Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis – School of Hard Knocks

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At first glance, Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis might appear to be very mechanically similar to its immediate predecessor in the Atelier series, Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm.

But it doesn’t take long for it to distinguish itself in a variety of different ways. We’ve already seen how the alchemy mechanics are quite a bit different from anything we’ve seen in the series before — and we’ll subsequently see how they form the foundation of the Arland series’ alchemy systems — so today we’ll be taking a closer look at combat.

Although Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis arguably places a stronger emphasis on the alchemy side of things than its predecessors in the Atelier Iris series, it has an immensely satisfying and enjoyable combat system that is a ton of fun to engage with. So let’s explore it further!

Like Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm before it, there’s a hard divide between dungeoneering and “daily life” activities in Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis. In this instance, the “hub” that you come back to after some exploration and battling is the Al-Revis Academy that all of the playable characters attend, and the “dungeons” that you visit are all different areas that fall within the school’s grounds. This latter point is important from both a mechanical and a narrative perspective.

In terms of the story, as the students of Al-Revis move from freshman to sophomore to senior, they are given access to more and more different areas to train their alchemy, gathering and combat abilities. The reason these geographically diverse (and rather dangerous!) areas are all technically part of the school is because Al-Revis deliberately isolates its students from the broader world while they are studying; this is, in theory, to protect the outside world from untrained (or incompletely trained) alchemists making a mess of things. And, if protagonist Vayne’s background is anything to go by, simply to not freak out the general public.

In mechanical terms, the fact that all of these dangerous environments are on school grounds means that there’s (usually) no fatal consequences if things happen to go wrong. Get your whole party wiped out while exploring and you’ll usually wake up with no real repercussions other than some bruised pride and a few lingering questions as to exactly what saucy nurse Melanie did to you in your sleep. Since the game lacks a calendar system, you don’t even really waste any in-game time; you’ll just have to run the dungeon from the start again if you decide to try again.

There are a couple of exceptions to this rule, usually coinciding with major story moments and boss battles against unexpected or unreasonably powerful foes. It’s usually clear when you’re facing such a situation — it’s typically marked by not being able to run away from the battle in question — but for the most part, it means that you can safely test your own limits without having to worry about actually getting killed. A rather extreme form of what the socialisation process for youngsters is supposed to achieve anyway!

Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis, like its immediate predecessor, makes use of a “symbol attack” system, whereby generic enemy symbols (represented as amorphous blobs) wander around the map and can be engaged in combat by touching them. If you strike them with Vayne’s weapon, you’ll start the battle with an advantage; let them hit you first, however, and they’ll have the advantage.

While Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm distinguished between enemies that were below your level, at your level and above your level, in Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis, there are only two main “standard enemy” symbols: blue for those below your level (and which can be dispatched immediately without combat by hitting them with your sword) and red for those that are at or above your level. This makes things a little riskier, particularly when entering a new area for the first time; you can’t immediately judge if the enemies there are “right” for your progression so far, though if you’ve been keeping on top of things you probably won’t have an issue if you go to new places as soon as they unlock.

Like Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm, there are also large enemy symbols wandering the map, which represent stronger groups of enemies. These could either be specifically stronger foes, or simply larger groups of weaker enemies. You never know until you actually fight one. These large symbols are always red, regardless of whether or not you outlevel them, so they present a persistent risk even when returning to dungeons you haven’t been to for a while — but their rewards are usually worthwhile.

Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis adds a few other special enemy symbols to the list, too. Tall, frowning enemy symbols represent important story bosses; taking these on usually means the narrative will move on after you beat them — and these also tend to coincide with the rare opportunities to get a full-on Game Over if you get wiped out. Meanwhile, large enemies wearing a crown represent a specific job’s target enemy that will only be there until you complete the job, and a cluster of enemy symbols represents a series of battles that must be fought immediately one after the other — again, usually as part of a job you’ve taken on.

While it would be Atelier Rorona before we would start to see enemy symbols that actually bore a resemblance to the enemies you could expect to be taking on in the ensuing battle, Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis does add some interesting behavioural variation to the enemy symbols wandering around the map. Some will sit in place, some will wander around, some will react to your presence and follow you and some will even “pounce” at high speed as you attempt to pass them.

