Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana is the sixth in a series of games from Japanese developer Gust. The series is a sort of “cousin” series, much like Namco’s “Tales of…” series. The first three games (Ateliers Marie, Elie, Lilie) were given the subtitle “Alchemist of Salburg.” The next two games (Judie, Viorate) were given the subtitle “Alchemist of Gramnad.” Judie and Viorate, the fourth and fifth games, took place in a different world (Gramnad), and played slightly differently from the first three games. These PS2 titles began to put more emphasis on plot and character development than the previous games.
Then came Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, “Atelier Series Brand 6.0” or “Project A6” (these phrases are shown during the game’s introduction). Taking place in the world of Regallzine, Atelier Iris took a drastically different route from the previous five games (all of which never reached US shores). In each of the previous games, the protagonist was the female character of the title (Marie, Elie, etc). In Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, you do not play as Iris at all. In fact, the protagonist of this game is a male named Klein (pronounced in such a way as to rhyme with “main,” not “mine”). There is a significant emphasis on the plot, and the emphasis on item creation has been reduced, though it remains a key element in this game, as it has throughout this entire unique series.
Eternal Mana made some significant waves in Japan, and as a result, NIS America, true champions of 2D sprite-based anime-style RPGs, decided to add this game to their roster. Now, after pouring 50 hours of my own life and energy into this game, I would like to share with you why I think NIS has made such a fantastic choice in bringing this game our way.
But, before I go further, if you’re asking yourself “what is an Atelier?,” dictionary.com describes an Atelier (pronounced ah — tell — ee — AY) as “a workshop or studio, especially for an artist or designer.” Now you know.
What I would like to emphasize here is that, despite the nature of the graphics being 2D, there is still a lot of work put into the game’s graphics. There are still teams of artists (one entire team just to make icons for the game’s 400 items!), and there is still a lot to appreciate. Personally, I never thought of these graphics as “dated,” but rather just a natural progression of how RPGs would be if 3D never caught on. These are some of the nicest 2D graphics out there: battle animations are smooth, character designs are top notch, and the game sports one of the better opening FMV sequences to date. Unfortunately, that opening FMV is the only FMV to speak of (other than a short sequence that is also a part of the “new game” introduction).
Along with that flaw (and I do consider it a flaw: I would expect more anime cutscenes for a game of this nature), it must also be said that the sprite designs on some of the characters could have been made more clear and refined, and the world map simply looked horrible.
The most positive feature about this game’s graphics is the array of colors. Being a lighthearted and, dare I say it, “cute” sort of game, one would expect lots of bright and vibrant colors. Well, they are here, and they make the game’s environments spectacular. From towns to forests to caves to mountains and castles, the still background environments are simply splendid. Graphically, they are what make the game for me; that, and the large-scale character designs for dialogue. There isn’t much else to say about this game’s graphics. Graphics, as a category, is not the game’s strong suit, nor was it ever meant to be. For what it is, and what it tries to be, I gave it a B+ grade, 87%.
Ever since voice acting became common in games, the two most prominent subcategories in the “sound” department are music and voice acting. I will be reviewing these categories as such.
NIS America has a policy, one that I think all American publishers should have, to include the original Japanese voices, should the player desire to listen to them rather than the provided English voices. There are a number of reasons an American gamer would want Japanese voices: one might be learning the Japanese language; one might think the English voices are poorly done, or not done with the same tone and inflection of the original; one might already know the Japanese language and hence be able to compare the translated text to what the original voice literally said. I myself often switched back and forth between the English and Japanese voices (partially so I could write fairly about both in this review, partially because I wanted to know what each character sounded like in each language). What’s the verdict?
The Japanese voices are typical. The cutesy cat-girl, Norn, has that high-pitched whiny Japanese girl voice going for her. Delsus sounds like the drunken rogue you would expect (he’s reminiscent of characters such as Lunar: Eternal Blue’s Ronfar or a less-respectable Spike Spiegel from Cowboy Bebop). Generally, I preferred listening to these Japanese voices, as I am always a fan of whatever is more “authentic” or original to the game.
However, the English voices were not as gruesome as I had feared they would be. Among the best English voices are Lita, Marietta, and Beggur. Klein often sounds too unsure of himself in English, and there is one particular moment near the game’s end where Klein sounds like he’s making a “the more you know” public service announcement, and it doesn’t fit the scene at all. The English Norn is simply over-the-top, especially because instead of “meowing” (as the script calls for), she simply says the word “meow” as if it were any other word. That sort of thing is pretty poor.
