Everyone’s favorite alchemist is back for another go-around. No, not the Fullmetal Alchemist: I’m talking about Atelier Iris! In Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm, the game’s namesake finally appears as a playable character (though it’s unlikely that Ms. Iris Forster has any connection to the Iris of the first two games). Our female protagonist is joined by fellow adventurer childhood friend Edge on a quest that will lead them to question their own world’s existence.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, and I might be emphasizing an aspect of the game that isn’t worth emphasizing. Edge and Iris are actually members of the town’s Guild, making them (according to the game’s vocabulary) “Raiders.” That’s right, the game is quest-based. The system is strangely familiar to Arc the Lad: End of Darkness, more so than other quest/mission-style games. Iris and Edge sign up for quests at a counter. Some quests will be rewarded with money or items, and others will give them quest points. After the team earns enough quest points they rank up, and then the “quest” mode is paused while Iris and Edge take on a mission.
What’s the difference between quests and missions, you ask? Missions are what move the plot forward, offering up the meat of the storyline. More attention to detail is made during missions, as these segments are the only time the voice actors appear to enhance the dialogue. The game is also separated into a series of chapters, and it is the completion of a mission that moves you from one chapter to the next. In other words, the game is pretty systematic, and there isn’t much room to get lost. This has its ups and downs, of course.
Edge and Iris are soon joined by a third party member, Nell, which makes up the entire cast of playable characters for the whole game. Where do these three go to finish their quests? Generally, quests send them to “Alterworlds.” Yes, outside of their comfortable life in town they are able to temporarily enter worlds connected beyond the mist. There are a total of five Alterworlds, each with its own friends, foes, and puzzling obstacles. Access to these Alterworlds is restricted, and the crew will have to rank higher to reach certain Alterworlds, and they will also need various tools (such as a hammer) to enter deeper parts of these worlds.
To give you a quick lay of the land, here’s my two-paragraph-long presentation on the Alterworlds. The Ancient Forest of Valtessa is a romping ground for all things weak, and, well, it’s a forest. In Posporia, there’s a giant tree, and there are two beastmen factions that like to war over the most trivial of incidents. They are the Fairies and the Kuma (bear-people), and they continually come off as cute and cuddly, despite their best efforts to be war-like.
A hidden entrance in the town’s library leads you to the castle of Grimoire, where we find all sorts of interesting creatures (including one familiar NPC, Pamela the ghost!). Whether climbing up the clock tower or meandering through the basement, it’s a great place to explore. Next up is the Crystal Valley of Dakascus, a magical land where crystals stay afloat in the sky, and you’re expected to traverse the whole place many times over. Some more beastmen, the Pengies, take residence in this world. Finally, there are the Sky Gardens of Ishtar, another floaty-style world, where you’ll be using teleporters to get around (and get lost) in this maze-like zone.
So those are the stomping grounds in this game’s world. The cast of characters is just as interesting as these colorful worlds, at least on the surface. Along with the three playable characters, there are over a dozen characters with their own character artwork and voice acting throughout the game. Shop owners get some more attention this time around (something I praised the first Atelier Iris for doing, but was sad to see completely lost in the second game). Along with the shop owners, three major characters help to run the guild, including one mean little whippersnapper of a gal named Phenyl (who runs the “combat quest” desk). Then, around town we have people like Ewan and Winna at the library and Eva over at the tavern. They all get a bit of development, but they could use plenty more fleshing out.
There are also some interesting beastmen NPCs and other unique characters running around the Alterworlds. Finally, we have the villains. While some are less villainous than others, some of your foes will include Yula (Nell’s older sister), Alvero (a wet-behind-the-ears Raider), Ash (a top-ranked Raider who takes interest in your overarching mission), and Crowley (a cowardly sorcerer who seems to enjoy using others and creating havoc). Many of these characters, be they major NPCs, villains, or regular townspeople, will interact with one another at some point in time during the course of the game. It’s unfortunate that the game’s script, perhaps hindered by the quest-based system, keeps us from learning more about these characters. Even people like myself who aim for completionism will be let down when all is said and done, and the characters still feel flat.
A final question may linger in your head regarding the game’s plot: what exactly is going on, and what events will lead to the inevitably world-threatening scenario that nearly all RPGs must have? Well, Iris has in her possession a magical little tome called the Libram of Escalario. It’s been passed down in her family for ages, but the nature of its existence has been forgotten over time. One day, a magic little ball shows up in one of the Alterworlds, and when Iris discovers it, the gem is automatically absorbed into the Escalario. They then go to town to learn that the legend behind this Escalario and the eight gems is that, after collecting the eight gems to complete the Escalario, the owner can have any wish granted. So, in other words, it’s like Dragon Ball Z, but with one more “ball” to collect. You’ll go on your way to collect these eight gems, and then you’ll find out why you need to have this wish-fulfilling power.
