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Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy
Platform: PlayStation 2
Publisher: NIS America
Developer: Gust
Genre: Traditional RPG
Format: DVD-ROM
Released: US 08/25/09
Japan 05/29/08
Official Website: English Site



Scorecard
Graphics: 77%
Sound: 85%
Gameplay: 95%
Control: 90%
Story: 70%
Overall: 89%
Reviews Grading Scale
 
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Gardening roulette! I guess that's a good idea for a minigame...
 
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Sweet, I got a B!
 
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"Intimate" strike, eh? I didn't know this was that kind of game.
 
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Your first choice in the game shapes the entire path forward. Forget "boy or girl," though. Just ask yourself, what color hair do you want?
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Patrick Gann
Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy
08/26/09
Patrick Gann

Gust, the Japanese developer that I've come to know and love thanks to the efforts of NIS America, has had a fantastic run on the PlayStation 2. Their final release for the console, Mana Khemia 2, is the tenth game in the Atelier series (as denoted by its project title, "A10"). A6 through A10 have all come to the US via NIS America (Atelier Iris 1 through 3, plus both Mana Khemia titles), and for the faithful few who have followed each game, we've seen the style of these quirky JRPGs grow and morph in different ways, for better or worse.

Before I delve deep into my personal experience with Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy, let me give you a summary of what I've discovered. First, the combat and synthesis systems are better than in any previous game, hands-down. The developers have struck a perfect balance here, and there's no question in my mind that this is the most enjoyable game to play from the Atelier series. That said, everything else about the game seemed to be below the curve. Though the characters are, in their own ways, endearing and memorable, the events they go through are only inspired in the sense that they are silly. There is not a single event in this game that tugs at your heart strings. Similarly, the graphical style has not aged well, the music from the Gust Sound Team is weaker than usual, and to top it all off, you can only fully enjoy this game after beating it twice to gain access to the "true ending."

In other words, if they had taken the cast, plot, and audio from the first Atelier Iris and framed it with this game's mechanics and structure, it would've been the ultimate 2D JRPG. But that didn't happen. So let's just move on to what makes the gameplay so good!

The rise of alchemy

Much of what makes Mana Khemia 2 so great comes from developmental ideas that were first put into place in Atelier Iris 3 and Mana Khemia 1. From Atelier Iris 3, they pull over the quest system, which can only be accessed during "free time." Outside of free time, there are class assignments and scripted events. Players earn more free time by getting an "A" on weekly assignments, as was the case in the first Mana Khemia. Once you have free time, the real fun begins. During free time, you can complete quests, roam dungeons looking for synthesis materials and gaining AP for character growth, or take on character-specific quests. Meanwhile, passive activities are performed by each member of your party, and results are reported at the end of the week. Time doesn't pass in a "real-time" manner for these blocks of assignments/free time/events, even though there is a night-day cycle in dungeons. Time passes after taking certain actions like completing a character quest, finishing your class assignment, or taking a nap to force the time to pass.

The character growth system also comes from the first Mana Khemia, although it has been tweaked. The "grow book" from this game's predecessor functioned similarly to the Sphere Grid or the License Board from FFX and FFXII, respectively. Each character had a customized "book" laid out with the silhouettes of items on cards. After synthesizing each item, the character could spend AP to gain the passive traits, stats, and abilities listed on its card (generally, three stats per card). After synthesizing that card, any cards adjacent to it would light up, and if you had created those items, they would light up as well. Mana Khemia 2 does away with the adjacency rule: synth an item, card lights up. The tradeoff is that to unlock the third slot on each card, you have to synthesize it with an Ether level of 100, which for many items is simply impossible until later in the game. Also, character HP and SP are no longer tied to the grow book: these stats are increased via raw "experience points," in what is the only remnant of a traditional "level up" system for Mana Khemia 2.

So, the balance of time spent between combat, exploration, and item synthesis is reinforced by each element relying on the other. You need to explore to find ingredients for synthesis. As you explore, you will participate in combat. And while the combat is a ton of fun, you will lose if you don't keep your characters alive and well, which requires you stay up-to-date in item synthesis. It's a great system.

