Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm – Narrative, Themes and Characterisation

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Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm initially doesn’t appear to have many direct connections to its two predecessors — aside from the presence of the Mana spirits, that is.

There doesn’t seem to be a widely accepted “official word” on exactly why this is, so it’s largely up to interpretation. Some commentators online believe that the game was originally intended to show Iris Blanchimont’s alchemy training, placing the game in between Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny and Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana in chronological terms — but either that was never a thing, or it was changed at the last minute. Because, as the game makes clear, the Iris in Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm is not Iris Blanchimont — she’s Iris Fortner.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter all that much; Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm very much has its own story to tell, and has a well-realised narrative setting in which to explore that story. So let’s do just that!

As we’ve seen a few times already in our previous explorations of the game, we join the story of Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm as protagonists Edge and Iris are finishing up an adventure in one of the “Alterworlds” that surround the city of Zey Meruze, subsequently returning home to Iris’ workshop to contemplate their next move.

An interesting thing about Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm’s setting is that we never quite get a definitive answer about what Zey Meruze is or why it seemingly has connections to… what? Other worlds? Other dimensions? Far-off places? There are hints throughout the narrative — particularly towards the end, once the true threat makes itself known — but a lot is left up to interpretation.

From the depiction of the city within Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm, we can deduce that Zey Meruze is isolated to at least a partial degree. Several NPCs around the town comment on how nice it would be if the city “got more tourists”, or if “something newsworthy happened”, but we never see any real evidence of anyone coming in from outside, with the exception of Nell Ellis and her sister, who show up towards the beginning of the game. The population, it seems, is mostly static.

It’s obviously not completely isolated, though; through conversations with the town’s general store owner Yach (a recurring name throughout the Atelier Iris series, though not the same character each time) it seems that he used to be part of a travelling band of merchants and chose to settle down in Zey Meruze at some point in the past — and that when he tires of life there he may well move on — but there certainly doesn’t seem to be a lot of overall movement in and out of the city.

This seemingly extends to resources as well as people — looking around the town, although the streets lined by canals and wrought-iron fences and flanked by grape vines are thoroughly pleasant to look at, many of the buildings around the city seem to be in varying states of disrepair, with peeling plaster and battered brickwork very much in evidence in numerous locations. One gets the impression that Zey Meruze is actually a very old city that perhaps lay abandoned for a while before its current population moved in, and that said current population has not, in many cases, got around to fixing the wear and tear of decades or centuries of neglect.

Interestingly, Iris’ workshop is one of the buildings that appears to be in pretty pristine condition — though this makes a certain amount of sense, when you think about it. In theory, Iris could use her alchemy skills to make the appropriate materials to patch up any damage, and Edge’s use of a mechanical sword as his main weapon suggests that he’s a handy sort of chap, because you can bet those things are almost certainly a bugger to maintain. As such, they probably make a good team for keeping a lovely little cottage in good shape. Especially as Iris is one of the few Atelier protagonists who does not blow things up on a regular basis.

Much of Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm’s main scenario concerns a book that Iris has had in her possession for as long as she can remember: it’s called the Escalario. This is an item that has numerous legends surrounding it, with the main one being that if you can open it — a feat achieved by inserting eight crystals into its cover — you can have a wish granted. Obviously this is an incredibly attractive prospect both from the perspective of being able to get a wish granted and for an enthusiastic young alchemist to obtain considerable new knowledge, so she and Edge decide to follow various trails that lead them to these “fragments”.

Unlike many other things in the Atelier series, the concept of the Escalario doesn’t appear to have its roots in any real-world history or mythology. Later in the narrative, however, its true purpose is revealed: the promised “wish” is intended to be used for a very specific reason: to seal away the potentially world-destroying, otherworldly entity known as the “master of dimensions”, or Ouroboros — or Uroboros, as it is spelled in the game.

Ouroboros is one of those symbols that crops up quite frequently in popular fiction, and it’s also relatively open to interpretation. It is, if you’re unfamiliar, the famous circular symbol of the snake eating its own tail, and dates back to Egyptian times. It’s usually used as a symbol of the cyclical nature of things, usually relating to fairly abstract concepts such as the beginning and end of time, but is also seen in a number of early alchemy-related texts to depict the concept of “the all is one” or the inherent duality of existence.

Indeed, this latter aspect in particular is one that is explored quite heavily throughout Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm’s latter hours. And in order to fully understand this, it’s necessary to examine the very end of the game’s narrative, then look at the rest of what goes on through this lens. So let’s do that.

During Iris’ speech to Uroboros ahead of the party’s final battle, she urges the otherworldly entity to stop looking at things in absolutes. She acknowledges that the behaviour of her alchemical ancestors in seeking knowledge and power led to it looking like they were attempting to become gods themselves — which naturally made Uroboros feel like they should probably be stamped out before they made a real mess of multidimensional existence — but also points out that this did not make them inherently “bad” or even a risk to the world at large.

“I am a descendant of alchemists,” Iris says. “Long ago, people came here to test their limits and advance their knowledge. They incurred your wrath, and tainted the world. Their blood is in me.

