With the ninth installment in the mainline Atelier series, Gust took the curious decision to temporarily drop the “Atelier [x]” naming convention and instead start a new subseries.
Except it’s not quite that simple; the two Mana Khemia games actually have a fair bit in common with the Atelier Iris subseries in terms of presentation, mechanics, tone and themes, leading some people to consider them an unofficial part of the Atelier Iris “trilogy”.
Ultimately it doesn’t really matter too much; Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis certainly stands by itself as a solid title in the franchise as a whole, so let’s begin with a general overview of what it’s all about.
In Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis, you take on the role of Vayne Aurelius, a rather glum teenager who grew up living in a house in the forest with no-one but his cat Sulpher for company. Sulpher can talk, but it seems that only Vayne can understand him.
Vayne is glum with good reason. Supposedly his father was a famous alchemist, but Vayne doesn’t remember anything about him — not even what he looked like. On top of that, any time Vayne ventures out of his forest cabin to go and get supplies from the local village, people react to him with revulsion or fear — understandably this has led to him becoming somewhat withdrawn and fearful of contact with others.
All that changes after a surprise visit from a man named Zeppel Kriever, however. Zeppel is a teacher at the Al-Revis Academy, a school that trains youngsters in the art of alchemy. For some reason, he has taken an interest in Vayne, and extends him an invitation to the Academy — an invitation that Vayne accepts. And thus begins a three-year adventure in which Vayne attempts to live a normal life, make some friends, learn some alchemy — and perhaps figure out some things about himself in the process.
But more about all that when we analyse the narrative in detail.
Structurally and mechanically, Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis acts as something of a bridge between the more classical RPG approach the Atelier Iris series erred towards, and the way in which the older (and subsequent) Atelier games tended to operate. What that means is that you have a fair amount of freedom to explore and pursue your own goals as you see fit without having to worry too much about time limits, but you also have certain obligations that you need to accomplish in particular timeframes.
For those who have historically shied away from the time-limited Atelier games, though, fear not — this isn’t a game with a rigid “calendar” structure by any means. Instead, the game is divided into terms at the Al-Revis Academy, and in turn these terms are divided into weeks. Each week will be one of three things: an Event, a Class or Free Time.
Events are pretty self-explanatory: they’re something major happening, usually relating to either the main story or school life in general. Sometimes they are just a cutscene, but often — particularly when they occur at the end of a chapter — they involve some dungeon crawling and, more than likely, a boss fight. Once the event is completed, time moves on to the following week — though if it’s an event where you have the freedom to wander around and explore, you can take your time over accomplishing the main objective as much as you want, since the actual things that are happening won’t move on until you reach the particular “trigger” to progress.
A Class week will require you to accomplish a particular objective, with your overall performance being graded as A, B, C, or F according to how well you accomplished your goal (if at all) and whether or not you went “above and beyond” the basic instructions you were given. For example, when given a class assignment to synthesise a particular item using alchemy, turning in a basic version of the item will probably get you a C. Turning in a version of the item with the specific traits the teacher was looking for — which can usually be uncovered with a bit of investigation and talking to people around the school — will net you an A.
The higher the grade you get, the more “stars” you earn for the term. Each term has a specific star requirement; if you accomplish this ahead of schedule, remaining Class weeks will be replaced with Free Time weeks, while if you fail to accomplish it across all the Class weeks available, you’ll be presented with a more challenging Detention task to complete. In other words, you can’t “fail” and get a Game Over from your assignments as in other Atelier games, but you can make life significantly more difficult for yourself!
Finally, Free Time weeks are yours to do with as you see fit. You can sleep right through them if you so desire, but it’s much more productive to spend them doing two things: Jobs to earn money, and Character Quests to advance your relationships with the main cast — with your progress through the latter determining which, if any, of the character-specific endings you’ll get at the conclusion of the main narrative.
It’s important to prioritise in Free Time weeks. Character Quests will advance to the following week when you complete them, while you can take on as many Jobs as you like from those available without time advancing at all — so you’ll probably want to complete these first, particularly as many of them will reward you with new recipes to synthesise in the alchemy workshop, and especially because if you don’t complete Jobs by a particular week, they’re gone forever!
The game is pretty well-paced in this regard; Jobs in Free Time weeks typically encourage you to create items that you’ve just discovered the recipes for — perhaps with specific traits attached later in the game — or to battle enemies that will reward you with the recipes required to complete other Jobs. In this way, they can be used as a good means of judging your progression through the game, and whether or not you’re staying on top of where your knowledge and experience “should” be for any given moment. They’re also one of the primary means you make money, so they’re important for keeping your workshop well-stocked if you don’t fancy spending hours gathering ingredients in the field.
As with the previous Atelier games we’ve explored so far, we’ll take a specific look at the combat and exploration mechanics in Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis in subsequent parts of this feature, so for now let’s switch gears and take a look at how this particular game implements the series’ most iconic feature: alchemy.
Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis introduces elements of skill and discovery to the mix. While in the previous Atelier Iris games you always knew what the result would be if you put specific ingredients together, here we have a certain degree of variability, which makes the alchemy side of things rather interesting to explore.
