In the span of just over a year, the American leg of Nippon Ichi Software has become the darling of domestic RPG fans. Though its list of titles isn't exactly huge (limited to just Phantom Kingdom and Eternal Mana so far), its focus on decidedly Japanese strategy and role-playing games has made it an instant hit with the otaku underground. Its latest stab at the market, the aforementioned Atelier Iris ~Eternal Mana~ is no doubt aimed at that very audience -- boasting an abundance of clichéd RPG characterization, inside jokes, and old-school art designs meant to please the hardcore fan base. If you're the type of player that prefers harmless fan service to something decidedly more serious, then this is exactly what you're looking for.
Developed by the somewhat obscure Japanese production house known as Gust, Atelier Iris (pronounced "At-ill-yay Eye-riss") is actually the sixth in a long line of role-playing games dating back to 1997. Never available outside of Japan until now, the franchise has already been released for the original PlayStation, the Saturn, Dreamcast, various Game Boys, and even the Wonderswan Color in the eight years since. Luckily NIS America has decided to finally let English-speakers in on the fun too... and I'm glad that it has, since the Atelier series is no doubt one of the best kept secrets in videogames.
Now if you've never heard of Atelier before (and don't be surprised if you haven't), Eternal Mana is the most traditional RPG in the series. Prior to this, the Atelier franchise focused pretty heavily on an alchemy system that required players to seek out ingredients and item recipes for sale in user-owned shops. Of course, dungeon crawling and enemy encounters were still part of the equation, but the main goal of the adventure (particularly in 2004's Atelier Violet) was to expand your business into a thriving corporation and make your hometown more productive (ala Dark Cloud and Actraiser). Iris, on the other hand, has decided to throw out that model completely in favor of the more familiar battle-heavy questing seen in today's usual crop of role-players.
But just because Atelier Iris is more traditional in approach, it doesn't mean that its alchemy roots have been forgotten. Now treated as an important mini-game from within the main quest, the alchemic ingredient hunt is still a big part of what makes the game what it is. There are almost 400 different objects in all (split between conventional items and equipment), and collecting them not only gives your party the ability to use their effects in battle, but also unlocks a ton of bonus content in the menu screen.
The coolest aspect of this collection mini-game, though, is that most of the pieces you'll find are not recovered through battle -- but rather, through the active search of the world's various lands and dungeons. So while you may indeed run across spoiled meat or a swimsuit during one of your many encounters, the only way to get the more advanced pieces is to take those ingredients to a synthesis shop and combine them to form something infinitely more interesting. It's through this system that the game inherits a lot of its supplementary replay value, because figuring out the best recipe mixtures and creating better quality items gets addicting rather fast. Hidden item combinations, ingredient replacements, and other subtle little factors contribute to this mini-game too, and the more items you create unlock more and more recipe trees as you go along.
Another advantage to participating in this aspect of the game is that it fills you in on a lot of the backstory for supporting characters. And while the number of NPCs in this adventure is relatively small compared to something like Final Fantasy or even Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, the selection is more than enough. In fact, the level of characterization for the various shop owners is unparalleled in terms of depth, with characters like Norman and Blaire providing more interesting conversations than the majority of Eternal Mana's main cast. But it's the introverted Kavoc-based shopkeeper Veola that offers the best moments of Atelier Iris, as she is one of the most unusual and original personalities of any character I've seen for quite some time. Explaining exactly why this is would probably reveal too many reasons as to why she's so distinctive, but you'll just have to believe me when I say that she's definitely one of the more memorable characters of the year.
Strangely, the deep characterization of shop owners and related NPCs actually hurts Atelier Iris in the long run. It seems that the creative team felt it more important to flesh out the merchants and their histories than those of the main performers. This is particularly true of lead hero Klein Kiesling, who never really rises above his role of the typical self-doubting RPG character. Badass swordsman Arlin and Alkavana captain Marietta Lixiss are equally thin in scope and backstory, while cutesy cat-girl Norn consistently rides the line between adorable and annoying. At least Klein's main love interest Lita Blanchimont and the older wisecracking bowman Delsus are a little more compelling, and do give us a couple of interesting twists on their otherwise formulaic roles.
As for the main storyline itself, it's pretty conventional in scope. Alchemic bad guy and would-be ruler of the world Mull (RPG Cliché #7: Bad guys must always go by their last names) wants to summon the planet's tormented Über Mana known as Amalgam so that he can destroy the world and recreate it in his own image. Of course, only the teenage alchemist-in-training Klein Kiesling and his super-powered group of manga misfits can stop him from doing so, thus beginning our adventure. Naturally, I'll let you fill in the blanks from there, but needless to say, nothing particularly mind-blowing transpires as we approach the game's conclusion.