“They were too pure to be human,” she continues. “A heart that yearned to know the unknown; a heart that admired mystery; a heart that desired praise and acceptance. They were too focused on those feelings that exist in every person.

“We exist with imperfections,” she declares. “People can’t become gods! I want you to know that people live with weakness in our hearts!”

Uroboros finds this difficult to accept, as it is a being of absolutes. It finds the idea that Iris can accept these weaknesses and even embrace them to be absolutely unfathomable. But this is a core part of what makes people people, says Iris, and this is what makes people worth keeping around.

This is an extension of a core narrative concept and theme that is explored broadly throughout the entire Atelier Iris series: the idea that something as powerful as alchemy is not, as some people argue, inherently “good” or “bad”, but it’s all about how you use that power; it’s all about the intention behind your use of that power. Power for power’s sake can be incredibly dangerous — as we see in the case of both Mull in Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana and Chaos in Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny — but power sought as a means for helping and saving others without a desire for undue recompense can be a wonderful thing.

The idea of sentient people being fallible, flawed, imperfect creatures is explored more broadly over the course of the game as a whole. Indeed, much of the game structure, which, as we’ve previously discussed, largely concerns Edge and Iris dealing with various problems that arise in and around Zey Meruze and the Alterworlds. Most of the more significant problems — those outside of simple tasks like “there are too many monsters in this place” — can be traced back to the imperfection of people, whether those people are human or beastman.

Examples of this range from the mundane to the fairly significant. On the former end of the spectrum, for example, we have the case of the young girl Papal and her beloved cat Gon. Your first encounter with this pair are when the latter has accidentally wandered off into an Alterworld, leaving the former distraught, since her parents are no longer around to take care of her. As the game progresses — and once you’ve rescued Gon, obviously — we get to see numerous sides of this relationship, most of which see Papal learning something and improving herself in the process.

She learns that you can’t just blindly give a cat any old fish as a treat, because some kinds of fish are bad for them; thankfully she learns this before Gon eats anything he shouldn’t. She learns that while it’s good to have a companion like a pet, it’s also good to interact with your peers once in a while and have someone who you know is able to understand you on your own level. And she learns that as a “parent”, whether that is of a real child or of a “surrogate child” like a cat, eventually you have to let go and allow them a certain degree of independence. If you’ve done your job right, they’ll come back; close “familial” bonds are forever.

Papal’s tale is obviously a fairly intimate, personal one, but it is in keeping with the game’s core theme. Over the course of her complete arc, we see a young person come to understand her own limitations and accept them before being able to move on with her life in an ultimately more positive direction — and she didn’t really have to give anything up in the process; she just had to be brave.

There are plenty of other stories like this, too, some of which aren’t even directly involved with quests and are thus easily overlooked. For example, most of the groups of “background colour” NPCs who wander around Zey Meruze have their own little narrative that develops as the main scenario progresses.

Probably the most heartbreaking of these is the tale of the couple who are clearly very much in love for much of the game, but suddenly in the last few chapters, the girl disappears. The last thing you overheard her saying was that she had “something important to tell” her beau; judging by her absence from this point onwards and the heartbroken attitude of the man left behind, none of the things we can infer from this are happy endings to their time together. Flaws, weakness and imperfection: she wasn’t able to muster up the courage to tell her lover something until it was too late; he wasn’t able to tell that something was wrong.

At the complete other end of the spectrum is the way in which the relationship between the humans and the beastmen living in Zey Meruze is depicted over the course of the game as a whole. While Zey Meruze is primarily a human settlement, it has its own “ghetto” area known as the Beastmen Quarter, where a number of representatives from each of the tribes of non-human species live together, seemingly in relative harmony with one another.

There’s an interesting imbalance at play here. Beastmen are native to the various Alterworlds that exist around Zey Meruze, but they are seemingly able to live in whatever dimension Zey Meruze exists in indefinitely. By contrast, however, any time a human visits an Alterworld, they are overcome by a strange “mist” after a particular period of time and sent back to the city. In this respect, beastmen have one up on the humans in terms of perceived “power”, and this, as you might expect, is a contributing factor in the mistrust between the two broad groups.

At the outset of the game, one gets the impression that the presence of the Beastmen Quarter on the outskirts of Zey Meruze is just about tolerated — there are no actual racist attacks or otherwise abusive behaviour between the groups, for example — but many humans avoid going in there if they can possibly help it, leading to a certain degree of perceived segregation. It’s here that Edge, Iris and Nell have a considerable amount of influence through their actions: over the course of the quests they complete on behalf of the local Raiders’ Guild, they frequently come into contact with both the beastmen of the Beastmen Quarter and those who live in the Alterworlds, and it’s obvious that the humans living in Zey Meruze take note of this.

Through their various encounters with the non-human tribes, Edge, Iris and Nell come to discover that, unsurprisingly, these people who look different are not, in fact, so different to themselves. Sure, there are definite mannerisms and traits that each particular species exhibits — the Squawks are particularly prone to pulling pranks, for example, while the Pengies attempt to live a relaxing life as free of conflict as possible — but there are, for sure, more similarities than differences between the different people.