Further variation is added to the mix through the game’s time system. While Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis does indeed lack a calendar system as previously noted, your dungeon excursions are timed, using a beautifully elaborate mechanical clock that appears in the upper-right of the screen. When you start exploring, it will be the morning; as you explore and fight, the single hand on the clock will gradually progress around until it reaches the dark blue marker that indicates the onset of night. Once night falls, all the mobile enemy symbols on the map double in speed and become more aggressive, and once you’re into combat they’ll often be somewhat tougher too. Even blue enemies that you could once swipe aside with a slash of your sword will trigger a full-on combat encounter — and you can’t count on hitting an enemy first giving you an advantage any more, either!

In other words, being out after dark is considerably more dangerous than exploring during the daytime — but some dungeons are especially long, meaning you might have to deal with some nocturnal battling. Alternatively, you could hide in a corner until the clock advances until morning — these kids only sleep off-camera, it seems — or make use of the “Wings of Icarus” item you’re given at the beginning of the game to escape the dungeon, return to school and try another run, perhaps a bit more efficiently this time!

Once into combat, you’ll be presented with a familiar-looking battle screen. In the lower left, we have a Burst meter; at the upper left, we have the turn order indicator, once again represented as an endless string of “cards” that gets shuffled out from right to left as time advances; and in the lower right, we have your character’s basic information — HP and SP. Yes, Mana Khemia abandons the shared skill gauge of Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny and Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm and instead returns to each individual character having their own pool of skill points to use as they see fit.

One key difference between Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm and Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis is the fact that you’re not limited to just three party members. Instead, you have three active members in the vanguard, and three in the back row as support. The complete playable cast is eventually eight people strong, so you will also end up with two left over in “wait” state who do not participate in combat at all; these characters don’t earn any rewards from battle, so it’s important to rotate your active members every so often.

Initially, swapping out characters from vanguard to support is a simple matter of changing out when one character gets exhausted in either HP or SP terms. As the game progresses, however, this two-row formation starts to have more and more interesting uses.

The progression system, which we’ll explore in more detail next time, allows each character to learn skills that let them recharge their SP and HP while in the back row, for example, meaning that once you’ve learned this for enough characters long battles take on much more of a “tag battle” feeling to them, with one character tiring and swapping out with an ally, then tagging back in when they’ve had time to recover somewhat.

You can do this Final Fantasy X-style; if a character’s turn comes up and you decide a back-row partner might be a better fit for what you want to do, you can swap with them and they can immediately take their turn. There is a limiting factor on this, however: the back row character must be “charged” before you can do this, represented by their portrait filling up with colour as time in the battle passes and the “card” gauge moves along — and the character who swaps out will likewise have to charge up before they can be swapped back in again.

More significantly, partway through the game you’re taught how to use “Support Actions”. These allow one character to unleash a normal attack or offensive skill at an enemy, then immediately tag in a character from the back row for an additional attack using a well-timed button press. Once again, a character must be charged in the back row before they can do this, but if all three back-row characters are charged and ready, you can actually perform three Support Action additional attacks in succession — potentially extremely powerful, especially in one specific circumstance we’ll talk about in just a moment.

Support Actions can also be used when a character is targeted by an enemy for an attack. There will be a brief window of opportunity to tag in a back-row partner to take the hit in the character’s stead and subsequently replace them in the vanguard until you swap again. You can even do this during area of effect attacks, though only one character can swap out — this is determined randomly and indicated by the swappable character having an exclamation mark over their head.

Tactical character swapping becomes increasingly important as the game progresses, especially once protagonist Vayne unlocks an ability called Variable Strike at a specific moment in the story. What this means is that if Vayne is the last link in a “chain” of three Support Action attacks — in other words, if a vanguard character attacks, swaps with a back-row character, swaps with another back-row character and then swaps Vayne as the last remaining back-row member — he will unleash an incredibly powerful full-party attack for massive damage and a large number of hits. Being able to pull this off as often as possible is critical to many of the tougher fights in the game.

The aforementioned Burst mode is a bit different to the one in Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm, too. Firstly, the gauge is initially a lot harder to fill, though as you gain the ability to perform skills with elemental affinities and increase the number of times your normal attacks hit, this becomes much easier; like in Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm, hitting an enemy’s weakness fills the gauge considerably more than regular hits do. Secondly, when filled, it provides an increase to all of your stats rather than just pumping up the damage of special abilities and spells. And thirdly, late in the game, it provides the opportunity to perform each character’s most outlandish, ridiculous attack, known as a Finishing Burst.

