What do you get when you mix a little bit of Harry Potter and a pinch of Rockstar Games’ Bully? Well I must be talking about Gust’s Mana Khemia series for the PlayStation 2. When we reviewed the original game last year we were a bit disappointed with some of the repetition of the quests and visual deficiencies. With the sequel NIS America and Gust have really stepped up their game and made the overall experience much more enjoyable without sacrificing the depth of the alchemy system and the sheer amount of things to see and do. Combine it with the lovable characters and witty dialogue that comes standard with all NIS games and you have a sequel truly worthy of checking out.
The sequel follows two brand new characters fifteen years after the events of the original game. You choose between Ulrika and Raze, and as with most games of this type their storylines are both connected, while still retaining their own distinctive events and happenings. I didn’t feel the need to play through both stories, but the option is there for those that would like to see a different perception on how the game plays out. Much like the first game you start off at the Al-Revis Academy, which is the Hogwarts so to speak, and surprisingly the school isn’t doing so well. It appears that magic users have become something of an anomaly lately, meaning that the school now must allow non-magic users in to fill the status quo.
The story moves along at a decent pace, but as with most any RPG the first hour or so of game time will be spent introducing the characters and the world, so be prepared. The dialogue as I mentioned is very well written, which has become the standard with most NIS games, and the characters are fairly easy to like. There is a lot of text to read, but also a healthy dose of great voice acting to progress the narrative. Mana Khemia 2 delivers an interesting tale that takes traditional clichés of the genre and mixes them with excellent pacing to create a more enjoyable experience. Fans will no doubt be pleased with the journey.
Once again the game revolves around the Al-Revis academy, and class is as much of an integral part of the game as combat. There are three core components to the game: class, alchemy and combat, all of which also carry sub-genres of activities. This time around Gust has taken into account fan’s complaints about the first game and focused much of their attention on the pacing of the game. Tedious quests and obsessive tasks are a thing of the past, and things now move at a much more melodic pace. The game uses a scheduling technique that keeps the player moving from one activity to the next without overdosing on the repetition.
The overall gameplay mixes the traditional JRPG layout with a collection of new mechanics as well as some real-time actions to keep things fresh. As I mentioned the game hub is based around the school. Participating in activities earns you grades. Earning good grades grants you free time to socialize with your party. Learning new skills and traits is essential to progressing, and actually ends up being quite a bit of fun. There are some repeating tasks, but for the most part the game switches often enough to keep one activity from becoming too boring. The fact that Fall of Alchemy is so diverse is one of its most endearing qualities.
The combat takes on the real-time approach by allowing you to see enemy markers on the map as you roam around. You can also get the jump on enemies by participating in a mini-game of sorts. When you commence the encounter you will have a split second to press one of the face buttons, which lands you the first strike. Of course if you miss you know what happens, so this makes all battles a bit more interesting from the get go. You have two main sets of characters in each battle: support characters and fighters. The fighters do most of the heavy lifting while support characters help by healing and casting certain magic spells. Think of it as a tag battle in a game like Marvel vs. Capcom 2. You can literally call in support characters in place of your fighters, thus leaving them in reserve regaining AP. Very cool stuff indeed.
As the name implies the alchemy also returns, and is addictive as ever. The aforementioned relationships now help with crafting certain items. I found myself once again digging around for useless materials just to craft some really cool items in the game. The combinations are ridiculous, and you can easily lose hours just toying around with this side function. The leveling system also takes an odd twist as instead of traditional leveling you now use what is called the Grow Book. This contains cards that showcase items and skills that you can learn. Defeating enemies earns you points that you can then spend in the Grow Book to increase your skill levels. It works more like a visually-pleasing menu, but it is appreciated none the less.
The one sore spot for Fall of Alchemy though is the same place that most NIS games tend to suffer: visuals. Sure you can argue the game is designed for the niche crowd, sure you can argue that pixelated characters are almost a must in these types of games, but you cannot argue that you would not rather see an HD sprite-based game in the same manner as some of the recently released next-gen gems. Mana Khemia 2 sports a visual appeal no doubt, but it still feels dated when playing on a newer television set. The rest is standard fare with cut-out characters for the dialogue scenes and minimal animation on actions. It just feels like this genre really needs a boost in the visual department.
Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy continues the NIS tradition of solid RPG love with a quirky twist. If you enjoyed the first game then the second one will truly impress thanks to all of its improvements over the original. However, if you were not a fan then the improvements may not be enough to sway your opinion. Any way you slice it though PS2 (and PS3 owners) looking for a great RPG experience really would do well to check out Gust’s latest effort. The improvements to the formula and overall quality make this yet another stellar PS2 RPG for the library.