Review by Kamatari47

"An entertaining alchemy RPG marred by shoddy localization"

Introduction

Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis (known in Japan as Mana-Khemia ~Gakuen no Renkinjutsushi-tachi~) is the latest alchemy RPG from developer Gust to make it to the overseas audience. It is a part of Gust's acclaimed and unique Atelier franchise -- a series of games that mix fast-paced, turn-based battles with intensive alchemy to form a heady blend of 2-D role-playing goodness. While Mana Khemia is a part of the Atelier franchise and shares many visual and gameplay elements with previous installments in the franchise (e.g. Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm), it is a standalone game -- you do not need any knowledge of previous Atelier franchise titles to play and enjoy the game.

Story

You play the role of Vayne Aurelius, a young hermit with little memory of his past. Vayne lives a solitary existence, with only a cat-like being named Sulpher for company, until one day, when a man named Zeppel appears and invites him to enroll at the Al-Revis Academy for aspiring alchemists. That event marked the beginning of Vayne's journey, one that brings him to Al-Revis as a student and introduces him to friendship, competition, camaraderie, discord, joy and sorrow while speeding him on a path toward unlocking the mysteries of his past.

The storyline follows Vayne's progress through his three years of education at Al-Revis Academy. The pacing is fairly relaxed throughout the first half of the game, though things do pick up in a hurry toward the end of the adventure. During lulls in his academic schedule, Vayne can undertake Character Quests in order to better understand each of his comrades, and these quests, like most of the events in the game, are generally light-hearted and entertaining. There is a great deal of humor in Mana Khemia (particularly during the dialogue for mandatory events and Character Quests), but nothing that goes so far as to carry the tone of the entire game to one of silliness -- indeed, when the plot turns serious, the player will feel a genuine sense of foreboding and suspense. Overall, the story of Mana Khemia develops at a leisurely pace and emphasizes characterization over plot developments -- players who enjoy well-developed characters with distinct personalities and humorous, entertaining exchanges will enjoy the narrative structure of Mana Khemia, whereas players who look for action-packed, edge-of-your-seat plot development in their RPGs will find the storyline of Mana Khemia a bit too slow-paced for their liking and less enjoyable.

Gameplay

The gameplay system in Mana Khemia revolves around three main elements: school, searches, and alchemy. Since the aim of the game is to simulate school life at Al-Revis Academy, its system of storyline advancement closely mirrors Vayne's progress through his three years of education. Most of the game's twelve chapters correspond to either a trimester (the academic advancement system at Al-Revis Academy is based on that of a typical Japanese high school, so each school year is divided into three trimesters rather than two semesters) or an inter-trimester break (e.g. summer vacation), and each chapter is further broken down into a number of weeks. The first week of a chapter is usually dedicated to a storyline event, whereas the next few weeks tend to be devoted to classes. In order to advance through each "Class" week, you must complete an Assignment; these are usually tasks that require exploration, combat, or both. Depending on how well you complete each Assignment, you will be given a letter grade: A, B, C or F. Higher grades allow you to accumulate the required units for a given chapter earlier, and will result in more weeks of free time following your weeks of classes; low grades, on the other hand, may result in the loss of a week of your free time to detention, which takes the form of a week during which you must complete a special assignment, which is usually a task of the very tedious variety. During weeks of free time, you may fulfill Job Requests made by various denizens of Al-Revis (you will be rewarded with money for each Job Request you fulfill) or undertake Character Quests, which help you better understand the personality and backstory of each of your comrades. By completing more Character Quests, you increase Vayne's friendship level with each of his comrades, as well as unlock the possibility of concluding the game with a particular character-specific ending.

"Search" is the term used in Mana Khemia to describe any session of exploration performed at a location inhabited by monsters. Searches are your chief way of earning Ability Points (by defeating enemies) and alchemy ingredients (by defeating enemies, collecting visible ingredient bags, and destroying various field obstacles like bushes, barrels, and crates). Monsters appear on the field map as Monster Symbols of various colors and sizes, each of which may be touched or slashed; red Monster Symbols will always cause a monster battle, whereas blue Monster Symbols can be destroyed when you slash (i.e. tap the Square button) them during daytime. From the above sentence, you may infer that there is a day-night system in effect in Mana Khemia, and you'd be correct; daytime hours last from 4:00 to 19:00 each day, whereas night reigns from 19:00 to 4:00. Monsters are much, much fiercer at night, their Monster Symbols move much more quickly (making it more difficult for you to slash them and gain an initiative bonus), and blue Monster Symbols cannot be destroyed via slashing. It's generally safer to wait out a night rather than take your chances fighting the much more powerful, nocturnal versions of the monsters inhabiting an area, especially since you do not gain any extra Ability Points or money by doing so. Note that each hour of game time elapses in 30 seconds of real time, and monster battles consume a variable amount of game time each (depending on how many turns elapse during the battle and whether or not you choose to Run Away from battle). During Chapter 4, you will gain the ability to send your comrades to gather from the various Search locations, which allows them to automatically gather ingredients from the area without dealing with monster battles.