Managing your inventory is a key component of gameplay. Doing so ensures that you'll be prepared not just for battle, but also to synthesize items from new recipes and from old recipes that you can't complete until you gain access to a new area that has the other items you need. Planning and strategy is important here as well, if only for the sake of saving time. Later in the game, you can send your party members to gather items or perform synthesis without using up any expendable items in your inventory, and you can sell your synthesized items in a Bazaar (allowing the items to be sold in other stores in large quantities), and you'll have to take advantage of these opportunities to keep a good stock of rare items.

Combat allows three people on the front lines, with up to three more people in reserve, that can jump out for support attack/defense after enough time has gone by. A gauge appears on the top of the screen that increases based on damage dealt, and decreases based on damage taken. When the gauge is filled, the party automatically enters "unite mode." Throughout the game, your party gains new abilities within unite mode: Intimate Strike, Intimate Guard, and finishing attacks (that are activated by filling a second gauge) all help to spice up combat. The abilities your allies learn are really interesting. There are a lot of time/repeat skills, where using it once sets into motion a series of attacks over time. Anyone who thinks turn-based combat in RPGs is a thing of the past and can't be reworked into something fun and interesting needs to play this game. Combat never, ever felt boring for me.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of the game's story.

Quirky doesn't cut it

I'm almost tired of using the word "quirky." That, and "cute." It used to be fresh and original, particularly in America, to have a wacky cast of characters in your dialogue-heavy RPGs. Personally, though, I've reached my limit. And this particular game went far into the outer reaches of absurd casting. The most "normal" playable characters in the game are a brother and sister (Enna and Et), and they're only normal by anime standards. The older sister is a fun-loving, always-happy, doesn't-know-her-own-strength spazz case. The younger brother is a techy geek who uses a mechanical arm for a weapon.

As for the others, there's a guy who dresses in a white animal suit (what that animal is, no one can say for sure), but he also speaks and talks (and acts) through a small orange ball. Apparently he's actually human, and he's just a sneaky ninja. But you'll think he is the orange ball. It's confusing. There's a big guy who thinks/pretends he's one of the tiny fairies from the game. There's a girl who thinks she's a Puni (the blue slimes) even though she's not, and she hangs out with three other Punis (the famous "Puni brothers" from previous games) and only speaks to them in Puni-language (it goes like this: "punipuniiii..."). A stray Mana named Yun, a rich girl named Lily alongside her own Mana named Whim, and a macabre girl named Chloe round out the supporting cast. Then there are your two protagonists: Raze (originally Roze; NIS America must have thought that Roze sounded too feminine) is the male, and Ulrika is the female. At the beginning of the game, you choose which character you'll control. Raze gets Lily (with Whim), Yun, Puniyo (the puni-chick), and Et on his team. Ulrika gets Chloe, Pepperoni (the giant man fairy), Enna, and Goto (the animal suit ninja).

Both of our protagonists decide to enroll in the one-year academic program at the now-fallen Al-Revis Academy. And when I say "fallen," I am speaking literally. Due to a decrease in Mana energy, the floating island that held Al-Revis in the sky collapsed. But it did so slowly enough that the academy was not seriously harmed. Returning cast include Gunnar Flay (a former party member, now a teacher of combat arts), Tony (once the school bully, now the alchemy instructor), and Zeppel (a former teacher, now principal, and all-around incompetent moron). The game opens with what seems to be some political intrigue about the school and its future, but this subplot fizzles out and goes nowhere. The real plot is about why Mana energy decreased in the first place, and what can be done to restore it. This plot, of course, doesn't surface until the last two or three hours of the game. Everything until that point is boring filler-stuff to send you on quests and fight big monsters.

The only thing about the story I did enjoy was its more, shall we say, risqué content. Mana Khemia 2 is rated T for Teen, and there's a reason why: innuendo. Specifically, homosexual innuendo. Allow me to give an example (with minor spoilers)!

