Inside Pulse 12

Review: Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana (PS2)

Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana
Developer: Gust
Publisher: Nippon Ichi
Genre: Turn-Based RPG
Release Date: 06/29/05

For those of you who are unaware, Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, is the sixth game of the Atelier series. The series got its start on the Sony Playstation and Sega Saturn. Before now I’ve only played the imports of Marie No Atelier and Atelier Marie: Best Edition. Both were fun little games with a decent story, but neither captured my interest long enough to keep them vivid in my mind thanks to other games like Dragon Force, Persona, Shining Force 3, and the like all being released around the same time frame.

But in Japan, the Atelier series has thrived, and NIS America has decided to bring the sixth game in the series stateside, on the exact day Japan received the seventh game, which is a direct sequel to this game. Perhaps Nippon Ichi saw the potential for a franchise series?

The important thing to remember here is this is NOT a NIS designed game. There are elements that may feel like some of their in house made games, like Disgaea, Phantom Brave and La Pucelle, but this has been Gust’s baby for nearly a decade now. So there will be no cameos of certain characters like we saw with NIS America’s first stateside publishing, Phantom Brave (Atlus USA published Rhapsody and Disgaea).

Phantom Brave had mild success in the US and some strong reviews (I gave it a 7/10 back when it came out) and Nippon Ichi has become a cult publisher with only their first game (Thanks to 2003’s GOTY in Disagaea) and anticipation for this title, along with July’s Makai Kingdom has been rampart. The question is, has the wait been worth it?

Let’s Review

1. Story

Eternal Mana is one of the most cliched and hackneyed plots I’ve seen in a video game in a long time. You’d got Klein, the young wide-eyed Alchemist who dreams of being the world’s best at his art. You have Lita, a tough streetwise girl with a heart of gold and a mysterious secret to boot. You have the stereotypical cat girl. You have the boozing womanizer warrior. You have the pretty boi grim swordsman, and all the other characters you could find in, “A Dummy’s Guide to Making an RPG.”

The characters of Eternal Mana remind me of practically every 16 bit RPG I played back as a kid. The characterization is solid, but each of these characters has been done to death in some other form of entertainment, I feel like I’m playing a game filled with Jungian archetypes drawn by the Japanese.

The plot as well is something we’ve seen several times before, and we’ve seen it a lot better to boot. Everything revolved around Klein and Lita and their burgeoning feelings for each other. They meet. Guy gets shown up by girl. They meet again. Eventually they become friends. Girl starts to have feelings for the guy and starts acting contrary to the tomboy personality they originally gave her. Guy is clueless. Girl’s mysterious secret is revealed. All hell breaks loose.

Sound familiar? There’s also the dark villains who had given the bare bones of a personality and no real meat or depth to their characterization.

The plot and flow of the game is excruciatingly linear and involves more backtracking and going back and forth than a Resident Evil or Tomb Raider game. You will visit the same dungeons and locations so often in just the first ten hours, you’ll find yourself quickly growing annoyed. Especially since the plot will be moving at JUST past the speed of molasses until this point. Yes, prepared to run a lot of stupid fetch quests throughout the game that are not optional and that involve you doing repetitions to the point where you wonder if this game is a Pavlovian experiment in behavioralism gone awry.

The one saving grace, and it is a BIG one, is the actual translation team’s writing ability. Even with all the cliches, the writing team the dead horse and dusts it off a bit. The dialogue is witty, amusing, and very well done. It helps offset my constant feeling of deja vu in regards to these characters and helped me smile, laugh, and enjoy the game. I have to admit, without the localization team, I’d be even more negative to the plot of this game and probably have thrown in a bit of profanity.

So yes, for all the downsides about the actual tale being told here, Atelier Iris is very well written and it is one of those RPG’s that will be enjoyed more by those new to the genre/who like things overly predictable than the pretentious RPG gourmet. I really hope you like amazingly linear games that allow for little to no deviation though. Because you’re going to get it.

Story Rating: 4/10

2. Graphics

Conversely, AI:EM is a beautiful game to look at. I felt deja vu when I saw some on the monsters, primarily the wolves and Mandragora, as if I had sent these exact character designs in other games. Maybe from one of the other Atelier games I played and they are just surfacing in my subconscious? Regardless, all the character designs, both monster and PC are wonderfully done and full of vibrant beautiful colours.

The backgrounds are a treat as well. Each locale is highly stylized and it’s always enjoyable to see what you can interact with and trying to figure out how you’ll be able to get certain items from their currently impossible to get locations.

