Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana Review
For the Crafter Inside Every RPGamer
Somewhere inside every RPGamer is a crafter, just waiting to get out and synthesize items like it was the last stand of Firiona Vie. Of course, most hide this side under blubbering talk of end-game raids and PvP ganking. Some even scoff at the notion of enjoying crafting and openly mock those who dare to set up storefront.
But now crafters have a secret. A dirty, no-good secret. A secret that allows them to craft to their heart’s content – offline, where no one will be the wiser.
That secret is called Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana.
Though the first game brought to North America, the Atelier series has seen a number of incarnations previous to Eternal Mana. Much of the focus of this series revolves around an alchemist who begins to learn the ancient art of alchemy; in Eternal Mana, the main protagonist is young lad by the name of Klein who is following in his grandmother’s footsteps in becoming an alchemist. While alchemists used to be rather common in the period of the great alchemist Iris, by Klein’s time, they were becoming increasingly rare. Part of the plot will revolve around unraveling the mystery of why there are so few alchemists left and what can be done about it.
Very early in his journey, Klein meets a beautiful young girl named Lita who serves not only as love interest but also as story catalyst through her mysterious past and hidden secret. The two band together with several other characters throughout the story, but the other characters tend to be peripheral at best.
The plot itself covers little new territory, going so far as to rip Final Fantasy X‘s flashback opener, and will likely seem a “been there, done that” romp to most RPGamer veterans. Beyond the basic love story, the pair will encounter a megalomaniac, bent on reshaping the world to suit his desire. Klein et al will naturally be the one thing able to prevent this, and they do so by tracking down the aid of Mana spirits.
Fortunately, these Mana have a much greater impact on gameplay than is normal for a Mana-centric RPG. Almost every Mana that Klein finds not only enhances his ability as an alchemist but also adds actions to the action-dial. For example, the fire Mana will give Klein the ability to use the destruction blast, useful in clearing away obstacles on the path, and the stone Mana will become a portable platform, useful in reaching upper ledges. While not a full-fledged action RPG, the combination and utilization of an increasing set of abilities makes dungeon exploration a fair sight better than most other RPGs.
While the plot may be lackluster, the localization should be brought to the limelight separately. NIS America has taken up the Working Designs mantle of humorous, contemporary localization efforts. Sometimes this is a good thing, sometimes not so much. Eternal Mana proves to be a little bit of both. Beyond the obvious contemporary references (Blue Bull is an energy drink that restores MP), dialog ranges from surprisingly good to face-smackingly cheesy, with most falling in between.
Unfortunately, the localization effort falls short on technical issues. Despite not being any sort of action game, the disc suffers from the occasional slowdown, particularly when mixing large numbers of ingredients into an item. Furthermore, the sound also has issues, occasionally cutting off one of the voices or getting stuck on a particular clip. While the game usually corrects itself quickly, it happens often enough to be a noticeable detraction from immersion.
Battle falls into the traditional, turn-based format. Each character has the standard arsenal of commands at their disposal: attack, defend, special skills, item, etc. The one exception to this is Klein who is the only character able to use and/or synthesize mana items during battle. While the battle system is certainly passable, do not expect it to shine or be any more exciting by the end of the game.
Oddly, the difficulty is very unbalanced. The vast majority of the game is quite easy, and it’s entirely possible to get all the way to the very precipice of the end before losing a character, much less actually having a game over screen. But this is by necessity; Eternal Mana is seriously lacking in revive items. Klein gains access to one by mid-game, but the only item usable by all characters is available only in the latter stage of the game. What that translates to is this: if Klein gets knocked out, the rest of the party won’t stand much of a chance if they start dropping. While generally not a problem, a few bosses have cheap tactics that can render a character unconscious before a player turn is even taken. And to confuse matters even more, enemies are seemingly plopped about at random – it’s entirely possible to run into the same exact weak set of enemies in the first hour as it is the fortieth. Beyond this overuse, Eternal Mana does not feature a wide variety of creatures, relying heavily on palette-swapping to differentiate.
Despite all that, if a player enjoys crafting and side-quests, the game can still be quite a bit of fun. The synthesis system is multilayered and complex, encompassing a variety of forms, each with its own quirks. Mana stones can be crystallized into cards, then combined and attached to weapons/accessories for a variety of effects. Klein will discover a number of Mana items during his quest; he can then use Mana gained by elemental extraction (a fancy way of bashing stuff to bits) to make reusable useful items.
But the heart of the system is item creation in various shops. Klein will encounter five shops that will be able to synthesize items for him, assuming that he can provide ingredients. These ingredients are scattered all over and generally freely available (although hunting for a particular ingredient can be rather toilsome), but the system is designed to be unlockable through a series of scenes and side-quests that last the entire game. And since many of the possible items are not explicitly listed, the system encourages experimentation not only to find new items but to improve the quality of existing ones.
The downside is that Eternal Mana can turn into one eternal fetch quest, looking for the correct set of ingredients. This is further hampered by a truly gimped teleportation system, requiring the player to backtrack numerous times over previously trodden ground even in the main story sequence. Even so, the item creation and associated side-quests are easily the most enjoyable aspects of the game.
Visuals are a mixed bag. The towns and dungeon areas are well done in a traditional hand-painted style, but the overworld is a jarringly bad rendition of CG. While there are no FMV scenes, dialog is presented through a series of nicely detailed character portraits in the anime-style.
Audio – when it’s not cutting out – is generally good. The soundtrack is appropriate but reused too often. Voice acting is professional and nicely done, a good effort by a number of industry veterans.
Overall, Eternal Mana is an intriguing entry into the RPG market but probably too niche for most to consider it a great game. Though the game does not offer much in the way of replayability, a bonus dungeon and unlockable extras do let players squeeze every last bit of gameplay. Even so, it is worth looking at, especially for RPGamers who enjoy crafting in all its aspects.