The surprising part of all this is that despite Atelier Iris' pretty conventional storyline and somewhat predictable outcomes, it's still a whole lot of fun to watch. The translation team at NIS America has done a terrific job of never taking its subject matter too seriously and has littered the narrative with a myriad of jokes, jabs, and pokes at the cast and their situations. Klein argues with his Mana companion Popo, for instance, about him being "the main character of the game," when his insults become a little too much for the alchemist to handle. Jokes about the ESRB come into play too -- during a scene where the adolescent Norn wants Klein to sleep with her overnight because she's scared of the dark. And when you combine moments like these with countless others (and also consider the in-game tutorials have real laugh out loud moments), you have all the ingredients necessary for an entertaining and humorous time. I really admire the way that Gust and NIS approached what could have been "just another save the world" story, and at the very least, it earns the duo some brownie points.
That same kind of forgivable trade-off is also found with Atelier Iris' gameplay mechanics; as what begins as your usual turn-based role-player eventually transforms into quite a bit more. So while the combat itself never really evolves beyond picking an attack and eliminating your enemy fairly quickly (the game's final boss is nice and difficult, but most battles leading up to that are a cakewalk), the means by which to reach those battles are a lot more enjoyable. You see, Eternal Mana has a surprising amount of puzzle elements related to its dungeon crawling when compared to the normal genre example -- with plenty of hidden areas and bonus items to uncover as your party becomes more and more powerful.
This slow elevation of power is something I really like about Atelier Iris, because it's given to you in a way that makes it worthwhile to go back to areas you've already visited. So while you may begin the game with nothing more than the ability to transform objects into the elements (used to create special magical items for Klein), you'll eventually gain fireballs capable of destroying obstacles you couldn't overcome before... or a giant stepping stone for reaching hard to find places, and eventually a weird flying carpet that lets you travel anywhere within your environment. Players can control how many enemies they'll bump into too, with the ability to completely eliminate random encounters or increase their percentage with the use of a nifty action wheel located in the top corner of their screen.
The only real downfall to all this, is that if you want to find everything and get all the best ingredients for your recipes you're going to have to do an awful lot of backtracking -- around twice as much as any other RPG I've played in recent years. This means that less patient players will probably never get to experience the majority of what Atelier Iris ultimately has to offer -- which would probably make the game seem a lot less entertaining (and shorter) than it really is. Just talk to anyone who beat it in 20 to 25 hours as opposed to the 40 to 50 hour guy, and you'll see what I mean... It'll sound like they played two entirely different games.
Eternal Mana's potential tedium isn't its biggest enemy, though. That dubious honor would go to its long list of lock-up and gameplay bugs. This is predominantly evident during the voice-overs for both battles and cutscenes, with frequent stuttering, sudden stops, and all-out audio crashes happening with alarming frequency. And while they're not as common as the sound bits, Atelier Iris' lock-up bugs are even worse as they completely halt the game and force you to reset back to your last save point. I never really spotted an exact pattern as to how these crashes occurred, but they happened most often when skipping voice-overs during Mana synthesis (another one of the game's many creation systems used for obtaining alchemy items). These errors didn't happen with Gold or "Reviewable" pre-release discs either, they all happened with two different store-bought retail copies.
When the bugs aren't rearing their ugly head, though, Eternal Mana's audio presentation is actually quite good. Though the soundtrack isn't anywhere near as gripping as I would have liked, the effects and voice-over work is top notch and is well worth listening to. The game even makes use of the PS2's 5.1 cutscene playback ability and sounds terrific when set to Dolby Pro Logic II. Toss in an original Japanese vocal track for the purists, and spoken dialogue for every inch of the main dialogue, and you have quite the impressive treat for your ears. Now if only those bugs didn't hurt it so much...
Oh, and while I'm on the subject of presentation, the visual aspects of Eternal Mana aren't have bad either. Character, monster, and city designs aren't too bad at all, while the 2D sprite-based heroes and animations fit well with the game's obvious anime-inspired theme. The only real hitch is that movement during battles and overworld exploration is pretty choppy and uninspired, and nowhere near as fluid as it could have been. I do like the bright and poppy colors, though, and the anime cutscenes (rare as they are) are incredibly well done.
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