At the prestigious Al-Revis Academy, the best and brightest pursue the study of alchemy, spending their high school years honing this mystical art for the purposes of combat, defence and support. Leaving the forest where he lived alone with his feline best friend Sulpher, Vayne Aurelius enrols at Al-Revis at the behest of one of its teachers; but even as he settles down to school life, a greater power begins to awaken within him.
With the Atelier Iris series having come to a close, Gust’s alchemy games forged ahead by switching to the world of Mana Khemia, in which budding young alchemists spend their high school years learning their trade at Al-Revis Academy. With the trademark alchemy and battle systems carried over from Atelier Iris 3, Mana Khemia also adds its own spin that ensures that the game is more addictive than ever.
The game begins when Vayne is practically coerced into joining Al-Revis by teacher Zeppel; from thereon out, it’s your duty to attend classes and gain enough credits to pass each term and eventually graduate as a full fledged alchemist. Each school year is divided into four chapters- one for each term and one for the summer holidays, leading to a substantial game length of twelve chapters.
The entirety of the game takes place within the bounds of Al-Revis Academy; campus is a largely safe zone where you can buy items, perform alchemy and so forth, whilst the surrounding areas are monster-filled realms where the risk is high but the rewards are great. The centre of your adventure will be your workshop- the place where you and your allies gather to interact and perform alchemy- but by the time the game has finished, you will have explored every nook and cranny of the academy.
Each chapter is subdivided into separate weeks, consisting of story events, classes, free time, and- if you are unlucky enough- detention. The chapter will begin with a short compulsory event, then it’s off to Student Affairs to sign up for your classes. Over the course of your school life, you’ll have compulsory core courses and a selection of optional modules to take, but if you want to evade detention, you’ll have to get a decent grade in all of them.
As you would expect, classes cover a variety of different alchemy-related subjects, from synthesis to combat and even gathering items. At the beginning of each class, the teacher will set your objective, and then it’s up to you to fulfil it- either by going back to your workshop and synthesising a required item, or heading out into the field to gather items and defeat monsters. Depending on how well you manage to achieve your goal, you’ll get a grade from A-F, with only passing grades counting towards your required credits.
Unfortunately, if you can’t get enough passing grades, your precious free time will be taken up by detention. Since I was fortunate enough to pass all my classes, I never actually had to do any detention, but from what I’ve read it consists of menial tasks.
Once all your classroom duties are over, you will finally get the chance to indulge in some free time, although unless you plan to just go straight to the dorms and sleep, you’ll be busy doing optional missions. When free time is in effect, the quest system from Atelier Iris 3 makes a return, with various requests appearing on the Student Affairs notice board. Predictably, all the requests are either for items to be synthesised and gathered or for particular monsters to be defeated, with the rewards being entirely monetary. Although it might sound a little tedious, for those who have already been won over by the addictiveness of the Atelier series, it will be no great chore- and if you don’t feel like doing some extra questing, it’s entirely up to you.
The best part of free time, however, is that it lets you interact with your party members- pick someone in the workshop and choose to find out more about them, and you’ll find yourself drawn into a quest related to that character. From training with swordsmaster Anna to defending justice with upperclassman Flay, each event will flesh out one particular character whilst also building your relationship with them, with those relationship scores affecting the ending of the game.
With all your classes complete and free time whiled away, the chapter will end with a story event. Lather, rinse and repeat, and that’s basically the pattern of the entire game.
Whilst you’re juggling classes, events and free time, there will also be plenty of opportunities to wander around the Al-Revis campus. As well as a variety of shops where you can purchase alchemy recipes and ingredients, there are a number of other services available Of course, alchemy is the most important of these, and although the basic system is carried over from Atelier Iris 3, some tweaks and additions have been made.
The most annoying new feature is the fact that synthesising weapons, armour and accessories now takes place at the ‘Athanor’, leaving only mana items, key items and ingredient synthesis in your workshop. Even though the two places are only next door, it is extremely irritating to have to run back and forth because you need to synthesise a mana item before you can make a particular weapon, for example.