Monster battles occur during Searches and utilize a turn-based system: each player and enemy character will be given an icon on the Card Gauge that represents turn order, and each character will get an opportunity to use an action when the Card Gauge rotates to his/her/its icon. You may use a party of up to six characters in any battle; three of those characters will form the Vanguard row, and the other three (or less, if you have less than six characters in your party at that time) will form the Support row. Vanguard characters may attack, defend, attempt to flee from battle, switch positions with a Support character, use a skill, or use an item; Support characters may be called on for Offensive Shifts (Support Actions used during a playable character's turn), Defensive Shifts (Support Actions used during an enemy turn), and various other character-specific effects (such as counterattacking). You may cycle through available Support characters via the L1 and R1 buttons, and characters in the Support row gradually recover SP (Skill Points). If Vayne is the last character to act during a full chain of three Offensive Shifts, he will unleash a Variable Strike, an attack that deals a variable amount of damage depending on his friendship level with the rest of the party. Mana Khemia also features a Burst Mode system; by attacking the enemy (and by using attacks of a type that capitalizes on the weaknesses of that enemy, in particular), you can build up the Burst Gauge at the bottom left of the screen. Once the Burst Gauge has been filled, your party enters Burst Mode -- a chain counter will appear in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. Your attacks and skills become more powerful in Burst Mode, and their power increases further as you add hits to your chain counter; each character also gains the ability to use his/her Finish Burst, a powerful move usable only in Burst Mode. Each player action taken in Burst Mode reduces the Burst Gauge, and Burst Mode will end when the Burst Gauge empties completely; you can, however, continue to pounce on enemy weaknesses and refill your Burst Gauge, thereby leading to long, flashy Burst Mode combos. Victory in a monster battle will earn you some AP (Ability Points), Cole (money), and possibly a few alchemy ingredients in the form of item drops from the vanquished monsters.

Alchemy is the linchpin of Mana Khemia's gameplay system -- your progress through school is contingent on your alchemy prowess, and your character advancement is entirely dependent upon it. There are two types of alchemical processes in the game: item synthesis and Athanor synthesis. Item synthesis takes place at your workshop, where you can throw up to four ingredients into your cauldron in an attempt to synthesize a new usable or material item from them. Item synthesis is governed by the alchemy circle, a rotating wheel of five icons: four icons correspond to each of the four elements (Wind, Earth, Fire, and Water), whereas the neutral icon produces a random effect during item synthesis. Each item has an elemental affinity property; by landing the alchemy circle on an item's affinitive element during item synthesis, you increase the ether level of the product; on the other hand, landing the alchemy circle on the anti-element of an item will result in a decrease in the ether level of the product. Each synthesized item will exhibit different characteristics (i.e. different ether effects) depending on its ether level, so the player needs to develop some mastery of the alchemy circle and assimilate some knowledge of ether level ranges in order to access the full range of options for any item synthesis. It is also possible for Vayne to solicit the help of his comrades during item synthesis, as each party member can be asked to furnish a Co-op Synthesis ability; each character possesses three different Co-op Synthesis abilities, and the game randomly determines which ability is in effect at any given point in time (you may force the game to choose a new random ability by using the one currently in effect). In contrast to the complexity of item synthesis, Athanor synthesis is very straight-forward -- you simply combine up to four ingredients to form a new equipment item (i.e. weapon, armor, or accessory). You may equip the synthesized equipment item with any ether effect found on the ingredient items, and the alchemy circle does not come into play during Athanor synthesis. Since there is no traditional gain-EXP-and-level mechanic in Mana Khemia, Athanor synthesis is one of two main methods for strengthening your characters -- the other is the Grow Book system.

Each playable character is equipped with a Grow Book, a puzzle-like diagram formed by a number of "sockets", each of which corresponds to a different item. Each time you create an item through alchemy, it will be slotted into any Grow Book that features the item; if you have an active path toward the new socket (i.e. you've activated the item in a neighboring socket), you can then navigate to the new socket and purchase any ability upgrades offered by the item. Each item will offer up to three ability upgrades once activated, ranging from attribute boosts to new skills, and each ability will cost a certain amount of AP to purchase. In order to power up your characters, it is imperative that you create as many new items as you can and purchase all the new abilities they offer through usage of the Grow Book system.