However, since the Japanese audio is included, I don’t feel that I can reasonably reduce the sound score because of some bad English voice acting: NIS does us a huge favor that few other companies have been willing to do (Konami does offer Ys VI in Japanese, but that’s only if you know a special password; in this game, one can switch languages at any point in the game through use of the menu).
Being the videogame music expert/fanatic I am, I was not at all surprised by this game’s soundtrack. After all, I’d heard it many times before ever playing the game, since I had imported the soundtrack. However, this game prompted me to hunt down previous Atelier soundtracks. Let me tell you, the series as a whole has always had above-average music: always peppy and light, the sort of thing you’d expect from a series such as this. But Atelier Iris’ soundtrack is particularly enjoyable.
Most videogame soundtracks contain a lot of “filler music”: the lot of uninspired tunes to fill the void in some bit of gameplay. In my opinion, Iris doesn’t have any of that. Every single song is a quality tune from a group of three composers who had also worked together on the previous Atelier game, Atelier Viorate (Akira Tsuchiya, one of the three in the team, has been on board the Atelier train since its beginnings). There is a consistency among all the tracks that keep them in the same vein: smooth violins, catchy rhythms, bright pianos.
In the options menu, music and sound effects are volume-adjustable, but voice acting is not; however, voices can be turned on or off. This is a simple but crucial option to have for the gamer who wants to customize his or her audio experience. Also, the game supports Dolby Digital Surround Sound. Audiophiles everywhere, rejoice!
Sound in Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana earns a much-deserved 95% for having one of the best original soundtracks of the year, for having music that fits the game’s context perfectly, and for offering two language tracks. Also, those who preordered Eternal Mana from NIS receive a one disc “best of” soundtrack, just one more perk from a company that loves to satisfy our RPG needs.
Gameplay in Atelier Iris is multifaceted to the point where I simply must break it up into subcategories. Battle, exploration, item synthesis, and game length will all be considered as separate categories in rating Atelier Iris’ gameplay. Before I go on, let it be said that this aspect of Eternal Mana is the most important: Gust wanted to make a game that was lengthy and fun, and that is all done mainly in the realm of gameplay. As it is, the weight of this grade will affect the overall score more than any other grade.
While I do not feel the need to go into great detail over the battle system, I might just end up doing so simply because there is so much going on in battles. Klein, the alchemist/protagonist, is able to use “mana items,” which are powerful items that one might equate to being magic spells (early mana items include “bomb ice” and “flame”). Klein is the only one able to use these items; everyone else in the party must use regular items, which can be purchased or synthesized in shops (to be discussed later). Three characters go into a battle, but extra characters (there are a total of six characters in the game) can be put in place of another at no time cost (like Final Fantasy X). Furthermore, if all three characters in battle fall, any characters still alive in the backup party will take their place immediately to continue the battle. This is a hefty advantage in a game that seems to “take no prisoners” as far as battles go.
Battle difficulty is an odd thing; for the first half of the game, I did not encounter any difficult battles, and then at about the halfway point, I ran into a boss that slaughtered me numerous times. From that point on, nearly every boss battle is one where strategy, level, and available items all play an integral role in the battle’s outcome. This is an unexpected but welcome challenge for any devoted RPG fan. The obvious move to make is to go level up a bit and try again; however, leveling in this game doesn’t make the vast improvements one might hope for. Item and weapon synthesis is oftentimes much more helpful. This may be because the numbers in this game stay low. To give you an idea, Klein starts the game with 60 HP, and by the end of my 50 hour game, he had slightly over 300 HP, and that was after equipping an accessory that boosted his HP by a fair percentage. The max damage I ever did in the game was 2000 HP, and that was a critical hit from the best attack I had.
Because leveling (the cure-all “easy way out” for most RPGs) didn’t help, I often decided to just keep trying the ferocious boss battle over and over until I succeeded. This meant that I would finish the battle with one character left standing; and that character was pretty bruised up. Fortunately, party members that have fallen (or are on the reserve party when the battle ends) still get half the experience points that the active members get. This keeps your least-favorite characters from falling too far behind by the end of the game. Though they are actually quite useful in battle, I rarely used Norn or Delsus, just because I preferred using the other characters. And, if you don’t particularly find Klein useful, Atelier Iris isn’t one of those games that forces you to keep the main character in the battle party.
