In the town of Zey Meruze, childhood friends Edge Vanhite and Iris Fortner work as Raiders, travelling to Alterworlds to complete quests and earn a living. It’s a standard occupation for the people of the city, but unlike all the others, Iris is one of the last few alchemists in the world, and owner of a mystical book known as the Escalario- a tome, which, when completed, is said to grant the owner any wish. So when pieces of the Escalario begin appearing around the world, Iris and Edge are quick to pursue them, blissfully unaware that a darker force is also awakening.
With Atelier Iris offering such an immersive world and its sequel delivering vastly improved game play, there was no doubt that the series had me hooked, and so even when I heard that Grand Phantasm was a victim of ‘third game syndrome’, there was no way I couldn’t add it to my collection. And indeed, whilst the game does suffer a lot from repetitiveness, it somehow proved an addictive experience anyway.
The world of Atelier Iris 3
In Atelier Iris 3, you take on the role of Edge, a young Raider based in Zey Meruze, which, as with Kavoc in AI1, becomes your base for the entire game. A city so large that you’ll need to rely on the map and the local ferry boat to traverse until you get used to the layout, Zey Meruze is the hub of the game, containing various shops, NPCs, your workshop, the Guild (more on that in a moment) and the only save point in the game. Yes, that’s right, there’s only one location in which you can save, although as the game is largely easy, this isn’t as much of a problem as it might sound.
At the workshop
As your base of operations, the workshop (or atelier, if you prefer), is the place where you can save your game, perform alchemy and change job class via the Blades system, all of which will be explained below. Unlike the previous two Atelier Iris games, alchemy no longer involves collecting Elements; instead, it is entirely about item synthesis. Recipes can be learned either by buying them from shops, collecting them as rewards for quests, finding them in treasure chests, or by Iris receiving inspiration when she visits certain locations. The more new items Iris creates, the more her alchemy level will increase, which in turn will cause her to get inspiration from more places (it should be noted that there is a glitch where Iris’ alchemy level can carry over to a new game if you start it on the same memory card without switching off the power after quitting your old game- this also causes related scenes to trigger too early in the game). As before, substituting ingredients in a recipe can result in a new item being created, and as with AI2, it will always be clear when this is going to happen.
The other main function of your workshop is the ability to change Blades, the game’s job class/Dressphere system. Although Iris cannot use it, both Edge and Nell (the game’s third playable character) are able to switch Blades once Iris starts making pacts with different Mana. Each time a Mana is revealed after defeating certain bosses, either Edge or Nell will gain the ability to equip a new Blade in addition to their normal form. Each Blade confers its own stats and special abilities, which can be learned by accumulating Blades Points (BP) in battle, but as they can only be changed at the workshop, you can’t switch Blades on the fly in dungeons if you find you’ve come ill-prepared.
Like Arc the Lad 3, the main force driving the plot forward in AI3 is accepting quests at the local guild, which take the form of defeating specific monsters, collecting or synthesising items or mediating between NPCs- all the usual RPG staples. Rewards come in the form of money, items and quest points, which are needed to level up your rank, thus unlocking more quests. There’s no limit to the amount of quests you can have ongoing at the same time, but whilst most only appear once in the game and give you unlimited chances to finish them, a few are repeatable and will crop up again and again, whilst others must be completed within a certain number of visits to the relevant dungeon.
As you can imagine, what this all adds up to is a formula that is either repetitive or addictive, depending on your mood. There are times when you’ll simply tire of doing the same old routine over and over again, but equally there are points when the satisfaction of completing a quest leads you to want to keep taking on just one more. In short, it isn’t innovative or mind-blowing, but if you’re in the right frame of mind, then it does have its own appeal.
As well as quests, each of the game’s ten chapters concludes with a mission which is usually triggered when you rank up (except in the case of going to face the final boss), during which time all quests are put on hold and advancing the story is all that matters. In between cut scenes you’ll be given a place to go, usually with the aim of defeating a boss and collecting a piece of the Escalario. Only when the mission is complete can a new chapter begin and the routine of collecting quests pick up where it left off.