Graphics and Sound

The graphics in Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis are solid but unspectacular. The 2-D sprites are fluidly animated for the most part, but they lack the complexity and visual polish of pioneering 2-D RPGs for the PS2 (for example, the Tales of Destiny remake). On the other hand, the character portraits are beautifully drawn, and the color scheme for backgrounds and settings are generally lively and vibrant. Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of graphical slowdown as the game processes sprites and backgrounds, particularly during your first monster battle at any Search location, and this has been a recurring problem in several Gust games.

Music and sound effects in Mana Khemia are likewise solid but not exactly remarkable. There are no incongruent or "clashing" sound effects anywhere in the game, and the background music tends to be cheerful and upbeat. While there is nothing that grates on the ear, there are also preciously few tunes that are truly catchy (the main theme is an exception), and the game could have used more variety in its BGM tracks.

Localization

The main flaw of Mana Khemia is the poor effort NIS America put into the localization process. In short, the localized version of Mana Khemia is riddled with mistakes and seems to have never been put through the QC (quality control) process at all. Names are not spelled or translated consistently from one instance to the next; for example, "Koalaria" shows up as a "Kinoara" from time to time, "Caterperider" appears equally as often as "Caterpirider", the "Mega Heal" skill becomes "Megaheal" when certain characters are wielding it, the "Shade Shift" skill is blatantly misspelled as "Jade Shift" on Vayne's character skills screen, and some skills have two names depending on which info screen you're viewing (e.g. the Common Skill "Provoke" becomes "Taunt" elsewhere). The most egregious examples of NIS America's lack of proper script oversight are the "Heavy" and "Light" ether effects: there are two effects in the game bearing each name, but they behave differently -- one variant of each duo is an effect which may be equipped through Athanor synthesis, whereas the other is purely cosmetic. The two effects translated as "Heavy" by NIS America were written as different words in the Japanese version (one is "kotteri", which refers to a heavy, rich taste, whereas the other is "omoi", which refers to the large weight of an object), and the same is true of "Light"; for some reason, however, NIS America decided to translate both words as the same English word in each case, thereby introducing a completely unnecessary source of confusion into the game.

There is nothing good one can say about NIS America's translation, either. It's never been my policy to criticize a company for taking a liberal approach to translation, since I recognize the need to import local flavor into a localized game, but NIS America goes way beyond mere liberal translation in many instances. For example, NIS America's translators completely abandoned the original text and inserted something totally made-up (that goes against the speaker's character) in the line below:

Original -- Vayne: ...Why are you doing this?
Translation -- Vayne: Roxis, your blind allegiance will be your undoing!

Another example could be chalked up to laziness:

Original -- Nemu: Well, I was really scared, so I was rooted to the spot and couldn't move...
Translation -- Nemu: Uh... yeah.

Those weren't the only instances of negligence in NIS America's translation, merely some of the more egregious ones. In fact, the entire localization gives off the feel of a work that was never properly audited before release; in addition to the naming inconsistencies and poorly checked script, the in-game encyclopedia was written in broken English -- poor grammar, sentence fragmentation, improper and/or excessive punctuation -- and the existence of the bonus dungeon glitch (a phenomenon where if you attack a normal enemy during a section of the bonus dungeon, the game will freeze and force a reset every time) is the very definition of a failure in the QC process. Some players will be able to enjoy Mana Khemia just fine despite these flaws in the localization process, but for others, the poor job done by NIS America on this aspect of the game will definitely detract from their fun.

Play Time/Replayability

Most players will be able to complete Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis in 30-40 hours. An additional 10-20 hours is necessary for players looking to complete the bonus dungeon, and up to 10 hours of additional play is necessary to collect all of the character-specific endings. All in all, it takes around 50-70 hours of game time for the typical player to achieve a 100% complete file, even aided by the handy New Game+ feature, so there is a good bit of replayability to the game.

Final Recommendation

Despite the shortcomings of NIS America's localization, Mana Khemia is a solid RPG with enough gameplay and storyline merit to deserve at least a rental. Diehard fans of 2-D RPGs won't go wrong by buying this game, and more casual fans should rent the game to see if it offers anything to catch the eye. I suspect that more than a few will be captivated by its enjoyable characters and its addictive, alchemizing fun.


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 05/28/08

Game Release: Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis (Premium Edition) (US, 04/01/08)


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