While Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana and Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny are both structured around a protagonist’s ongoing journey, Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm has a structure somewhat more akin to “traditional” Atelier games.
In other words, that means that the game is primarily based around a single “hub” location that plays host to the alchemist protagonist’s workshop, and pretty much everything you do involves heading out from that hub location to go and do specific things for one reason or another.
In the case of Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm, those “things” will be quests and missions in the various Alterworlds that surround the city of Zey Meruze. So let’s take a look at the game’s overall structure, and how exploration works in general.
Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm is put together in a distinctly different way from its predecessors. Rather than having a linear main narrative that can be advanced at any point — assuming you’ve done all the side activities you want to at any given moment — it’s split into discrete, self-contained, gated chapters.
Each chapter requires you to do two things: complete quests to earn points and gain a rank with Zey Meruze’s Raiders’ Guild, and, upon attaining an increase in rank, complete a mission that advances the story. During missions, progress in quests is frozen to ensure you focus on the advancing narrative; while you’re in “quest” mode, however, you can take on as many quests at once as you like, and approach them however you see fit.
This structure is one that Gust would return to in almost exactly the same form eleven years later with their magical girl RPG Blue Reflection for PlayStation 4, and it’s also one that has been used in the massively multiplayer installments in the Final Fantasy series over the years — with Final Fantasy XI requiring you to attain “rank points” through various activities before you can take on story missions, and Final Fantasy XIV simply gating main scenario progress with experience or gear level requirements every so often.
It’s a popular structure for a reason: the linear, self-contained missions allow for strong narrative progression without interruption, while the freeform nature of questing allows you to develop a strong feeling of “living” in the game world, exploring it at your own pace and getting to know the characters — both playable and non-playable. Like the rest of the Atelier Iris series — and unlike a number of the games in the overall franchise that came both before and after it — Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm lacks a time limit, so you really can tackle it at your leisure. As such, it’s very easy to spend upwards of 50 hours on the game, making this one of the longest entries in the franchise.
In the “free” time you have between missions, you have two main things to get cracking on: firstly, ensure Iris gets some time to practice her alchemy, and secondly, take on some of the aforementioned quests.
In the case of alchemy, we’ve already talked about how this is helpful for combat and progression, but there are other reasons to engage with this system, too. For example, every time Iris creates a new item for the first time, she gains alchemy experience that is added to a meter. When this meter ranks up, she gets a significant increase to her magic attack and defence power — the main stats she relies on in battle — and also comes up with several “ideas” for new recipes.
Ideas aren’t recipes in themselves, though; they need fleshing out with some further inspiration. The formation of an idea simply represents the fact that Iris’ growing skill and confidence in the art of alchemy has inspired her to think about various “what if…?” scenarios based on her experiences. In order to turn a vague idea into a usable recipe, you’ll need to consider the clue Iris provides in the recipes menu, then seek out the thing you think she’s referring to. This is conveniently marked with an icon when it’s on the same screen as you, but otherwise you get no further hints. And it could be literally anywhere — not just in town, but also in any of the five Alterworlds you travel to over the course of your adventure.
With that in mind, then, you’ll need to explore those Alterworlds, and explore them thoroughly. Fortunately, the quest system gives you ample opportunity to do just that.
At the outset of the game, Edge and Iris are relatively low-ranked adventurers in Zey Meruze’s Guild. They’re not at the bottom by any means, though; they’ve already established themselves to a certain degree, and Iris in particular has become known and appreciated by the community for her alchemy skills. However, they still only have access to what is regarded as a “beginner’s Alterworld”: the Ancient Forest of Valtessa.
What exactly is an Alterworld, though? Well, this is one of the game’s core mysteries and is somewhat left up to interpretation in narrative terms. All that you’re really told explicitly is that there are portals to these five Alterworlds around Zey Meruze, that each of these Alterworlds plays host to at least one of the non-human tribes, and that each Alterworld is clad in a mysterious mist that means humans are only able to spend a certain amount of time there before being forcibly returned to Zey Meruze.
