Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana is the newest game brought to the United States by the folks over at NIS America.  It’s different from any other game they’ve put out here in two respects.  First, it’s a traditional RPG instead of a strategy RPG like their other titles.  Secondly, it’s the sixth in a series from developer Gust, the first to come out in the United States.


In Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, you are Klein, the grandson of a recently-deceased famous Alchemist.  Trying to follow in your grandmother’s footsteps, you decide to take a journey with your childhood friend Popo, the Mana of Wood, to try to become a great Alchemist.  While on the way, you’ll meet a variety of characters, from Lita (the cute girl with your standard jealous temper), Delsus (the ladies man), Arlin (the enigmatic swordsman), Norn (the ultra-cute catgirl) and many others.  You’ll also go on a Great Quest (to try to make it to the fabled city of Avenberry) and eventually to stop the Great Evil. 


It’s your standard Japanese RPG, complete with a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor, a budding romance, subquests, many things to do and a lot of different places to do it in.  The question becomes, how does it stack up against the other RPGs that’ve come out recently or against the Final Fantasies of the past?

Like NIS America’s other titles, the graphics are not the thing which drives the game.  The game world and characters are rendered in 2.5-D graphics, similar to Disgaea and Phantom Brave, or to take a step back, also similar to Final Fantasy Tactics.  That being said, there’s a good amount of detail in the characters and in the game world itself which wouldn’t be possible in a Playstation game.  You get closeups of numerous characters, each of which show numerous emotions in their facial expressions.  The smaller game-world avatars of the characters even show a bit of emotion with their actions, although some of them can be quite over the top.


The colors are lush and bright, and there’s a variety of designs used for both items and monsters, although some monsters and items are just palette-swapped versions of previously-seen creatures and items. 


The biggest drawback graphically is the ‘world map’, the area you travel in between areas.  It lacks a lot of the detail of the rest of the game, especially after Final Fantasy X and Shadow Hearts where you actually ran around a somewhat-living ‘world’ between the key areas. 


There’s some good use of shadows and light, especially to highlight special attacks in combat and to set the mood in various scenes, which really helps to tell the story.  All in all, the graphics aren’t really the strength of the game, nor were they meant to be.  Neither, however, do they fall flat.  It just seems to work in the context of the game.

First off, one of the nice things about the game, and something that NIS has tried to do for all their titles is the ability to have both English or Japanese for the vocal parts of the game.  For the purists, it’s a nice thing to have the original voices and not some of the not-always-stellar voice acting going on.  (Dynasty Warriors anyone?)  With that said, the English voices aren’t all bad.  Sure, Popo’s extremely annoying in either English or Japanese, but Klein’s not bad at all.  Note to all American voice actors:  If you’re playing an animal-related character, and the text has the sound the animal makes….DO NOT JUST SAY THE WORD.   Either make the sound or make a similar sound.  Otherwise, you sound utterly silly and it ruins the effect.


One drawback about this is that the game dosen’t save which you prefer, so you have to choose Japanese in options everytime you start the game up.  Also, for the real language people out there, sometimes the vocal Japanese dosen’t match up to the written English.  This is more of a minor quibble, especially considering how contextual Japanese is, and the fact that this reviewer isn’t fluent in the language.


There’s a good variety of sound effects, footsteps sound different depending on the surface being walked upon, and there’s a large variety of sounds from martial tunes to signify different characters, peppy tunes for battles…even a lulluby-sounding tune for resting at camp.

The controls for the game are really straightforward.  When you’re on the world map, X enters areas and the left analog stick moves your character.  That’s it.  While in areas, add in the Square button for your special abilities, start to get to the menu, the L1 and R1 buttons to cycle the special abilities and circle to jump, and that’s still it.  Go into combat, and everything is the left analog stick and the X button. 


It really dosen’t get any more complex than that, and so the controls are very simple and extremely straight forward, which is just fine for an RPG.  It’s actually a good thing that Gust and NIS America didn’t try to do something significantly different with the controls ‘just because’. 


There’s really only one major complaint with the controls, and that’s with the entire jumping thing.  It’s hard to tell where you have to be to jump to an area, and there are times that it looks like you should be able to jump to something obviously, but for whatever reason there’s an invisible wall between you and where you’re wanting to go.   It ends up being highly frustrating and not at all necessary.

