Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana – It’s an Alchemy Thing

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Despite being the sixth game in the series, Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana was the first to come West.

The exact reasoning behind this isn’t entirely clear, but it may be something to do with the fact that the early Atelier games were primarily abstract management simulations with RPG elements, while Atelier Iris unfolds in a manner much more like what the Western audience would have understood “an RPG” to be in 2005.

Perhaps it was assumed the West wasn’t ready for that sort of thing. Perhaps the amount of text in the earlier games made them impractical to localise at the time. Or perhaps they just sort of fell through the cracks. Whatever the reasoning, Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana was the West’s first Atelier game, so that’s where we begin our journey.

For the unfamiliar, the Atelier series as a whole is broadly split into a number of subseries, each of which stands completely separately from the others in narrative terms while sharing some common themes, aesthetic elements and gameplay mechanics. And the fact their protagonists are alchemists.

The Iris trilogy was preceded by three Salburg games, which centred around using alchemy to help develop a small Renaissance Germany-inspired town, and two Gramnad games, which were somewhat more adventurous in nature and tone.

Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana’s core theme is living in harmony with nature. This is expressed through the concept of “mana” — living beings that embody various elements. In the world of Atelier Iris, alchemists are the ones who are able to communicate and collaborate with Mana, making use of their powers to craft various items and support them in their adventures.

We’ll explore Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana’s narrative in more detail in a subsequent article; today we’re going to take a look at how it implements the Atelier series’ most defining characteristic: crafting items using alchemy and other techniques.

In Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, you take on the role of Klein, a wandering alchemist. Through various circumstances, Klein finds himself becoming a Galgazit — someone who hunts down strange creatures known as Growloons, which are believed to make areas dangerous by producing and attracting monsters. He finds himself with a place to call home in the city of Kavoc, and from there various adventures begin.

Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana is structured as a linear narrative with various optional side activities to participate in along the way. Some of these are explicitly positioned as “missions” for you to complete, while others simply unfold naturally as you play through the game.

One of the most praiseworthy things about the game as a whole is that it never ends up feeling like a “checklist” of things to do; rather, it does an excellent job of making various special events feel like they are occurring organically, rather than based on specific triggers that you need to go in search of.

Probably the best example of this is the way that a number of shops are implemented in the game. Rather than being simple, generic establishments where you purchase weapons and armour, many of the shops in the game also provide the option for you to craft items using various ingredients you have gathered through battle and exploration. Each of these shops has its own unique side narrative for you to follow, usually allowing you to develop your relationship with and find out more about the shopkeeper in question.

The first of these you’ll encounter is Norman the barkeep, who welcomes Klein to Kavoc and provides him (and, subsequently, his companions) with a place to stay. Norman is often looking for new items to add to his menu, so it’s through him you get your first encounter with the item synthesis system as you help him develop some new drinks and dishes. Elsewhere, you’ll meet Veola the mysterious (and depressed) magic shop owner, Blaire the baker and several others.

Synthesis in a shop involves being provided with a list of ingredients required for a particular recipe, then handing them over and receiving the item. Once you’ve done this once, you have the option to add the item to the store’s menu, which means the shopkeeper gradually produces more instances of it over time, and allows you to purchase it without having to craft it again; of course, if you have the ingredients on hand, crafting it again is always an option, too.

For some recipes, you have the option of substituting ingredients for similar items. This has one of three effects: altering the final quality of the item, which changes its effectiveness and the specific things it does if it’s a consumable item; altering the “review” of the item, which is a series of adjectival phrases that describe the characteristics of the item; and sometimes producing a completely different item altogether.

Of these aspects, the “review” is the most obtuse, since it’s never really explained particularly well in the game itself. Essentially, the various characteristics of the review not only have an effect on the quality of the item, but also on how the population of the town in which the shop is located react to it. The more positive the reaction, the more popular the store will become; the more popular the store is, the progress you’ll make in your relationship with the shopkeeper, which in turn will mean more items available for synthesis and purchase.

In a nice touch, the reviews are reflected by random NPCs that sometimes appear around town, milling around inside or just outside the shop in question. Talk to them and you’ll get an entertaining bit of dialogue — occasionally with a bit of questionable translation and/or game logic, such as when a young kid describes a quill pen made by Veola as being “delicious” — and this provides the game world with a nice feeling of life, and that you’re having a direct impact on it with your actions.