The opening animation scene that begins when you turn the game on is lovely as well, and really sets the mood for the visual treat you’ll begin to witness.

The visuals really make up for the third rate plot of Atelier Iris, and often I’d keep playing to see a new effect or location or monster. There is some jag to the graphics, but it is only noticeable when you actively look for it.

Overall a great looking game. Atelier Iris is visual confirmation why I prefer 2D graphics to 3D. Look at me! I’m a cantankerous anachronism!

Graphics Rating: 8/10

3. Sound

The music in this game gets lodged in my head to the point where the only thing I have found that gets the score of Eternal Mana out is the theme song from “The Benny Hill Show.” Especially the opening animation song. I absolutely love it. And the same holds for all the music in the game. It’s an excellent score, and I wish they had done a bonus soundtrack for Eternal Mana like they did Phantom Brave, and I far prefer this game’s music to PB’s.

The voice acting too brought a smile to my face. I’m pretty sure the English version of Delsus is Crispin Freeman aka Zelgadis from “Slayers,” but I don’t have confirmation on that. Pity. It sounds just like him though. But he was in Phantom Brave…

The monsters have great vocals too. From Super Puni screaming “This is my SUPER super move!” to the Mandragora’s adorable germinate move, audio-wise, it’s hard not to love the excellent voice acting put into Atelier Iris.

As well, for those of you who are foaming at the mouth fan boys for Japanese voice acting, you’ll find the ability to have the original Japanese vocals available to you from the second the game begins. I strongly prefer the American version though. However, it’s excellent to have this option added to make all fans happy.

Everything about this game will appeal to the discerning audiophile. It’s one of the strongest games I’ve had the pleasure to review in this category in some time. The onlu complaint I can think of is Norn, but it’s because I hate furries/catgirls, and the voice actress does capture the annoying “You’re going to want to stick this character in a sack and drop it off a bridge” aspect perfectly.

Very strong wonderful showing from Nippon Ichi here.

Sound Rating: 10/10

4. Control and Gameplay

I’m just going to get my one big annoyance out of the way right now. I do not play RPG’s to deal with platforming style annoyances of “You must make this jump PERFECTLY of suffer.” And Eternal Mana has a “wee bit” of this. For example there’s a lava cave that you can only complete by navigating a series of jumps. And if you fail, you take a small amount of damage and have to try the jump again. However, the collision detection here is off just a smidgen and there are times when I would be standing on rock, and I’d take the 5-6 points of fire damage and my character would get blackface. You also have to deal with the fact in order to make the jumps, your character must be in the exact perfect spot and land in much the same fashion, meaning a crapload of trial and error. The jumping will frustrate you and frustrate you a lot. But thankfully these are rare occurrences that you have to put up with. Just…not rare enough for my tastes.

There some slowdown and outright freezing in the game, but these are again rare. I found that when I would access the Stone Mana tutorial the game would freeze up completely and I’d have to restart. Obviously after the first two times, I would choose no when the offer comes up, and I suggest you do the same. This happened with both my sale and beta copy of AI:EM and on two different PS2’s, so I’m assuming it’s a constant glitch. I hope I’m wrong though.

You’ll also encounter graphical slowdown in battles when a treasure chest appears, especially when one appears after you kill the last monster in combat, and occasionally, but thankfully rarest of all, you’ll get audio freezing and Lita will end up sounding like Max Headroom, as she’s the only character I ever got this glitch with.

So there are some frustrating Control issues at foot here.

Gameplay wise? Well, I would compare the battle system to being Valkyrie Profile’s (The only game ever to get a 10/10 from me) retarded little brother after being hit by a car, but that’s an insult to that game. Instead, I’m going to compare this game to Thousand Arms, because god knows it felt exactly like playing that for most of the game.

How does are the two games alike? Well, both involve a main character who monkeys with mana and fuses it to objects. Both involve far FAR too many random battles for their own good. Both feature turn based combat that allows you to switch out characters at a moment’s notice to add a bit more strategy to the game. Both have amazingly easy battles that will never provide any challenge or really require you to use special moves or any of the nifty attacks you earn and thus aside from very rare circumstances where certain enemies have immunities to basic attacks, will you ever you anything besides the same boring vanilla attack. Both games also allow your characters who are not in battle to earn half the experience your fighting characters received, meaning you will never really need to uses anyone beyond the first three characters you get in the game, thus making it so the others will only see action if you truly have a desire to see the later characters in combat.

However, Eternal Mana allows you to have three characters fighting for you at the same time where Thousand Arms only allowed basically one on one battles with a cheering squad for both fighters.

