Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm Review
Sometimes, it's sad to see the old classic style of RPGs disappearing; the traditional turn-based battle format fused with a linear - yet entertaining - adventure. But you could always turn to Nippon Ichi in the last generation to deliver throwback RPG (or strategy) experiences with a twist of enhancement and new-age upgrading. One example of this was Gust's Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, which featured a surprisingly charming cast of characters along with the prototypical 2D turn-based combat. Alchemy represented the aforementioned twist, which allowed the player to create new and improved items from their current stash of equipment. It wasn't great, but it was singularly appealing, and the sequel was awfully similar. Now, enter the third installment, Grand Phantasm.
The graphics remain as pretty as ever; in addition to the gorgeous Odin Sphere, this particular title ranks as one of the prettiest quasi-2D games available on the PS2. There's a ton of color in the environment, some beautiful and even intricate detail in the towns, backdrops, and characters, and the entire visual presentation is just brimming with vibrant life. The only problem is it still appears extremely dated by today's standards. They simply don't do enough with that solid foundation, and there's too much blandness and repetition in many of the fields of play. Fans of the previous two titles certainly won't have a problem with the graphics, and even hardcore RPG fans who appreciate this kind of presentation will like what they see. But that's the best that can be said for Grand Phantasm, unfortunately.
The sound is highlighted by the welcome inclusion of some engaging and comical voice acting, which - as was the case with the other games in the series - adds a great deal to the immersion factor. You can really get caught up in the cute characters and zany sound effects, and the soundtrack isn't half-bad. But it's not as good as it was in the original Atelier Iris, and you'll eventually grow tired of the upbeat little ditties, which sometimes don't gel with the situations experienced onscreen; strangely "happy" tracks accompany even the most somber situations. The voice acting, despite the inherent quality, can be a bit uneven as well. Some characters are great while others are so annoying; you'd rather chew nails than hear one more word. Too many of the combat effects are basically identical to what we heard in previous entries in the series, and you never really feel as if you're in an intense battle. That catoon-y exterior works...but only to a point.
As for the gameplay, the turn-based combat returns, but the basic structure has changed a bit. Rather than embarking on a very linear, story-driven quest that boasts side-quests at a later time, you're given side quests right from the start...but they're not really "side quests." And unfortunately, it's these missions that end up stealing the spotlight from the main story, which is a huge failing from a game development standpoint. It may have seemed like a good idea to include a Guild where you could accept a variety of different missions almost from the moment you kick off the primary adventure, but it doesn't work. Why? Well, the Guild missions turn out to be requirements; you must take them on in order to level up your party, and you're only allowed to progress in the main storyline when you reach the appropriate level. And that, without a doubt, is a terrible way to go about doing things in an RPG.
But at the very least, Gust once again got one thing right- the character appeal. A young man named Edge is the main character, who is a little stand-offish and egotistical, but in a kooky and comical sort of way (much like all the other characters). His good friend Iris is also the off-the-wall, but in a different way; she's the personable type that endears herself immediately to the player. You will obtain more party members as you advance, of course, and before long, you'll have befriended a lovable supporting cast that even includes a ghost. And with your capable and charismatic crew, you will discover the fantasy creatures known as manas, which will help you in your main goal. See, you're trying to locate these gems that will assist you in "gaining your every wish," but we won't give away any more than that. Everybody - and everything living - you encounter is just dripping with imaginative personality, so you'll never feel alone or without friends in such a cordial and pleasant environment.
Despite the straightforward and expected structure, there is one significant addition to the gameplay- the alterworlds. That's just a fancy name for the dungeons, forests, and other battlefields you'll explore in the game, and it's where you'll spend most of your time leveling up the party. But there's a catch. Each alterworld has a set time limit, and once that limit is up, you're immediately brought back to town, whether or not you've completed your objective. You're typically looking for an item or something, but if you can't find it in the time allotted, you've got to head back and start all over again. On the surface, this appears to be a nice little change-up to the standard format, but it just gets frustrating and far too repetitive later on in the game. And if you consider the fact that you're spending most of your time there, it only makes your adventure that much more sterile and uninteresting. In all, the quest design simply doesn't work well enough for this style of RPG.
Furthermore, Gust decided to eliminate the active time system found in Atelier Iris 2, returning to the cut-and-dry turn-based combat formula. The only thing even remotely intriguing about this is the new Burst meter, which fills during combat. Basically, it's just a straight rip-off of the Limit Breaks in the Final Fantasy franchise, but at least it adds some much-needed flavor to Grand Phantasm. The item synthesis through Alchemy has returned, though, much to the satisfaction of micromanagement fans. Just about everything can be created in your trusty cauldron, and some of those new creations are essential to your advancement. This is normally a fun and semi-involved process, and you can spend plenty of time whipping up a slew of new goodies, but it's really not enough to hold your interest for very long. Alchemy remains a well devised and implemented system - and Iris is a very entertaining "brewer" - but it's not robust enough to establish a firm backbone for the gameplay.
On the whole, ,Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm is a mildly appealing and amusing RPG, but in comparison to the better role-playing experiences on the market, it's little more than a pleasant diversion. The characters are great, the colorful world is the perfect setting for such a premise, and the Alchemy is generally good fun. But the biggest drawback centers on the progression plan, which forces you to take on seemingly random Guild quests, again and again, so as to get your party to the required levels. This just takes the player right out of the main story (which is mostly generic and uninspired, anyway), and the absence of the time active battles is a definite step back. The Burst meter certainly doesn't make up for it, and there are far better standard turn-based battle formats in many other RPGs of the last generation.
Sadly, we have to say that both previous Atelier Iris titles were better than this one, although Grand Phantasm does maintain that excellent sense of humor. Fans of the first two games will probably enjoy this one, too, but they certainly shouldn't expect the best of the series.
7/12/2007 Ben Dutka