Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy
Publisher: NIS America
Release Date: 08/25/09
Since Atelier Iris, Gust has made a name for itself among American Playstation 2 audiences in the realm of Japanese-developed RPG titles, with a number of its characters faring enough in popularity to be included in JRPG mashups such as Cross Edge. Thankfully, NIS America has this genre in mind for us, publishing a number of the company’s titles stateside – this brings us to the recent release of Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy, the follow-up to the Gust-developed license that debuted in the U.S. last year on the PS2 and PSP. Admittedly, even though Mana Khemia was a great entry on its own merit, this initial title had its share of issues, most notably in its balancing. It appears Gust took player feedback to heart for its sequel and even though many gamers have moved on to the greener pastures of the Playstation 3, Mana Khemia 2 serves as a shining example that quality games are still making their way to the previous generation and a great addition to any Playstation 2 owner’s RPG library.
Up front, if you are familiar with the first title, there isn’t much surprise in the setup of Mana Khemia 2. However, this entry approaches the familiar mechanic in a new way. Fall of Alchemy branches the game’s story into two viewpoints, allowing players to charge through the Al-Revis school year as royal servant Razeluxe “Raze”Â Meitzen, dragged to the school by the heiress he works for, or Ulrika Mulberry, a small-town girl looking to find the secret to hatching her mana egg. With two separate paths, this also gives players a different cast of party members that the two characters associate themselves with, extending the storylines and giving the player different viewpoints of instances where these two different sets of characters interact.
The main character backgrounds are also a relief as we get to avoid the ultra-anime/RPG cliché of an amnesic protagonist and neither of the main characters fall into the “hero”Â mold. They have their own personal agenda to attend to while putting up with what other people throw at them, making them more interesting in my book than those involved in the contrived “save the world”Â plots you typically see in this genre of games. Much like the first title, free time periods also allow players to take part in separate side quests that unveil optional storylines based on your party members. This means there is a lot of story to unfold in the game and with the diverse cast of characters seen in the title, you get equal mixes of humor and plot advancement with some scenarios only unfolding depending on how you play the game. These scenarios don’t even take into account the multiple endings per character, so seeing the entire scope of the title will take a lot of footwork.
The other change to the original title’s main mechanics gets worked into the game’s storyline: Mana Khemia 2 takes place a good number of years following the first title and if the subtitle of the game didn’t clue you in, Al-Revis isn’t doing so hot. Zeppel is now the principal of the school and through the course of his supervision, mana is mysteriously vanishing from the world, resulting in fewer students and the sudden decrease in magical power from the missing mana has caused the previously floating school to come crashing down to the ground. With these occurrences, it has become harder to draw interest in the school and quality teachers have been difficult to keep a hold of, meaning the academy is on the verge of bankruptcy. This causes the school’s biggest financer, Marta Schevesti, to step in and take control as majority “shareholder.” This results in some big changes such as accepting anyone or thing that enrolls, students only attending the school for one year before graduating and offering non-alchemy classes such as combat. The staff gets a little bizarre, most notably with Flay Gunnar from the original game becoming the school’s vice principal and head combat instructor. Sadly, it appears this is the final year the school plans on offering alchemy due the turn of events and this is the year the player is enrolled into the school. Outside of these minor changes, Mana Khemia 2 still holds true to the original title – sign up for classes, complete assignments for grades and mix useless crap together to create useful items.
You could almost say Mana Khemia 2 plays out just like the original title in its battle, leveling and alchemy mechanics and that’s a fair assessment, it’s just the sequel tweaks everything for (mostly) the better, arguably making it the game it should have been in the first place. All of the game’s menus and interfaces have been streamlined for a better ease of use, such as the grow book (more on this later) being relegated to a simple icon-based menu as opposed the expansive sphere-based menu from the first title. This doesn’t mean every change is beneficial as I found the ring-based turn indicator during battle is little harder to read (especially at the ends where the icons bunch on top of each other) as opposed to the linear-based indicator in the first title, but players will still pick up these nuances in no time. The sequel also tweaks a number of the unique systems introduced in the original, such as the unite mode that bolsters the speed and strength of your team by working strategically and the co-op support attacks. The balance seems to be a lot more on par in the sequel, as the stuns seemed to be less abusive than in the first title, the support system is a bit more balanced and the alchemy progression seems to flow a little bit better in progression with the strength of the enemies.
