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Critical Reception: NIS/Gust's Mana Khemia

This week's edition of Critical Reception examines online reaction to Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis, an alchemy-centric imported PlayStation 2 role-playing game that critics describe as "a nice, light RPG" and an improvement in localization o
This week's edition of the regular Critical Reception column examines online reaction to Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis, an alchemy-centric PlayStation 2 role-playing game that critics describe as "a nice, light RPG" and "a fine way to pass the time." Featuring anime-styled character designs, sprite-based 2D graphics, and a heavy emphasis on alchemy and item synthesis, the Gust-developed Atelier series has earned fans for its characteristic gameplay and devotion to its niche in the RPG genre. After spawning a number of Atelier sequels and a follow-up series in Ar tonelico, Gust's trademark style continues in Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis, the latest spiritual successor to the Atelier Iris series. Mana Khemia currently earns an average review score of 67 out of 100 at Metacritic.com. RPGFan's Patrick Gann scores Mana Khemia at 90 out of 100. "Project 'A9' (that is, the ninth game in the Atelier series) shows that Gust can continue to adapt and evolve, even while using their classic gameplay and graphic styles," he praises. "Mana Khemia puts a whole new spin on Gust's flagship series." Gann describes Mana Khemia as a blend of elements found in previous entries in the Atelier Iris series, as well as in RPGs from other developers. "Though Mana Khemia is a traditional RPG with turn-based combat, it's also a school-sim and an item synthesis game wrapped into one," he describes. "The gameplay elements in Mana Khemia borrow from each of the three previous Atelier Iris titles, but they also pick up some ideas from Square Enix's Final Fantasy series, as well as Atlus's Persona series." The result? "This amalgam of fun and exciting RPG elements is woven together magically, like an item synthesized with alchemy, into one extremely impressive whole," says Gann. Gann finds that Mana Khemia "falls short of the Gust standards," in regards to its plot. "However, the story takes a back seat to gameplay," he assures. "I recommend it to any RPG fan, even those among us who generally disdain the 2D, low-budget titles." At G4 TV, reviewer D.F. Smith awards Mana Khemia a rating of 4 out of 5 stars. "The previous Ateliers usually started when their heroines were fresh out of school. Mana Khemia steps back to chronicle the education of a few beginning alchemists, which inspires a fresh new way of laying out the scenario," Smith writes. "No previous experience with other Gust games is required, but veterans of the series should enjoy the new twist on what they’re already familiar with." Smith explains that Mana Khemia's school setting serves its gameplay well. "Its pacing and organization recall Persona 3, in that fixed events break up non-linear stretches of doing what you like," Smith describes. "In between adventures and scenes that are key to the story, you can pick and choose from several courses of study (quests, essentially) that provide credits for completing them. Rack up enough credits and you progress to the next key event." The series-critical alchemy component is present in full in Mana Khemia. "The synthesis system is simple enough, but it’s also very flexible," Smith describes. "Varying the synthesizing process with different ingredients (and a touch of random chance) gives the resulting item different extra effects, which it can pass on to another item in a future synthesis experiment." Smith finds that Mana Khemia's battle system is satisfying as well. "Combat in Mana Khemia runs according to a simple turn-based scheme, and it has the cardinal virtue of going fast, fast, fast," praises Smith. Additionally: "You rarely have to fight when you don’t want to, or when a quest doesn’t require it. Advancement in Mana Khemia isn’t driven by grinding through battle after battle. It’s more about exploring and collecting new stuff, and there’s a ridiculous amount of stuff to collect which in turn becomes more new stuff in your alchemist’s cauldron." Smith feels that Mana Khemia is an enjoyable experience overall, and that it represents a noticeable improvement in publisher NIS America's localization quality. "NIS America picked a nice, light RPG to bring out in Mana Khemia, and its localizations are steadily improving," Smith notes in conclusion. "While the next generation consoles get around to filling out their RPG lineups, this is a fine way to pass the time." Brett Elston is more critical of Mana Khemia in his review at Games Radar, scored at 6 out of 10. "If it's more of the same you're after," he begins, "here's another heaping portion to tide you over until the next super-cute, anime-soaked, cliche-ridden JPRG lands on PS2." Elston finds that much of Mana Khemia has been seen before in other RPGs. "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," he says. "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." Some may feel that the Atelier series' alchemy mechanic is no longer as interesting as it once was, however. "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," Elston writes. "It no longer feels creative; instead it's an obnoxious middleman that you have no choice but to employ," he continues. "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." Elston feels that Mana Khemia's combat starts off "slow, dull and hard," though the series' "Burst" meter has been revamped slightly. "A Burst gauge will charge and enable you to pull off some supremely devastating combos," he explains. "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." "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," Elston warns. "This style of RPG hasn't been fresh for years, but now even as a relic it's losing appeal." Though Mana Khemia remains as loyal to its niche as its predecessors, some may find that its series-standard features and style have become tiresome after years of similar sequels. Devoted Gust fans and RPG enthusiasts in search of an alternate take on the genre can otherwise expect to find an enjoyable experience and a satisfying level of gameplay depth.

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