Another month, another game, another review. This time it's my first-ever Gust game - Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana
This review may seem a little hot on the heels of my last review, but I have a few reasons. First, my playthrough of Atelier Iris Eternal Mana (which I'm just going to call AIEM from now on) clocked in at 23 hours, making it the second-shortest game of my completed targets thus far - only Mass Effect was shorter, but I made up for that by playing it twice and investing even more time into its sequels. Second, I did some binging on AIEM the past weekend, completing maybe half of those 23 hours in that span. And third, I think I was already playing it when that Rogue Galaxy review landed. I'm not a terribly efficient ramble-rant-review blogger.
AIEM is the sixth (!?) entry in a series that's been around since around the middle of the PlayStation era. It's the fourth Atelier game out of eight on the PS2 alone (!?), so Gust got pretty comfortable making them on that particular hardware. Since 2001, Gust has released at least one Atelier game each year since 2001, with a grand total of 15 games in the last ten years. That's probably why they aren't long - that's a pretty impressive turnaround, especially for RPGs. AIEM is the first of the Atelier games to make it to American shores, where it had a lukewarm reception with the mainstream gaming media and a rather enthusiastic reception among the more niche RPG and anime fans and journalists. I picked up AIEM a few years after it dropped (my guess is 2007?), intending to play it in college sometime but never getting around to it. Then my 12 in '12 campaign happened, and here I am.
So I mentioned that AIEM was a little short, but was it sweet? Yes, but maybe not in the way I wanted. AIEM is strongly grounded in RPG traditionalism, with sprites moving across isometric backgrounds and its turn-based combat taking place as your characters line up on the right and your opponents on the left. You follow AIEM's cast in a linear chain of quests where you visit towns, explore dungeons, and fight bosses. This RPG is so fucking traditional you could've told me it was an exceptionally good-looking PS1 game and I would have believed you. Bear in mind that AIEM is a 2005 PS2 game.
Seriously, I cannot think of a single thing in AIEM that hasn't been done before. That's not *exactly* a complaint (I have plenty of those for later), but it's not in AIEM's favor. Combat is turn-based, and most characters can attack, use items, or use one of their 4 to 6 skills. The main character, Klein, is a master alchemist whose list of spells (I had learned 20-25 of them by game's end) take up special alchemy ingredients which you can mix on the fly in battle or prepare beforehand (trust me, you want to prepare them beforehand). So you have a traditional turn-based JRPG battle system but with an alchemy system kind of like that in Secret of Evermore.
And that combat mostly works. You run around dungeons and engage in random battles, eventually taking on a boss. There are small wrinkles like canceling delayed attacks Grandia-style and normal RPG things like status effects and elemental weaknesses, but those are barely worth mentioning. The fact that I'm bringing them up at all goes to show just how... generic AIEM's combat is. Challenge level is pretty reasonable. Battles stay just barely
difficult enough that you have to pay
attention - enemies hit pretty hard in the endgame and your characters'
HP and defenses aren't anything to write home about. The final boss
took me several tries, some new strategies, and no small amount of luck
to beat. Still, the fighting in AEIM lacks any compelling elements that makes it fun through the long grind.
So combat's okay, but unspecial. Moving around maps isn't as well-done. Your character moves in an isometric map like Toe Jam & Earl, strongly reminding me of castle segments in Disgaea games. It's slippery and awkward, with bad jumping and difficulty in judging simple distances. One thing general character movement does right is special abilities. Throughout the game, as Klein meets new Mana Spirits and finds new artifacts he learns new abilities like creating stepping stones, breaking blocks, and shrinking into a rabbit that helps with the weak platforming in AEIM. My favorite was the staff ability you get at the start of the game; AEIM's alchemy items (Klein's spells) are manufactured with mana energy, which you obtain by whacking everyday objects with Klein's staff. Smash a rock, get some stone mana. Smash a plant, get some wood mana and water mana. Overall, there are fourteen (!) types of mana and maybe a hundred types of objects to hit. There's something particularly enjoyable about smashing objects and getting mana++, and I was on board with that for the entire playtime.
