Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana is the sixth installment in a popular line of alchemy-based simulation titles. Unlike its predecessors which were primarily focused on collecting ingredients, synthesizing items, and supporting economic growth within a particular community, Eternal Mana puts these aspects of the gameplay in the back seat and has a conventional emphasis on story, character development, and exploration. The result is a feast for the senses.
Long ago, there existed Avanberry, a majestic city in the sky. The people who inhabited the land possessed a sacred power known as ‘Mana’. In harnessing the ability to purify the elements and synthesize all forms of matter, they became known as ‘Alchemists’ and enjoyed a prosperous era that they thought would never end. However, their reign of peace came crashing down upon them when the city was mysteriously destroyed by unknown forces. The legacy of Mana was seemingly lost forever. Several generations later, a child is born with the gift of Alchemy. His name is Krein, and from a very young age, he was blessed with the ability to hear the sounds of Mana and communicate with spirits. Krein’s grandmother possessed the same talents and impressed him with elaborate stories of the legendary city in the sky. After she passed away, Krein set out to discover the ‘ultimate alchemy’ and unearth the secrets of the fabled Iris.
The tale of Eternal Mana is enhanced greatly due to the inclusion of a strong character-driven storyline. The cast of characters who accompany Krein along his journey are not particularly original, but are thoroughly developed in a three-dimensional manner which fleshes them out and renders them easy to become attached to. Throughout the course of the game, the player not only witnesses the poignant moments which expose each individual’s humanity, but also humorous occurrences with companions like Delsas, a roguish and arrogant character who manipulates a Mana Spirit into helping him hit on a woman in the bar. Typically monotonous tutorial lectures are brought to life by the slapstick comedy routines of Popo and the other Mana Spirits, making the process of learning the ropes all the more enjoyable.
Given the complicated nature of Eternal Mana’s ever-expanding array of gameplay systems, such tutorials quickly become essential to realizing the full potential your entourage is capable of. Skills are relatively limited upon starting the adventure, but as the player proceeds through the game, an increasing number of options are made available to tweak and customize. Aside from traditional equipment, each character learns various spells and techniques which can be enhanced through a point distribution system upon leveling up. Eventually, Krein’s Mana Spirit friends will be able to assist the party in this process; equipping a particular spirit allows a character to gain bonus points in particular abilities. Mana Spirits are also required in order to utilize alchemic synthesis; given the correct ‘elements’, Krein is able to create consumable Mana Items for use in and out of battle. Collected in colored test tubes, Fire, Sky, Water, Light, and Dark are a mere handful of the fourteen elements Krein is able to obtain by smiting enemies in battle with his staff, or smashing various objects scattered throughout each area in order to extract their essences. In addition to elements, ‘synthesis ingredients’ are also abundant throughout each zone and can be collected for a different purpose altogether. Given a specific recipe and the right combination of synthesis ingredients, shopkeepers in town are able to create new items and make them available to purchase. If a truly exceptional item is made, the shop’s popularity can increase and give yield to even better recipes for the player to experiment with. Money is relatively hard to come by, so item synthesis becomes a crucial factor contributing to the player’s success.
Despite the restrictions of a traditional turn-based battle system, the ability to fully interact with each environment is a definite plus. Krein is able to run, jump, and climb his way through magnificent cities and dense forests in search of treasure. It becomes easy to forget that Eternal Mana is an RPG when presented with so many platform and action elements which continually keep the gameplay fresh and interesting. In addition to extracting elements by smashing objects with his staff, Mana Spirits are able to grant Krein various powers such as fireballs, levitation, manipulating the encounter rate, and so forth. Understandably, Mana Spirits can become fatigued from the amount of hard work they are subjected to, so they must occasionally be provided with ‘presents’ in the form of synthesis items in order to maintain their health and happiness. Although it is often difficult to appease each Mana Spirit due to their different tastes and preferences, keeping them all happy quickly becomes an important factor in maintaining the team’s efficiency.
The old adage holds true: a picture is worth a thousand words when discussing Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana’s impressive graphical presentation. Featuring some of the most gorgeous two-dimensional artwork and animation available on the PlayStation 2, the amount of care and detail invested here truly shines forth. Unfortunately, Eternal Mana suffers from ‘Tales syndrome’; the world map design is absolutely atrocious and seems like little more than an afterthought. Dull, lifeless paths connect each area to be conquered, and the gamer is restricted from outside exploration by the need to trigger specific key events in the ultimately linear storyline. Upon doing so, new paths will instantly open up and make themselves available for the entourage to traverse. This faux pas in Eternal Mana’s design is among the game’s most severe flaws in terms of both graphical presentation as well as execution. On the other hand, Eternal Mana’s soundtrack rises above and beyond all standards of video game composition. Ken Nakagawa, Daisuke Achiwa, and Akira Tsuchiya have provided us with a collection of songs that are diverse, unique, and overflowing with inspiration. The opening theme, “White Night Imagination,” is the among the best vocal songs to grace an RPG since Yasunori Mitsuda and Joanne Hogg’s “Pain,” from the Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht OST. “Ferocious Drive” and “Deceitful Wings,” two of several boss battle themes, make excellent use of electric guitars in order to produce an amazing, adrenaline-filled rush during combat. Every track blazes with energy and does an excellent job of breathing life into each scenario experienced in Eternal Mana.
Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana is an ambitious title which exceeds expectations in almost every regard imaginable. Given the series’ track record, a domestic release is seemingly improbable, but we can always hope that publishers will begin to take note of quality titles like these and grant them the exposure they deserve.