The actual combat system in Eternal Mana is turn based, yet it also factors in speed as a Strategy fighting game does, so the fastest character on the screen will always go first and on down. It also focuses on some attacking only costing half a turn (like Lita and Norn’s) while others make take two turns to complete.

In all there’s no real strategy in combat that you’ll ever have to develop as you’ll be barreling through practically every battle with minimal damage each time. Thanks to Klein being able to get a constant level of maxed amount mana throughout the game, you’ll have no problem constantly making healing items to use in or after combat.

So like the plot of Eternal Mana, the gameplay leaves a lot to be desired. The game is far too easy, and plays like one of the early Final Fantasy games in terms of no challenge or thinking skills required to make it past any of the enemies. And that includes the bosses. I can’t tell you how many times I would sigh after yet another battle that occurred after a measly few steps or how many battles I would just choose the attack command without any deviation what so ever.

The only thing good about the battles are the well designed monsters and the sound effects/voice acting that accompanied them.

Eternal Mana has everything I generally dislike about turn based RPG’s with some added platformer style annoyance to accompany it. It’s not to say it is a bad game. Just a boring one. I play games to get my mind’s juices flowing. There’s just no depth to the actual engine, and anything actually worth actively using your brain for in this game involves creating objects and menu items.

Shallow, poorly designed combat engine lacking any real need to explore what little was even provided to the gamer. That’s this game in a nutshell

Control and Gameplay Rating: 4/10

5. Replayability

Well, with only one ending, and a very linear plot, there’s almost no reason at all to even think of replaying this game.

Note the almost.

See, you can unlock movies, sounds, profiles, and art by making/finding certain objects and bringing them to Lector the Collector. If you don’t get them all the first time around (and as there’s over 300 objects, this wouldn’t surprise me), and you really want to view everything, this would be your only recourse.

As well, after you beat the game, a hidden dungeon does open up for more fun. But then, that’s only for those that somehow couldn’t get enough of the gameplay, which I hope is a meager few currently residing at a state institution.

Other than this, there’s no reason to play this game more than once. It’s not like you can miss anything at all thanks to this game being so linear it makes other games look like they suffer from scoliosis.

You can beat it over a weekend if you really want to. I suggest renting or borrowing the game and then seeing if it is something you really want to drop fifty dollars on.

Replayability Rating: 3/10

6. Balance

Okay, considering AI:EM is a game my RABBIT could beat if I could only teach him to hit the X button repeatedly on the Dual Shock controller, this should tell you how amazingly easy you are going to find this game.

There is no challenge. None at all. The AI in this game is predictable and basically mindless. There is not a single battle where you will worry about possibly losing. I only had ONE character get knocked down to 0 hit points through the entire course of the game.

And what is worse is, if I wanted to, the game could have been even easier. Through the right combination of items Delsis and Arlin can be unstoppable tanks of crazy high levels of damage and defense. Same with mana crystal fusing. This is an ability Klein gets about 6-8 hours into the game. There are also certain areas where monsters just keep dropping these things. You collect 9 (the max you can hold), go back to your base, fuse them to make one super crystal, add it to your weapon, and wham! You’re doing crazy levels of damage.

I don’t think I’ve played a game on the Playstation 2 this easy to beat. I could see this game being an RPG for beginners, but I can’t image any gamer whose played through a handful of RPG’s even remotely being phased by this game. Eternal Mana is a Gygaxian munchkin’s dream come true.

Balance Rating: 1/10

7. Originality

Well, to be honest, the plot’s from countless other games, the fusion system is from Legend of Mana and Star Ocean 2, the gameplay is from Final Fantasy, Thousand Arms, and other turn based RPG’s. And the characters are all RPG cliches since the dawn of the genre.

Really and truly, there is almost nothing at all original about this game. Sure, it’s not plagiarism, but it’s very much got the feel of “Holy crap, sixth game in the series! Is there anything left that we haven’t recycled?”

That’s not to say this is a bad game. It’s not. It’s just lacking in any innovation, creativity, originality, or any substance. Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana is the new crown prince of generic vanilla RPG’s, lost adrift in a sea of mediocrity.

The only think I can think of as original is the mana wheel you have in villages and dungeons that let you use various manas on the field to achieve special effects. But even that is grasping at straws.

There’s nothing truly bad or wrong with AI:EM, but there’s nothing good about it either. And especially nothing original.

Originality Rating: 1/10

8. Addictiveness

I know I’ve really slagged this game throughout this review, but that doesn’t mean it’s a terrible game. It’s a decent one, and I enjoyed playing it for the most part, thanks to a some well written dialogue.

