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Last time, we talked a bit about how Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana is a lot more of a “traditional RPG” than many of its stablemates in the rest of the series as a whole.
We looked in particular at how the game’s combat and progression mechanics are based on the conventions of turn-based, menu-driven console RPGs, but how it adds a few twists onto that formula — with an appropriate emphasis on item usage and alchemy.
Today we’re going to explore the overall game structure and presentation a bit further, with a particular eye on how protagonist Klein and his companions can explore their world over the course of their adventure as a whole. Let’s jump in!
One of the most distinctive things about many of the earlier Atelier games is the perspective from which they are presented. Look at any of the screenshots of Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana and doubtless you’ll notice the fact that every scene is shown from an immediately recognisable “diagonal” perspective, allowing for the illusion of depth.
This style of presentation is often referred to as an “isometric perspective”, though in the case of Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, it’s actually more accurate to call it a “dimetric perspective”. The reason for this — should you ever find yourself stuck in a lift with a maths teacher and need to explain such things — is that a true isometric perspective has equal foreshortening on all three of the main axes (X, Y and Z) and an equal angle of 120 degrees between any two of them; the related dimetric perspective, meanwhile, displays a different amount of foreshortening on one of the three axes. In the case of Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana’s environments, you may notice the “top” side of the objects looks noticeably “flatter” than the front two sides.
Mathematics aside, perspectives like this (which tend to collectively be referred to as “isometric” for simplicity’s sake, as they shall be hereafter) have been used in video games for a long time to provide a “3D” look to visuals without actually being 3D. And this style of presentation has a long history; its most well-known early use dates back to 1982 and the introduction of Sega’s Zaxxon, a shoot ’em up that distinguished itself with its quasi-3D perspective, which provided players the opportunity to change altitude as well as lateral position when attempting to destroy their foes and avoid obstacles.
The use of an isometric perspective for a character on the ground actually came about slightly earlier than Zaxxon, however; 1981 saw the release of Data East’s Treasure Island for the company’s modular DECO Cassette System arcade platform, and this featured a human character climbing up an ever-sinking isometric island in an attempt to reach the top as quickly as possible while fending off alien monsters. We actually still see hints of this game’s core design in more recent isometric games: the fact the character can step up objects that are about a block high; the fact the character can only fall about the same distance as he can climb; and the way a semi-convincing 3D environment is built out of cubic “blocks”.
This style of presentation continually evolved as the years passed; the Mark Cerny-designed, Atari Games-published Marble Madness showed us how more complex quasi-3D environments with slopes and uneven surfaces could be constructed using an isometric perspective, and Sandy White’s Ant Attack for ZX Spectrum demonstrated that the home computers of the early ’80s were not only up to the task of drawing isometric environments, they could even perform the complex calculations required to “rotate” the viewpoint through 90 degrees and allow the player to see things from another angle.
For many, the “golden age” of isometric games dawned in the mid ’80s with the release of Knight Lore on ZX Spectrum by a company called Ultimate Play the Game — the predecessor to what we know today as Rare. Knight Lore pioneered a technique that its authors Tim and Chris Stamper dubbed “Filmation”; this was a means of the game engine calculating the relative priority of objects according to their “depth” in the isometric scene, thereby allowing objects and characters to pass “behind” each other, creating an even more convincing illusion of 3D than existing techniques used to draw isometric graphics. It also had the happy side-effect of almost completely negating the Spectrum’s notorious “attribute clash” issue when displaying colourful graphics!
While Knight Lore’s tank controls and obtuse mechanics feel very dated today, it’s clear how influential it was. The “Filmation” technique and the overall presentation of the game allowed the adventure to unfold not just on a flat plane, but with the feel of the environment truly having three dimensions to explore. You weren’t just exploring a 2D map rendered from a funny angle; you were jumping over things, ascending staircases, leaping perilous gaps… and, of course, trying to figure out what the hell all the myriad objects scattered around the environment 1) actually were and 2) were for.
While isometric adventures somewhat fell out of favour as the power of home computers and consoles increased and new ways of presenting increasingly elaborate environments came about, this style of presentation remained consistently popular for a specific genre of game: the humble RPG. There are numerous examples in both Eastern and Western gaming traditions of the isometric perspective being used effectively to create the illusion of 3D — or simply to have a distinctive aesthetic to explore.
