Turn-based, menu-driven RPGs for computer and console — particularly the latter — are, for the most part, well past being simple adaptations of tabletop gaming rules.
The freedom afforded them by the digital medium means that they can get highly creative and abstract with all of their core mechanics without being limited by physical components, complexity of calculations or even any sort of rational plausibility. This not only applies to combat mechanics, as we saw in the previous part of this feature, but also to character progression.
While past Atelier games kept things relatively conventional in this regard, following the “experience points and levels” system, Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis features a very distinct way of powering up your characters that fits in very well with its core themes and other mechanics. So let’s take a closer look at that today.
The Atelier series has always featured a combination of alchemy and combat, but in most cases those two aspects of the game have been kept relatively separate from one another from a progression perspective. Sure, you’ve always been able to use alchemy to create items that are useful in combat, but for the most part success in combat doesn’t directly make you better at alchemy, and the reverse is also true.
In the previous installments we’ve seen as part of the Atelier MegaFeature up to this point, alchemy typically progresses by the protagonist gradually learning recipes for more and more powerful items. These recipes can be acquired in various ways: for the most part, they’re either given to the player as part of the story or a sidequest, or located in chests out in the field.
Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm added an interesting layer atop this, whereby female protagonist Iris gains alchemy experience every time she creates a new item for the first time, then comes up with a series of vague “ideas” each time she reaches a new level. These flashes of inspiration must then be turned into an actual recipe by finding something in the game world that allows Iris to flesh out her initial idea with more detail.
By contrast, the main character progression system in all of the Atelier Iris games is, with a few variations, what you would expect from a turn-based, menu-driven RPG. You fight enemies, you gain experience, you level up. Each game has you learning new skills in slightly different ways — Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana has a rather “Western” skill points system, for example, while Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny has you learning abilities from equipment — but for the most part, getting stronger is about having lots of fights against enemies that are appropriate for your current power level.
Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis is a little different in that the alchemy and combat mechanics are directly tied together from a progression perspective — specifically, the more alchemy you do, the better you will become at combat.
This isn’t just a case of grinding items until you level up, either. Nope; Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis makes use of a system called a “Grow Book” for each character. This provides a node-based map unique to each character, where each node contains one or more gems, representing progression elements, to unlock.
These take several forms: red gems directly impact stats such as hit points, skill points, attack, defence and magic power; green gems provide passive abilities such as additional hits on normal attacks or advantages against specific enemy types; purple gems allow the character to unlock and access their innate, unique skills.
The twist is that in order to unlock each node, you need to craft a specific item, and the exact items needed for each node vary somewhat for each character — most are the same, but, for example, each character has a range of unique weapons that you can create over the course of the game, and in order to access all of their innate skills you’ll need to craft all of them.
Because of the node-based nature of the “map”, this also means that there are certain prerequisites; you may well have already crafted the item that increases a character’s attack power by 30, but if you haven’t also crafted the item that is between your current progress through the Grow Book and that node, you’re not unlocking that bonus, sunshine.
Thankfully, you’re never flying completely blind. If you know the recipe for a particular item required to unlock a node, it will tell you what it is when you examine it, as well as providing a silhouette for easy identification of areas of the grid you might want to focus on. And on top of that, if you have the ingredients in your inventory required to craft that item right now, the node on the map will be marked with a big red exclamation mark just to let you know that you might want to go and do that.
While this system does result in a certain amount of progress gating through withholding certain recipes until specific points in the narrative, it also means two things that a lot of players will find rather welcome. Firstly, so long as you stay on top of your alchemy, making an effort to craft every new item you get the recipe for as soon as possible, you’ll always be at the “right” level. And secondly, this all but eliminates the need for grinding, so long as you ensure all of the playable characters get a bit of time in the field.
The reason for this is that unlocking a node doesn’t immediately provide access to all its gems. Rather, once a node is unlocked, you are then able to spend ability points (“AP”) on unlocking each gem, with more powerful abilities naturally costing more. Generally speaking, basic stat increases are pretty cheap and thus easily prioritised, while more specialised gems such as active and passive skills cost quite a bit more.
