The world of Mana Khemia will be familiar to anyone who has played the developer’s previous efforts. Gust, best known for their work on the fan-favorite Atelier Iris has returned to the PS2 with another fantasy driven RPG that, much like the aforementioned titles, has a strong focus on alchemy. If you have played any of the Iris games you shouldn’t have any trouble jumping right into Gust’s latest title, but be warned many of the deep attributes found in those games has been watered down, making Mana Khemia more accessible but also not quite as engaging. Either way you look at it Alchemists of Al-Revis is yet another solid title from the kings of niche Japanese goodness.
The story in Mana Khemia is common ground. You assume the role of young Vayne Aurelius, a rookie alchemist who, wait for it-has amnesia! Not unlike the popular Harry Potter stories Vayne is summoned to a school for magically gifted children where he begins to hone his skills amongst other gifted alchemists. As you begin to develop relationships with your fellow classmates they become party members. These include a flirty cat girl named Nikki, a supposed felon named Jess and the usual cast of characters that range from strange to just plain bizarre. Much like other RPGs the best part about each one is their wealth of knowledge you will learn throughout the course of the game.
The game centers around the academy, which also acts as your hub where you will spend a majority of your time taking classes and missions. Not unlike Rockstar’s Bully title Mana Khemia focuses a lot on class and even offers players the options to choose what classes they will take. Each one represents a different skill, giving you a chance to customize what abilities you want to focus on. Each class begins with a quick tutorial on what you need to do and upon completion you receive a letter grade that translates into credits. Credits are crucial because they are how you progress through the game. Earn enough and you get some free time to spend at your leisure, fail them and it’s off to summer school with you.
While the idea of taking class doesn’t translate well into entertainment, for the most part this system works thanks to the fact that each class is actually insightful and fun. Most classes involve you heading into the wild with your newly obtained knowledge, such as an enemy weakness, and obtaining certain items by completing mini quests. Striving for the best grade is certainly addictive and while it can become tedious the game does a nice job of breaking down activities on a week-to-week and month-to-month basis. Also if you manage to earn enough free time throughout your studies you can take on side missions with various characters, which ultimately affects the bonus ending obtained at the close of the game.
What really separates Mana Khemia from the company’s previous efforts though is a lack of difficulty. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not about sadistic gaming (I am looking at you Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer) but I do enjoy a challenge. The problem Mana Khemia runs into is that it is nigh impossible to fail a class. Most of them have you collecting items or defeating a specific enemy, which is fine, except that the items to be collected are scattered everywhere so finding them isn’t an issue. The only constraint is time and to be honest there is more than enough to mine items, collect your items and make it back before the bell rings. If you don’t mind the laid back approach then this is your game; however if you want a challenge Mana Khemia may not provide enough to keep you interested.
Of course the most important aspects of any good RPG aren’t always the methods in which you get from point A to point B, but instead the journey that takes you there. Mana Khemia does have its own set of laurels that separate it from the pack. The first is that your party members don’t actually gain levels per se, but instead unlock new abilities in what is called the Grow Book. This method takes all the items you create within the game through the use of alchemy and combines them with each other to open up new skills and abilities. This is very reminiscent to FF 10’s sphere grid and is a welcome change from the proverbial leveling system found in most RPGs. Unfortunately the flip side to this is balance or should I say lack thereof. Within the first few hours obtaining items to synthesize will become almost too easy and your party will quickly become a virtual tour de force way too early in the game making battles almost too simple.
Now we get to the good stuff, battling. Much like other contemporary RPGs Mana Khemia does away with conventional random encounters in favor of showcasing enemies on the screen. This gives players the opportunity to avoid battles or obtain a tactical advantage by attacking from behind gaining a first hit or other advantages. Once engaged the game plays similar to just about every other game in the genre. We have turn based affairs that allow you to use items, attacks or skills and if you deal out enough damage to a particular enemy you can enter a sort of burst mode that deals increased damage. Do enough damage here and you can perform a finishing move. The battles aren’t overly exciting, but they do get the job done. The one problem I had through most of the game is that none of them, even harder encounters never required much skill. The game gives players an insane amount of power too early making the game a cake walk, especially for veteran RPGers.
Visually Khemia once again delivers a typical performance. Sprite based characters plastered across pseudo 3D background really makes the title feel dated, but fans of the genre are likely accustomed to this by now. During chat sequences you get a cardboard cutout anime-inspired avatar with a limited range of emotions that will also be familiar to fans of the developer’s previous games or any other RPG of this type in general. What is puzzling is the amount of slowdown on display when more than 3-4 characters are on screen. Animations are limited and the overall level design feels recycled, but the color palette is expansive enough to keep you interested throughout the game. The soundtrack on the other hand is quite impressive. Composed by Ken Nakagawa and Daisuke Achiwa this orchestral arrangement is one of the highlights of the presentation. If you manage to snag a copy of the collector’s edition you can pop this into your stereo and listen at your leisure or if you just manage to get the traditional disc you can listen to the tracks via the in-game menu.
Mana Khemia is the kind of game that feels too much like its predecessor and doesn’t offer enough to draw in new players. However, if you are a fan of the genre, or more importantly the developer behind them, then this game will certainly not disappoint. The deep alchemy system and unique grow book are worth the price of admission alone and the collector’s edition is chock full of fan-service. If you loved Atelier Iris then you will most likely enjoy your time with Mana Khemia, just keep in mind that this game is almost a step backwards in the difficulty department so your skills may be too much for the world of the alchemists.