Edge, Iris and Nell are admirably open to interactions with the beastmen from the very outset, but their continued positive experiences over the course of the narrative as a whole — including several instances of defusing some fairly severe misunderstandings between the two main groups — lead others to rethink the way that they look at their non-human brethren. Positive societal change brought about by just being a decent person — who’d have thought it?

The beastmen are just as “imperfect” and flawed as the humans, though. In the Posporia Battlegrounds Alterworld, for example, we see a perpetually raging conflict between the bear-like Kuma people and the diminutive Fairies. As you discover over the course of numerous back-and-forth trips throughout the complete narrative, the original reasons for this conflict are so stupid that most people have either forgotten about them or refuse to acknowledge them; their “war” (which is entirely non-violent, it seems) is simply something that people are continuing out of habit, because they feel like they’re “supposed” to.

It’s the youngsters in Posporia that clearly see this for what it is; the first characters you meet in the area are children of both the Kuma and Fairy tribes who are happily hanging out and interacting with one another, expressing frustration that those stupid adults are always charging into each other’s bases and seemingly never actually achieving anything. It’s a reflection of something we see all too often in the real world: the fact that a rather set-in-its-ways older generation of people are often in charge of matters, while younger people who have a different outlook on the world tend to end up ignored or even silenced in the name of maintaining some sort of “status quo”. This happens on a variety of scales throughout society, whether it’s worldwide politics or the way a single business is run.

The main protagonists all have their own imperfections and flaws, too. Edge, for example, often struggles to communicate the way he’s actually feeling about things, and seems determined to keep up a facade of being unflappable; at times this might come across as him being cold and uncaring, but more often than not he finds himself somewhat embarrassed when confronted by someone who sees right through him and calls him on it. As you might expect, Iris has been able to read him for a long time thanks to how long the pair have been together, but Nell also develops this talent pretty quickly too; while she may appear to lack common sense in many situations, in this regard she’s very perceptive.

Nell, as we’ve previously explored, has a tendency to put her foot in her mouth or bellow something inappropriate at the worst possible time, but to be fair to her, she fully embraces and understands this side of herself. Over the course of the narrative, you get the distinct impression that she just lets her mouth do the talking until it’s had enough, then she just deals with whatever the consequences are after the fact. As she puts it, “act before you think too hard”.

The closest thing to a “flawless” character is probably Iris herself, though even she isn’t perfect; she understands how she is innocent about some things in the world, and she relies on Edge to help keep her safe. While she probably could survive in the world by herself, the presence of Edge brings her comfort — she chooses to be dependent on him.

In fact, probably the most significant narrative moment in the game is where erstwhile antagonist Crowley — presumably named after real-world occultist Aleister Crowley, who we last saw attempting to define the concept of “azoth” — casts a powerful curse on Iris, effectively sentencing her to death and burdening her with a “flaw” that was not her fault. Crowley initially suggests that she will be able to use the Escalario’s “wish” to break the curse, but as the truth behind all that becomes horrifyingly apparent and the existence of Uroboros is revealed, we learn that Iris’ time in this world is becoming all too limited.

The exact outcome of everything is determined by whether or not you complete a specific quest towards the conclusion of the game, which in turn decides whether you get the “good” or the “bad” ending to the story; either way, Iris has to learn to deal with this “imperfection” in herself — the knowledge that her life is going to come to a premature end.

Crowley himself is another interesting example of someone being “imperfect” or “flawed”. While initially set up to be your typical, exaggeratedly flamboyant anime-style RPG villain, a bit of research into his background reveals that he, in fact, was a bit of a failure during his previous, pre-villain lifestyle. Most notably, he, like Edge, Iris and Nell, was a Raider, but a notoriously poor one; the shopkeepers around Zey Meruze in particular have less than fond memories of asking him to run fairly simple errands and him being completely incapable of fulfilling these requests.

His slide into evil, therefore, can be interpreted as frustration with his own imperfections, and a desire to artificially “correct” them through the pursuit of ill-gotten power — an attempt at a “quick fix”. In keeping with the series’ core concept of “power” in and of itself not being an inherently good or bad thing, this, of course, means he doesn’t survive to see the game’s finale, because he ended up making poor choices with the power he found himself blessed with, all in the name of attempting to compensate for his own shortcomings rather than accepting and embracing them, and perhaps trying to better himself through honest means.

One thing we can pretty safely rely on when talking about the Atelier series — even the more unconventional installments such as the three games in the Iris series — is that people are at the heart of everything that is going on. Everything always comes down to people; the way that you treat the people around you will, in turn, determine your own quality of life — and even when you encounter those who do not have your best interests at heart, it is always better to err on the side of kindness than it is to lash out blindly and without thinking.

Act before you think too hard, yes… but don’t neglect the “thinking” part altogether!

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19 thoughts on “Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm – Narrative, Themes and Characterisation”

  1. I am reasonably sure they named the main character Iris because her eyes are as big as her chest is. Those crazy Japanese.

    Another solid article as always. I feel like I’d enjoyed it more if I’d actually played the game, but it also worked to sell me on it, so… guess I’ll have to look at that sometime.

    Liked by 1 person

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