Longtime Atelier series developer Gust has concocted a follow-up to last year's Mana Khemia 2: Alchemists of Al-Revis, a PS2 game based around the study and practice of alchemy. Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy takes the core game formula of its predecessor and wraps it up in an all-new story set within and around the magical academy known as Al-Revis. The J-RPG flair and offbeat gameplay may not be everyone's cup of tea, but Khemia 2 has a lot to offer those who make the jump. Those who don't know what to think about this unique offering should read on for the full scoop.
Picking up fifteen years after the original game, players witness the fall of Al-Revis Academy in Khemia's 2 opening sequence. Once a successful alchemy school, the quality and prestige of the academy have declined in recent years and the entire campus has now fallen to earth due to the waning power of Mana which once kept it afloat. When all hope is lost, an ambitious woman known as Marta Silweste enters the picture and proposes a business model which will bring the academy newfound financial success, thus saving it from closure. However, her proposition states that in the following year, alchemy must be eliminated from the school's subjects of study, an action which would undermine the very values Al-Revis once stood upon. A desperate movement to save alchemy is launched by the meek-hearted principal Zeppel, and it's upon this stage that the game begins.
At the beginning, you must choose either Razeluxe Meitzen or Ulrika Myberg as your character. Depending on your choice, one of two very different storylines will unfold. Fear not, as there's no correct order to play the stories in, and playing through both of them will be necessary to get the full picture anyways. I would encourage playing through Raze's tale first as it's arguably more enjoyable, but that's just me. No matter which story you go with, the structure of the game is the same. The story is divided across a year's worth of school terms at the academy, each term being separated into weeks wherein courses must be completed for grades, and spare time is given to explore and take on jobs. For every few classes finished, key plot points are initiated, usually involving big boss battles. The story itself is nothing too exciting and is punctuated by a fair bit of redundant, meandering dialogue, but the Hogwarts-esque atmosphere atones for some of this mediocrity. Nonetheless, the plot is a lighthearted jaunt, devoid of melodrama or significant emotional charge, so if you're looking for a serious and gritty narrative, look elsewhere.
The real focus of Khemia 2 is on using alchemy to create items. Weapons, armour, accessories, and more can be created in the workshop to aid you in your adventure. By collecting ingredients via exploration (this is quite fun), quests, and shopping, you can either experiment with different combinations to forge surprising new items, or follow one of the many alchemy recipes that can be found around and about the academy. The actual process of creation is complicated but rewarding. The game has you spinning dials, inserting ingredients in a particular order, receiving help from your comrades, and lining up elemental attributes on the alchemy wheel in hopes of increasing the quality of the item, but the system stops shy of being convoluted. It's solid and, moreover, wholesomely addictive.
Also relatively -- but not overly -- complex is the battle system. Upon confronting an enemy in the field, a one-button quicktime event determines who gets first strike. From thereon, it's a matter of stringing together commands for your three active characters and two or three (depending on whether or not a guest is in your party during battle) reserve characters. Reserve characters sit on the sidelines during combat, but also play an active role in that they can be used sparingly to dish out extra attacks and defend against enemies.
One of the central combat features is "Unite Mode" -- a state of being that can be attained by filling the battle gauge. Once you've inflicted enough damage on enemies and the battle gauge reaches its limit, Unite Mode is initiated. Characters now deal critical hits to enemies and the amount of time between reserve characters' attacks is decreased. Furthermore, devastating combo attacks can be unleashed while in Unite Mode by swapping multiple reserve characters into the fray.
Interestingly enough, Mana Khemia does not implement a conventional leveling system. Instead of experience points, you're given "ability points" for each victory. These AP points can be used to upgrade a variety of statistics. The catch is that these stat boosts are not possible without first unlocking "slots" for them by creating specific items through the use of alchemy. It's a quirky way to get stronger that fits perfectly with the nature of the game, and I certainly commend the designers for employing such eccentricity in a genre that's typically so by-the-book.
From a graphical standpoint, your view of Mana Khemia 2 will be hinged foremost on your appreciation of two-dimensional RPGs -- a niche commodity amidst today's FMV-littered fireworks shows. If you're a graphics-phile who demands software that's on the cutting-edge of visual prowess, then your tastes are entirely at odds with Gust's latest offering. However, if you enjoy the nostalgia-induced appeal of 2D sprites on detailed, semi-3D backgrounds then you won't be disappointed. The many rooms of Al-Revis Academy are peppered with books and trinkets of every kind, either sunbeams or moonbeams trickle through the windows depending on the time of day, and the outside world is as lush and vibrant as the aging graphics engine allows. There needs to be a huge overhaul should the series wish to progress into the high definition world of PS3 and Xbox 360 (something the Disgaea franchise failed to recognize in its third entry), but this PlayStation 2 swan song does perfectly well as a charming ode to simpler times.
In contrast with the pleasant visuals are a number of could-be-better musical arrangements and an absolutely awful English voiceover. I only managed to survive about thirty minutes of whiny, flat-out irritating acting before I switched to the Japanese voice track. Thank goodness that our overseas friends did a decent job with the voice acting or I'd be forced to drop Khemia's sound score into the basement. In this case, the Japanese voiceover isn't just a nice perk for purists; it's a nearly-mandatory selection for anyone who wants to play the game without muting it. The overall audio package works out to be about average but is in need of some inspiration.
As one might expect from a game bearing the Gust logo, there is a ton of replay value to be had in Khemia 2. Sure enough, the intertwining storylines will fill plenty of hours on their own (beat each of them for an additional surprise!), but once you factor in the sheer amount of recipes to be discovered and items to be created, fanatics could very well hit the triple digits with this one. There's a whole lot to do and the sense of discovery that accompanies your exploits in alchemy is highly enticing and addictive.
Let me conclude this review by saying that while Mana Khemia 2 is not without its flaws, it's been handed a serious helping of charm and innovation that helps it stand on its own. If you haven't experienced a Gust RPG before, then you would do well to invest some time at the academy of Al-Revis. Despite its shortcomings, I thoroughly enjoyed the alchemy-focused gameplay and approachable school culture that Khemia 2 brought hand-in-hand. If you want a gripping, Final Fantasy-esque narrative, this game isn't going to satisfy that desire, but if you simply want to blow off some steam in an alternate universe where the worst thing you have to worry about is getting a D on your report card, then why not invite yourself into the academy to brew a few cure jars and a grape sorbet? Taking heed of everything I mentioned above, I promise it's worth your time.