If you've even bothered to read this review, we're going to go ahead and recommend Mana Khemia. Your interest is probably due to past run-ins with Gust/NIS collaborations (Atelier Iris, Ar tonelico) and if it's more of the same you're after, here's another heaping portion to tide you over until the next super-cute, anime-soaked, cliche-ridden JPRG lands on PS2.
It all starts with the same stock characters we've seen countless times - amnesiac boy with an ominous past, clumsily cute gal pal, adventurous blowhard, hyperactive floozy etc. The twist is they're all in school, so most of the gameplay revolves around completing assignments, chatting with friends and synthesizing new items for later use. Synthesis was interesting in the first Iris, and even in the second, but after a third Iris and tonelico, the idea of blending countless items together has started to lose its appeal. It no longer feels creative; instead it's an obnoxious middleman that you have no choice but to employ. Who wants to make the sword when you can buy one down the hall? Hope you're willing to spend 30-40 hours searching for ingredients and mixing them together in varying degrees to produce slightly different results.
To further complicate the process, item synthesis has now been integrated with leveling up. Fighting monsters (in traditional you-go/I-go style) nets you money and XP, but the latter doesn't do anything on its own. You can fight endlessly and never gain one level. Instead you must forge items from your Grow Book (think FFX's sphere grid or XII's license board) to activate links between nodes. Each node has different attributes you purchase with your accumulated XP. It's yet another way of extending what was an already grinding process - leveling up your characters. Plus if you're missing ingredients you have to exit out, seek out the new items and head back to your special brewing pot at school. Tedious!
We value a solid battle system over anything else when it comes to RPGs. As long as that's sound, we're set for 30, 40, 100 hours of gameplay. Khemia's battles start off slow, dull and hard, but eventually they blossom into strategic power struggles. Your main three characters sit out front and act as the front line. Another three sit offscreen and play the support role, hopping in to finish combos or whatnot. If you're using your best skills, dealing a ton of damage and exploiting your enemy's elemental weaknesses, a Burst gauge will charge and enable you to pull off some supremely devastating combos. The meter's a hell of a lot harder to fill than tonelico or Iris 3, so when you do finally fill the bastard, it's a genuine accomplishment. Too bad it takes hours for this side of the battle system to appear.
As with all of Gust's offerings, there's something below all the trappings that keeps you focused. Not exactly devoted, but certainly curious enough to see what happens next. And thanks to a rigid schedule, you're always pushed to that "next" big thing. You go to class, get an assignment (mainly either "make this" or "kill this") and have your results graded. The better you do, the more likely you are to have free time before the next set of classes. This open area lets you either take jobs (the same as Iris 3's bulletin board) or talk with your party members and engage in some Mass Effect-lite character missions that change the game's final outcome.
Each of these sections adds a layer of order to a game filled with tons of rules and variables, so you always know what to do and where to go despite having an avalanche of possibilities. It's a lot to take in, but after the first couple of hours it all starts to make sense - Grow Book and synthesis included. Next thing you know, you're still playing despite a list of complaints. It's the same feeling we get while watching Heroes.
The biggest trouble of all is that Khemia borrows too much from earlier Gust games. Atelier Iris 1, 2 and 3 all share sprites with Khemia, the music is almost identical and the characters are as forgettable as ever. Even if the storyline is somewhat intriguing and the battles (eventually) excite, sitting through one lengthy dialogue tree after the other while alchemists-in-training spout empty phrases about homework diminishes the experience. This style of RPG hasn't been fresh for years, but now even as a relic it's losing appeal. Maybe Gust should take a break and rethink its next release, because we sure don't need Mandated Gust RPG Update 2009.
Apr 1, 2008