Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana – Narrative, Themes and Characterisation

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Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana is something of an outlier in the Atelier series as a whole, as we’ve already talked about.

Rather than adopting the established structure of “struggling alchemist works in a workshop to craft items, also there are adventures” it inverts this format to “struggling adventurer explores to discover mysteries of alchemy, also there is crafting”.

This change of structural focus gives the narrative scope to be a much more epic affair than many of the other games in the series — but at the same time it doesn’t abandon one of the series’ core principles. Let’s take a closer look.

More than crafting items in a world where alchemy is real and more than beating defenceless Punis around the head with a big stick. Atelier as a whole has always been a series about people.

Over the course of the Japan-only installments prior to we Westerners jumping on board with sixth game Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, we had tales of struggling students trying to catch up with their peers, enthusiastic apprentices trying to pay a debt, feisty young shopkeepers trying to prove their worth and even time-travelling shenanigans. And that’s just the stories the protagonists have to tell.

Outside of the core narrative of each of the games, the Atelier series has always prided itself on exemplary worldbuilding, featuring named non-player characters with personalities of their own, numerous ongoing narratives that run in parallel with the main plot, and a real feeling that life in these game worlds carried on about its business even when you and/or the protagonist weren’t present.

It achieves this in one very important way: having at least one central “hub” location from which everything proceeds. That hub location becomes a character in its own right in the game; it becomes somewhere that you’re happy to return to after a long adventure, and somewhere that you’re proud to be contributing to the wellbeing of.

The people who live there become your friends, and you feel responsible for helping make them happy; at the same time, though, you know that you’re just one person, and there’s a limit to how much you can do by yourself. So you’ll need to cooperate with those people around there to help make life better for everyone.

Despite following a much more conventional RPG-style structure to previous Atelier games, Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana still has this strong sense of “attachment” to particular places around the game world; much as in its predecessors, these places become locations that you’re always glad to return to.

The first of these is the town of Kavoc. Protagonist Klein arrives here after a long journey in search of some answers about alchemy. Kavoc, it seems, isn’t far away from the legendary city of Avenberry, which was supposedly once the place where all the world’s greatest alchemists hung out and threw things into cauldrons to see what happened. Unfortunately, as these things tend to go, it seems that things went A Bit Wrong up in Avenberry, so it became off-limits to most people; it remained little more than an iconic landmark off in the distance, atop the highest peak of a towering mountain and beyond a seemingly impassable, mystically sealed stone gate.

As you might expect, Klein’s primary interest in Kavoc is its proximity to Avenberry; he hopes that he might be able to find out a bit more about this legendary city of alchemists, but is unsurprised to discover that the people of Kavoc are, for the most part, just content to go about their business without any sort of mystical nonsense going on.

That’s not to say Kavoc is a sleepy little town with nothing to offer, mind. Shortly after arriving, Klein learns about a local profession known as “Galgazit”, which involves going out into the world and defeating monsters known as Growloons. Growloons themselves are mostly harmless, but their mere presence attracts more ferocious monsters, so Galgazits are recruited in order to keep their numbers under control and ensure they don’t get too close to significant population centres such as Kavoc.

Klein sees this as a potential opportunity to do some investigating, so when local Galgazit Lita Blanchimont offers him the opportunity to join her in her own efforts to eradicate the Growloon menace, he gladly accepts; Lita, meanwhile, recognises that Klein’s alchemical skills and knowledge might provide a means of her finding out a few things that she’s been curious about, so her offer, while genuine, certainly had an ulterior motive behind it.

When you’re not out in the world seeking those answers, though, you’re hanging out in various places around the game’s world — initially Kavoc, later expanding to the seaside town of Arcose and onward to the perpetually frozen village of Duran. And, in true Atelier fashion, each of those places are populated with people who have plenty of their own stories to tell.

In Kavoc, we initially meet Norman the barkeep. We learn that Norman acts as something of a hub for the local Galgazits, but much prefers tending bar to going out and doing dangerous things himself. He’s an experienced chef and cocktail artist, and can usually cobble something interesting together regardless of what ingredients you bring him — within reason.

Later in the game, we also learn that his position as a community hub also brings him into contact with what appears to be some less savoury individuals, but he’s not someone who judges other people’s moral character based on, say, a single request. Rather, he’s willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, and recognises that not everyone feels that way; when asking Klein and company to assist him with some of these requests by gathering poisonous ingredients, he is careful to emphasise the fact that they are always free to turn him down if they’re not altogether comfortable with what they’re doing.