Fortunately, Gust have at least attempted to justify their decision by making the two types of alchemy a little different. When you synthesise in your workshop, you set (and later increase) the quality of your items by using a modicum of reflexes and timing to stop a spinning ring when it matches the element of each ingredient being used. Your allies can also help out in the synthesis, with their assistance also affecting the quality, slowing up the ring or switching all the slots to a particular element. Most of the time, you will want to maximise the quality of your item, as this will carry over to any other items you synthesise with it (and in the case of weapons, armour and accessories, give them more abilities), but certain quests in the game can only be completed by making a really poor quality item.
Fortunately, if you’ve synthesised an item whose quality you’re happy with, you don’t have to go through this process every time- you can just synthesise it straight from the ingredients without having to worry about elements and spinning rings. And of course, like previous games, you can try substituting one ingredient for another in order to see if you discover a recipe for something new- in fact, sometimes your allies will even suggest a new combination for you to try.
In contrast, synthesis at the Athanor doesn’t require such effort- all you need to do is pick your ingredients, confirm the synthesis and then decide what inherent abilities you want the item to have. These abilities are carried over from the ingredients, and depending on what you have on offer, you can assign one attack and two support abilities to an item.
Another new feature in this game is the ability to spread rumours about yourself- as you complete various achievements in the course of the game, you will be able to spread related rumours and gain a stat boost. Unfortunately, only one rumour can be in circulation at any time, and overall any effects they provide are negligible overall.
For those of you who find gathering and synthesising all the items you need a rather daunting and tiresome task, you’ll be pleased to know that your allies can assist you in this regard. In your workshop, you can assign them individual tasks such as gaining AP, gathering items or synthesising, and depending on their affinity for a particular task, they will return in a week or two of game time with the fruits of their labour. Since their synthesis doesn’t use up your ingredients, it’s a good way of building up a stock of items- although be warned that they cannot make any item you haven’t created at least once, even if you have the recipe for it.
Fight or flight: heading out into the field
Once you’ve exhausted the possibilities on campus, the next step is to venture out into the wilds. As with Atelier Iris 3, Mana Khemia has a set level of areas that you must visit multiple times, but this time the variety is such that it doesn’t get boring- and better yet, dungeons are no longer timed. In their place, however, time passes whilst you are in the field- and if you happen to get caught out at night, you will find that monsters are much tougher and more aggressive than their diurnal counterparts.
Like Atelier Iris 3, monsters wander around the field in the form of blobs that will pursue you and initiate battle if you get too close- again blue blobs are weaklings that can be destroyed with a slash during the day, whilst red ones must be fought (or at least escaped from, although again at night it seems to be impossible to escape). Fortunately, if you get defeated in anything other than a story battle, you will be teleported back to campus; you can also transport back any time by using the “Wings of Icarus” key item.
Even the battle system itself is straight out of Atelier Iris 3- the Active Cost Card Battle system is back, albeit with a couple of tweaks. In the old days, when a character died, they got a turn as soon as they were revived, but this time around, a dead character’s greyed out turn card remains in the bar, so even if they are revived, they won’t get a turn until their card comes back to the front.
Small as it may seem, this is just the first in a number of revisions to the system that force a change in strategy. Those who relied on the Burst Gauge in AI3 may be pleased to learn that it is back- but this time around it takes a lot more effort to fill the gauge, reducing its status as the easy option for finishing tough battles. That being said, later in the game you’ll get an extra finisher gauge tacked onto the Burst Gauge; provided you fulfil a certain condition whilst in Burst (such as attacking with a particular element, using knockback attacks, buffing your allies and so forth), this gauge will fill- and once it is at it maximum, you can select one of your characters to perform a deadly finishing move.
Those who recall that Atelier Iris 3 only had three playable characters will be pleased to learn that Mana Khemia has a more rounded eight possibilities, which means that the ability to switch characters in and out of battle is back. This time around, you can have three characters in your active party and three on standby, with the option to switch them. Unlike earlier AI games, however, when you start a battle or switch party members, the person who was switched out must wait a short while before being able to rejoin the fray- a feature that isn’t very forgiving of mistakes or short-sightedness with regard to party setup.
