Review: Mana Khemia: Student Alliance (Sony PSP)

Mana Khemia: Student Alliance
Publisher: Nippon Ichi
Developer: Gust
Genre: Turn Based RPG
Release Date: 03/10/2009


Mana Khemia is a spin-off from the Atelier series. I have to admit the last game in that series that I reviewed, Atelier Iris was decidedly mediocre. However when our own Will Quinn reviewed the PS2 version of this game, nearly a year ago he raved about it. This piqued my interest and so when the PSP version arrived from our friends at Nippon Ichi I knew I wanted to give this a try.

Now Student Alliance isn’t a direct port of Alchemists of Al-Revis. They’ve added network play, new items, monsters, equipment and items. However they’ve also added some of the worst loading times and game lag I’ve seen on the PSP since the Smackdown Vs. Raw series. However, to combat this, Student Alliance has added the Jump pack feature, which loads the game onto your memory stick and dramatically decreased the loading time and lag. The only problem with this is that you will need at least 290MB of free space. If you don’t the game’s not worth playing (or even picking up) until you do. If you do have a large enough memory stick, make sure this is the first thing you do when you put the UMB in your PSP.

Aside from this important note about the game, how is Mana Khemia? Sure it lacks all the neat kitsch that the PS2 version came with, but how is the GAME itself?

Let’s Review

1. Story

Much like the Atelier series, the focus of Mana Khemia is alchemy. This time however, you’re placed into a school setting as your protagonist, Vayne Aurelius, goes through the motions of academy life along with his friends and rivals. Vayne is a pretty weak main character, as he’s very timid and wishy-washy. He’s also the clich├ęd amnesiac with a mysterious past. As you can imagine a good chunk of the game is split between Vayne and his friends taking classes while a group of people who realize who/what Vayne really is plans to manipulate him. Yes, it’s a pretty generic storyline we’ve seen several times before, but thankfully the supporting cast of Mana Khemia more than makes up for it. Your core teammates of Jessica, Nikki, Flay and Sulpher the Mana Cat are wonderfully written and there’s a great team dynamic.

You proceed through the game on a weekly basis. Each week you’ll have to earn enough credit units from your classes in order to advance. If you earn enough, you’ll get free time to try side quests or optional story points that will lead you to one of over half a dozen endings. If not, you’re going to have to take remedial classes to get your unit levels up.

The first two chapters of the game are pretty slow but thankfully things pick up. Still, due to the sheer amount of running from one place to another just to synthesize or make items, the actual plot progression is cut down dramatically compared to other RPG’s. You have to go into Mana Khemia knowing that there in order to get to the good, you have to wade through a lot of slow bits. In you can get used to the drag, you’ll find a fun but sometimes generic JRPG for your PSP.

Story Rating: Enjoyable

2. Graphics

Mana Khemia is the prettiest game in the Atelier series that I’ve had the chance to play. You can definitely tell this is a PS2 port though, as there are some noticeable jaggies. Still a lot of the monsters are very pretty to look at, and the returning monsters from other Atelier have never looked better. I do wish a certain Putti still said, “This is my SUPER super move!”, but that’s more a quibble for the audio section. I also love that the in-school navigation boasts some adorable (and comical) animations while you are trying to decide where to go next.

One thing you will notice without the Jump Start option is a great deal of slowdown. One of the things you’ll learn about this game is you have to touch a monster in order to start combat. If you hit it, the battle will be easier. If it hits you, you’re in more a harder time. Thanks to the slowdown, there are times when you are trying to avoid a monster when the game will stall for a few seconds. Then when it starts up again the monster will get to move a bit sooner than you and well, I think it’s obvious what happens. This is especially dangerous if your characters are injured or in need of help.

Mana Khemia is certainly a pretty game, but it seems to have suffered from some compression issues in this port and the slowdown from loading the monsters on the battle map can severely affect your game. You’re going to have to take the good with the bad here.

Graphics Rating: Above Average

3. Sound

I love the music in this game. I caught myself whistling tracks from this game for days, especially the track for when you are “walking” around the school via the Sulpher icon. It’s a great score, and I wish Mana Khemia had included a bonus soundtrack for this game as it did for Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero? You know, like the PS2 version had…

The voice acting is great too. I know a lot of Nippon Ichi fans are disappointed that the Japanese voice acting for the game had to be dropped, but I’m happy to report that the US voice acting cast did an awesome jobs. There’s a wonderful sense of camaraderie and charisma between the characters, and this is all thanks to the English dub.

