Felt and Viese Blanchimont are orphans and childhood friends living on the airborne continent of Eden. Whilst Viese studies to become an alchemist, Felt is more concerned with honing his swordsmanship- a seemingly pointless endeavour given that Eden is a peaceful place completely devoid of monsters. Nonetheless, it turns out that Felt’s skills are just what is needed when a mysterious disaster causes part of Eden to disappear, for, armed with the legendary sword known as the Azure Azoth, it is he who must travel to the world of Belkhyde in the hopes of finding the key to saving Eden. But he won’t have any chance in this strange new world without Viese backing him up at home, using her alchemic skills and the power of the Share Ring to supply Felt with vital Mana Items.
After completing the original Atelier Iris, the obvious next step was to learn Japanese and play the earlier Atelier games pick up the sequel (although technically it’s a prequel, taking place many generations before the original Atelier Iris) and see how it measured up. Fortunately, many lessons had been learned from the original game and used to tighten up game play for Atelier Iris 2, but at the same time, it was hard not to miss Klein, Lita and friends when presented with a whole new set of characters to get used to.
The world of Atelier Iris 2
Despite its flaws, the original Atelier Iris had a unique draw that made it stand out from other RPGs- it gave the player a real feel of being a part of the game world. Unfortunately, this aspect has not been carried over to Atelier Iris 2, which, despite trying to spice things up by letting you switch between the two main characters, feels a lot more like a conventional “start at a place with level one monsters and linearly unlock new, progressively harder locations” game.
For the majority of the time, you’ll be playing as Felt, making your way through the world of Belkhyde, picking up allies and encountering towns and dungeons as so many RPG heroes have before. At save points, however, you have the option to switch to Viese, who remains behind in Eden until the last few chapters of the game. As there are no monsters in Eden, Viese won’t encounter battle until she comes to Belkhyde later on; instead, her job is to handle the alchemy side of things.
As a fully qualified alchemist, Viese’s job is to travel around Eden, making pacts with Mana of different elements so that they can lend their skills to the party. Even though there are more Mana for Viese to recruit than Klein had access to, their role has been much reduced- although they are now vital in all types of synthesis, they have no other role to play- in fact, you don’t even need to keep them happy with gifts anymore.
As for synthesis itself, even this has been overhauled for Atelier Iris 2. Synthesising mana items still requires recipes, but actually getting those items made requires a different method. First, Viese must cook up the mana item at home using a particular Mana and set of items; this initialises the item so that it now can be made by both Felt and Viese in battle or at the menu screen using that mana and a particular set of elements (the item method can also be used if elements are rare). The amount of element needed is now always fixed since you can’t mix and match Mana the way you could in the first game; the only thing that remains the same is how you obtain those elements- either in battle or through elemental extraction of objects in the field (it is, however, no longer possible to extract elements from items in your inventory).
In the old days, item synthesis was a separate process handled by shopkeepers, but now Viese has control of that as well, taking some of the fun out of it, but also ensuring that the largely useless items of previous games are gone. Instead, Viese and her Mana can create accessories and alchemy items- unsurprisingly, accessories can be equipped to increase stats, whilst alchemy items can either be used to synthesise more complex items or equipped to teach a character support skills (more on this later). As in the original game, the raw materials can sometimes be substituted to make a slightly different item, with clear messages saying “a different item will be made if you use this” replacing the hit and miss guesswork of the old days. Better yet, you can now have up to 99 of any type of item, a nice expansion from the rather limited nine allowed in the previous game.
Viese may be the expert at alchemy and synthesis, but out in the field Felt himself has a few tricks of his own. As well as being able to make any mana item that Viese has initialised for him, Felt also learns weapon synthesis early in the game, and happily it is far more useful than its incarnation in the previous game. Since new weapons cannot be bought, weapon synthesis (using items and Mana) is the only way to upgrade weapons, but of course it isn’t as simple as just making the strongest weapon possible- not only do you have to upgrade in a particular order, but you’ll need to keep that weapon equipped for a while if you want to learn its inherent attack skill (think Final Fantasy 9).
There have been a few other changes from the first game, one of which is most welcome- instead of the once tortuous maze of winding paths, the world map has been replaced with an easy-to-navigate over-map that lets you simply use the arrow keys to go from one location straight to the next. No mess, no fuss and most importantly- no encounters along the way.
Other omissions include the Growloons (who had dubious purpose anyway) and the Action Dial- instead of gaining actions to use in the field, Felt and Viese gain different Mana items which can be used in specific situations. For example, near a plant you might be able to use an item that makes it grow, whilst certain cliffs can be scaled with a Grappling Hook. The new system does add a degree of separation with the field map, but this is only what you’d expect from an RPG anyway.
With all these changes, it should come as little surprise that the battle system has been overhauled as well. Encounters remain random with a higher than comfortable rate, but now most screens have an encounter gauge which not only tell you how close you are to danger, but also empty out with each battle, so that even if you end up lost and wandering around forever, you won’t be plagued with battles forever (the gauge refills if you use a save point or exit to the world map).
Once you actually get into battle, the old turn-based ways have been replaced with the ‘Active Cost Time Battle’ system, which, in plain terms, means that everyone moves along a time bar and gets their turn when they reach the end. When your turn comes around, the usual options of attacking, using special skills and items or running away are all on offer, but with yet more changes from the original game. The basic attack has now been split into two commands- Charge Attack, which fills the skill gauge (more on that below) and Break Attack, which knocks an enemy further back on the time bar and may even put them into Break status. When an enemy is in Break, they remain stunned for a time, during which you can rack up huge chains of damage whilst remaining safe from counterattack.