So you have mana energy, mana spirits, and alchemy items, so how does that all work? Well, you get mana energy from items (and whenever Klein kills an enemy with a normal staff attack), and alchemy items are basically spells synthesized with mana "recipes". To complete these recipes, you need mana spirits. Each spirit allows you work with two or three elements, with different levels of effectiveness. For example, Popo, the wood spirit, lets you synthesize wood mana at a 1:1 ratio, but water mana at a 1.5:1 ratio (he needs 3 water mana to make a recipe that requires 2 water mana). Finding new spirits and mixing and matching them on recipes adds an element of resource management to your spells in addition to the traditional SP/MP. It's pretty cool.
You also "equip" mana spirits to characters to give them small stat boosts and have them learn their abilities faster. In general, the progression of obtaining new mana spirits (most of which also give you a new field ability) is a palpable feeling of character improvement, which is a key factor in how much I enjoy an RPG. So that's all pretty good. AIEM also had synthesis of mana crystals for strengthening weapons, shop synthesis for improving the inventory of shops, and in general a TON of item synthesis going on. You find so many innocuous ingredients and unimportant items that your inventory gets a little crazy by the endgame - the inventory is NOT helped by a paltry maximum stack size of 9. I liked the mana spirits / alchemy spells the most, but all of the item synthesis is pretty cool in general. It's evidently a signature of the Atelier series, and good on them. They could do a lot worse.
AEIM has totally charming characters, helped greatly by a bright, colorful aesthetic and lots of dialog. Your party of six characters are basically anime stereotypes, but they're perfectly likeable for the most part (I got quite annoyed by the tomboy female lead Lita and the cutesy catgirl Norn after a little while, though). AEIM fleshes out minor NPCs like its shopkeepers and minor villains with a good amount of dialog, and it totally works. The sprites are large and detailed, but... maybe a little too anime for me. It's clear that a lot of AEIM's praise comes from its characters and artwork, which is nice if you like chibi designs with oversized heads and a specific emphasis on cuteness.
The visuals are totally acceptable for a PS2 game of AEIM's age. The backgrounds are all hand-drawn and attractive, and the sprites have chibi proportions but are large and detailed. Spell effects looked okay at best, but the game's anime-heavy opening cinematic is pretty impressive. Musically, AEIM is lots of quirky synth accordion and whatnot. I liked the quick fanfare for when you load a save file, but when that's my favorite part of a game's soundtrack it's not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Now let's get negative. The game's background visuals do look nice, but oh man are the environments weak. Dungeons are short, 5-6 room affairs at most, dominated by teleporter puzzles (not my favorite); add in some entirely uninteresting town areas and that weird-bad movement interface and I'm not having a good time. The dungeons and field areas are mercifully short, but you have to backtrack through a few of them so many times that it gets REALLY irksome.
Worse is the game's plot arrangement. The story is a generic "mana is disappearing, guy wants to use mana to destroy the world" bullshit that might fit in as a subplot to a Seiken Densetsu or Tales Of game, but it far from carries the game on its own. But that would be well and good if it's pulled off decently enough, which it isn't. Quest events are characters commenting "oh we should go here next" and backtracking through the game's windy, unremarkable world map. The dialog between characters is okay, but other than that all of the writing in AEIM seems weak and occasionally hackneyed. When it doesn't feel disjointed, it feels like it's dragging.
I'm not sure what I expected of Atelier Iris when I first jumped in. I knew it was concise and that it had item creation, and both of those were positively highlights. But when Atelier wasn't totally generic and boring, it was annoying and frustrating. It's not an *awful* RPG, but its strengths don't make up for its weaknesses, I feel. If you greatly appreciate anime-heavy RPGs and "moe" character designs, then you could probably enjoy an Atelier game more than I could (the recent PS3 titles in particular seem to thrive on that look). Still, as far as RPGs go, I won't be recommending Atelier Iris to my friends.
Games Beaten: 2012 Edition
1. Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins
2. Radiant Historia
3. Mass Effect
4. Mass Effect 2
5. Breath of Death VII: The Beginning (Hard mode)
6. Grandia II
7. On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness - Episode 2
8. Mass Effect 3
10. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
11. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
12. Star Ocean: Second Evolution
13. Red Dead Redemption
14. On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3
15. Persona 3 FES
16. Final Fantasy XII
17. DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue
18. Super Mario Galaxy
19. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
20. Fire Emblem: Fuuin no Tsurugi
21. Torchlight II
22. Rogue Galaxy
23. Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana
I have three targets left, and I'm already started up on one of them. I was originally planning to play my PS2 copy of Okami that I had owned for years, but then Capcom had to come out with a $20 HD version on PS3. So that's the new plan.