The game managed to suck me in with the creation process. Unlike Star Ocean 2, where you spend more time in the game making items than actually progressing with the plot, the creation and collection aspects of AI:EM are actually important for your characters and for you. New items give you a better chance at unlocking various things. The monster guide gives you your enemies’ HP, EXP, and gold for defeating info. Plus, most of all, making new items helps unlock little bits of story about shopkeepers, which is a nice addition, as two of these shop keeps are the most original characters in the game and by far the most fun to read/hear.

I’d fine myself trying to make new sashimi recipes in hopes that THIS ONE would be the one I needed to finish off the Sashimi platter set and unlock something new and fun. Or that I would see how long it took for one of Lita’s special abilities to manifest and how powerful she would eventually get from doing this repeatedly. Little things like that.

Yes the game is generic, and yes the game is mind boggingly easy, but AI:EM still manages to be FUN. A great soundtrack, some excellent visuals, and a localization team who tried to throw in some great comedy bits in an attempt to hide a plot that is like trying to squeeze blood from a stone helps out a lot and I was often hooked into playing just a little bit more.

It also helped when a new dungeon or location FINALLY opened up in the game, because I would be excited to see something new instead of the same god forsaken locations again and again.

So yes, I do bitch about a ton of problems that this game is saddled with, but I’d be lying if I didn’t find it fun at times, and also spent a good portion of my 4th of July weekend playing this.

Addictiveness Rating: 6/10

9. Appeal Factor

Nippon Ichi has a steamroller of praise after their last few games, and a strong cult status right now. Hell, I count myself amongst that group. As soon as I hear a new Nippon Ichi game is coming stateside, I preorder it. I’ve been a fanatic since Atlus brought Rhapsody over in 2000.

If you’re new to RPG’s, you’ll love this game. You really will. You’ll find the plot original and refreshing, and the graphics and sound will just add to it. If you’re a long time fan of the genre, you’ll most likely have the same anal retentive issues I had with this game, but you’ll still be able to see the positive and good things inherent in this game.

Eternal Mana has a built in audience already prepped for it, and I’d wager a good third of them will be vastly disappointed with the end result, as I was. However, I think if you were going to introduce someone to the world of turn based RPG’s, I’d certainly hand this to a new gamer. It’s shallow and easy and thus the gamer will be easier to hook on the genre. ;-)

I can’t imagine anyone saying this will be/is the greatest RPG they’ve ever played, much less the best one they will play this year, but there is quality. It just makes me wish Gust had tried to be original instead of caving and making a game that could basically be a carbon copy of dozens upon dozens of other games.

Appeal Factor: 6/10

10. Miscellaneous

There’s a lot I liked about Atelier Iris that didn’t fit under any other categories. I really loved the Fourth Wall being broken with the lectures/Help Section, and found the dialogue in those to be the most original and amusing in the game.

I had fun trying to figure out which items on the screen could extract elements from and even though there was a lot of overdone cliches in this game, there were some I couldn’t help loving, like the womanzing drunken lout of a warrior. Delsus saved huge chunks of the game for me.

Same with little things like Lector’s obsession with trying to pet the cat girl. It are these rare flashes of brilliance in the game that made me enjoy it, and made me even more pissed because it showed Gust was capable of making a tremendous RPG, but instead decided to fall back on the safer stereotypes of the genre.

But instead of focusing on what could have been, let’s look at what is here.

And what IS here is a mediocre game balanced out by having equal aspects of underwhelming/outright sucking and very well done/wonderful.

Eternal Mana really will be a hit or miss game with RPG fans. How much you enjoy it will really depend on how long you’ve been playing games in this genre and how many. The more engrossed with RPG gaming you are, the most assuredly this game will fall further and further off the “enjoyable meter” for you.

Miscellaneous Rating: 5/10

The Scores
Story: 4
Graphics: 8
Sound: 10
Gameplay/Control: 4
Replayability: 3
Balance: 1
Originality: 1
Addictiveness: 6
Appeal Factor: 6
Miscellaneous: 5
Overall Score: 4.8

Final Score: 5.0

Short Attention Span Summary
I honestly can’t recommend someone picking up this game for fifty dollars. It’s short by RPG standards, and it’s just got little to nothing that makes this stand out as a must buy. There’s so many better RPG’s with a higher degree of difficulty and a more original story that beating Eternal Mana gives you the same triumph of coming in second in a race when you’re the only competitor to have both legs. Thank god Makai Kingdom is out in a few weeks to allow us to forget this game.