Gust builds a game's story and setting are usually old hat. And so it is with Mana Khemia. However, the story takes a back seat to gameplay, even with the lively and likeable cast of characters leading the way.
You play the role of Vayne Aurelius, a young alchemist-to-be with two things: a pet cat named Sulpher, and amnesia. Apparently your father, Theofratus, was a great alchemist, but he died and you don't remember him. Fortunately, his friends do remember him, and one such friend is a professor at the Al-Revis alchemy academy who gets you into the school. The game begins with a welcome ceremony, and then you quickly make friends. Over the next year or two, you make a total of seven friends that join your party. You have your two obvious love interests: Jess, the pink-haired girl with a past connected to yours; and Nikki, the upbeat cat-girl with singing abilities and a penchant for mischief. Then there's Pamela Ibis, the semi-cute semi-scary ghost who appears in all the Atelier Iris games, but is now a playable character for the first time. Then there's Anna, a young prodigy who is allowed into the school based on her high level of maturity and discipline, though she lacks plenty of common sense. Eventually, you are also joined by a young man named Roxis, who apparently considers you to be his rival. A little snail-like alien named Muppy joins up as well. Finally, the whole workshop is run by Flay Gunnar, an upperclassman with superhero-like delusions of grandeur. That's the whole crew, and when put together, they can make a lot of mischief.
However, this mischief is demonstrated in a semi-linear fashion. As stated earlier, you learn more about individual characters by taking on character-specific events during your free time. However, this is entirely optional. And while these events have voiced dialogue in the Japanese version, NIS America apparently didn't see reason to record English voice acting for these particular scenes. I personally did as many of these events as I could, though ultimately, you can only do one character's "final" event, which determines the game's post-credits bonus ending. However, unlike the rest of the game, these events felt choppy, especially since they can happen at any time. Your relationships with each character appear to improve throughout the main events in the game, but if you're just getting started on the character side quests in your senior year, there are plenty of awkward bits of dialogue that simply do not fit at that point.
The main sequence events are also fairly shallow, especially when compared to Atelier Iris 1 or 2. The big revelation, the turning point int he story, is revealed directly through a conversation with one of your teachers late in the game. Conceptually, it's awe-inspiring, but the presentation is so lackluster that it kills the moment. On a smaller scale, the same can be said of many moments in the game's plot. The ending also seems to cut the action short; it would've been nice to enter the "lower world" instead of spending the entire game on a floating island.
To make matters worse, I wasn't impressed with the translation. A lot of liberty was taken with the translation of the script, including character names and the order in which information was revealed during dialogue. Having the Japanese audio alongside the English text reveals a slipshod attempt at translation, though many players will not notice this and instead assume the dialogue to be bland in both languages.
If I were rating on soundtrack alone, I'd give Mana Khemia an absurdly high score. I love the Gust Sound Team, I love the vocal tracks recorded for this game, and I love how the music fits so well with the aesthetic and mood of the game. However, the sound is bogged down with one problem: voice acting.
Now, the Japanese voice acting works. It fits each character, and it's well-delivered. But you're buying the North American version of the game. You want English voice acting, right? Too bad. As I mentioned above, NIS America decided not to record about 60% of all the voiced dialogue found in the Japanese version. What little they did record (for all the game's required events) is fairly embarrassing. Yes, Flay is supposed to sound like a superhero, but not a one-dimensional, "I deliver every single line out of the context of the conversation" superhero! The females sound too similar, as if they were recorded by the same person. Pamela is supposed to be your high-pitched cutesy girl, but she sounds like a city woman in her late 20s. The best acting I heard on the English version was the vice principal, who does this over-the-top Russian accent. It brought some acceptable comic relief to balance the unacceptable voice of Flay Gunnar.
Gust is slowly working their way toward the third dimension. In Mana Khemia, all environments are functionally 3D, with the actual graphics either being 2D placed atop a 3D field, or actually 3D-rendered images. Characters are 2D, as are all battle animations. As usual, it's all very pretty and very colorful, and the character portraits used during dialogue are lovely. The opening and ending anime videos are a nice treat for the eyes as well. However, for me to justify giving a higher grade, I'd really expect Gust to "turn it up a notch" in terms of presentation. Even in a 2D environment, there could be more animation, more fluid movements, yes, even from a small studio. Ar tonelico was a step in the right direction, but Mana Khemia took a step backwards.
So, there's a fishing mini-game in Mana Khemia, and it's lame. Developers need to take a hint: no one likes to rapidly rotate the analog stick. Never has this been a fun thing to do. Never will it be a fun thing to do.
Minor griping aside, there's nothing special about the control scheme in Mana Khemia. It's basically the routine button layout and less-than-interactive gameplay conventions. The "support" system in combat works fairly well, what with the rapid use of L, R, and X being necessary to keep the battle going in your favor.
Mana Khemia revived my love for Gust titles, just when I thought I was losing that love (see Atelier Iris 3...). Mana Khemia seems to have been a success in Japan, what with a PSP port of this game as well as a PS2 sequel coming out in Japan later in 2008. I would have appreciated NIS America putting more effort and careful thought into the localization of this game, but for me personally, it made little difference. Mana Khemia is an incredibly fun game with a fairly large scope, that takes a minimum of 40 hours to complete. And, with a simple New Game Plus feature, serious fans can get all of the character-specific endings without doing much work. I enjoyed the gameplay enough to deem the game's overall score "A" material, but just barely, with a 90%. I recommend it to any RPG fan, even those among us who generally disdain the 2D, low-budget titles.