It’s not just a case of triggering Burst mode and immediately being able to perform a Finishing Burst, however; that would be far too simple. Instead, once you have the capability to perform Finishing Bursts, a second gauge appears when you enter Burst, and you’re given a specific objective to do — increase your chain count, hit with a specific element, take advantage of an enemy’s weakness and suchlike. Fulfilling this objective fills the Finishing Burst meter, and, so long as you fill this before Burst mode ends, a character can unleash a Finishing Burst when it’s their turn. Alternatively, this meter persists from battle to battle, unlike the main Burst meter, so you can charge it up in some easier fights then unleash it during a tough battle if you so desire.

One slightly tricky thing is that the Finishing Burst objectives don’t necessarily correspond to the enemy you’re fighting. If you’re fighting a foe with no elemental weaknesses and you’re asked to take advantage of the enemy’s weakness, for example, you’re pretty much out of luck — though in the meantime you can still enjoy the enhanced stats of regular Burst mode. And thankfully, although Finishing Burst moves deal massive damage, they’re never essential to completing an encounter successfully.

In terms of less elaborate skills, Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis builds on its predecessor by providing a wide variety of interesting actions to perform during combat. Each character has their own lineup of unique skills that they can learn using the progression system, and also access to any “Common Skills” that you attached to their equipment during the synthesis process; these latter skills are your main source of elemental damage and healing abilities, though your first ally Jess does have her own innate healing skills.

Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm featured a few skills that allowed you to make use of consumable items during combat for various effects, and Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis builds on this considerably. Jess has an “on-the-spot synthesis” ability, for example, that allows her to craft an elemental bomb or healing item, while the rambunctious beastgirl Nikki is able to use “monster hearts” she acquired by defeating enemies using one of her innate skills to summon various animal friends to help her out, with various effects.

There’s quite a strong emphasis on “double up” and “time” attacks in Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis. The former refers to a skill you select and which goes off the next time the character’s turn comes around — Jess’ aforementioned on-the-spot synthesis ability is one such example, since it takes her time to synthesise the item required. The latter, meanwhile, goes off immediately and then places several additional “cards” on the turn order meter, with the skill going off again every time its card comes up.

Enemies can do this too, but you can actually manipulate this to a certain degree using one of the character Roxis’ innate abilities known as “Purify”. This causes you to target a specific area on the turn order meter rather than specific enemies, and deals damage to any enemies in that area of effect as well as clearing out any time skills that had cards waiting to come up. This is a fascinating approach to manipulating time in combat that goes beyond just manipulating characters’ initiative values.

Plus on top of all this, there’s all the fun little systems that Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm incorporated, too. Hitting an enemy enough times will stun them temporarily, preventing them from moving and allowing some easy critical hits, while weapons with a high “Daze” value and certain skills are capable of knocking an enemy back in the turn order. And naturally, using some appropriate alchemy, you can craft suitable weapons, armour and accessories to maximise each character’s effectiveness in both of these areas — though once again you need to be aware that the enemies are more than capable of using these mechanics against you, too!

Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis keeps combat interesting, exciting and dynamic with this combination of mechanics. On paper, the sheer number of systems might seem a little daunting, which is why the game introduces all these concepts to you very gradually as you progress — and usually with an opportunity to practice each new mechanic thoroughly.

The upshot of all this is that there are very few situations in the game where simply mashing the “attack” button is the most effective and efficient way to clear an enemy encounter — and will most certainly get you flattened in most of the boss battles! The combination of tactical character switching, timed button presses for support attacks and defensive moves, Burst Mode and Finishing Bursts makes for combat that is consistently enjoyable — and pretty spectacular to watch under most circumstances, too!

Next time around we’ll look at the system in the game that goes hand-in-hand with all this fighting: the progression mechanics. And hoo boy, this game certainly has one of the most unusual ways of advancing your characters I’ve ever seen. Please look forward to it!

cropped-atelier-megafeature-header-1.pngThis post is one chapter of a MegaFeature!
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