There’s not a lot here for sound effects aside from what you hear with magic spells or an across the board noise for attacks. As such battles will give you the same sounds constantly, and as there are a lot of battles to endure, even if you try and skip several of them, this might be the only way the aural aspects of the game begin to grate on you.

Nippon Ichi is doing a great job with the PSP this year in regards to both soundtracks and voice acting. It’ll be fun to see what they bring to this underrated handheld next.

Sound Rating: Great

4. Control and Gameplay

Mana Khemia has exactly what you would expect from a turn based JRPG. You have dungeon exploring. You have battles where you stand on one side, take a few steps, cast a spell or swing your weapon and then return to your base starting position and let the next character take their shot. You purchase items and equipment them to let your character do more take or have a higher defense. However, this is very all the similarities end.

The one thing you’ll notice right away is that you don’t level up in this game. For those of you who like to munchkin up your characters for easy boss battles, you’re going to find yourself in a world of hurt here. The only way to get your characters stats and health up is to synthesize new items and equipment. However in order to do this, you have to find an item’s recipe. Trying to mix and match to get a new recipe or accidentally create a new items doesn’t really work here. This makes creating items and designing your characters VERY linear and it can really drag at times as the whole process is: fight a battle, get an item, go back to the workshop, synthesize necessary items, go to the Athanor Room, synthesize equipment, pick the effects you want for the equipment, and repeat for everything in the game. As I mentioned earlier this takes a VERY LONG TIME to get anywhere and as such Mama Khemia is a game with a very slow burn and recommended for those with a lot of patience.

Then there is the Grow Book. At first glance it appears to be like the awesome skill leaning tree from Digital Devil Saga 1 or Final Fantasy XII. Alas, it’s not. In fact it’s a bit of a letdown. In order to even use the Brow Book, you first have to find a recipe. Then you make the recipe. Then you have to go back to the Grow Book and active the recipe in the Grow Book. Then you can buy skills or special abilities (Using SP, the equivalent of experience points in this game) for the activated item that vary from raising your hit points to teaching you a new magic power. THEN you have to go back to the Athanor Room to synthesize the equipment with these new abilities. Again, this is a loooong process. I’d have strongly preferred the ability to spend AP freely to unlock new things instead of progressing in such a linear fashion. It would have allowed the player to experiment and branch off in different directions and give the game far more replay value than it currently has. Instead the current system can get boring very quickly and leave the gamer wishing for more active participation instead of passively participating in their characters’ advancements.

I definitely had some issues with the character advancement process in this game, as combined with the loading times when I played the game without the Jump Start ground things to a literal halt. At the same time it was nice to try something this outside the box that JRPG’s usually fit so neatly into and the engine is well designed so I have no complaints there. Mana Khemia is certainly worth experiencing, even if it turns out that you too find it too be a bit too slow.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Above Average

5. Replayability

Although the game proceeds in a very linear fashion, it doesn’t stay that way for the entire game. Your decisions with Vayne in your free periods will lead you to one of seven or so eventual endings. This gives the game a lot of replay value if you’re interested in seeing all the endings. As well, once you have more than four characters on your team, you can mix and match who will be an active character and when you replay the game you can try using an entirely new set of characters for your main force. The only problem is again, the plodding pace of the game each time you play it.

So there you go – lots of endings, but you’ll have to get through a very linear game multiple times to get them.

Replayability Rating: Decent

6. Balance

Unlike Atelier Iris, which was so easy it kind of ruined the game for me, Mana Khemia can be pretty tough. The difficulty spike mainly stems from the fact you don’t gain levels in this game. This means you can run around a dungeon and hack away at enemies until you’re at a crazy high level and them streamroll through the boss. As well, there are a limited number of enemies in a dungeon so you’ll can only gain so much AP per dungeon crawl. Because you don’t level up you’ll have to decide between fighting battles for AP or making sure your characters have enough health and skill points to face the boss or sub-boss characters in the dungeons.

