Reviewed: July 28, 2005
Released: June 28, 2005
The Atelier series has a long and convoluted history that I won't pretend to know much about. The games started years ago in Japan, each bearing the word "Atelier" followed by a woman's name. The games, though successful in Japan, have never made it to American shores until now.
Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana introduces the West to yet another long-running RPG series from overseas for the first time, presenting a new world, new characters and a new idea of the underlying mechanics governing the game's world. It is the sixth installment in the Atelier series.
Everything about this game points towards "been there, done that" at first glance - but, even with sprite-based graphics, appearances can be deceiving. Atelier Iris has turned out to be one of the most enjoyable, entertaining RPG’s to come out on the PS2, both because of its familiarity and because of its differences. But let me explain the details first....
Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana follows the story of a young man, Klein Kiesling, who is one of the few heirs to the magical art of alchemy. In the world of Regallzine, alchemy - the art and science of coaxing elemental spirits into synthesizing powerful magical potions and items - was once a dominant power, but has now been largely lost to the flow of time.
Of course, with the ruins of a great alchemical civilization looming at the edges for most of the game, and with Klein presented as one of the most talented alchemists alive, the setting is ripe for standard themes such as the hero's destiny and the struggle for an ultimate, lost power.
One of the refreshing things about Atelier Iris, though, is the way it manages to milk these conventions for all they're worth and still come out feeling original and engaging. It is, above all, a testament to Gust's knack for creating likeable characters, and to Nippon Ichi's usual way of not letting things stay too serious for too long.
The entire cast generally function well together, although some of the alliances were formed for reasons that are still unclear to me (how exactly do Klein and Delsus know each other, again?), and all have personalities that play out realistically as well as provide opportunities for humor. From the reflective, mysterious swordsman Arlin to the flighty, air headed witch-in-training, Norn, the cast of characters is rich and varied. Once again, though everything is standard for the genre, the deftly written and well-localized dialog keeps everything moving naturally and feeling believable.
Of course, an RPG is just a story without gameplay, and Atelier Iris's strongest aspect is just that. There's a huge level of environmental interaction, to begin with - a pleasant surprise for veterans of the genre. Various items can be moved, destroyed or even distilled into base elements for alchemical synthesis. A jump button and a slowly widening array of interactive non-battle abilities help turn every screen and every area of Atelier Iris from a backdrop into a scavenger hunt full of surprises.
All of the various items you'll collect during your forays have various uses, as well. And since there are literally hundreds upon hundreds of items to be collected in the game, that of course means a wealth of subsystems for everything from synthesizing a plate of grilled mushrooms to binding arcane crystals into your characters' weaponry and armor.
Over the first six or eight hours of gameplay, these systems are slowly unlocked and explained in a series of helpful (and - joy! - optional) tutorials, one after the other. Unlike the last game from Nippon Ichi, Phantom Brave, everything in Atelier Iris is clearly and simply explained so that you can get a basic feel for how everything works and then try your own hand at it all.
And during a synthesizing session that calls for specific ingredients, try having similar but not identical supplies on hand, as well - a timely substitution could result in an entirely new item becoming available. And of course, expect the same sense of humor here as everywhere else ("Blue Bull gives you runs!" Sheesh.)
So, you've put together, taken apart and rearranged everything you can get Klein's greasy little hands on. Now what? Battles, of course! Most of the items Klein can create with his alchemical prowess are useless outside of battle, as are most of the other items in the game. The basic battle system is a turn-based setup with a 3-by-3 field grid layout upon which characters are placed. In the menu between battles, the positions of your three-member party can be switched up; for example, to keep a ranged attacker in the back and a melee tanker up front. This aspect of combat is very similar to Tri-Ace and Enix's PS1 classic, Star Ocean: The Second Story.
Once the battle begins, everything is pretty standard. Turn order is determined by the Speed statistic, and very fast characters may even get two or more actions in between slower ones. During each character's turn, a small wheel of options appears over the character's head. All characters can run, defend, attack or use an item.
Most also learn special abilities, which are accessed from a fifth menu option and use MP. Klein is unique in that his powers lie mostly in item creation and use, which means he has two extra options. He can either use a Mana Item (an item created with alchemy, such as an ice bomb) from his current stock, or he can instantly synthesize one and use it all in one smooth action. The nuances of some special abilities and enemy abilities in battle actually make both options vital to your party's success.
Enemies tend to attack in groups, and depending on their proximity, certain attacks may hit more than one at once - Lita's basic claw attack, for example, hits as many enemies as are within horizontal range of the main target. Of course, the same goes for your party members when defending against enemy attacks. Enemies can also knock your characters back a space on the grid, making it easier for strong enemies to set up attacks that may strike more than one. The basic feel of battle should be instantly familiar to any RPG fan, but Atelier Iris still brings enough playability to the table that it's easy to forgive the lack of much real innovation in this department.
As the game progresses, I have to admit that the random battles could get a bit tiresome - usually because I was enjoying the background music, or because I was momentarily turned around and trying to find the exit from an area. However, all in all, despite the game's length, Atelier Iris stays engaging throughout. The gameplay might not be totally original, but it takes a lot of things to the next level and it's always engaging.