From a mechanical perspective, what we have are five increasingly complex “dungeons”, each with their own visual and musical themes, with each visit time-limited. Five dungeons might not sound like a lot, but each one of these is pretty large, generally consisting of at least two (usually more) distinct maps with a significant number of discrete “rooms” on each map, each of which is generally a lot more complicated to get through that just “run in one direction”. On top of that, certain parts of each map are gated by the requirement to possess specific field abilities to remove obstacles from your path.
The latter aspect is fairly simple; by the end of the game, all you’ve added to your “field arsenal” is the ability to shoot fire that melts ice and break rocks with a hammer — you don’t have to deal with as wide a lineup of field abilities as in Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, nor do you need to keep yourself stocked up with consumable field items as in Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny. But the fact you get both of these abilities a fair distance into the game means that on your initial visits to many of the Alterworlds, you will come across things that you can see but not reach — and as enthusiasts of open-structure 2D platform games in particular will know, this is a great way of stoking the player’s curiosity and pushing them onwards.
What’s interesting about the Alterworlds is how they all have a different core design theme. Initial Alterworld Valtessa is probably the most straightforward, but its overriding design feature is the fact that there’s no such thing as a straight path from one side of a “room” to another. When simply moving from, say, the north end to the south end, you’ll almost certainly have to follow a winding path that frequently appears to double back on itself, and in several areas there is some light isometric platforming to do, too. Don’t worry, nothing pixel-perfect — but it’s noteworthy that this side of things is most clearly seen in Valtessa.
Grimoire Castle, the second area you visit, is a much more typical example of what most people think of when you say “dungeon”. The thing that stands out the most here from a design perspective is that there are usually several ways to get to a single location, but one of those ways, while quicker, may require you to either put yourself in danger or be in possession of a particular item or ability. There’s also a bit of classic dungeon crawler trickery going on, too: a couple of the floors of the castle have areas that are accessed completely separately from one another — with one in particular hiding frustratingly in plain sight right within the entrance, very easily missable.
Next up is the Posporia Battlegrounds, which plays host to a conflict between the diminutive Fairies and the cuddly, bear-like Kumas. Initially, this looks very much like Valtessa, but the natural forest soon gives way to the spiked barriers and grey stone of the two sides’ respective forts. The core design principle at work here is the division of the map into three distinct segments: the neutral territory in the middle, the Fairies’ territory and the Kuma territory. As the story progresses, one group or the other tends to be “in the lead”, allowing you easy access to one side or the other. Later in the game, you are presented with the ability to shoot yourself from one territory to the other using cannons, so you’ll need a decent understanding of how these relate to one another.
The fourth Alterworld, the Crystal Valley of Dakascus, is one of two areas that are most obviously “fantastic” rather than based on plausible settings. Here, we’re presented with sandy platforms floating in the sky that are peppered with shining turquoise and purple crystals. The main design element in this region is the fact that the pathways are changing elevation near-constantly, necessitating a lot of jumping up and falling down “stairs” — though the only instance of platforming that requires any real precision is to reach one optional treasure. This Alterworld also has a few broken crystals that prevent access to certain areas; you won’t be able to repair these and turn them into makeshift bridges until a specific point in the story where Iris gains the ability to make a particular key item.
The final Alterworld of the main game is the Gardens of Ishtar, an area where things get really weird. Gigantic swords float in the sky, and you’ll find yourself running across metallic pipes to rocky platforms, climbing vines and passing by what looks like some of the few, tiny, surviving areas of natural plant life. This Alterworld’s main design feature is a heavy use of teleporters, and understanding the relationship between these is key to successful navigation, especially since different teleporters tend to lead to different, completely self-contained parts of the same map. This area is renowned both among players and in the in-game lore as being difficult to navigate, so don’t feel discouraged if you find yourself getting lost at first!
As previously noted, each visit to an Alterworld has a time limit. When this expires, or when you deliberately choose to end your visit early through the always-available “To Town” option in the main menu, you are sent back to Iris’ workshop, and your “Field Bonuses” are tallied up, and are cumulative between visits, so don’t all have to be tackled at once.
Field bonuses come in two forms: coloured crystals that are generally hidden inside breakable items or cuttable grass, and specific tasks you’re given to accomplish. Each Alterworld has its own lineup of the former, and these range from relatively simple actions such as defeating a specific number of enemies, to things you’ll have to make a specific effort to do such as going the whole visit without looking at your map, returning without taking any damage or concluding your entire expedition without getting into a single battle.