The time bar also allows for a new style of delay attacks; as well as the usual type of attack that takes a turn to charge, it is possible to use various skills that move along the time bar independently for five turns and take effect each time they reach the end. Each side can have one of these delay attacks in effect at any one time (casting new one cancels the old one), and since there is no way to remove them once they appear, you just have to endure them until they run out.
Getting back to the skill gauge, this is the game’s replacement for mana or MP; you have one gauge to serve the entire party, which starts at 1 and can be filled by using charge attacks or taking damage. The gauge is then depleted by one, two or three units when a special skill is used- it can be a limiting system compared to more conventional MP, but it can also be useful to build up the gauge with one character and then bring in another character to use it for their special.
Veterans of the original game will remember the importance of switching characters in and out of battle, and happily this feature remains intact, although there is no longer the option to leave a dead character in battle- they must be replaced by a living character in reserve if one is available (I imagine the reserve characters to be sitting in deck chairs a few metres behind the front lines). In contrast, party formation has been simplified- instead of each character having the choice of front, middle and back row, you have to have one character in each row.
Another notable and welcome change is alchemy’s contribution to battle- Felt and Viese may be the only ones able to synthesis mana items in the heat of conflict, but anyone can use a mana item from stock. Compared to the days when your non-alchemists had no access to useful items, this is a welcome change, especially when combined with the fact that most characters also have some sort of healing skill as well.
Unfortunately, skills in other areas are not so generous, with an odd imbalance cropping up in elemental abilities. For some reason, there are numerous options when it comes to fire-based abilities, but the ice and thunder elements are very poorly represented in comparison, and the effects of those skills are often so weak that you might as well have just used a basic attack in the first place. That being said, aside from a few tricky combinations of generic enemies, the game is largely rather easy- throughout the entire game, I only glimpsed the game over screen twice (once because I strayed into an optional area that was too high-level for me at the time, the second time because I missed a couple of healing Mana items I should have had), and the final boss was easily beaten on the first attempt. Personally, I’m not too bothered about the difficulty since it isn’t Rhapsody-level of pathetically easy, but hardcore players might yearn for something a bit more frustrating challenging.
After battle, alongside the usual EXP that gets dealt out, each character gets SP, which are used for learning attack skills from the equipped weapon and support skills from equipped alchemy items.
- Felt: the typical all-rounder main character, Felt is both an alchemist and an accomplished swordsman (although all his attacks count as magical rather than physical). Although he has standard-style specials to hit one enemy or all enemies, his best skills are Strike Edge and Phantom Edge, which clobber the enemy with giant copies of his Azoth.
- Noin: Through lack of choice, you have to use Noin early on, and whilst she is useful then thanks to her healing skills, she is too weak to be of much long-term use. I tend to keep her in reserve once there are enough party members to do so.
- Gray: Many people dislike Gray because he is so slow, but I actually didn’t find him too painful in that department- in fact, my Poe was slower. Not only is he a strong physical attacker, but he has killer attacks in the form of Twin Dragon and Shredding Dragon, as well as some elemental breath attacks. The only drawback is that he is geared toward fire element attacks- not useful against fire-type monsters.
- Fee: Although her strength is probably the lowest of all six characters, Fee is incredibly swift and able to target multiple enemies with her basic attack- important factors that put her ahead of Noin. Better yet, her Ein Zecksclaw attack is a killer move that only takes up a single unit of the skill gauge- and just when that stops becoming useful, she should have learned the more powerful Ein Zeckslash. Her only drawback is that she has absolutely no magical attacks, rendering her useless against enemies that are immune to physical moves.
- Poe: A gun-wielding fairy, Poe is one of those characters that serves no real purpose other than to enter the fray when your good characters have been wiped out. Although his basic attack does magical damage and he is imbued with some healing abilities, his below average stats mean there’s hardly ever a reason to bring him out.
- Viese: Only playable from episode twenty of the game (don’t worry, equip the right accessories and her stats will rival those of her fellows), Viese is much more of a traditional alchemist- she has the same mana-item enhancing skills as Klein, plus some healing skills, plus a staff that deals average magical damage. Fortunately, her alchemy skills make her indispensable- two alchemists are better than one, after all.
Unsurprisingly, Atelier Iris 2 follows the usual pattern of a misguided human antagonist, an evil force trying to destroy the world for no real reason and a fantasy world with hidden sci-fi elements- none of it particularly designed to inspire. Even the characters, whilst likeable enough, aren’t as well developed as those in the original Atelier Iris, although the game does regain some ground by being a prequel about the origin of the famous Iris.
Both graphically and musically, Atelier Iris 2 is on a par with the first game; the visuals may not be the most advanced, but they have their own charm, and the original character designs are attractive. Since the game comes with a bonus soundtrack CD, the music can easily be sampled outside of the context of the game, giving me a new appreciation for the music of both this and the original game- again, they are nothing special, but the mix of styles makes for comforting background music.
By polishing up the gameplay from the first game, Atelier Iris 2 makes for another worthy entry in the series- there are a few flaws in terms of balance and difficulty, but largely these can be overlooked. Whether or not you’ve played the first game, this is an RPG worth looking into.