Instead of the usual dungeons and other field locations, the game play of Atelier Iris 3 takes place in Alterworlds, alternative worlds that can be entered via portals for limited periods of time. Excluding the final dungeon (which is just an amalgam of all previous locations anyway), there are actually only five Alterworlds to be unlocked in the entire game, which means you will be visiting the same areas again…and again…and again- the only consolation being that new parts of them will be unlocked as the game progresses. Worse yet, since the time you can spend in each Alterworld is finite before you get sent home again, if you can’t find what you’re looking for in one visit, you’ll have to go back and work your way through from the entrance again. Fortunately, to help you navigate through dungeons that much more quickly, the game provides a map of the area that fills in as you explore; the only trouble is that each screen is depicted as a basic square, so any twists and turns on the actual screen are not depicted, making the map a little confusing in the more complex areas.
Although the Action Dial from the first game has finally made a return, it is rather limited compared to the original version- for much of the game, the only action available to you is a simple sword slash, with a flamethrower and hammer being added later on. Between them, these three actions enable you to cut grass, smash rocks and crystals, melt ice and even knock items and enemies down from trees.
In contrast to the previous two games, enemy encounters are no longer random- instead, enemy groups are represented by Puni-esque blobs moving about the field. Blue blobs represent weak enemies that can be destroyed simply with a sword slash, white blobs are considered to be equal to your party in strength, and red blobs are stronger than your party (there are also purple and large red blobs that correspond to enemies and bosses that only appear during certain quests). Even though you repeatedly visit the same few areas, enemies don’t level up with you, resulting in an increasing number of blue blobs as you level up.
In what is gradually becoming RPG tradition, Alterworlds also contain fishing spots, so that once you earn a rod of your own, you can try to land a big catch. Fortunately, fishing is much less painful than it is in other games, consisting of you merely pressing X whilst the moving cursor is in the ‘Success’ portion of the fishing bar to land anything from a fish to a boot- or even a monster. As well as fishing, there are also spots where you can plant Mysterious Seeds and wait for them to grow into flowers or vegetable produce.
Once you’ve either run out of time, been killed in non-story battle or simply chosen to go back home, you’ll be transported back to your workshop and automatically healed. Before you go, any crystals collected and special achievements made (such as sword slashing ten enemies, fishing five times or not looking at the map at all) will be totted up, and you will be awarded points towards a cumulative score. As your score slowly builds up over the course of the game, you will receive bonus items at 1000, 3000, 5000, 7000 and 10,000 points.
- Ancient Forest of Valtessa: The first and most basic Alterworld, the Ancient Forest is highly straightforward and home to the weakest enemies. Partway through the game, the Forest Depths are opened up, which are ever so slightly tougher.
- Grimoire Castle: This period castle has several floors, a few annoying switches and a library on the third floor which is home to the ghost Pamela. Once you gain the flamethrower, you can melt away the ice and enter the freezer and the basement, which leads to the Squawk Village. The basement area is quite annoying to navigate, but the rest of the castle is reasonably straightforward.
- Posporia Battlegrounds: The homeland and battleground of the fairies and Kuma, Posporia can be a pain to get around due to each side blocking the way whenever they advance on their opponents. Fortunately, there are cannons to aid transfer from one side of Posporia to the other, but it can still be a pain to get around. Later in the game, the Great Tree becomes accessible.
- Crystal Valley of Dakascus: A large crystalline area with a well laid-out map and soothing background music in 3/4 time, the Crystal Valley is home to the Pengies, Gust’s take on Nippon Ichi’s Prinnies. Over the course of the game, the East, West, North and Celestial Rookery areas become available.
- Grand Gardens of Ishtar: Possibly the most frustrating location of all, Ishtar consists of three terraces, connected by teleports and large drops down that can be a pain to navigate (even the map isn’t a great help since you still have to remember which teleport takes you where). At one point in the game, you get the slightly pointless ability to use Lithographs, which enables you to change time for a limited effect on the map (for example, going to the past will rejuvenate a lake that dried up years ago, whilst going to the future means that a tree blocking your way will finally have been cut down).