The other notable change is the return of MP- gone is the Skill Gauge of AI2-3 in favour of a more traditional system. Characters also have special ‘List Skills’ which require items rather than MP to enact.
After battle, however, you might notice another major shift from RPG norms- your characters will be gaining AP, but EXP is nowhere in sight. Unexpected as this may seem, this is because Mana Khemia simply doesn’t have conventional levelling up- instead, characters advance via the ‘Grow Book’, the latest take on the Sphere Grid type system. With the Grow Book, nodes are activated when you synthesise a particular item, and then the abilities or stat increases associated with that node can be obtained by spending AP. It’s a system that takes a bit of getting used to, but whilst it isn’t something you’d want to see in every game, it is worthy through sheer novelty value alone.
- Vayne: Like most main characters, Vayne is a balanced character with an emphasis on physical attacks. His weapon is his cat, Sulpher, who transforms into a bladed gauntlet, making him perfect for multiple hit attacks. Vayne is also the only one with the Analyse skill- unlike Atelier Iris 3, monster HP is not automatically displayed until you use this on a particular monster type. Fortunately, Analyse also does damage, so it doesn’t feel like a waste of a turn.
- Jess: the healer of the group, Jess’ basic attacks do magical damage, whilst she can also do ‘On the Spot Synthesis’- a two-turn attack that lets her synthesis and use Mana items on the field. Her deadly handbag also has the ability to transform enemies into candy.
- Nikki: A good backup character, it’s no surprise that Nikki’s massive spiked ball does some decent physical damage, but while her special skills are solid, there’s nothing particularly overwhelming about them. As a catgirl, however, Nikki’s kinship with beasts enables her to convert monsters into special hearts that she can use to re-summon them in battle.
- Flay: Once you get Flay, Nikki will probably be relegated to the back row, as he supersedes her in the physical department. With a giant mechsword that must have been borrowed from AI3’s Edge, Flay can do huge damage with multi-hit and drilling attacks. He can also imbue his attacks with Lightning element- his one concession to the existence of magical abilities.
- Pamela: A ghost with a killer teddy bear, Pamela is a weak attacker whose few healing abilities aren’t worth the pain of putting up with her weak specials. Still, it’s nice to see series staple Pamela finally being playable, even if I hardly ever used her.
- Anna: A master of swordsmanship, Anna is an amazingly swift samurai whose piercing blade ensures that she should almost always be on the front lines. The speed of her attacks more than makes up for lagging behind the like of Flay in terms of sheer strength, with her multi-hit repertoire often carving through the enemy.
- Roxis: the anti-hero of the piece, Roxis uses trading cards for magical and time-based attacks- he may not do much damage with a basic attack, but over time his specials will do a lot of cumulative damage. He can also clear the time bar of enemy spells, which remains a vastly useful skill.
- Muppy: A mysterious alien, Muppy is a rather incongruous addition to the game who arrives too late for players to care about him that much. He has a lot of fire based abilities, but overall he’s surplus to requirements.
Although the overall story of Mana Khemia is pretty standard as RPGs go, the game recaptures the feel of the original Atelier Iris when it comes to feeling that you are actually part of a properly interacting world. All the main characters are well developed, and although side stories such as Flay’s quest for justice are rather annoying, overall the character exploration remains interesting.
When it comes to visuals, sound and music, Mana Khemia is pretty much on a par with previous games in the series, with cute sprites, well drawn but not overly sophisticated backgrounds and a solid blend of background themes. This time around, however, the character designs have a different style- they are still attractive, but they are more angular than those of the Atelier Iris series.
Although it may seem a little simplistic and repetitive in places, Mana Khemia is a worthy successor to the Atelier title, and remains a highly enjoyable experience from start to finish. I’m looking forward to the English release of Mana Khemia 2.