No new ground is broken here. The ending climax and its revelations reek of plagiarism (Final Fantasy X comes to mind), and while some of the humor is appreciated (such as the “Bad Liver Tavern”), there wasn’t enough to go around.
Though I didn’t think too highly of the game’s plot, the gameplay was excellent. In the quest-based system, there are three types of quests. One is the oft-maligned “fetch” quest. However, most people hate these quests because, in other RPGs, they are disguised as something other than a fetch quest. When scouring the Guild’s request board, the note for a fetch quest says in big, bold letters “FETCH.” You know what you’re getting into when you sign up for one of these. What’s exciting about these fetch quests is that gathering the items is a unique and complex process, due to the nature of the game. Item synthesis is a staple of any Gust product, and many fetch quests require item synthesis, the materials for which may only be available from completing other quests! Frequently, that other quest will be a combat quest. Phenyl sends your team out to dispatch enemies of all sorts (and sizes) should you choose to take on these optional quests. The most common reward for these quests is money, but you’ll occasionally pick up some rare items (or, sometimes, a recipe for an item) along the way.
The third type of quest, as noted earlier, are for quest points. I like to call these the “questy” quests. They’ll involve a lot of NPC dialogue and Alterworld exploration, and their rewards regularly include new synthesis recipes. There are a little over 60 of these types of quests throughout the game, and completing all of them will give you the chance at a “better” ending. Fortunately, you cannot accidentally miss these quests by ranking up early, so there are no worries in this regard.
The quest system is one of many things I found to work in the game’s favor. Again, item synthesis is tons of fun. It’s also streamlined in many ways, including the new “I think I’m on to something” system. This works in two ways. First, Iris has an alchemy level, which increases progressively as you create previously unsynthesized items. Every time Iris gains an alchemy level, she gets some quirky ideas in her mind for new recipes. These ideas do not come to fruition, however, until she sees something out in the world that helps her to progress that idea. For example, Iris may level up in alchemy and get an idea for “?Mushroom,” and then if you find a patch of mushrooms out in Valtessa, a quick dialogue event takes place and Iris then learns a new recipe involving mushrooms. The second way she gets new ideas is by swapping out ingredients in synthesis recipes. This happened in the previous Atelier Iris games as well, but in Grand Phantasm, a little icon appears letting you know that the new item (which you may or may not have) will create a new recipe. And, should you select it, even if you don’t have all the ingredients to try this new recipe, said recipe will now be listed in your database of craftable items. This was quite useful!
The game’s form of exploration is also quite different from previous games, particularly because of these “Alterworlds.” While in an Alterworld, the right side of the screen sports an hourglass meter. Should time run out before you’re done doing whatever it is you’re doing in that Alterworld, woosh!…you’re booted out. If you’re done doing whatever it is you wanted to do before time runs out (and this is often the case), you can auto-exit in the menu, rather than returning to the Alterworld’s entrance. Battles on the field take place by bumping into the creatures as they roam the field (i.e. no random encounters). If you finish the battle quickly, your victory screen will include a “Fast Kill” stamp, and no time is lost on your hourglass meter. If the battle takes awhile, though, your hourglass will reflect it.
Each Alterworld also has a list of specific activities to complete, some simple and some difficult, to earn “Alterworld” points, which will net you some nifty rare items. These activities could be as simple as “jump 40 times,” or as difficult as “kill every monster in the area before time runs out!” Now, there are hourglass-boosting items on the field to look out for, but even so, some of these challenges are quite difficult. They are for completionists only, however, and do not hold much bearing on the game itself.
And then there was combat. The combat in Grand Phantasm is excellent, easily the most fun of any Gust game (including Ar tonelico) to date. Three different meters dominate the screen. Up top, we find two: the turn meter and the skill gauge. On the left, we see whose turn is next. It works something like the turn-meter popularized by Final Fantasy X, but with blank spots filling in set amounts of time where no one acts. This gives you a better idea of how time works out in the game. On the right is the skill gauge: as time passes, and as you take damage, this meter fills from 0 to 9, working in much the same way as Atelier Iris 2’s skill gauge. Then, at the bottom left, is a new feature: the “burst” meter. It’s like a Limit Break for the whole party. Whence you’ve hit the enemy enough times (I think it’s either 24 or 25 times, barring resistance or weakness), the burst meter is filled, and you automatically enter the trance state. All enemies are stunned temporarily, and your skill gauge is filled to nine. Now, the burst meter will quickly count down with each successive attack you make, but the damage done during this time is absurdly high. Essentially, this is the key to taking down any challenging boss you may face.