Once the game is complete, you can also save clear game data which will unlock an Extras section in the game menu with BGM, character profiles and completed quest information. The latter two can be looked up in-game in the reference section anyway, along a bestiary, alchemy list and tutorial section.
Before you get into battle, it’s important to make sure you’re properly equipped for the trials ahead- not just with Blades, but with weapons and armour. As well as weapons specific to their Blades and armour specific to the character, each character can be equipped with up to two accessories that either boosts their stats or provides them with additional skills. Unlike AI2, characters can no longer permanently learn skills by keeping accessories equipped for a certain period of time- instead, you can only access a skill when that accessory is equipped. Also, there are no skills to be learned from equipping weapons- weapon synthesis is now as simple as Iris whipping up a new recipe in the workshop.
Instead of the “Active Cost Turn Battle” system in Atelier Iris 2, AI3 tweaks battle a little and relies on the “Active Cost Card Battle” system, which basically means that instead of having characters move along a time bar until they reach the end and take their turn, they now move along a line of cards until they reach the end and take their turn. Isn’t progress great?
Okay, to be fair, there are some other changes, and discussing them is just what this section is about. Charge Attacks and Break Attacks are gone, replaced by the standard attack command, and similarly there is no ‘Break’ section in the card bar- you can still Break (stun) an enemy, but it now just happens randomly. It is, however, also possible to knock an enemy back along the bar with any special skills marked “Knock back”. As with AI2, there are also attacks that can move independently along the bar until they take their turn, but now there is a wider variety than just “specials that appear five times and disappear”- you can have skills that go round the bar for a set number of turns before disappearing, or ones that immediately appear multiple times in the card bar, with each instance disappearing as soon as it gets its turn. Clear as mud, I know, but the good news is that there is an ability that clears the card bar of all these potentially irritating special attacks.
As far as special abilities go, the Skill Gauge is back, and it works much the same as before in that normal attacks charge it up, and special attacks use it up. The main difference is that the gauge no longer automatically starts at 1 at the beginning of each battle- instead, the level of the gauges carries over from one battle to the next, and it even slowly increases whilst you’re exploring the Alterworld. It is also worth paying attention to special abilities, as some of them rely on items, and the fact that they may be using up your precious stock isn’t always readily apparent.
One completely new addition to the game comes in the form of the Burst Gauge (yep, the designers really couldn’t get enough of gauges), a feature which is quite often the difference between a battle being easy or hard. The Burst Gauge increases by one point for every hit you score on the enemy (halved if the enemy is resistant to your attack, doubled if it is weak against it) and decreases each time your characters take damage (in order to better fill the Burst Gauge, you can equip weapons that do more hits per turn- their overall damage for a given strength will still be the same as a 1-hit weapon, but they fill up the Burst Gauge that much more). If you can manage to completely fill the gauge, you will enter Burst Mode, whereupon all enemies will be stunned for a short period of time, the Skill Gauge will fill up to 9, and the effectiveness of all your attacks will be greatly increased. Time it right, and your characters will be able to inflict massive amounts of damage, rendering most enemies little more than mincemeat.
In fact, like the other Atelier Iris games, overall the difficulty level isn’t much to boast about it- provided you work your way through all the quests presented, even the final boss isn’t that much of a big deal- in fact, the optional bosses Shadowstalker and *Mini-puni* (it looks just like the weakest enemy in the game, but packs a punch) present more of a challenge due to their ability to summon copies of themselves.
One of the biggest disappointments of Atelier Iris 3 is that there are only ever three playable characters- something of a shame when there are so many great NPCs in the game that you just wish you could recruit.
- Normal: In his normal form, Edge is the usual balanced swordsman type- a frontline attacker who specialises in Fire element and multi-hit abilities. It’s a solid starting form which will serve you well at the beginning of the game.
- Plua: With Plua’s Blades, Edge transforms into a ninja- weaker than normal, but with high speed and excellent evasion. His most reliable attack here is a quick strike which lets him take another turn directly after it is executed.
- Jiptus: In contrast, Jiptus’ Blades make Edge strong but slow, but they are arguably the best form for most occasions. As well as an ability that lets him drain a massive chunk of enemy HP to restore his own, Jiptus gives Edge the killer Soul Burst skill, which is an unstoppable killer move when used in Burst Mode with the Skill Gauge at maximum.
