Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis Review
Some believe the Japanese RPG is on the way out; it had its heyday back in the days of the SNES and PS1, and now, most developers are moving past the old-fashioned gameplay concepts and opening up into more non-linear, less story-oriented adventures. Those of us who will always love many JRPGs find this to be a most depressing turn of events, especially considering the fact that we’ve had very few RPGs (Japanese or otherwise) so far in this new generation. The PS2, on the other hand, continues to roll along at a fairly decent clip, and the latest RPG is Mana Khemia: Masters of Al-Revis, which is yet another installment in Gust’s series that began with Atelier Iris. In some ways it continues with the concepts laid forth in that original title, but in other ways, they change the very foundation of the gameplay. Bottom line? We can’t really tell if any of the changes are for the better, primarily because the game tends to drag…even for the hardcore JRPG fan.
The graphics have that pretty old-school flair to them, but for some bizarre reason, they seem fuzzy and out-of-focus. Obviously, we are well aware that this is intended in the visual presentation, but we miss the vibrant clarity they had in the Atelier Iris games. In fact, in looking back, we vastly prefer the graphics in the original over Mana Khemia which just released in the US in 2008. The character design is okay, the backdrops can be very pretty depending on the area, and there’s some interesting detail that spruces up the atmosphere, but that’s about where it ends. It just seems as if they took a step backwards almost on purpose, perhaps to lend the game a more fantastical, more surrealistic feeling. Perhaps for some of you, this works, but for us, it just falls flat. We have little in the way of technical complaints – the graphics shine most in battle, which is a positive thing – but we just can’t accept this as another step forward for the series. We don’t require Final Fantasy XII visuals, but this is just plain lacking.
The sound is slightly better thanks to a solid (albeit somewhat repetitive) soundtrack and a nice variety of sound effects during combat. As for the voice acting, it ranges from good to downright atrocious, and every time we met a new character, we found ourselves cringing in anxiety and trepidation…will the voice be okay, or will it grate on our nerves? In all honesty, if you’re not going to sign on professional actors, don’t even bother with adding voiceovers. We realize it’s a supposed necessity in this day and age, but this is very clearly an old-style RPG from front to back, so it wouldn’t have been too weird to simply see text. Still, the upbeat and sometimes even kooky music adds a degree of appropriate charm, and as was the case with the graphics, the sound really shines during battle. Everything is clear and resonates nicely, and while the character exclamations when fighting can get annoying – there just aren’t enough variations – they still add a little flair. In general, the sound does fit the story, environment, and script, so we shouldn’t complain too much.
For whatever reason, JRPG developers are really into this whole school setting these days. We’re not exactly sure when it started but we’ve been noticing this trend of a university/college/high school setting for a while; a recent example would be Persona 3, and it’s the underlying theme in Masters of Al-Revis. You take the role of Vayne, a young man who is traditionally unaware of his inherent abilities (despite the relatively obvious hint that he owns a talking cat, known as a Mana), who is about to get a lesson – pun intended – in the complex art of Alchemy. Alchemy is the process where you toss a set of raw materials into a big cauldron, and if everything goes well, you will emerge with a brand new item. This isn’t altogether new for the JRPG genre, as many of you may recall the Synthesis option in the long-running Star Ocean franchise, and there are plenty of other examples of item invention in other role-playing titles. However, while most of those games only have this as an extra feature, the very premise is built around Alchemy in Mana Khemia.
Now, we wouldn’t necessarily have a problem with this if Gust didn’t fall in love with their new school setting and beat us over the head with it early on. At first, it appeared we’d be able to jump right in and get started, but “getting started” involves a lot of learning in the Academy, with not much in the way of exploration. Thankfully, much of the “learning” involves real moving and fighting (you’re not sitting in class), and due to the extremely fast speed of the combat, it allows you to progress at a rapid clip. We just wish we weren’t tied to the Academy, signing up for new assignments and being spoon-fed a story that isn’t what we’d call original or engrossing. It’s not bad, per se, and there are a few interesting twists and turns, but in direct comparison to some of the better storylines in other RPGs, it’s not too impressive. Terrible voice acting can hinder character depiction and development, and some characters just seem tacked on for the sake of having a new face. And because most everything revolves around the Academy, you’ll be limited to…well, revolving around the Academy.
You can walk, run, jump and even attack with Vayne’s sword while running around, which gives the standard turn-based gameplay a little extra push. Vayne can clear grass away with his sword (like Link!) and strike enemies as well before they attack him, thereby giving the team the advantage during battle. In fact, if your party is significantly more powerful than the enemy, that strike – which is made when you see the enemy on the map, before combat begins – can instantly defeat it. Jumping is done easily enough with the Circle button, and the battles take place as they would in any old-school 2D RPG: you’ve got a horizontal field, with your party on the right and the enemies on the left. There’s a time bar on the top so you know when each unit will move, a Burst Meter that fills as you inflict damage on your foes, and the typical options of Attack, Item, Skill, and Guard. You are rewarded for landing a critical blow and if you exploit an enemy’s weakness; the Burst Meter will fill faster, therefore letting you unleash a super powerful assault sooner than normal.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise to learn that Alchemy plays a large role in battle, too, although it’s an indirect role. You can make just about anything in that nifty cauldron, and if you do enough uncovering of items and enough buying in the Student Store, you can really invent plenty of sweet new things to take into combat. However, we never had enough incentive to keep practicing Alchemy, just because there’s a bit of luck involved that we don’t really appreciate and the actual process itself is somewhat boring. Being able to jump and attack does add a new twist on the standard RPG format, but in the end, it doesn’t really change much, and most of your adventure centers on the Academy and battles. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but there just isn’t enough here to impress and captivate the long-time role-playing fan. There’s nothing significantly fresh or innovative, the storyline probably won’t grab anyone, and despite the excellent speed of the combat, it’ll soon grow repetitive and uninteresting. It’s good that certain characters have certain abilities, and there is a pretty good challenge later on, but it’s all just basic RPG fare.
We did like the idea of a semi-realistic advancement of time; when out in the woods, a clock will update you and if you stay out long enough, night will fall. At this time, the enemies become far more aggressive, so be careful! But again, like with most everything else in this game, it's just not a big or "impactful" feature. Bottom line is this- while there isn’t anything critically wrong with Mana Khemia: Masters of Al-Revis, there’s also no real incentive for fans of the genre to purchase it and play it through to the end. The control is fine, the gameplay as a whole is fine, the characters and atmosphere are acceptable and even amusing, and Gust does hit the correct note when it comes to presentation. But the Academy aspect of the game drags big time, the voice acting and graphics are sub-par, and although the Alchemy is involving, the overall depth isn’t as intricate as you might believe. Basically, all we have to say is, “well, it’s okay, but…that’s it?”
7/5/2008 Ben Dutka