The Atelier Iris subseries is, as we’ve already seen with Eternal Mana, something of an outlier in the Atelier series as a whole.
While all of the Atelier games involve RPG-style combat to varying degrees, the Iris subseries places a particular emphasis on what many would think of as a more “conventional” RPG-style structure: the protagonist goes on a journey, explores dungeons, acquires allies, seeks out wondrous treasures… there just happens to be some alchemy involved on the side.
Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny has a particularly strong emphasis on its combat and progression mechanics, making it a satisfying game for those who like making numbers get bigger. Let’s take a closer look at this aspect today.
Because no turn-based, menu-driven RPG from a moderately sized developer is complete without an overly elaborate name for its combat system, Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny is based around what it calls the “Action Cost Time Battle System”.
In simple terms, this is a similar system to “time bar”-based mechanics previously seen in titles such as the Final Fantasy and Grandia series — and in fact, something pretty close to Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny’s system can be seen in Blue Reflection, a much later game by Atelier developer Gust.
Icons representing enemies and allies are placed on a bar at the top of the combat screen. These icons move from left to right at a rate according to the character’s speed (and, in some cases, passive bonuses from items) and, when they reach the right edge, are able to take an action. In most cases, actions execute instantly, but occasionally there’s either a short charge-up time for an ability or spell — represented by the caster’s icon moving back a short distance, releasing the skill when it returns to the right edge — or a new icon added to the time bar, indicating when a repeating skill will next go off.
So far so straightforward. Where things get interesting is in the fact that you have two separate types of “normal” attack in Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny. A charge attack builds up the skill meter that is shared by the whole party and used to fuel special abilities and spells, while a break attack knocks an enemy back towards the left on the time bar. You can’t just repeatedly batter an enemy with break attacks to keep them from ever acting, however; the more you do in succession, the less effective they become, so these are best saved when the enemy is already towards the left edge of the time bar.
There’s an important reason for break attacks besides simply delaying an enemy turn. If you can knock an enemy’s icon into the yellow section of the time bar, they enter “Break” status, at which point their speed slows considerably for a short period, and any hits you land on any enemy while at least one enemy is afflicted with Break add to a Chain counter. The higher the maximum Chain you achieved in battle, the bigger bonuses you get to experience and skill points on its conclusion — but a Chain is broken as soon as there are no enemies in Break status, whether this is through you defeating them or them leaving the yellow part of the time bar.
This adds an interesting layer of strategy to the combat, because it means that in order to secure the best rewards you’ll need to think about the order you attack your targets. And not just considering whether you should eliminate the biggest threat first; often, it’s worth putting a relatively weak enemy into Break status while you deal with stronger foes, since stronger enemies require more hits to defeat and can thus result in longer Chains. At the same time, you have to be careful not to one-shot weaker enemies, because that results in no Chain at all!
These mechanics also take a bit of an emphasis off the use of skills and items in combat — though both are still useful, particularly when encountering enemies who are resistant to particular types of damage. Unlike most Atelier games, any character can use items in Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny, meaning no-one is ever left completely helpless, so long as you’ve kept your inventory well-stocked with a variety of useful battle tools.
Skills require a bit of forward planning to use. You start each battle with a single skill meter, which is enough to perform a single starting skill from any of the main characters, but more powerful skills — or multiple skills in a single battle — will require you to charge the meter, either through taking damage or making use of the aforementioned charge attacks.
The fact the skill meter is shared between the whole party takes some of the individual responsibility off party members to ensure they have plenty of juice to power their abilities, and it also means that everyone can cooperate to make sure someone is able to unleash what is — hopefully, anyway — the best skill for the situation.
The skills are pretty varied, too, with attack skills including single heavy hits, elementally attuned magic blasts and multi-hit physical combos, while support skills allow certain characters to heal the party, recover knocked-out members or afflict the enemy forces with status effects.
Items tend to have similar effects, though due to the nature of the alchemy systems can have their exact functionality customised to a certain degree through the “property reviews” female protagonist Viese attaches to them when crafting them for the first time. And, of course, they’re consumable — though much like Klein in Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, male protagonist Felt is able to craft a single item using elemental mana energy during combat, so long as he has enough of said energy to do so.
There are also certain things you can do with items that you can’t do with skills. Replacing Norn’s “Turn 2 Candy” skill from Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana is the “Item Wish” consumable, which can be thrown at an enemy to turn them into some sort of object — though much like Turn 2 Candy, it has a chance of failure, with greater success brought about by increasing the quality of the item, weakening the enemy (assuming you don’t one-shot them) or making use of the item on foes considerably lower-level than yourself.
Item Wish is the only way to get certain items in the game; nothing critical to completing the game, mind, but an optional sidequest quite early in the story highlights this fact through a shopkeeper asking you for something you haven’t seen any sign of up until that point. You will have, however, encountered several enemies that can be Item Wished into the item in question, though — and conveniently, you will have also just acquired the recipe for Item Wish.
The game doesn’t actually take that last step and tell you that Item Wish is the key to completing this sidequest, however; you’re expected to figure that out for yourself. There are a few moments in the game like this: you’ll be provided with a useful item (or, more commonly, the means of making a useful consumable item) and expected to figure out that now might be a good time to run around and experiment with it a bit. For the most part, this ties in with the exploration side of things, which we’ll look at in more detail next time, but the early Item Wish sidequest demonstrates that you should always experiment with combat items, too.
Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny’s fairly low level of difficulty allows you to enjoy these mechanics at your leisure. If you choose to, you can plough through most of the game with relative ease, but it’s much more interesting and fun to do so having a bit of fun along the way. Why punch a desert fish to death when you can drop a meteor on its head? What, exactly, does an Imperial soldier turn into if you Item Wish them — and does the process hurt for the poor fella? And exactly how high can you get that Chain count? (40’s my best at the time of writing; multi-hit, multi-element weapons for the win.)
All this combat serves a greater purpose, of course: character progression. And here’s an area where Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny differs quite noticeably from its predecessor.
While Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana had each character slowly learning and powering up a relatively small selection of skills over the course of the entire game, Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny takes an approach somewhat akin to what Square Enix did with Final Fantasy IX and ties aspects of progression to equipment.
Specifically, what this means is that certain items of equipment have skills attached, and these are active (in the case of passive skills) or available for use (in the case of battle skills) whenever that item is equipped. However, if you earn enough skill points while the item is equipped, the character “masters” the skill and enjoys its benefits even when the source item is unequipped. In this way, you’ll gradually need to change your characters’ equipment as you progress through the game in order to give them a good lineup of skills; sometimes you might specifically want to equip a slightly weaker item in order to acquire a beneficial skill. And, of course, mastering huge Chain bonuses in combat allows you to learn skills more quickly.
For the most part, the “Equipment” items — which are mostly alchemy items made by Viese that end up as ingredients for something else — carry passive skills, while it’s the unique weapon each character wields that provides them with their usable battle skills.
Weapon progression is a little different in that it’s not simply a case of getting Viese to craft a new item that you equip. Instead, each character has a distinct progression of weapons that is mostly linear, but occasionally splits into two alternative branches for a “tier” or two before reconvening. You have to craft at least one weapon from each “tier”, too; there’s no jumping ahead to the most powerful weapons, though you can jump back to any previously if you so desire — and if you have the appropriate ingredients.
Each subsequent weapon carries an improvement in stats over the last; when the path splits into two, you tend to have a choice between one with slightly lower stats but a useful learnable skill or passive ability attached, and one that is stronger but lacking in anything to learn.
In order to progress through the weapon “tree”, you need a specific item and for Viese to have made a pact with a specific Mana. In this way, there’s a certain amount of story-gating to weapon progression, since Viese makes her pacts at various major story milestones. This also makes gives the weapons with superior stats but no learnable skills an actual purpose; if you can’t yet make the next item in the tree due to not having met the appropriate Mana yet, you may as well buff your stats up to the best possible level until you make enough progress in the narrative to proceed.
There’s some interesting variation in the weapons as you work your way through, too; they’re not always just a more powerful version of what you were using previously. In many cases, later weapons have the ability to hit multiple times in various ways — either by increasing the number of attacks you perform with a single action, or by attaching elemental damage to the weapon. Atelier games tend to treat elemental damage as a separate hit from the main attack, so by combining weapons, equipment and skills that let you hit multiple times, you can potentially bump up that precious Chain count to astronomical levels with the right setup. It’s very satisfying when you get it right.
Interestingly, Viese doesn’t have any stat-based progression of her own for the majority of the game, since she doesn’t participate in any combat until the closing chapters, at which point she will quickly catch up to the rest of the party with some absolutely shameless XP-leeching. Unlike in later Atelier games, she does not have separate “battle” and “alchemy” levels, either. Instead, she has two important ways of progressing: learning recipes, and making pacts.
Learning recipes is a simple matter of either her or Felt acquiring the appropriate recipe from a treasure chest or other interactive object; the Share Ring they both wear ensures that both gain the benefit of its knowledge. Once Viese knows a recipe, she can craft it any time she has the appropriate ingredients — though there are a few items in the list that make use of unique ingredients you’ll only find once, so be sure to make these when you have the chance!
When Viese makes a consumable item for the first time, she “initialises” it, which means that either she or Felt becomes able to use elemental mana energy to duplicate the item — complete with the property reviews and quality level Viese attached last time she made it with ingredients. For armour and other equippable items, however, Viese always needs ingredients to synthesise; this is to prevent you overpowering your party too much by simply duplicating all the best equipment!
As the game progresses, Viese becomes able to create “Mana Core” items that permanently increase a character’s stats. Normally, these require the use of valuable, rare coloured mana gems to synthesise, but technically, as they’re a consumable item, they can be duplicated using elemental mana energy. The caveat here is that doing so requires a large amount of Life Mana energy — and this just so happens to be the rarest element in the game, so it’s unwise to waste it just to pump up a character’s attack power or resistance by a little bit.
However, late in the game, Felt does reach a location where there’s a shop that sells these coloured mana gems — but they’re not cheap, as you might expect. This does mean after a certain point that it is possible to grind your way to ridiculous stats — or to make some money by crafting items and selling them, then using said money to buy mana gems — but, given the game’s aforementioned low difficulty level, there’s not really a compelling reason to do so other than your own personal gratification. Which, to be fair, can be a powerful motivator in its own right for some people!
Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny has markedly different combat and progression from its predecessor, and it’s a matter of taste as to whether or not you prefer the way it does things to Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana. The later game does seem to make a point of making most of its systems a lot more elegant, polished and streamlined than its rather experimental-feeling predecessor — though some may argue some complexity and depth is lost in the process.
It’s fun, though; and taking it on its own merits, that’s all that will matter for a lot of people. What we have here is a satisfying, enjoyable RPG adventure with some solid core mechanics and an interestingly varied progression system — and a worthy successor to the Atelier name in more ways than one.
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