In 2006, a year after Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny, Gust released Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm in Japan; it would be another year after that before Western players would get their hands on it.
Atelier games are a fixture in developer Gust’s calendar; each of the duologies and trilogies that make up the complete franchise have enjoyed annual installments, and indeed the first Atelier Iris’ release in Japan in 2004 marked the beginning of a streak of yearly releases for the series as a whole that lasted until 2017. The company, of course, made up for the lack of an Atelier game in 2018 by releasing three in 2019, but, well, that’s a story for another day.
What’s kind of remarkable is that despite this non-stop release schedule, each Atelier game, even within the same subseries, feels noticeably distinct from the last. And this is particularly apparent when it comes to Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm. So let’s look at how this moves the series forwards.
Before we get to specifics, I think it’s worth noting how looking at this series in retrospect allows a much greater appreciation for what it has done over time — and that this is particularly important to bear in mind considering the rather mediocre critical reception Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm had on its original Western release.
Writing in August of 2007, for example, Eurogamer’s Simon Parkin compared Gust’s rapid output of games in the series to the notorious annual sports games updates from publishers such as Electronic Arts. He argued that “with Atelier Iris 3, the series settles into a steady conservatism (albeit within its niche) that ensures the game will find no favour outside of its core audience” and slapped the game with a kiss-of-death 5/10 rating. Because, as we all know, to people who care about review scores, nothing below 7/10 is worth bothering with.
Parkin’s comment above is, not to put too fine a point on it, patent nonsense. Looking back on it in 2020, it’s very clear to see that Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm is a significant step forwards from its two predecessors in a number of regards. We’ll come on to all that in just a moment, don’t you worry.
What is somewhat important to remember, however, is the context of Parkin’s original review. Its publication date of August 2007 puts it nearly two full years after the games industry entered the HD generation with the release of the Xbox 360 in November of 2005, and thus an isometric, turn-based, menu-driven role-playing game built primarily with 2D sprite art and released for the then-seven year old PlayStation 2 was not regarded as something particularly fashionable or desirable, to say the least.
You and I know better these days, of course. You and I know that it’s best to judge a game on its own merits rather than what you think it “should” be; you and I know that dated technology or host platforms do not make for a bad (or indeed “conservative”) game — indeed, there are developers today specifically eschewing the pursuit of photorealism in favour of a more deliberately stylised aesthetic; you and I know that an interesting game is timeless. And Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm is nothing if not interesting.
So let’s talk specifics. There are three main ways in which Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm distinguishes itself from its predecessors and sets itself apart: its visuals, its music and its overall structure.
Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm builds on the visual design and methods of construction that the first two Atelier Iris games made use of. We have the beautiful, seemingly hand-painted 2D background art seen in the previous two games, here used sparingly to mark important locations. And we have the isometric tile-based construction that Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny in particular was heavily built around.
The difference here is that the latter aspect has had a serious graphical overhaul; the “blocks” from which the world is constructed are now beautifully detailed and combined with gorgeous foreground and background details; a stark contrast to the sometimes blurry textured blocks that made up many of Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny’s locales. Indeed, most of Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm’s areas no longer look obviously made from blocks at all, making for a much more organic feel to the game world.
Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm particularly shines in its outdoor forest scenes. The vibrant colours and strong level of detail in these areas bring to mind Brownie Brown’s contributions to Square’s Seiken Densetsu/Mana series; elsewhere, things get more creative, making clever use of the isometric perspective to create optical illusions and elaborate, twisting paths around the scenery — similarly to how much earlier games presented from this perspective liked to do things.
The world of Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm is split into a number of discrete components. The “hub” of the experience is Zey Meruze, a small, Italian-style town crisscrossed by canals and surrounded by lush greenery, the deep and rich purples of grapes ripening on the vine and elements of traditional Venetian Gothic and Renaissance architecture. It’s a place that it’s thoroughly pleasant to come “home” to after every adventure — and the fact that the game is structured to make you feel this sense of warmth and homeliness marks something of a return to the traditional Atelier model after both Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana and Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny had much more of a “journey” feel to them.
Rather than simply travelling the world in Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm, however, you step into various “Alterworlds”, which are accessed via a number of rather peculiarly positioned misty portals that surround Zey Meruze. Each Alterworld is themed differently, with a visual style and overriding colour scheme to match.
The first you encounter is the Ancient Forest of Valtessa, which is probably the best example of the game’s wooded areas previously mentioned, and an area bathed in vibrant green, as you might expect. As you progress through the story, you’ll also find yourself visiting the dark blues and greys of the rather Gothic Grimoire Castle, the light grey stonework of the forts that riddle the Posporia Battlefields, the sparkling turquoises and purples of Dakascus’ Crystal Valley, and the metallic greys and browns of the Gardens of Ishtar.
