IGN Review of Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis
Gust knows its alchemy well -- this is a company that built an extensive following with the creation of the Atelier Iris series. While the stories and characters of each were different, all of the titles were unified by one common thread: transmuting items from one thing into another. Taking a break from this popular franchise, but retaining this focus, Gust and NIS recently released Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis, a campus simulation styled RPG. However, while the magic formula that worked for Atelier Iris titles has been transferred to this game, it feels watered down and not as engaging as it could or even should be.
Mana Khemia revolves around Vayne Aurelius, a mysterious boy with a significant case of amnesia who happens to be a novice alchemist. Discovered with his Mana, a cat named Sulpher, by a teacher at the acclaimed Al-Revis Academy of alchemy, Vayne is enrolled in classes to educate him about his powers. There, he is assigned to a workshop with other students, each of which slowly becomes a friend and fellow party member. This cast includes a girl whose potions frequently explode in her face, a cat-like girl whose flirting gets her in trouble with other students, and a career student who's more interested in doling out justice than doing his class work. Together, the students try to discover the mysteries of alchemy and each other over the school years.
The gameplay (and to a certain extent, the school years of the alchemists) radiates from the academy, which acts as your hub for the various activities that the students perform, such as going to class. Attending classes is a large portion of the game, and players will have the option to select which class they want to take for a day that will teach them a specific skill. After a minor bit of instruction, your teacher will assign you with a task that you need to complete, and based on how well you do, you'll receive either an A, B, C or F, which translates to credits. You need a certain amount of credits to pass your classes, and if you don't get what you need, you're immediately enrolled in harder remedial courses to make up for your errors. However, if you manage to make good grades, you are given free time, which you can then use to talk to classmates, collect new items, or get jobs. The concepts of these courses aren't bad, such as teaching you how to take advantage of monster weaknesses or creating different kinds of items.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of issues when it comes to this class credit setup. First of all, it's extremely difficult, if not almost impossible, to fail tasks that are assigned to you. For instance, gathering a certain kind of item in a level is easy because there's typically an overabundant amount of those items present. If you use your most powerful attacks or exploit monster weaknesses, you can easily destroy creatures before your time runs out. This reduces the challenge of each task significantly, but this is further weakened by the fact that dying while on assignment doesn't have a significant penalty associated to it. Your party will wake up at the school infirmary if they're defeated, without losing any money or having time assessed against you. As a result, the difficulty of just about any task is practically non-existent, which is somewhat disappointing as you start gaining new skills like fishing, fruit gathering, farming and even fighting your way through monsters. (But I'll get to the combat in a bit...)
What's more, while classes are assigned to specific "days," you can waste more than 24 hours in "non-assignment specific areas" without being penalized at all. Whether this is exploring your surroundings and collecting items, fighting monsters, or simply traveling to a different area, the game doesn't count the passage of time until you wind up completing or failing an assignment. Unfortunately, because the game is waiting for this specific plot trigger to occur, players can exploit everything in the game, strip mining items and then steamrolling their way through sections of the game without a problem. This flaw carries over to the free time sections as well, since jobs can be completed frequently over a span of time without being penalized (at best, you might lose the ability to gain a recipe for an item, but you'll collect it soon afterwards during a school assignment, so that doesn't really matter).
If you choose not to engage in a job, you can take on a character related quest, which allows you to get to know a member of your party better. These are mildly engaging sidequests where you get a brief sense of who these characters are. But they're rather brief affairs that give you quick snapshots of their personality or their backstory, without nurturing any significant attachment to any of them. This isn't a bad thing, considering that everyone in the game receives this kind of shallow character development (with the exception of Vayne, who has a larger character arc due to his amnesia and his alchemy). But you do wish that even the "meaningful moments" for game characters were more poignant. At least the ability to send these characters on scavenging quests for new items is useful.
See, the true depth within the game comes from the item synthesis portion, which is the primary feature of Mana Khemia. Everything, from the smallest petals of a flower to the largest weapon, can be combined with various other items to create new weapons, items or equipment. There are two ways that this can be done: if you have the recipe for the new item, which you can find in dungeons or in stores, or if you experiment by replacing one building block item for the recipe with another. What's somewhat creative about this system is that it's directly tied into the skill development of your characters.
Instead of relying solely upon experience points or other standard progression systems from RPGs, your students only gain new skills or health if you've unlocked these abilities in what's known as a grow book (akin to the sphere grid from Final Fantasy 10), which keeps track of all the items you've synthesized over time. Each item that you can create connects to each other in the book, from basic to complex, and you'll need to link these together if you want to access new traits for each character. There is one downside to this setup. You'll discover the rate of skill development is uneven. In the first few days of each school "week" you'll frequently acquire a ton of new materials and recipes that will allow you to unlock a lot of items in your grow book. As a result, your characters will leap up these "virtual levels," making battles almost anti-climactic because your party will easily walk through most fights without breaking a sweat.
Speaking of battles, Mana Khemia does away with random battles in favor of showing monsters on dungeon maps. Players can either avoid monsters or attempt to pre-emptively strike these creatures, and depending on how strong Vayne's party happens to be at any time, you can eliminate these beasts without fighting. However, once you do enter battle, each fight is a turn-based affair, much like Atelier Iris 3, where you can choose to attack with a weapon, skill or item. If your party singles out one monster and attacks it enough times before it has a chance to attack, you can stun it and open it up to free critical hits from any character. Perform enough of these strikes and you can enter a burst mode where every attack adds to a powerful combo. You can also pull off finishing moves if you've caused enough damage in this burst mode, allowing you to inflict significant damage.
Now, I've already mentioned about how the lack of class penalties and the skills that you gain makes fights seem rather dull. There's one other element that makes a majority of battles way too easy. About halfway through the game, you gain the ability to expand your three person party by adding other members to support roles. What this allows you to do is instantly swap out characters, which can be used to save fighters who are about to die, or bring in a character that can exploit a weakness. This action instantly gives the new character a free attack, and can even be chained together in certain instances to make a special attack known as a variable strike. This will often end most battles in a few seconds, and further weakens the intensity of a fight. What's more, as you progress in the game, you'll gain the ability to restore the health and skill points of characters that are in a support role. When you realize that even characters on death's door can be restored to full health in a matter of turns in this support position, virtually any challenge disappears.
Mana Khemia does look a lot like the previous titles in the Atelier Iris series, with a heavy focus on sprite-based characters and anime-inspired foreground character images during dialogue sequences. It's not a bad looking game by any stretch of the imagination, but this isn't a technical powerhouse – even discerning which grass items can be cut versus the backgrounds can be somewhat difficult at times. That's why it's really disappointing to see that there's significant slowdown whenever there's more than three monsters and your character on screen during dungeon exploration. While the slowdown is dismaying, it's somewhat resolved during actual fights, including some amusing fighting animations for different characters and monsters. You'll see everything from monsters being attacked with pans and fish to spiked nuts from trees. Voice acting, on the other hand, is rather good, and you have the option to choose between the English and Japanese voice tracks for the game. That's at least a bonus, because the music isn't particularly memorable at all. There aren't enough tracks or variation, and after a while, you'll mute the screen if no one's talking.
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