And even if the plot is old hat and the characters follow suit, I still found myself genuinely surprised at times, and truly caring about the characters and what direction the plot would take next. Atelier Iris never stopped firing my imagination or holding my interest. For an RPG, there are few higher compliments than that.
Let me start by saying that Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana has some very, very clean sprites, with lots of animation and none of the hateful designs found in lesser games such as Atlus's disappointing Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity. And on a personal level, I think traditional RPG’s and sprite graphics go hand-in-hand. However, that doesn't mean this wouldn't have looked a lot better with cel shading, or just in 3D.
To old timers like me, seeing an RPG that still uses hand-painted backgrounds and hand-drawn sprites is a treat. The style carries a certain charm to it, although it's hard to say how much of that charm is just nostalgia in disguise. And out of all the sprite-using games I've seen in recent years, Atelier Iris makes the best use of them in a non-fighting title.
The fact still remains, though, that these graphics look old. Even with all the nice, crystal-clear ray effects and so on, graphically this game belongs more to the era of EarthBound than Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga. That might make it harder for a lot of newer gamers to appreciate, which hurts the entire genre. I know how dearly Nippon Ichi loves their sprites, but I'm going to have to say it again: they belong in handheld games now, and not really anywhere else. It's not personal, but get with the program, for the sake of faithful gamers everywhere.
All that being said, I really enjoyed the character designs - standard anime, but many more hits than misses - as well as monster designs, which have to be some of the most whimsical takes on classic enemies I've seen in a long while. Once again, Nippon Ichi's sly PG-13 humor edges its way into even this aspect of the game: a basic type of blob enemy is called a Puni (read: puny), and they carry items called Puni Balls. There's even a Puni God, who apparently has Super Puni Balls.
The hand-painted backgrounds, while not as lush as those of Final Fantasy VII, are served well by their slightly simpler look in that the chibi-looking character sprites seem to fit into their world rather than popping out from it. And the handful of special effects complement, rather than clash with, the rest of the game. The sparse animated cutscenes are also a real treat, even if the animation isn't as dynamic as it could have been.
Overall, Atelier Iris looks about as good as any sprite-based game has any right to be. It's just unfortunate that there are people out there who won't get to enjoy the game because they'll overlook it based on its graphics.
Atelier Iris has one of the most singularly enjoyable soundtracks I've heard in a very long time. I was lucky enough to snag a bonus soundtrack from the local game shop (it was a pre-order bonus that came with the game), and I'm very glad I did. It's pretty much what you'd expect - fantasy fluff - but it's good fantasy fluff, with a wealth of solid tracks and several that are simply unforgettable. There is sparse but effective use of more contemporary sound as well, on a few tracks, such as an octave-descending synth note or whispered Japanese vocals that are there and gone in a second.
As far as voice acting goes, the American voices are so-so. Klein's voice seems a little on the rough side for the way he is drawn and imagined (a young, idealistic adventurer), and sometimes all of the characters suffer from stilted delivery. But, as all you true believers out there know, Nippon Ichi has built a deserved reputation for being kind to their die-hard fans, and always includes a Japanese voice option on all of their games. Thank goodness, too: Once I can't understand what's being said, the emotional inflection of the dialog becomes much clearer. It's easy to read along and use the vocal cues to figure out the way in which something is meant to be said.
Sound effects are somewhat limited, but what does exist is mostly custom, which gives Atelier Iris a very unique sound from other RPG’s. Nothing really sounds jaw-droppingly impressive in this game, but it has a very strong sound package nonetheless, mostly buoyed by its great soundtrack.
Atelier Iris is a massive RPG that is still way too short, only because you’ll never want it to end. Have I finished it yet? Of course not, and I estimate there are at least another solid 50 hours to add to the 25 or so I've put into it. But games this satisfying to play just don't come along very often anymore, and no matter how long it is, when it's finally over I'll be sad.
There's a very involving main story to follow, and plenty of areas to explore and explore again - given the dynamic nature of much of the game's environment, returning to old areas can be a richly rewarding experience.
There are also a slew of subsystems to use, which mesh beautifully along with the main game but which can also be enjoyed on their own. The number of potential items to create and modify in this game seems nearly endless to me.
Completionists can expect at least a solid 70 hours, from what I've seen. I would guess that even to burn straight through the game might take more than 40. Any way you cut it, Atelier Iris is a game that should keep you happily entertained for many a night.
Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana is like an old shoe: you know it so well, and it's made so sturdily, that every time you slip back into it, it feels like it belongs there. It's a comfortable, deeply satisfying game, the type of game that you'll find yourself taking more from than just a fun story, despite yourself.
All of its components are, essentially, retreads. The characters, the places, the legends of a lost empire and the story of forbidden magic and the power to save or destroy the world - everything in this game has been done before, many times.
But even with the cutesy sprite characters and the old-hat genre conventions, Atelier Iris manages to be something more than just the sum of its parts. It's far from perfect. But it may be just what many long-time RPG fans have been waiting a very long while for.