Which, unfortunately, is not many.
If there’s one thing I would fault the combat system on, it’s for being too easy, with too many exploits. The game took me about 30 hours to complete, and I’d say it was somewhere around hour 12 that I perfected the strategy that I would use for the rest of the game against the tougher enemies. Somehow, it never ceased to be fun, but I can imagine that others will feel the novelty wear before I did.
Some among us may be wondering, “doesn’t it get old using the same three characters for the entirety of the game?” Nope! This time around, when our lead alchemist makes a pact with a Mana, some new features come into play. Not only can Iris summon each Mana as a skill, but these Mana will allow Edge and Nell (our two “melee” characters) to get decked out in a completely new costume, wield new weapons, and learn new abilities. This is called the “Blades” system, and it worked really well.
It’s hard for me to stomach a game with a weak plot, but if the game is as fun as this, I can overlook it. If you’re not the type that enjoys collecting items and making new items (which is essentially the trademark gimmick of Gust’s products) then you’ll want to avoid this game like the plague. However, even if you generally stay away from quest-based RPGs and dungeon-crawling games, know that this one breaks the mold on more than one occasion, so you may still want to give it a try.
Everything is clear cut and responsive in terms of control, but Gust still hasn’t worked out all of their map glitches. Twice during my play through the game, I experienced a random “jump into oblivion.” In one, I got stuck right in mid-air, and another time, I got stuck in a wall. If you play the game for over an hour without saving, and then this happens, and all you’re left to do is reset the game, you’ll feel the same frustration I once (excuse me…twice) felt.
The next time I play a Gust game (I assume it will be Mana Khemia or Ar tonelico 2), I hope to see this major problem worked out, as I’ve experienced it in all of their US-released games to date. Until then, I’ll have to keep docking points in the “Control” section.
But here’s a place where Gust just cannot seem to go wrong. The usual team is back again, with Ken Nakagawa leading the way on this particular score. I noticed that the battle tracks were not as heavy this time around, but I also took note of how upbeat the entire soundtrack was. Seldom did I hear a song that was meant to settle the mood. This soundtrack keeps you feeling energetic, be it a joyous energy or a raging energy. I also appreciated the soundtrack’s four vocal pieces, though it’s safe to say that the weakest of the four is the opening song, Schwarzweiß. The game includes two ending songs and one “event” vocal, which can be heard in one of the optional quests.
Apparently, NIS America agreed with me on the high quality of the album, as they’ve made a change in procedure. Whereas they would normally release a one-disc “best of” album as a preorder bonus, they are now selling the complete, two-disc Original Soundtrack (minus the opening song due to copyright issues) on an online store. We’ll see how well that endeavor goes for them, but as for me, I cannot think of a better choice as a merchandising product than this beautiful score. The Gust sound team never fails to impress me.
Voice acting: dual-language options are back, of course. Both the Japanese and English actors do a good job for the most part, though both are guilty of going over the top with the cliché “little girl” characters (Nell and Phenyl being the contenders for this stereotype). The problem I found most irritating was the lack of voice acting. Forgive me for being lazy, but I’ve gone through so many RPGs, I like having someone read it to me so I don’t have to read everything. And, done properly, voice acting can add a lot of personality to the character, giving new perspective to who he or she is as a person. With so little voice acting offered, it prevents this potential from actualizing. This, along with the relatively short length of the game, makes me think that Gust rushed this product to market.
If you’ve been around, following NIS America for as long as we have, you know what to expect graphically. NIS America has published games from companies such as Idea Factory, Gust, and their parent company Nippon Ichi Software. All of these developers specialize in 2D gaming. Characters get detailed portraits, environments are fairly detailed and colorful, and the sprites are slightly above average, but nothing to get excited about. And, if you’re lucky, an anime cutscene or two will appear throughout the game (in this game’s case, all we have is an opening sequence).
So, some of judging this is merely a matter of taste. I like it, and I know plenty of other people can at least manage to deal with it, but I would have hoped to see substantial improvements in graphical capabilities from the first Atelier Iris to this one. I haven’t seen that improvement, and it bothers me.
Though plenty of fun is to be had in Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm, it’s also short, slightly repetitive in scope, and lacking a compelling plot. As noted earlier, I sensed that this game was rushed to market, and could have benefited from more time put into development to refine and expand the game’s content. Despite the shortcomings, however, Grand Phantasm holds up to most gamers’ expectations for being a fun and light-hearted romp through another fantasy world. NIS America solidifies their niche by releasing this third installment in the Atelier Iris series (and number 8 in the overall Atelier mega-series) for North American gamers. I award Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm an 84%.