Exploration in Eternal Mana is something that really sets it apart from a lot of other turn-based RPGs, because in this regard, it almost plays like an action RPG. Really, it reminds me of one of my favorite action RPGs, Alundra. You can jump, destroy objects, extract elements from objects (more about this later), and as you obtain more mana (and other friendly creatures), you are given more abilities to explore the towns and dungeons even further. At the game’s beginning, I was frustrated because I saw many items in the first town (Kavoc) that I could not reach. Some of those items are unable to be attained until the end of the game. Even then, reaching these items can be difficult (this problem will be discussed in the section on control).
Adding new ways to explore the map throughout the game requires the completionist within to return to every last town and dungeon before continuing the plot, because there is always something new to find. Whether it be a new item, a new mana item, or a “Growloon” (strange purple and white creatures that you capture/destroy on the map for awards), there is seemingly always something new to pick up in each dungeon.
Fortunately for those completionists, this game has just the right number of towns and dungeons. Furthermore, each area is not too large, and not too small. I do not think I can adequately describe what it is I mean here, so just trust me on this one: the game’s world is simply the perfect size for exploration. You don’t have to walk everywhere, either: one can transport to and from most towns, though sometimes the “to” or “from” only goes one way, depending on what area you’re in. It’s an added nuisance, probably put in to encourage exploration in old dungeons that stand between one town and the next.
The real joy of the Atelier series is item synthesis. The closest thing to the Atelier series’ style of alchemy that has reached US gamers already is the item creation and cooking found in Star Ocean: The Second Story. However, the item synthesis system in Atelier Iris is much more elaborate, and much more user-friendly.
I’m going to skip the entire explanation on synthesizing weapons or mana items, because that would simply take too long. Just understand that they are variations on item synthesis, and that mana items correspond directly to the number of elements that you have extracted. There are fourteen element types, controlled by Mana that join your team, much like the Seiken Densetsu series, and you can hold up to 99 units of any of these mana types.
The majority of item synthesis takes place in different shops. From the game’s start, there are recipes available for synthesis. You can make food (one entire shop is a bakery for bread products), drinks (mainly alcoholic beverages), items for combat (such as bombs), medicinal items, clothing (used as armor/accessories), and some special items that are related to various side quests. To make the items, you go into a synthesizing menu; on cards, the items required to make the new item are listed. If the card is green, the specific item shown must be used; if the card is red, items similar to the suggested item may be used. “Red” items mean that there is a possibility that you can make more items than just the one listed for synthesis (one item in the bakery has eight variations total: if you know how to mix and match your ingredients, you can unlock all eight). Making these new items also creates new “reviews” for the items, which can help or hurt the shop’s reputation. The system is overwhelming at first, but after a few hours of gameplay, the average gamer should have a good understanding of what to do with item synthesis.
Items are of particular importance in Atelier Iris, because items are what unlock pictures, sounds, and even movies (read: variations of the opening FMV) from a Bonus gallery. A character named Lector (who strongly resembles Marie from Atelier Marie) has a complete item list (around 400 items); completing special “series” of her choice unlocks different things in the bonus gallery. Also, every new item you acquire (through treasure, killing enemies, turning enemies into candy, or synthesizing items in shops) brings you 100 Cole (the monetary unit of the game) from Lector. And you’re not even giving her the item; you’re only showing it to her. This is a great way to get rich quick, and is a sensible bonus for a game that is designed to put such an emphasis on items.
It must be stressed that in Atelier Iris, item synthesis is fun! I have spent hours in-between dungeon exploration and battles running from town to town making new items that can be used in other shops for even newer and better items: things can get really hectic and confusing, which is what’s so much fun about the game!
As for the game’s length: I imagine that a “speed run” through the game, ignoring item synthesis in shops and any subquests, would probably take about 25 hours. I put 40 hours into the game before beating it: and then I was given “bonus save data” that unlocks a few more subquests (like in Xenosaga II) and a slightly altered ending; completing this took me another 10 hours, meaning that I put 50 hours into this game. And I’d say that I was close to doing everything in the game, but what was left to be done was very difficult. The most anal and perfectionist gamer will probably need to spend 70 to 90 hours in order to get every item, beat every monster, and unlock every character’s abilities. That’s a lot to do in a game, and that’s what makes this game so special.
In my opinion, the single worst flaw of this game is that subquests and new synthesized items appear seemingly at random. I observed this by walking in and out of the same store six times, talking to the shop owner each time, and after the sixth time, getting a new item to synthesize. Also, the “bonus data” given after beating the game once seems irrelevant if you haven’t completed a certain number of quests up until then. I’m not sure what unlocks the secret dungeon, but my game wouldn’t give me access to it until I completed a number of other subquests that may or may not have been accessible before the bonus data. In other words, doing anything outside of the main plot can become very muddled, and that’s not good.