Another aspect that really adds to the strategy of the game is that time advances while in the dungeon. You start in a dungeon at noon and the graphics will change as time progresses. The later the hour, the more aggressive the enemy will be and the more damage they will do. So if you spend your time just killing every enemy you run across, not only will your health and special abilities be depleted, but you’ll have to face the boss when it’s at its meanest. Do you run through the dungeon for a quick kill or do you collect all the AP you can and just buy a lot of healing items to see you through rather than saving that cole (Money in the game) for alchemical items? I really loved how Mana Khemia forces you to make touch decisions and really think about your battle strategies outside of battle rather than being the mindless tedium that a lot of turn based RPG’s degenerate into.

Balance Rating: Good

7. Originality

As the umpteenth entry into the Atelier franchise, Mana Khemia isn’t what you would call a bastion of originality. In its defense, MK:SA has a few changes from the PS2 game to make it stand out. There’s also the character growth system. As much as I feel it is too slow and too linear, it really is a big change from the earlier Atelier titles and gives the franchise a fresh coat of paint.

I really enjoyed the school theme of this game and also the class structure. Hopefully the next game in the series will keep this structure with an improved Grow Book.

Originality Rating: Mediocre

8. Addictiveness

Although I enjoyed this game’s story and characters far more than the ones in Atelier Iris, I had a hard time getting into the game. I know I’ve harped on the slow moving plot and alchemy system in the game so I won’t continue to beat that dead horse aside from saying it really killed my enjoyment of this game.

I am also glad I used the Jump Start option for most of the game. Without it I’d have probably gone mad from the delays and massive loading times. I tried the game without the Jump Start for a bit just to see what it would be like and I have to thank Gust and Nippon Ichi for being astute enough to include. It saved the game from getting an outright thumbs down into a slight thumb’s up.

I’d have to say I’d have preferred to sit through Mana Khemia as an anime series rather than play the game again. The voice cast and overall plot would have been suited for the usual 26 episode romp rather than being bogged down by the synthesizing and load times.

Addictiveness Rating: Mediocre

9. Appeal Factor

I’m going to have to give this a thumb’s in the middle here. Most people I know with a PSP have the four gig memory stick these days thanks to Sony’s support with fully downloaded games through the PSP Store. Those that don’t have a large enough memory stick for Mana Khemia might as well not even purchase the game. The different in loading times and slowdown is that severe.

The other odd conundrum is that Nippon Ichi has a niche but highly devoted fanbase. No doubt most of them have already purchased the PS2 version, especially as it came with a nifty statue and soundtrack CD. It will be interesting to see how this sells compared to the PS2 version and how many people pick up both versions.

If you’ve never played an Atelier game for, this is actually the one I’d recommend to start with as I think it’s the best in the series that has been localized so far. At the same time, even with the extras, I think it’d be better to advise you to find the PS2 version for the extras, if not the loading speed.

Appeal Factor: Mediocre

10. Miscellaneous

It’s nice to see that Student Alliance has some new pieces added to it so that even people who have played the PS2 version have something new to look forward to. I also am impressed that Nippon Ichi released this at a budget price of $29.99, even though most PSP games go for ten dollars more. That’s a great selling point for people looking for a new PSP game or are especially looking for a portable RPG.

I’m also happy to see Nippon Ichi supporting the PSP, almost more than any other publisher out there. Yes it’s a niche system and a niche publisher, but with PSP fans starved for quality games (or any games really) and Nippon Ichi throws us this and Prinny in the same quarter, PSP owners who might have never played something like Disgaea or Makai Kingdom have a chance to pick either of these games up and experience a Nippon Ichi title for the first time and hopefully open a gateway to the SRPG titles they are best known for.

Smart marketing strategies all around. Now where’s that soundtrack?

Miscellaneous Rating: Good

The Scores
Story/Modes: Enjotable
Graphics: Above Average
Sound: Great
Control and Gameplay: Above Average
Replayability: Decent
Balance: Good
Originality: Mediocre
Addictiveness: Mediocre
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
Miscellaneous: Good
FINAL SCORE: ABOVE AVERAGE GAME

Short Attention Span Summary
Mana Khemia: Student Alliance is a nice little addition to anyone’s PSP library. Although I can’t recommend to anyone without a large enough memory stick to install the Jump Start option, those that make use of it will find a charming RPG with memorable characters. Of course they’ll also find one of the slowest character advancement systems I’ve ever encountered, but at least it’s a change of pace from the usual grinding one finds in a turn based RPG.