The visual look and feel of each area is also complemented by their respective soundtracks, and this brings us on to how Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm distinguishes itself from its predecessors through its use of music.
From a technical perspective, a huge difference between the music of Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm and its two predecessors is that the former uses pre-recorded streamed music, while both Eternal Mana and The Azoth of Destiny use sequenced tracks.
For those unfamiliar, what this means in practice is that the first two Atelier Iris games create their music in real time using a combination of instrument samples stored on the disc and MIDI data telling the console how to put all those sounds together — essentially an evolution of how earlier consoles were able to play back sequences of predefined, built-in waveforms on a fixed number of sound channels. This method of composition allows greater flexibility for the game’s sound team to manipulate music in real time — as well as, perhaps more importantly, taking up considerably less space on the game disc — but, even with the best instrument samples, the resulting tracks can have a distinctly artificial, synthesised feel to them.
Streamed music, meanwhile, is composed and recorded in advance then simply played back from the disc during gameplay, usually as some sort of compressed audio file similar to an MP3 or equivalent. While this takes up much more disc space, it allows for considerably more elaborate compositions and mixes that generally sound a lot richer in tone and texture — and it also means that composers don’t have to be held back by a console’s sound capabilities or performance considerations, since it’s just playing back a single pre-recorded sound clip rather than creating music in real time.
The upshot of all this is that Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm’s soundtrack is a noticeable leap up in overall sound fidelity from its two predecessors. This isn’t to say that there’s anything “wrong” with either Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana or Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny’s soundtracks, mind; simply that Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm’s music is noticeably more elaborate, richer and warmer, and it’s very satisfying to listen to.
Those familiar with more recent games in the series — from the PlayStation 3 era onwards — will also find it has much more of that characteristic “Atelier” timbre to it thanks to its distinctive combinations of instruments — accordion, harmonica and some form of delicious 1970s-style synth lead being the elements that stand out most clearly, and which composer Ken Nakagawa seems to enjoy returning to most frequently in his work.
Nakagawa is especially fond of composing his tracks using an EWI — an Electronic Wind Instrument. This allows for particularly convincing and expressive synthesised lead lines — including, but not confined to brass and wind instrument tones — to be reproduced without the need for hiring specialist musicians or managing a large ensemble. Music composed with an EWI has a very distinctive timbre compared to that produced with the more commonly seen keyboard-based synthesiser, and Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm represents one of the first times Nakagawa was able to really explore this aspect of his creative tastes during his work with Gust by producing digital streamed music.
By now it should be fairly plain to see that Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm represented something of a turning point for the series, particularly when contemplating the technical aspects of its presentation. But there’s an important other factor to note in this regard, too, and it’s one I personally find quite interesting.
If you’ve spoken to an Atelier fan, chances are they’ve described their favourite series as being “comfy” or “wholesome” on at least one occasion — and indeed, for a lot of people, this aspect is part of the core appeal for the franchise as a whole. To put it another way, Atelier is the kind of game you’d take home to visit your parents and not feel the slightest bit self-conscious about.
Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm doesn’t abandon this side of things, but it does have a noticeable “edge” to it in a few areas. I mean, hell, the male protagonist is literally called Edge, for one thing, but the game as a whole also features a lot more obvious “hard edges” than its predecessors.
Edge is a taciturn, seemingly grumpy sort of protagonist who wields a mechanical sword, for example. He may seem a far cry from the energetic, enthusiastic and mystical leads of the previous two games, but he’s not your stereotypical melodramatic, po-faced, all-business RPG hero either. He blushes, he gets flustered, he has a delightfully dry sense of humour and, of course, his heart is very much in the right place. In other words, there’s comfiness and wholesomeness there; there’s just a spiky, sharp outer shell.
This idea of “wholesomeness with an edge” is a running theme in Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm’s presentation and mechanics. Take the combat system, for example; we’ll look more at the specifics in the next article, but suffice to say for now, the absurd combination of the overdramatic, fighting game-style “Burst” mechanic (complete with screen-filling, guitar-screeching callout) and the super-cute, almost tangibly “squishy” enemies is enormously appealing.
Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm may not have been a technological marvel back at the time of its original release, but it’s certainly not “conservative” in what it does, either. It’s yet another example of the series reinventing itself significantly with each new installment — even within the same subseries — and a prime example of the beauty that is a late-era PS2 game from Gust.
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