If it weren’t for this flaw, I’d give gameplay over a 90%. As it is, that one bit of frustration made me decide to give gameplay an 88%. There are so many things to do in Atelier Iris, and none of it is boring; it’s all quite fascinating, really! And, compared to many RPGs that are just clones of some better-selling RPG (such as the onslaught of FFVII and FFX clones we’ve seen), it’s good to have something fresh and unique on the table.
I’ve said this in other reviews, and I’ll say it in this one too: control should always be seamless in an RPG; you shouldn’t have to say “oh, this game has good control!” One only speaks about control if there are problems.
And, there is one major problem in this game. That problem is jumping. Because the map is fixed, and the camera cannot be rotated, knowing how high something is can be very difficult. Also, there are times when a jump can conceivably be made, but doing so is wildly difficult because of…well, I don’t exactly know what the problem is…the control is just poor in this regard! Also, I encountered a few map glitches, including one that got me stuck under a map when I tried to jump next to a tree, and I was forced to restart my game and lose 30 minutes worth of play (since I hadn’t saved in awhile). That sort of thing is very frustrating, as I’m sure you all know.
Other than this, control throughout the game is seamless. But I think any gamer that spends more than fifteen minutes with Atelier Iris will notice the problems with jumping. Because of this, I deduct a good 20% from a possibly perfect score and give control in Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana an 80%.
As I said earlier, putting a solid plot in an Atelier game is a novelty: previously, the game was focused much more on item synthesis than on telling a story. The overarching plot of Atelier Iris is nothing new: adventurer (Klein) sets out to find new and wonderful things (Avenberry); twisted/evil bad guy (Mull) is on a quest to create a monster so that he can become all-powerful and rule the world. You’ve heard it before; don’t expect many plot twists in this regard.
Though the plot may be nothing new, the character development in Atelier Iris is something I found to be very agreeable to my tastes. Each character in your party has a back-story that is revealed throughout the course of the game. Also, the shop owners are major players in the game’s storyline, and each has a story to tell (and believe me, these stories are actually interesting!) You will not regret putting time into item synthesis, because as you do, you learn more about the shop owners. Considering shop owners are usually the least relevant characters in any other RPG’s plot, this addition to character development is one I accept (and you should accept) with open arms. Grappling with issues such as economic class differences, family ties, and even suicide, these characters aren’t always the sugar-coated stereotypes you’d expect from a cute anime-style RPG.
Eternal Mana’s script is also chock full of humor. Certainly, NIS America took numerous liberties in the English translation (to the point where it’s like playing a WD port of Lunar). NIS expects their audience to be the niche audience that would get jokes like “The ESRB would never approve of that!” or “This item is for the ultimate Otaku.” And while these silly one-liners are present, the majority of the humor is situational in nature: for example, Lita’s never-ending quest to keep the female shop owners from falling for Klein. There are also various tutorials shown to you throughout the game, called “Popo’s Fourth-Wall Lecture Series” (a clever title), that are meant to be humorous, and they succeed in this regard.
Playing through the game, the story can be a little slow; you are often told you will soon have a key item for the plot, but then you are told “you need to go find three more items in this and that dungeon before you can move forward”; I understand why that’s being done, but if there was a reason within the plot to back up some of these time-killing quests, that would be preferable.
The ending, also, is fairly anti-climactic (not that I expected anything profound from a game like this). Again, the plot itself isn’t too grand, though there are neat little things here and there. The best thing about this story is the character development: the six playable characters, your Mana (which have personalities of their own and talk to you now and then), the shop owners, and a few other people are all lovable (or loathable) characters that make the game much more enjoyable. I give story an 84%.
Though the game is not without its flaws, the various problems I found with the game were not enough to outweigh what is overall a most charming and fun work of art from Gust and NIS America. All 2D-loving RPG fans owe NIS America a big “thank you!” in the form of Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana’s retail price. This game is one of the best RPGs I’ve played, and maybe the best RPG of its kind to date.
Everyone speculates and assumes that this game’s sequel (which is a direct sequel simply entitled “Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana 2”) will see an American release if NIS is able to sell enough copies of this game. Considering I enjoyed this game enough to give it a 90%, I’m going to use my powers as a writer to implore you now: buy this game. You may not like it as much as I did, but in the end, you will have enjoyed this game more than a lot of other PS2 games out there.