But by the time Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana rolled around in 2004, we were at a point where full 3D, polygonal environments were both practical and desirable for consumers and developers alike. The world’s most well-known console RPG series Final Fantasy had gone full 3D (albeit with fixed camera angles) back in 2001 with Final Fantasy X, and indeed the world’s other most well-known console RPG series Dragon Quest would also go full 3D later in the same year Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana released.
Consumers supposedly expected their shiny new Emotion Engine-powered hardware to wow them with complex 3D environments and expressive polygonal characters. So why would Gust choose to hark back to a presentational style primarily associated with several previous generations of gaming hardware?
Well, there’s a few reasons, really. Firstly, at the time, static 2D art and sprite-based characters still allowed for a greater level of visual detail than polygonal environments and characters, because they were less demanding on the system. The PS2 is capable of surprisingly impressive 3D graphics in the right hands, of course, but rendering a detailed, busy, lively world such as the one seen in Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana would have doubtless been challenging in a full 3D engine without slowing the game to a crawl.
Secondly, it’s simply a stylistic thing: Atelier games up until this point had all been presented from an isometric perspective with lush 2D art and sprite-based characters, so it would have felt like something of a break from tradition for Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana to suddenly adopt a new viewpoint. Given that, as we’ve already seen, the game’s overall structure and focus is already somewhat different to past Atelier games, it’s possible Gust deliberately wanted to keep the isometric perspective as a means of giving series veterans something familiar to latch on to.
Thirdly, it simply works in terms of how the game is designed. The perspective rarely feels as “block-based” as early isometric games thanks to the way the beautiful 2D backdrops are overlaid on the core structure of the environment, and the game makes use of slopes and uneven ground rather than purely flat platforms. On top of this, there are a number of situations where the perspective is used cleverly to tease the player, allowing them to see treasures and helpful objects but not actually reach them. There are things in Atelier Iris’ first town that you see taunting for pretty much the whole game before you’re actually able to get to them!
Which brings us, of course, to how you actually get around in Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, and how the game makes impressive use of its mechanics to make a relatively small total geographic area have enough things to do to keep you occupied for more than 30 hours.
In Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, you take control of main protagonist Klein Kiesling. Thankfully, the traditional tank controls of old-school isometric games are a thing of the past, and Klein controls smoothly, making full use of the DualShock 2’s analogue stick. He’s an agile sort, too; a tap of the circle button causes him to leap in the air, and this allows him to ascend objects and platforms that are roughly a “block” high in the environment.
The early game gives you ample opportunity to experiment with this basic control system, and even takes the time to show you how it conceals things in the environment. In one of the first field areas, for example, you’re told there’s a treasure somewhere nearby, but its whereabouts don’t immediately appear obvious. It’s not until you do a bit of isometric jumpy-jumpy action on some nearby rocks that you discover a ladder leading up into a nearby tree… and a treasure chest hidden at the top of that tree, only revealed once Klein is up there.
Similarly, upon reaching the game’s first town of Kavoc, Klein and leading lady Lita are offered the use of what appears to be barkeep Norman’s spare house — but in order to get there, you need to hop up some barrels and pallets in order to reach the upper “tier” of the town, giving you some further experience of how the game’s environments aren’t simply designed on a flat plane, and that you should familiarise yourself with how high (and far) Klein is able to jump.
From the beginning of the game, Klein has an ability that is important for both exploration and his work as an alchemist: elemental extraction. By hitting something with his alchemist’s cane, he is able to both extract the elemental mana energy from it and destroy it; the latter part is especially important, as it allows him to clear a path through things like rocks and bushes that might otherwise be blocking access to helpful items or places he needs to be.
Again, you’re given some practice with this tool right at the outset of the game; the central area of Kavoc’s main street is filled with barrels, pallets, crates and baskets of flowers, with a few tempting looking objects sitting atop many of these stacks. Once you realise that no-one in town minds you sucking all the mana out of everything in their market square, you’ll come to realise that there’s also a rudimentary physics model at play, too; absorb an object on the bottom of a stack and everything above it will fall down to fill the gap. Careful use of this allows you to construct makeshift stairways — or simply bring out-of-reach objects down to ground level.