The gameplay in Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana is simply astounding.  Not only do you get a rich storyline starting with a simple, “I’m going to be a great Alchemist” going to “I’m going to get to this City” on through “I’m going to save this person’s life” to “I’m going to defeat the Great Evil”, you get a lot of sidequests and subplots to see you through.


Beyond that, though, is a number of what could almost be termed minigames to enjoy throughout.  None of these are absolutely required to beat the game with the possible exception of Mana Item Synthesis, but all of them will expand your enjoyment of the game while in one case, unlock a lot of bonus content for the game.


The first, of course, is the two types of Synthesis available in the game.  The primary one is called Mana Synthesis and is Klein’s speciality as an Alchemist.  This is done by using one or more of eleven elements and the proper Mana (all but one you have to find throughout the game) to create a number of objects.  First, though, you have to find the object itself (in unique treasure chests, to make it a bit obvious which one is the Mana Item) before you can synthesize.  Afterwards, you can synthesize or use the items both in and out of combat, but Klein is the only one who can use the items. 


The other form of synthesis is called Shop Synthesis.  This is done by going to certain shops through the game and bringing recipe items to the shopkeeper.  The recipes vary by shop, and more recipes can be unlocked through sidequests during the game.  The interesting thing here is that once you’ve synthesized the item the first time, it’s added to the items that can be purchased at the shop.  Before that, you can’t even buy the item.  Second, some of the items in the recipe can be substituted for (generally items in the same ‘family’ as the required item).  Sometimes, when you do this, you’ll gain different attributes for the item, but sometimes it’ll also create something new.  Whenever you synthesize an item, though, you’re shown the attributes on the item and the relative quality of it.  The higher the quality, the better a response the shop gets for it.  You’re then given the option to add it to the menu, so you’re constantly changing the recipe to get the best reaction.  You know you’re doing good when you talk to random NPCs in the town and they mention how much they love the shop you were in as well as the item you created a few trips back!


Like a number of other RPGs out there, Atelier Iris contains a bit of ‘collecting’ as well.  There are two types of collecting, item and monster.  Monster collecting is pretty much straight forward.  Lita is eventually given a book and whenever you fight a monster, data is collected from stats, HP and the gold and items the monster drops, all the way through to their favorite snack.  About the same time Lita is given the monster book, you meet someone who lets you collect items.  Not only are you given money for each ‘new’ item you collect, but the person also breaks the items into special groups.  Each time you complete a group, it unlocks bonus content, ranging from character galleries to image and sound gallaries.  None of this is required, of course, but it does add some depth to the game and gives you more to do than just go through the storyline point by point.


The last item on this list is the ability to take mana and crystalize it.  Different Mana give different mana crystals even using the same original mana.  You can then take the crystals and either combine them to make more powerful crystals (up to three layers) or take the crystals and add them to certain weapons, adding stats to the weapons in the process.


All in all, it adds up to a lot of things to do in the game, which is never a bad thing, unless you’re a completeist and just have too many games!

There’s a lot of gameplay in this title, from the fact that the main plot alone can last anywhere between 20 and 30 hours, adding in another 10 to 15 hours for the side quests, and then adding in the fact that the game has somewhat of a ‘New Game+’ mode to it with a slightly different ending adding yet another 10 hours to it…that’s anywhere from 30 to 70 or 80 hours for the diehard fan.  That equals a lot of playing time and a lot of things to do for your $50.


The big drawback on the game is that it’s already becoming hard to find.  EB is currently showing it on backorder as is Gamestop, while neither Best Buy nor Circuit City’s websites are showing the game as available.  Even Walmart.com is showing the game as out of stock, so if you can find it, it’s very much worth buying, especially considering it’s likely to end up being one of those games you find on Ebay for $100 if a reprint isn’t made of this title soon.


 

Personally, I have a liking for all of NIS America’s titles, ever since Disgaea showed up.  That being said, this is a definite buy for any RPG fan, especially considering the limited number of actual RPGs showing up on the PS2 so far this year (Shin Megami Tenshi being about the only other RPG recently).  There’s a lot of good in the game, and while it’s not perfect, the faults are for the most part small things which are easily overcome.  The biggest complaint is that some of the English voices are really lacking, especially comparing them to how the Japanese voice actors sound doing the same (or similar) lines, and the entire jumping mess. 


Outside of that, this is a very solid title, and quite possibly a contender for 2005 RPG of the year, especially considering the limited number of titles for that genre.

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