While Goto is an all-around player, there's a character quest wherein Goto has to find a way to convince the school's chairwoman, Marta, that he's not worth pursuing. Solution? He decides to pretend that he has super-gay naked wrestling matches with Pepperoni (who, at least in the English voice acting, is already coming off as ultra-gay). When this doesn't ward off Marta's affections, Goto takes it one step further: pedophilia. That's right, Goto becomes a veritable NAMBLA sponsor and proves it by flirting with Enna, who begrudgingly goes along with the act. When Goto starts talking about Enna's pale, white, beautiful thighs pressed up against tight shorts... well, I didn't know whether to laugh or gag. So I did both.

This is but one example of how the flirtation and the sexual tension goes in all directions in this game. It's certainly not as innocent and friendly as previous Atelier games; though, on the other hand, it's more subtle (and more humorous) than the blatant sexuality of the Ar tonelico titles, at least by NISA's localization. Which, of course, leads to our next point of discussion.

NISA's shortcuts

Well, the good news is that there aren't any game-breaking glitches, bugs, or freezes in this game (at least, none that I know of at this point). Also good news is that they didn't remove the Japanese voice acting from areas where they didn't bother recording English voice (see: Ar tonelico II). But, for all of the character-specific quests in free time, there is no English voice acting, only Japanese. This is the exact same route they chose when localizing the first Mana Khemia.

The English voice acting suffers from what I would consider an identity crisis. Just looking at the visual portraits of the characters, some things don't add up. Listen to the Japanese voice acting, and the dissonance becomes palpable. Ulrika was made into a "country bumpkin," with a thick southern drawl. Pepperoni has an over-the-top "I'm super thanks for asking" kind of lisp. Goto, who is somewhat perverse but always sounds suave and refined in the Japanese, actually sounds like a creepy pervert at times in the English. Enna was clearly voiced by an adult, when he needed to be voiced by a child. And Chloe? Her character is meant to be a witch. In the English voicing, replace that "w" with a "b" and that's what you can expect to hear. She sounds like an angry, bitter teenager, when in fact her Japanese counterpart seemed far more subdued and level-headed (which makes her interest in death all the more fitting).

But really, at the end of the day, I can't fault NIS America on the voice acting. Having to create an English-language persona for these outrageous characters is an unenviable task, and I don't necessarily think they were being lazy. Not with all of the voices, anyway. Not to mention the fact that they don't have the time or money to put together an A-list cast and train them to distill every subtlety of the character into their performance. The Japanese simply have more experience with these voiceovers, as they are far more common in games, and many of their actors are also well-known through anime.

Haven't I seen/heard this before?

I'll keep this last part short. The game's visuals don't do anything new. You've seen this all before in previous Gust games. It was at least interesting to look at four years ago. Today, it just seems lazy. Hopefully, with the switch to PS3 (starting with Atelier Rorona), we'll see some visual improvements. As for the audio, as I said in a review of the Mana Khemia 2 soundtrack, it seems that Daisuke Achiwa and Ken Nakagawa are winding down on their stint of genius and creativity. Producing so much music in a compact time period will ultimately result in lackluster scores, and that, I believe, is what we have here.

Play it. Love it. Twice.

One play through Mana Khemia 2 takes roughly 25 hours. The good news is that, if you want more, there's plenty more to experience. The bad news is that, if you stop after one playthrough, you'll be left with a terribly bitter taste in your mouth. The individual endings for Raze and Ulrika are almost unexpected: they come out of nowhere, they're far from "epic," and they leave a lot unresolved. There's a reason for this, of course. You're expected to, after finishing one character's tale, move on and play through the entirety of the other character's quest. After doing this, the two parties merge and you get to play through a decent epilogue scenario which ties up all loose ends quite nicely. It's a satisfying ending, but you certainly have to work for it.

If you couldn't get into the first Mana Khemia, turn back now. Because this game is essentially the same game, but with refined mechanics and a slightly less engrossing plot arc. In terms of getting something new, I'm just keeping my fingers crossed for Atelier Rorona at this point. Mana Khemia 2 was a great experience for me, hence the abnormally high gameplay score (95%) and overall score (89%). But maybe you just won't enjoy the battle system, or the item synthesis and all the little twists and complexities that come with the territory. If that's how you feel, I have to warn you to stay away. But all of you gamers who tend to have the same tastes I do in RPGs should not miss out on this one. It really is a ton of fun to play.



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© 2009 NIS America, Gust. All rights reserved.


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