- Fanatos: With Fanatos, Edge transforms into a spiky-haired, winged warrior who uses books to call down wrath upon the enemy. He does have some decent moves in this form, but nothing outstanding.
- Luplus: Although Luplus can only be gained by fighting an optional boss, it is well worth the effort, as this is Edge’s only real option for becoming a mage type character with rare time-based skills. As well as being able to clear off any annoying recurring enemy attacks, Luplus enables Edge to slow down the enemy with Slow and knock them back with Cosmic Bane.
Unlike the others, Iris cannot change Blades; instead, she remains a staff-using alchemist throughout. Like Viese and Klein before her, Iris’ attacks are magical rather than physical, with Elemental Conversion hitting an enemy multiple times for significant damage, and Mana Storm being a great crowd-clearer. Iris can also summon any of the Mana she has made a pact with, and whilst this offers a useful set of skills, it does highlight the elemental imbalances that have always plagued the series. This time around, elements have been reduced to just Fire, Ice and Lightning, but whilst there has been an effort to reduce Fire’s dominance in the skill set, for some reason there is no Fire Mana, just one of the many Mana who don’t get to appear in this game.
Also, unlike her predecessors, Iris is unable to synthesis Mana Items during battle; instead she and the other characters can only use Mana Items from stock.
- Normal: In her normal form, Nell is a solid physical attacker who relies on a rapier for sharp, piercing attacks. A useful choice in areas where enemies are magic-tolerant, plus her weapons usually have plenty of hits- perfect for building up the Burst Gauge.
- Nymph: A healing form, Nymph’s Blades turn Nell into a mage who can use her Healing Echo to make Mana Items more effective (for example, a simple Heal Jar will heal the entire party for three turns). A useful form until you can synthesise accessories with powerful healing and resurrection spells.
- Siren: With Siren’s Blades, Nell is again a mage, but this time her skill set is rather different- her special abilities mainly rely on summoning Kobolds and forest creatures to attack the enemy, whilst she also has Norn’s skill of being able to turn the enemy into candy- a vital ability if you wish to collect items such as Vanilla Syrup and Chaos Candy for quests.
- Diemia: A souped-up alternative to Nell’s normal form, Diemia transforms her into a lance-wielding physical attacker. Probably the most useful form if you wish to use Nell as a warrior rather than a mage, Diemia even comes equipped with a skill that lets her turn her lance into a giant rocket and launch it at the enemy.
- Faustus: The Pokemon-esque Dream Mana enables Nell to turn into a doll-wielding magical attacker- she may look a little strange, but the Chomp ability, which has a high probability of causing instant death to regular enemies, is a valuable addition to her arsenal.
With the driving force behind the story involving collecting parts of a mystical book and combating an evil force that wishes to end the world, Atelier Iris 3 doesn’t have much in the way of originality to offer on the story front, although with the fate of one character resting on whether the player gets the game’s good and bad ending, there is an incentive to work through the game properly.
Although it never really recreates the feeling of being part of the game that AI1 had, the fact that you have so few places to visit does give you sense of ‘getting to know’ the NPCs, simply because they appear so much. From slowly making friends with 12-year-old tsundere receptionist Phenyl to helping fellow Raiders get back on their feet, you’ll have plenty of exposure to all named characters.
Again, Atelier Iris 3 is much the same as its predecessors in terms of both graphics and music, although the difference in quality between the attractive character designs and their corresponding sprites is more noticeable, whilst there is a lot of repetition in the game’s soundtrack. The English dub is even less bearable than usual due to all the bizarre accents the Vas use, but fortunately the original Japanese audio has been retained.
With its quest based system and lack of dungeons to explore, Atelier Iris 3 is most certainly a repetitive game, and for that reason everyone’s mileage for it will differ. The relative ease of the game means that it’s easy to make significant progress whilst you’re still in the addictive phase, but if you let it drag on for too long, it will inevitably become boring. Even so, if you’re an Atelier fan, you won’t want to miss out on adding this to your collection.