After a while, you start to hit the limitations of Klein’s ability, however. You’ll encounter black and purple boxes that appear to be immune to being absorbed, as well as dangerous areas such as electrified floors or lava pits that are seemingly impassable. It’s here that the game’s various Mana spirits come in.
As you progress through the game, Klein encounters a number of different elemental Mana. These have two functions: firstly, as we’ve previously seen, they assist Klein with his alchemy; and secondly, each of them have a field ability. And making effective use of these field abilities is essential to progression in Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana.
Several of these abilities are fairly straightforward. The Fire Mana allows you to shoot out a fireball in front of you and destroy objects — including those that you could absorb with Klein’s cane and the previously indestructible purple boxes. This skill also has a longer range than Klein’s cane, so when attempting to clear an area of Growloons, it’s often essential to use the Fire Mana to reach those that are in particularly awkward situations.
The Stone Mana, meanwhile, acts as a stepladder. Summon him and you create a platform of one “block” in height, allowing Klein to reach places that he otherwise would not have been able to get to. The Stone Mana is a big fella, mind you, so you need to make sure you have enough room to summon him.
A couple of later Mana provide you with the ability to cloak Klein with a magical barrier. This allows him to safely pass dangerous floors without taking damage or being thrown around unpredictably; there are few places in the game where this is essential to use, but it usually allows you to reach some nice treasures.
Elsewhere, two different Mana allow you to adjust the encounter rate up or down respectively, another provides healing for your party without you having to use any items — and an encounter with some mystical, magical beasts allows you the ability to turn into a small bunny rabbit-like creature that can both fit into small gaps and leap down from greater heights than Klein is able to. Finally, towards the end of the game, you gain the ability to “fly” and reach all those objects that have been taunting you for the last 30+ hours!
The fact that the game provides you with a gradual drip-feed of these abilities as the story progresses — and that some are off the critical path, meaning you could potentially miss them — keeps things interesting. The overall number of locations you visit over the course of the game as a whole is relatively small compared to some RPGs, but similarly to how open-structure 2D platform games do things, you’re encouraged to revisit all these areas repeatedly and experiment with your new abilities to see if they allow you to achieve things that weren’t possible before. It’s enormously satisfying when you finally find yourself able to bypass an obstacle that has been taunting you since your first visit to an area.
This ties in with the game’s overall structure, too. While we’ve already talked about the game having a linear central narrative with no real meaningful decisions to make, where the game truly excels is in the wealth of side content available to do. And the beauty of all this is that it ties all the game’s many and varied systems together, ensuring you engage with everything it has to offer rather than just concentrating on a single aspect of things.
A big strength the Atelier series has always had is the feeling that its various game worlds are truly “alive”; that its inhabitants are living, breathing, thinking, feeling people with their own motivations and reasons for doing what they do. And by interacting with these people as Klein, you start to feel like part of that world, too; it’s rare that you’ll find yourself running around the world of Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana thinking “I wonder how I trigger the next event”; rather, you’ll more likely find yourself wondering how Blaire the baker is doing, or if magic shop owner Veola is okay, or what dessert the big pink cuddly bear in the Hidden Village is going to make for you next.
Once you check in on those friends, they might have a new recipe for you to bring them the ingredients for… which, of course, will mean that you’ll need to go and gather those ingredients from somewhere — perhaps by making use of a new ability to reach them — or receive them as a drop from an enemy. Or, in a couple of particularly elaborate cases, craft a series of “Pendelooks”, which the Mana use as currency, to purchase one item that allows you to make another item which, in turn, allows you to progress another character’s sidequest, which… you get the idea. It’s all connected — much like how the Mana of Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana’s world connect all life together.
The further you go in the game, the more abilities you get to add to your arsenal. The more abilities you have, the further afield you can explore. And the further afield you can explore, the more varied ingredients you can gather for your various friends. It all gets rather addictive after a while; it’s nice just living in this world.
Next time around, we’ll wrap things up with Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana by looking at the overall plot, and how the game’s narrative, themes and characterisation help to build that wonderful world that contains so much for you to discover.
This post is one chapter of a MegaFeature!
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