The major mechanical difference between Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis and its predecessors is that alchemy is no longer a fairly passive process of simply picking ingredients and pulling out the result. Nope, now there’s a system called “E-Level” (short for “Ether Level” that determines how the finished item will come out, and manipulating this becomes increasingly important as you progress through the game.
The E-Level for an item starts at a set value between 0 and 100 according to the E-Level of the ingredients you use. Once synthesis starts, for each ingredient you put in the pot you’ll see a spinning “elemental wheel” with five coloured marks: red fire, blue water, yellow earth and green air, plus a grey “blank” space. Pressing the X button on the controller stops the wheel, and whatever is at the top of the wheel determines whether the E-Level goes up or down — or stays the same.
Initially, this might seem a bit random, until you notice that each ingredient “card” you use in synthesis has a coloured background that corresponds to the four elements on the wheel. Stop the wheel on the corresponding element and the E-Level will go up; stop it on the opposing element (the first element in a counter-clockwise direction, not counting the blank space) and the E-Level will go down; stop it anywhere else and it will remain as-is.
Initially, you might think that getting the E-Level as high as possible is the most desirable outcome at all times, but it’s important to remember that E-Level is not a measure of “quality”. Rather, at different ranges of E-Level, different traits come to the fore — and these traits will come and go as the E-Level changes. For example, one class assignment tasks you with creating a neat, intricately crafted Tera Flame, and the only way to accomplish this is to lower the E-Level to a fairly low range to bring out the “Detailed” trait. Not too low, though, because if it’s too low, “Detailed” will disappear again, so it becomes a bit of a juggling act at times.
Sometimes you’ll find yourself having to re-craft ingredient items to change their E-Levels in order to ensure the starting E-Level of your final recipe is low or high enough to draw out the trait you’re looking for. Sometimes you’ll have to use “cards” that represent the other members of your workshop assisting with the synthesis to manipulate the E-Level. And sometimes you just have to try a few things to see what works — though usually when you’re presented with a very specific requirement, someone around the school campus will be able to give you a helpful clue.
Traits are especially important when crafting equipment items for your characters; stat modifiers also come and go as traits while you’re crafting ingredient items, so in order to create optimal equipment, you’ll want to make sure the ingredients for said equipment are as good as they can be. Like in Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm, equipment in Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis can have up to two stat-adjusting traits attached to it plus a “Common Skill”, so there’s a strong degree of customisation involved.
One important thing to note, though — if you craft an item and change its E-Level (and, by extension, traits), all instances of that item currently in the game take on that E-Level and traits. In other words, if you deliberately make an item “worse” to fulfil the conditions for a job or class assignment, it’s worth crafting it once more after you’ve turned it in to return its optimal traits to it. That said, this also works the other way around; if someone asks for three cheesecakes with the “Bitter” trait and you have two “Sweet” ones in your inventory, you only have to craft one “Bitter” cheesecake to make them all “Bitter” and ready to turn in.
Thankfully, you don’t have to worry about all this every single time you craft something. Once you’ve fixed the traits of an item to your liking, you can then “Mass Produce” it simply by ensuring you have the appropriate ingredients on hand — alternatively, there are several vendors around the school campus that will allow you to purchase various items, which will come with their current traits and E-Level intact. One of these vendors is, of course, recurring series moustachioed metal-loving baldilocks, Hagel Boldness, complete with his iconic synthesised yodelling to accompany any shopping you might do with him.
Besides experimenting with E-Level and traits, you can also experiment by changing the starting ingredient of a synthesis. As in the Atelier Iris games, this sometimes results in Vayne thinking of a new item and the appropriate other ingredients that need to go with it. If you happen to have those ingredients on hand, you can immediately craft it; if not, the possible item’s recipe will be recorded as a string of question marks in your recipe list to remind you to investigate at a later time.
Sometimes, recipes that have derivations like this will be marked with a “lightbulb” icon to indicate that there are alternative recipes available — though not always. And on certain other occasions, a party member’s face will appear next to a recipe; if you craft the item at this time — using the full synthesis method, even if you’ve already made it — then the party member will chime in with some ideas of their own after you’ve finished to provide you with a whole new recipe.
While alchemy sometimes felt of secondary importance in the Atelier Iris games, with the protagonists’ journeys or quests being the main “point” of the experience, it’s very much front and centre in Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis. This is entirely appropriate, given the narrative setup and overall setting, and makes for a markedly different feel to the whole experience from its predecessors. Not so much to be jarring — as previously noted, Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis feels very much like a “bridge” title between the Atelier Iris approach and more “traditional” Atelier gameplay — but certainly enough to feel fresh and different if you are, like some fat hairy idiot I know, playing through all these games immediately one after the other.
It also makes the curious but thoroughly intriguing decision to tie the alchemy mechanic directly to character progression — and thus, by extension, those characters’ effectiveness in combat situations. But that’s something we’ll have to explore next time — because besides alchemy, you’ll be doing a whole lot of fighting in Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis. And there’s a ton to talk about in that regard, too!
So with that in mind, keep on top of your studies until next time. You never know when you might need that set of magical cymbals!
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