Platform: PlayStation 2
Genre: Turn Based RPG
Release Date: April 1st, 2008
Vayne Aurelius, a young man living with no one but his pet, is invited to enroll in Al-Revis Academy, a school that teaches alchemy. Upon starting his first year, he makes some new friends, and joins their workshop. Together they take on dangerous class assignments, make new friends and rivals, and spend the next several years learning new forms of alchemy, while Vayne learns there’s more to his enrollment than he realizes.
If you’ve ever gone to high school, this story is very familiar. It does a decent job of creating the setting. Since the story is played week-to-week, it goes through the daily routine. Take a class, or spend some free time doing jobs and gathering ingredients for more synthesizing. The overall formula of the story can seem a bit repetitive, but the adventures that you get to go on are typically entertaining.
What makes the story interesting is all the secrecy about Vayne. There is a lot of build up towards this secret, and it was done so well, that I was not able to predict the secret when it was finally revealed. I have played a lot of JRPGs where the big secret or plot twist is so obvious, it’s insulting, but Gust did a very good job of maintaining a level of mystery towards the game.
The game includes multiple endings depending on how you interact with your friends. There is also a very depressing ending available if you decide not to interact with anyone by the end. I didn’t do this ending yet, and I don’t know if I want to after looking it up on YouTube. Normally, multiple endings can be a hindrance, but in this case, only the “bad” ending changes the ending overall. Each other ending just changes what Vayne does after he is finished school, which doesn’t change things much.
The workshop gang you end up with is a very eccentric bunch at times. To name a few, You have the hyper-active beast lady, a senior that is a self-proclaimed hero of justice, and even an alien that has crash landed, and is posing as a student. Each person has their own quirks, and a deep personality.
What really helps is the level of depth that each character has that can be explored. Vayne can spend his free time getting to know his classmates, one at a time. Taking that extra time to get to know everyone, or even just your favorites, really adds to the experience.
Like many of the Atelier games for the PS2, Mana Khemia runs with 2-D anime stylized graphics, reminiscent of games on the PSOne. There’s not really all that much to say about the graphics that are good or bad. This was Gust’s style for RPGs of that generation, and it’s nice that they didn’t waver or try something different. It made it easier to determine that this was a Gust game, and at the time, I was only just discovering how much I like the developer overall.
What I can say about the music is that it gets stuck in your head very easily. I find myself whistling the background song that’s played while youre running around the school all the time. The intro song for the game is also very upbeat and fun to listen to as well.
Mana Khemia also includes dual-audio for voice acting. While the dubbed cast isn’t that bad, I still prefer the Japanese voice acting for the game when I play.
Gameplay – Exploration
Since you are spending your time mostly on campus or its surrounding areas, there is no world map. You are given a menu with all the available locations. The school also includes a menu with all the sections of the school that you can visit.
Once in an area, exploration is a bit more in depth. You spend your time running around, gathering items, fishing, mining, digging, and cutting down grass to get more ingredients for alchemy. Not all of these options are available right away, but are gradually introduced early on. Monsters are also visible in the areas, and encounters begin when they come in contact with you. You can also hit them to get an early fight advantage.
The longer you are out in an area, the sooner it becomes night time. At night, the encounter monsters move faster, and are a bit stronger, so be mindful of your time.
Any time you want to leave an area, you are given an item very early that will warp you back to the school whenever you want. It has unlimited uses, so there’s never a worry about having to go all the way back to the start of the area to get out.
It’s nice that there’s a lot to do in each area. There’s also a nice balance of how much can be done in the areas, so that it’s not too much or too repetitive. The fact that there is also a finite number of monsters in the areas per visit also means you aren’t stuck with some high encounter rate.
Gameplay – Combat
Fights are done in turn, and use a standard command system. You can attack, defend, use a skill, use an item, run, or switch out a party member with a reserve character. once you have enough party members, you can start switching out characters during an attack or skill, to chain additional damage. This can create some powerful combos and stack some high damage against monsters.
When using skills, some are able to hit wide areas or smaller areas. This means that if monsters are closer together, a skill may affect those surrounding your target. The wider the area, the more monsters that could be included. Some skills also reproduce themselves multiple times without the need to reactivate. For example, when a skill activates, it adds two more occurrences of that skill to the turn order at no additional MP cost. This is a great way to sneak in some extra damage.
After enough attacks, your chain gauge will max out and you will go into Burst mode. During burst mode, you do additional damage, can do character chain attacks faster, and perform ultimate skills for massive damage. This is temporary, so make the best of it when it happens.
I like that there is a lot of involvement in the combat system. Instead of just entering simple commands, you have access to more interaction with your fights, which keeps you on your toes and makes the fight a bit more exciting.
Gameplay – Alchemy
This is a special section for this review, since it’s hard to talk about an alchemy game without… well, talking about alchemy.
As you progress through the game, you will collect various ingredients and recipes that will allow you to synthesize new items in your workshop. These items include healing items, food, bombs, and more.
Once you have the ingredients for a recipe, you can start synthesizing. First, you select the ingredient, which will determine the finished products base quality. Then, using a color matching wheel system, you can increase or decrease the quality of the item by matching or missing the right color. The item can have different effects based on quality, so the higher quality is sometimes not the best way to go. During the match game, you can have your classmates assist you by using one off skills to improve the overall quality of the synthesis.
When selecting ingredients, you can change the base materials to other items. Sometimes, this will create a new recipe, leading to new items.
Weapons and Armor can also be synthesized, but not in your workshop. You would go to the Athanor room and make these. Instead of playing with the quality, each ingredient gives skills that can be added to the gear you are making. This can include an extra skill for anyone that wears it, or bonus stats on top of the items base stats.
Since the Atelier series has a strong focus on synthesizing, making it fun is the key to its success, and Gust did a good job with the system designed for Mana Khemia.
Gameplay – Character progression
This is the first RPG I have played that did not include an EXP based levelling system. In fact, there are no levels for your party. Instead of EXP, party members are awarded ability points (AP) after battle. These points can be spent in your grow book, but there’s a catch. You have to fill the grow book with items you have synthesized.
Each item that is made will be added to the grow book. Once an item is registered, three stat boosts or skills are available for purchase with your AP. Each character has their own grow book, and each item created will only be for one character. This makes synthesizing vital to gameplay, as it’s also vital to character growth.
Gameplay – Optional content/Side quests
Since you can get free time from classes if you do well on your assignments, you are given a lot to do during that free time. You can take jobs, and interact with your friends.
Jobs are available at the student affairs office, and come in three different types. Gather, synthesize, or battle. This is a great way to make money in the game to buy new recipe books and ingredients.
Once you’re done your jobs, you can decide to interact with one classmate per free period. This gives you a chance to get to know that person better, and will affect which ending you receive.
While the jobs can get repetitive fast, they add a little variety to a game with this style of pacing.
Mana Khemia falls into an interesting place for me. The game is very linear with its week-to-week story, but somehow managed to add in a slightly more open world concept. The characters are fun and memorable, the gameplay is fun, and the music is addictive. If you are a gamer who enjoys item collecting and crafting, then I do recommend this game for you.