Collecting crystals and achieving tasks rewards you with points, and at various point boundaries you’ll be rewarded with items. For the most part, these are alchemy ingredients that are hard to come by under normal circumstances, but in most cases the penultimate bonus at 7,000 cumulative points provides you with a helpful recipe for Iris to add to her arsenal. As such, these bonuses are worth pursuing — though you’ll tend to find over the course of playing the game naturally, you’ll achieve most of them without having to go too much out of your way to do so.
The system is actually somewhat reminiscent of the “Adventure Achievements” system found in Alicesoft’s eroge RPG classic Rance VI: Collapse of Zeth, which originally came out in 2004. In that case, the points you earned were specific to a single expedition rather than a cumulative total from all your visits, so the implementation is slightly different. They still provide the same basic benefits, though: they provide you with a focus to your gameplay if you’re feeling a bit aimless at any point, and they provide you with relatively easy access to items and other rewards that are otherwise quite tricky to get hold of.
Your access to the Alterworlds is determined by Edge, Iris and Nell’s rank with the Raiders’ Guild — and this, in turn, is in line with your overall progress through the story. When accepting quests from the Guild, some will simply be worth material rewards such as money and items — again, the items on offer tend to be those that are a bit of an effort to gather — while others will provide “Quest Points”. The former kind of quest tends to be fairly simple (craft this, kill this) and repeatable — though they show up for subsequent times on the quest board seemingly at random rather than immediately — while the latter are one-shot quests that typically have a more narrative focus.
Specifically, the “Quest Points” quests typically advance one of the several side stories that are going on around the city of Zey Meruze; these range from a little girl attempting to understand the behaviour of her cat to a former Raider mourning the loss of her brother as he protected her from harm via a stern scholar learning about love through his interactions with recurring series spectre Pamela. In completing these quests, you are increasing Edge, Iris and Nell’s reputation around the town in both mechanical terms — by bringing them closer to the next “big moment” in the overall game structure — as well as from a narrative perspective. We’ll talk more about this when we look specifically at the narrative, but it’s immensely satisfying to see your hard work questing paying off with the progression — and, eventually, resolution — of each of these side tales.
Interestingly, the available Quest Points quests at any given point don’t necessarily tally exactly with the number of points Edge, Iris and Nell need to rank up — there’s usually the possibility of “over-clearing” each rank by fifty or a hundred points. As such, it’s often important to pay attention to the order you do things in, lest you rank up and trigger the next story mission before you intend to. It’s worth noting that it’s impossible to “fail” a quest by leaving it until after you’ve done the next story mission; the only quests that can be revoked are ones that require you to defeat a specific number of a specific type of monster within a set number of expeditions to a particular Alterworld, and even those come back after a little while so you can try again.
The story missions themselves are straightforward; for the majority of the narrative, they involve Edge, Iris and Nell hearing a rumour of a “glowing pillar of light” appearing in one of the Alterworlds, which indicates the presence of one of the magical doohickeys that are central to the main scenario. During the introductory cutscene to the mission, you’re usually shown the scene where the pillar of light is and told which Alterworld it’s in, but for the most part you’re expected to use your knowledge gained during questing and freeform exploration to figure out exactly where you’re supposed to go and deal with whatever is waiting for you — usually a boss and a significant narrative moment. Once you’ve achieved whatever is expected of you, it’s on to the next chapter, the next rank of quests and, in the earlier stages of the game, access to the next of the Alterworlds.
In this way, Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm strikes a good balance between providing a choice of things to do at any given moment, and telling a compelling and interesting overarching narrative. In some respects, it’s structured a bit like an anime or TV show, with the individual quests being “episodes” that aren’t necessarily directly important but are enjoyable nonetheless, and the missions being “season finales” that are critical to understanding the complete story in its entirety.
Subsequent Atelier games would continue to explore this structure in various forms for many years to come — but Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm is a particularly solid implementation, making it an enjoyable RPG that feels noticeably different to many of its peers from the era — and indeed one that stands out to this day.
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