One thing Atelier has always done well with these people-centric narratives is ensuring that they rarely unfold in isolation, and we get our first evidence of this with Norman. We learn that he’s been acting as something of a father figure towards the orphaned Veola, and from this point on the narratives of these characters tend to crisscross somewhat rather than being completely self-contained. It provides a strong sense of the world being alive and these characters being real people; in any other RPG, they’d be just the shopkeepers, but here, they’re some of the most interesting characters to engage with.

This is true elsewhere in the game, too. In the seaside town of Arcose, we encounter Blaire, a beautiful young woman with the most ’90s anime face you ever did see. Blaire works in the local bakery but doesn’t seem entirely satisfied with her lot; something about her manner, way of speaking and way of presenting herself seems oddly out of place in that little local bakery, but answers aren’t immediately forthcoming.

It’s not until you also engage with the two sisters Hute and Villa — the former of whom you first encounter when she finds herself trapped in a nearby cave, sending you on an impromptu rescue mission — that you start to find out a bit more about Blaire, and about the dynamic between these characters. This isn’t a straightforward happy-happy friendship affair, either; Blaire and Villa in particular are regularly at each other’s throats, and you often find yourself walking in on particularly vicious arguments when you pay them a visit.

This is an important point about Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana as a whole. While the concept of a game about helping people and making life better for a whole community might conjure up idealistic imagery of everyone being friends with one another, happily planting flowers and dancing in the sunshine, things emphatically aren’t like that here. These people have real struggles; they laugh, they cry, they lash out at the people who are important to them and they contemplate doing things that they — and the people around them — might regret.

Whether or not these events come to a satisfactory conclusion is largely dependent on you continuing to engage with them — but the genius of Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana is that by the point you’re starting to reach the core “conflicts” at the core of these stories, you’ve already been well and truly ensnared by the strong characterisation, witty dialogue and intriguing narratives that have been weaved around them.

It would take a strong man to walk away from Veola once you learn the real reason she wants to make the mysterious item known as a “Chronolex”; likewise, I defy anyone to let Blaire down when it looks like she’s about to realise her own surprisingly humble ambitions — especially once you’ve managed to get Villa to spill the beans on the truth behind her background.

And these are just the shopkeepers.

The main narrative of Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana is relatively predictable, but handled well.

First, a little context. In contrast to many other Atelier games, where alchemy is shown to simply be a skill that anyone can learn with the appropriate training and determination, in the Atelier Iris series as a whole it takes on a much more obviously mystical bent. Here, alchemists do what they do by collecting elemental mana energy, then cooperating with capital-M Mana spirits to shape and form that energy into useful forms.

Mana are spirits of nature. Each has an elemental affinity, ranging from the things you might expect — fire, water, wind, lightning — to the more esoteric and abstract such as power, time, spirit and evil. To keep the world turning and functioning as it should, the Mana of the world typically work invisibly behind the scenes to use this energy for the good of nature.

In a few instances throughout the game, we see what happens when the regular balance of mana energy is thrown out of whack: it can result in anything from unusual weather conditions to water stagnating and plant life dying. We are also typically provided with opportunities to fix it — but as the main scenario unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that there’s a more major threat at play.

As you might expect, the problems that Avenberry encountered largely stemmed from alchemists getting a bit too big for their boots and trying to do a bit too much — most notably by abusing the power of Mana rather than attempting to cooperate with them. This concept is explored through the game’s main villain Mull, who seeks to revive a being known as “Amalgam” — an abomination created through the forcible and unwilling fusion (or amalgamation, if you will) of Mana spirits, and the reason that Avenberry originally fell.

As a side note, Amalgam is known as “Trismegistus” in the original Japanese script; this is presumably a reference to Hermes Trismegistus, the author of the Hermetic Corpus, a series of sacred texts that formed the basis of the belief system known as Hermeticism, and which discussed connections between magic and science — such as alchemy — in great detail. But I digress. Hey, I thought it was interesting.

In true villain tradition, Mull believes himself better than the foolish Avenberry alchemists who tried to harness the power of Amalgam last time around. Unlike Klein’s mentor Daphne and Zeldalia, a reclusive forest-dwelling alchemist the party encounters as part of the narrative, he turned away from the teachings of the titular Iris — though he’s not above using some of the things she learned for his own benefit.

To understand this, it’s important to understand Iris’ context to the narrative as a whole. So let’s look at that for a moment.

