As we’ve seen so far, each game in the Atelier Iris series reinvents its core mechanics quite significantly from its predecessor; this was a rather experimental period for Gust.
In this article, we’re going to take a specific look at the combat and progression mechanics in Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm, including the elements carried across from prior installments and some all-new considerations for this specific title.
Strap on your Mushroom Armour, rev up your Pyre Blade and get ready to fight — we’re going in. Watch out for the Punis!
Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm, like most games in the series, has a hard divide between dungeon exploration and downtime: the former occurs whenever you visit one of the game’s “Alterworlds”, and the latter is any time you are back in hub location Zey Meruze.
Your focus in each mode of play is very different: while in Zey Meruze, you’re likely to be picking up quests, interacting with people or crafting items using female protagonist Iris’ alchemy skills, while in dungeons you are mostly going to be exploring, looting and fighting — though there is also a fair bit of character interaction in each, too, since each Alterworld is home to a different species of non-human “Beastmen” characters.
The principle difference between the two “modes” is the presence of enemies — you can get into battles in the Alterworlds, while you are safe in Zey Meruze.
Unlike the first two Atelier Iris games, which made use of an invisible encounter system, in Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm we have an example of a mechanic known as “symbol encounter”. This describes a system whereby instead of random encounters occurring after a particular number of steps, you can instead see enemies in the field while exploring, and walking into them starts combat.
This system has been around in one form or another since the NES and Super NES days — Nintendo’s Zelda II: The Adventure of Link was one of the first mainstream games to use enemy symbols on the NES, though it isn’t a turn-based, menu-driven RPG; on SNES, meanwhile, Nintendo’s Earthbound and Neverland’s Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals are notable examples of the mechanic being used for more conventional RPGs. Symbol encounters did not catch on as a common means of doing things for turn-based, menu-driven RPGs until quite a bit later, however; it was titles like Falcom’s Trails in the Sky series for PSP and Compile Heart’s Hyperdimension Neptunia series that helped to popularise the practice.
Early incarnations of symbol encounter systems simply have enemies wandering around the map; Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm adds a couple of little extras to the mix to make things a bit more interesting. Firstly, while you can’t see exactly what enemies you’ll be facing from their symbol in the field — all enemies, including bosses, are represented as amorphous blobs until you enter combat with them — you can estimate their approximate level in relation to you.
Grey enemies are around your level; blue enemies are weaker than you and won’t yield much experience; red enemies are above your level and are dangerous but rewarding; and large, red, spiky enemies represent challenging but profitable groups of foes. You’ll also encounter purple enemies, which are quest-specific targets where you need to clear out multiple groups, and large, red, unmoving unspiked enemies, which are boss-level quest targets.
In Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm, you have an “attack” button in the field, which causes protagonist Edge to swing his sword. This can be used to break objects and reveal any treasures hidden within, but its primary purpose is to give you an advantage in enemy encounters. Strike a blue enemy and you’ll immediately defeat them and have a good chance of getting the item they would usually drop, but no experience — though the experience a blue enemy yields in normal combat isn’t really worth bothering with anyway. Strike any of the other enemy types, meanwhile, and you’ll enter combat with a slight advantage on initiative, usually allowing all of your characters to go first.
Once in battle, you and your foes will line up ready to kick the snot out of each other, and combat begins in a turn-based fashion. Like in later Atelier games, turn order is represented as a string of cards representing both players and enemies; each action you take has an associated “wait time”, which pushes the character’s card a certain distance back in the stack before they can act again. You can see exactly how long you’ll have to wait after performing a given action before you confirm it, so you can easily plan things out accordingly. You can also manipulate the turn order to a certain degree by using the “defend” move; this allows you to move the character’s next turn to almost anywhere in the stack of cards.
Each character is able to do all the things you’d expect from a turn-based, menu-driven RPG. You can let off a normal attack with your equipped weapon, make use of a skill, use an item or attempt to flee combat.
Normal attacks are important in Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm; while they tend to be weak in terms of damage, they usually hit more than once, which becomes important for the Burst system we’ll talk about in just a moment. Normal attacks also build up the collective skill meter in the corner of the screen; like in Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny, this is shared between the whole party, but unlike in that game, there’s no distinction between “charge” attacks to build the meter and “break” attacks to knock the enemy back in the turn order.
Instead, here each normal attack has a chance of knocking the enemy back in the stack of cards — with this chance able to be increased by properties you can attach to your equipment — as well as building up the enemy’s “break” value, represented by their card turning progressively red. After a certain threshold, the enemy will enter “break” status and be stunned for a short period, allowing you to get a few attacks in before they recover.
Different weapons have different effects on your normal attacks; some will hit harder fewer times, while others will hit lots of times for less damage each. The latter is generally preferable, because more hits means more bars added to the special Burst meter at the lower-left of the battle screen. And when this fills, a lot of very good things happen. Your skill meter fills to the maximum 9 points, all skills inflate their damage massively and every hit adds to a chain counter that tallies up both number of hits and total damage done in Burst mode. The higher both these values are, the more bonus experience you’ll get when the battle is over, and the more points will be retained in the skill meter ready for the next battle.
Burst mode adds an interesting layer of strategy to Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm’s battles, because it means that killing groups of enemies rapidly isn’t always desirable. In fact, the most desirable situation is to hit all of them weakly as many times as possible for a quick Burst, then continue to hit all of them as many times as possible without killing them. This will help you build up a huge Chain and inflate your experience for the encounter by up to 100% of its base value — which, in turn, means you’ll progress through the levels much more quickly. It’s for this reason that normal attacks are pretty weak multi-hit affairs, and that there are a number of craftable items that are likewise weak but inflate the hit count enormously. Carry a pocketful of Unirus Lifeforms and you’ll never miss a Burst chance ever again.