For those who didn’t pick up on the first title, Mana Khemia 2 still takes full advantage of the game’s academy setup. Players are enrolled in classes and each class assigns “homework,”Â which the player completes for a grade that determines their progress through the year, which consists of four quarters plus events inbetween. These tasks vary in their approach and get progressively harder as the player advances in terms. Some are as simple as retrieving a single item from an environment, while others will require you to kill specific enemies with a certain technique or crafting items with specific alchemy levels. These tasks are evaluated with a letter grade, with grades adding credit units to your record as long as you do not lose in battle while on assignment or completely fail to do any facet of the assignment. Players have to accumulate ten units per term or else they will have to take extra remedial classes. If players accumulate the units prior to the end of the term, any remaining time left in the term becomes free time for the player to do whatever they wish to do during those weeks. While the system does carry over from the original title, it is pretty unique to the genre and the grading does seem to be a tad less lenient than in the first title, requiring players to step up their game if they want to get as much free time as possible.
The turn-based battle system will be second nature to anyone who has ever picked up any title ever created in this genre, but there are a few bits of uniqueness to the environment navigation, which presents monsters as icons the players can avoid if they want to stay out of a battle. Nearly all of the battle mechanics carry over from the original title, but there is a bit more strategy involved to these battles thanks to repeating attacks, support and limited resources. Characters also progress outside of the normal RPG means, as mowing down tons of enemies will increase maximum health and special points, but all other stats are increased through the grow book. As players create items through alchemy, these items are attributed to specific characters and will appear in that section of the grow book. Players can then spend AP earned from battle to purchase stat boosts from the grow book entries that even expand into extra melee hits in combat and more skills outside of the typical increases in attack and defense. The grow book also provides a third boost slot if you can craft the item with a perfect 100 ether rating (which is done through experimenting with item combinations, character usage and matching up the elements of the items) and filling the book opens up new character classes that grant special abilities, meaning players will spend a large amount of time crafting items and see them spending more time with the features than they normally would.
While the game borrows its elements heavily from the original title, they differ greatly from the RPG norm and the tweaks made to the mechanics enhance the features for the most part. With as much as there is to do in the title, players who get caught up in micromanagement and item combinations will be glued to the game for quite some time. Mana Khemia also offers plenty of reasons to come back to it as just one of the character’s stories will see players putting at least 20-25 hours into the title and when you throw in the playtime of the other character, tackling multiple event scenarios and endings, extras that pop up when you finish the game and the goal of 100 percent completion in your grow book and encyclopedias, completists will most likely be playing this title through the end of the year. The playtime alone should be appealing enough, but the game’s real attraction is in being an original, quality RPG title among the sea of Playstation 2 games that are quickly becoming nothing but afterthoughts of titles seen on current generation systems. Plus, the special edition that comes with the game’s soundtrack creates an attractive, overall package.
Speaking of the soundtrack, Mana Khemia 2 once again strikes paydirt in the audio. While some of the music can become quite repetitive, each environmental theme is extremely fitting and the battle music is equally motivating. The title gives you a toggle to alternate between English and Japanese voices and both versions get the job done well, but if you are into the genre, you’ll most likely switch over to Japanese voices – it’s just a habit. The graphics are an impressive package as well, although the character sprite work looks a little less detailed than the 3D crafted environments, aside from the impressive-looking bigger enemies. Some of the images can be a bit fuzzy when viewed up close and a few of the expansive environments can be drab (such as the never-ending blue of the bodies of water), but everything comes together to be visually pleasing. Everything pops out in anime-quality vivid colors and the environments experience very noticeable changes between the game’s day and night cycles – even at the beginning of the game, being on the training bridge at dusk displays an impressive splash of orange into the scene. You’ll also get an impressive display through the game’s many special attacks, which explode with color and light. A lot of the menus also appear lively thanks to subtle animations and the location selection menu comes alive with notable enemies and characters jumping through the scene.
Unfortunately, the story is told in typical fashion, two or three static character stills per character, with a lot of dialogue to read. You’ll get a nice anime intro, but outside of that, you’ll be reading a lot of dialog, so much that at the beginning, it is about 20-30 minutes before you even get to do anything. There’s even a few typos among the dialog, but there is a lot to see and it doesn’t happen anywhere near enough that it becomes a distraction.
Graphics: VERY GOOD
Replayability: VERY GOOD
Addictiveness: VERY GOOD
Appeal Factor: GOOD
The Final Rating: GREAT GAME
Short Attention Span Summary
Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy carries on the series, turning the original title into a more manageable and balanced game than the original, thanks to its tweaks and better ease of use. The title is proof that quality Playstation 2 titles can still be made even though the industry’s mindset is now focused on the next group of systems. An insane amount of play time is required to see everything the game has to offer and micromanagement fans and completionists will go nuts over what the game has to offer. When you place impressive visuals, wonderful sound and unique gameplay mechanics on top of that, you end up with a great RPG in Mana Khemia 2. The title plays nearly identical to the first, but thanks to number of tweaks stemming from player feedback, Gust remedied most of the huge, nagging issues with the game (while arguably changing a few things for the worse, to be fair). The story is much more interesting by ditching genre clichés and the mechanics are bit easier to surf through, debatably making the sequel the game the original should have been.