Iris was one of the last alchemists in Avenberry. Unlike the power-hungry alchemists who eventually brought the city to ruin by attempting to harness the power of Amalgam, Iris believed in the sanctity of living in harmony with Mana, and modern-day alchemists in the world of Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana generally follow these teachings.

One of Iris’ experiments in Avenberry was the creation of artificial life forms powered by an object known as the Ruby Prism. Said Prism would allow these beings to live for a long time, though it wasn’t essential to their survival; without it, they would live more like ten years.

We learn what this really means quite early on in the narrative, where Klein and his friends encounter Mull in Iris’ final resting place — now little more than a ruined landmark deep within a forest. Mull believes that Iris’ work on the artificial lifeforms, and specifically the Ruby Prism, will allow him to safely harness the power of Amalgam for his own benefit. And, wouldn’t you know it, dear old Lita just happens to be the last surviving one of Iris’ creations, happily carrying around a Ruby Prism inside herself; Mull, as you might expect, is more than happy to relieve her of this.

Interestingly, this narrative event actually has a mechanical consequence, which is quite unusual in games like this. Lita’s lack of Ruby Prism means that she gradually starts to run out of power (represented by her maximum mana points draining a little every turn she is active in battle) and is at risk of dying prematurely — particularly with how much she exerts herself in her Galgazit activities and through helping out with Klein’s adventures. As such, you need to regularly keep her “charged up” with mana baths from this point onwards, using elemental energy that you’ve collected from around the world — and which you’d otherwise use for alchemical crafting.

Essentially, what Mull is doing is attempting to find a way of making use of Iris’ knowledge and alchemical breakthroughs without actually following her core philosophy. As you might expect, this is, of course, setting him up for complete and utter ruin — but since when has that ever stopped an RPG villain?

Through pursuing Mull, Klein and company come into contact with a wide variety of different Mana — even some of their leaders in the Eternal Land of Mana itself — and in doing so reinforce their understanding of the fact that Mana are living beings with their own thoughts, feelings and emotions; they are not simply a power source for humans to leverage as they see fit.

Klein and company are the living embodiment of Iris’ philosophy. The party consists entirely of people who want to help others; though their reasons for coming together may have differed, they ultimately share a common goal of wanting the world in which they live to be a better place — not just for themselves, but for the people who are important to them, the people they interact with every day and even just the people they meet in passing.

No-one is truly irredeemable in Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana. The character set up to be the “villain” in the early hours of the game, an arrogant knight known as Beggur, gets his comeuppance enough times over the course of the narrative for him to become a much better person by the end of the story — or perhaps, more accurately, if his sister (and your late-game party member) Marietta is to be believed, it’s more a case of him returning to how he used to be before getting drunk on power.

Even Mull would have had the potential to turn himself around had he survived the narrative. In the game’s final moments, we see his absolute belief in his own abilities turn to outright fear and recognition of his own shortcomings when it becomes apparent that he has not succeeded in “taming” Amalgam at all; he ultimately ends up absorbed by the abomination in a horrifying parallel of Klein’s own “Elemental Extraction” ability.

Although we see Mull only occasionally over the course of Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana’s narrative, we see enough of him to understand that he’s an intelligent man who prides himself on scientific rigour and only doing things after considerable research. From this, we can extrapolate that had he not suffered the terrible fate he did at the conclusion of the narrative, he would have probably finally understood that he had made a mistake, that sometimes the chaos of the universe can mess up even the most thorough plans — and that some things are not to be meddled with.

We can also assume that Klein and company would have probably done their best to help rehabilitate him, since at the very conclusion of the game we see them releasing the Mana trapped within Amalgam rather than simply killing the beast, which would have doubtless been the easiest option. Party member Arlin — actually a failed artificial life experiment that Mull carried out in the mould of Iris’ work — would have doubtless had a tough time forgiving his creator, but it’s telling that throughout the majority of the game, Arlin tends to refer to “stopping” Mull rather than “killing” him.

While the two “halves” of Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana that we’ve talked about today are obviously very different, they do have one core theme in common: respect for other “people”, be they human, Mana or anything else. Without respect for and cooperation with the people around us, there’s only so far we can get — and you might even end up devoured by an eldritch abomination from beyond time and space.

With it, though, we can overcome anything; it’s a common message in games like this, but it’s never any less relevant.

cropped-atelier-megafeature-header-1.pngThis post is one chapter of a MegaFeature!
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