Regardless of review, the first time you produce a new item, there’ll be a short scene between Klein and the shopkeeper where they have a conversation about the item and what it should be called. This idea would later be explored further in Gust’s Ar Tonelico series, which also featured a significant crafting component, but they’re particularly entertaining here, too — especially the scenes with Veola of the magic shop, who is bad at naming things, and finds herself in conflict with the game’s main heroine Lita for the affections of Klein.

At various intervals in your professional relationship with the shopkeeper, you’ll get a scene showing Klein’s personal relationship with them developing. These sometimes occur when you walk into the store; at others, they show up just as you’re leaving. This slightly unpredictable element is one of the things that makes them feel natural rather than artificially triggered — even if they actually are; visiting the shops becomes a genuine pleasure, because you can never quite know if you’re going to get another scene to enjoy.

These scenes are varied, interesting and fun, too; over the course of the game we learn why Veola is so depressed, the truth behind what led a rather “princess-like” girl such as Blaire to become a humble baker and numerous other interesting titbits of characterisation. In turn, the various revelations you come across in these scenes provide you with further things to do and items to craft — as well as the real meaning behind certain items. But more on that another time!

In this way, this side of the game’s narrative component very much integrates itself with the mechanics of the game, providing a strong sense of inhabiting the game world rather than it simply being a backdrop to the gameplay aspects. This is something the Atelier series as a whole continues to be good at to this day — Atelier Totori is a particularly fine example — so it’s a pleasure to see this particular characteristic of the franchise dates back to its much earlier installments.

Helping shopkeepers make items is just one side of crafting in Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, mind you; Klein’s alchemy works a little differently. Rather than making use of specific ingredient items as in other Atelier games, Klein instead works in concert with the Mana who have agreed to help him on his quest, making use of the elemental mana energy he has collected from enemies and objects around the world to produce a variety of useful, renewable items.

Each of these “Mana Items”, as they’re called, have an associated cost in terms of elemental energy. The choice of Mana you choose to help Klein with the process determines whether or not this cost is increased at all; generally speaking, you want to try and match a Mana’s element to the energy required for maximum energy efficiency.

Klein learns new recipes by finding special chests throughout the game world, which each contain a single example of a new Mana Item. Acquiring the item allows him to instinctively and immediately learn how to produce it using Mana and elemental energy, and from that point on he is able to craft it at any time, whether that be in the field, in the cauldron at home base — or even in the middle of battle. The latter should be a last resort, however; creating an item in the middle of combat means you’re not able to use any of Klein’s other skills to adjust the power level or area of effect of the item.

The energy to create these items comes from all around Klein. In combat, if Klein is the one to defeat an enemy with a regular attack, he will drain the elemental power from them. And in the field, hitting objects with his alchemy staff allows him to extract the energy from them, with the type of energy corresponding to what the object was; this also has the convenient side-effect of clearing the object out of the way if it was also acting as an obstacle.

Thankfully, the residents of the various towns around Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana’s world don’t appear to mind Klein hoovering up all the elemental energy from their elaborate arrangements of wooden crates, various baskets of fruit and Atelier’s obligatory barrels, and will even neatly put everything back out for him to suck up all over again on his next visit.

In this way, running out of elemental energy is rarely an issue — for the more common elements, anyway. There are some that are a little more rare, but you probably won’t need to use those quite as much, and by the time that you do have access to items that require them, you’ll have probably come across a reliable source, anyway.

The nice thing about the way Mana Item synthesis is handled in Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana is that it doesn’t tie you to a specific location; you can make full use of Klein’s abilities regardless of how far from the party’s “home” in Kavoc you are. And with healing and mana restoration items being made from some of the most common, readily available elemental energy, you can easily make the squad self-sufficient on long-expeditions — very helpful later in the game, where you’ll find yourself going quite far afield!

Of course, one might argue that not being primarily centred around a workshop calls the “Atelier” moniker somewhat into question — but in the case of Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, it’s more about an overall feel and attitude than a literal interpretation of the name; despite being structured somewhat differently from the games that both preceded and succeeded it, Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana fits right into the series as a whole, and is a thoroughly compelling game in its own right.

Next time, we’ll look in more detail at exploration, combat and progression in the world of Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, and how all this fits in with the overall game structure.


More about Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana

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