Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy Review
Being a huge fan of JRPGs during the PS1 and most of the PS2 eras, I must admit to being disappointed with the later offerings on the PS2 where only a few Atlus productions (the Shin Megami Tensei franchise has never been better) seem to be worth my time. I want to like the NIS America and Gust efforts like this one here, but I have never been able to get into the school setting and the increasingly annoying voice acting and behavior of the characters has finally taken its toll. Perhaps I could deal with it better at a younger age but now it’s just plain annoying, and although I always enjoy a good turn-based battle mechanic (which I vastly prefer to real-time in my RPGs, anyway), games like Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy simply fall short of the intended goal in my eyes. The story takes too long to develop and the humorous elements stopped being comical years ago, which makes progressing through the storyline more of a chore. Ah well, maybe it’ll work for the die-hards.
As far as visuals go, there’s nothing new or eye-opening in this sequel; perhaps the detail is a touch better and the color palette is more vibrant then ever, but fans of the original shouldn’t hope for much of an upgrade. And of course, that’s not really the point of RPGs such as this, and we do appreciate the relative charm and artistic design of Mana Khemia 2, which certainly features a singular old-school allure. I always wondered how far developers could take sprite designs if they applied themselves to newer and better hardware, and while we may never know (next-gen graphics have left sprites well behind), this is the kind of graphical atmosphere that I kinda miss. It’s not technically impressive and I actually saw better artistry in some PS1 titles (Legend of Mana comes to mind), but Gust has provided us with another cute, smile inducing environment. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
The sound is a combination of some original music tracks, fairly standard combat effects, and spotty voice acting that ranges from downright grating to decent. In these cases, those who have played the Japanese version will usually insist that the English voices are inferior. Well, unfortunately, that’s often true. We have a few solid voices here and there but for the most part, the characters are either boring or infuriatingly irritating. Perhaps others will feel differently, but there’s only so far you can take the concept of “cutesy,” as far as I’m concerned. The battle effects are okay and the vocal exclamations from the characters do add a little flavor, but it’s hard to get past the inherent shortcomings. The music does work, though, as the soundtrack boasts a level of diversity we don’t always find in JRPGs; I rarely frown on original compositions. But again, if you were a fan of the first title, you know exactly what to expect, both in terms of the graphics and sound.
You likely won’t be surprised at the gameplay, either, which is relatively similar although Gust decided to take out the faster, quasi-real-time hybrid style that permeated the first Mana Khemia. Here, it’s more of a traditional turn-based battle mechanic with a few quirks and alterations; such variations of the somewhat tired combat system keep things interesting. For example, if you can land enough strikes fast enough, you can “unbalance” the enemy and as a direct result, the foe will lose his turn. You can also unite your team for devastating area attacks and better yet, utilize the benefits of your Alchemy work, which returns as a staple of this RPG experience. You can move around easily with the left analog, jump with the circle button, interact with the X button, bring up a handy map with the Start button, access your menu with the triangle button, and check some useful pieces of info lodged in your Student Handbook with the Select button. Nothing too unique or exciting, but it all functions rather well.
This is a direct sequel in that you will once again be a member of the famous Al-Revis Academy. However, due to a decline in Manas around the world, interest in Alchemy has fallen off over the years and the magical power that once allowed the Academy to float above the ground disappeared. The well-known school crashed to the ground – in more ways than one – and pretty soon, they were on the verge of bankruptcy. But thanks to a new curriculum installed by the new Chairwoman, one that embraces modern teachings like law and government and will soon remove Alchemy entirely, the university flourishes. But of course, there’s a lot more going on outside the school’s walls and although you have to play for a while before that becomes clear, the story does eventually revolve around another “save the world” plot. It has a few twists here and there, but in all honesty, I’m a little tired of this old formula.
Battling consists of regular Gust fare: the enemies are on the left side of the screen while your team is grouped on the right. There’s a circular time meter at the top so you know when each unit’s turn is coming around, and you have the expected options during your turn, including Attack, Skill, Defense, Item, etc. The visual and sound effects will likely keep you playing and although it is turn-based, everything moves fast enough so the player won’t get bored with the action. Besides, as I just said, the implementation of Alchemy in this sequel really does have an affect on almost everything: for instance, depending on what kind of Alchemist you are, that will give you different attributes in battle. Furthermore, synthesizing new items and equipment not only requires knowledge of each party member’s Alchemy skill, but you also need to be fast and accurate. A little mini-game accompanies the process – as it does in the Gathering of raw materials – and while you can counter this, it’s usually necessary.
And creating new things isn’t just about getting a stronger weapon; each piece of equipment has bonuses attached to them that you can unlock with AP. So when you first Synthesize the Hunter’s Knife, you can spend your AP to give yourself +10 to physical attack power and +5 to speed. That’s a significant boost and gives you plenty of incentive to keep fiddling around with that smoking pot. The entire Alchemy system has always been nicely designed but I don’t like the inclusion of the luck element, and after a while, it seems like far too much of my time was spent in school, completing assignments, or just looking for synthesis items. This caused the game to continually drag and gave me less desire to explore around the university; on top of which, you can’t really “explore” outside, either, as you automatically travel between locations. Basically, there’s no world map to wander around in, which makes the game feel even more linear.
It’s just that the path we’re led down isn’t all that fun. The pacing is too slow, the characters are irksome (and never seem to stop being irksome), the story takes absolutely forever to get going, and even when all aspects of the combat open up, you still feel as if it lacks that extra “oomph.” One of these days, Japanese developers are finally going to move away from this strange school setting; it worked fine for a while but now it has just gotten way too tedious and it’s finally starting to infringe on our enjoyment of the standard elements, like the story and battles. I liked some of the characters’ skills in battle and the colorful depiction of the environments suited the style but beyond that, I was starting to yawn after a few hours. I used to love games like this but they’re getting away from the formula that made such titles so great to begin with and in the end, I think the RPG fans are getting a little bored. Well, I am, at least.
10/20/2009 Ben Dutka