And how do you acquire those AP? You fight, of course, which might sound counter to what I just said about there being no need for grinding — but in practice just an average amount of combat — i.e. not going out of your way to hunt down each and every enemy in every map — will provide you with more than enough AP to unlock every gem on every node without too much difficulty. As noted, the main challenge is to ensure that every one of the eight playable characters gets some time in battle — since only six can be in the active party at a time, the two “waiting” members do not gain any AP and thus you should make a habit of swapping your lineup around every so often.
You’ll probably want to do this anyway, mind, particularly later in the game; each character develops their own distinct specialism that makes them especially strong against a single specific type of enemy, and thus you’ll probably want to put them in your front line for maximum combat efficiency, particularly as quick, clean kills can result in additional AP and money rewards as well as minimising time on the clock wasted.
For the most part, then, it would appear that progressing in alchemy will lead to progression in your combat skills. The reverse isn’t true to quite the same degree, but there is an element of it, and this mostly comes as part of the game structure.
As we’ve previously seen, Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis’ overall structure is split up into a series of chapters, each of which consists of an opening and closing event, at least two in-game “weeks” of classes, then the remaining time in the chapter assigned as Free Time.
During these Free Time weeks, you’re able to take on a series of optional jobs, which are primarily there to earn you money — but which often also reward you with new alchemy recipes either for exploring new areas or, more commonly, for defeating a specific boss. And I say these are “optional”, but in practice, since these jobs typically expire by the end of the chapter they appear in and are the only way to acquire certain recipes, you’ll almost certainly want to take on all of them unless you deliberately want to nerf your characters for a “challenge run” or something.
The upshot of all these unusual progression mechanics is that character growth in Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis tends to come in distinct spurts — usually around the start of the chapter, where there are often more recipes to buy from the various vendors around the school — and make a noticeable difference to your overall power level. The downside for some will be that there’s not really any way to “customise” your characters’ base development as such — you’ll want to unlock all their nodes and all the gems within in order to keep yourself in line with the opponents you’ll be facing in your various activities.
This isn’t to say that there’s no customisation at all, mind — it’s just that most of it comes from equipment rather than innate character progression.
As we saw when we looked at the alchemy mechanics of the game, Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis allows you to attach and detach various traits to ingredient items by manipulating their ether level during the crafting process. These ingredients are then used with a furnace called an “Athanor” to create the equipment itself, at which point you are able to attach up to two stat bonuses plus one usable “Common Skill” — usually elementally attuned — to the item.
(Side note: like many elements of the Atelier series, “Athanor” is a term that was actually used in historical references to the belief in alchemy, and in Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis it is correctly used to describe a large, slow-burning furnace that provides uniform and constant heat. The term supposedly derived etymologically from an Arabic term meaning “bread oven”. Now you know.)
You can actually make quite a significant difference to your stats with various combinations of equipment; each character is able to equip one weapon (unique to them), one piece of armour (gendered in the case of clothing-like items, based on whether the character favours physical or magical attacks in other cases) and two accessories. Between these items, proper planning and optimisation could net you four Common Skills on top of your character’s innate, unique abilities plus bonuses to up to eight different stats.
You have to be a bit careful, however; much like in the Atelier Iris games, you can’t stack stat bonuses from equipment — only the largest will take effect, so there’s little point outfitting a character with more than one item that, say, boosts their maximum hit points; it’s much better to try and provide a broad spread of bonuses to make them as effective as possible.
While in the main game you don’t have to think too hard about this, in the substantial, challenging (and completely optional) postgame dungeon you might want to take some time to optimise accordingly, since you’ll need to take advantage of every mechanic the game offers to defeat a variety of very tough enemies, even in regular encounters. And, given what we’ve talked about with the Grow Book mechanics above, you now know that there’s no way you can simply grind until you overpower difficult foes — you’ll have to engage with all the mechanics fully in order to succeed here.
The Grow Book here in Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis is one of the more experimental mechanics we’ll see in the series as a whole — but the way it is complemented with a very strong emphasis on creating effective, optimised equipment is something that would very much continue with subsequent installments; getting some of the “better” endings in the Arland games is strongly dependent on taking the time to craft powerful equipment, for example.
As they say, a good workman never blames his tools — and in the case of Atelier, that’s because you’re the one who made them… hopefully to as high a quality as they possibly can be!
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