There are a few little twists with the Burst meter, too. Hit an enemy’s elemental weakness — which is always made explicit to you via icons on the enemy’s information panel when you target them — and the Burst meter will increase more rapidly, with roughly double growth per hit. Hit them with an element they’re resistant to, however, and it will build more slowly, roughly halving its usual growth rate. On top of that, taking damage from enemies can reduce the Burst meter — the more damage you take at once, the more gets knocked off the top of the meter, so in boss battles in particular you really need to concentrate on getting as many hits out as soon as you can.
This weakness system ties in with both equippable weapons and skills. Every action you take on an enemy in Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm has at least one element attached to it — sometimes this is as simple as a generic physical or magical attack (marked by a fist or staff icon respectively), or it could be a specific type of magic such as fire, ice or lightning (represented by the symbols you would expect).
There are four possible ratings for both player and enemy resistance to elements, represented as icons attached to the elemental symbols: two shields means maximum resistance (this often means complete immunity to status ailments, but simply heavily reduced damage for attack types); one shield means moderate resistance; no symbol at all means normal damage; and a scrunched-up face means weakness. While there’s nothing quite as drastic as the previous two games’ ghosts having complete immunity to physical damage, it is important to bear these things in mind, so equipment becomes very important.
Equipment can be found throughout the game world, but in most cases it’s desirable to get Iris crafting it. The reason for this is that when you first find an item of equipment, it doesn’t have any “property reviews” attached to it, meaning it’s not living up to its full potential. When Iris crafts it, however, she can attach up to two property reviews to a weapon, and one property review to each piece of armour and accessory.
Property reviews come from the ingredients you use to make an item. Unlike in later Atelier games, there’s no passing down properties from one “generation” of item to another here, though. If there are several steps to the process — for example, making an ingot to use as part of a weapon — then the ingredient items you manufacture will always have the same properties attached to them. For example, an Altena Ingot will always have “Blessed Weapon” attached, which causes normal attacks to ignore enemy resistances — very useful!
Where the customisation comes in is the fact that most recipes allow you to substitute at least one of the items for another; in most cases this will result in a different property review from that particular ingredient, while in other cases it will allow Iris to come up with a completely new but related recipe. On top of that, since most ingredients have at least one property review attached to them, you’ll have to pick which ones you actually want to give to the final item of equipment when you’ve completed making it, and you need to bear a few things in mind here.
Most notably, bonuses don’t stack in most cases, meaning, for example, if you have a combination of equipment that provides both a “medium” and a “large” bonus to defence, only the large one will take effect and the “medium” review is effectively wasted. With this in mind, it’s important to try and equip characters with a combination of gear — one weapon, one armour, two accessories — that provides them with five unique, complementary and helpful property reviews wherever possible, and thus crafting additional copies of various pieces of gear often becomes desirable to jiggle these traits around somewhat.
There’s an additional wrinkle in the mix that you need to bear in mind, too: two of the three playable characters are able to equip “Blades”, which are manifestations of Mana spirits’ power that allow them to switch what type of combatant they are. It’s essentially a simple class system; each Blades has its own weapon specialism and loadout of five unique skills that are gradually unlocked by earning Blades Points alongside experience points after successful battles. And yes, Blades Points are also subject to bonuses from Burst mode, making it even more desirable to finish battles with as big a flourish as possible.
The Blades can change up the way you fight very significantly, since they each have a clear focus as well as some interesting implementations of skills. Some of the most useful skills in the game not only require a particular number of levels on the skill gauge to use, they also consume items from your inventory. Deuteragonist Nell’s healer-style Blades, for example, allows her to amplify the use of various healing items to cover the whole party at regular intervals, rather than giving one person a single heal; conversely, male protagonist Edge has a necromancer-style Blades that allows him to summon various dark entities using ritualistic items, with each having their own unique effect on either a single enemy or an area.
What’s rather nice is that none of these Blades feel specifically “better” than one or the other, and you’ll max them out well before the end of the game, allowing you to freely switch between them back in Zey Meruze according to the circumstances you’ll be facing next time you visit an Alterworld. If you’ve been having particular trouble with a boss that is strong against physical attacks, give everyone a strong magic focus. Taking a lot of damage? Spec Nell as a healer. Want to get more Bursts? Set things up so you have easy access to weapons and skills with higher hit counts.
And just to tie everything together, how do you get access to these Blades? You fight bosses; in narrative terms, these represent monsters that have captured the various Mana spirits. Releasing said spirits causes them to gratefully form a pact with female protagonist Iris, allowing either Edge or Nell access to a new Blades, and Iris access to a new Summon ability which calls upon the Mana spirit in question to perform a specific action in combat.
All of the disparate game elements in Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm tie together like this, making the whole thing feel like a very coherent experience where everything you do is useful to your overall progress through the game. There’s never a sense that you’re just grinding out things for the hell of it — there’s always a target in sight; something new to aim for. And that’s a big part of what makes this game so enjoyable over the long term.
The other big parts, of course, are exploring this beautiful world, creating a variety of new items to use in said worlds, and enjoying the unfolding story as you discover some of the mysteries behind alchemy and the Mana spirits. So those are the things we’ll continue to explore next time!
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