Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy – Back to School

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After the Atelier Iris subseries marked a period of dabbling with a more “traditional” RPG-style structure, Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis demonstrated a clearly defined shift back towards Atelier’s roots. And Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy continues that trend.

Indeed, while the three Atelier Iris games are largely unrelated to one another — aside from some long-term lore connections between Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana and Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny — Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy returns to the series’ original model of installments in the same subseries standing by themselves as self-contained narratives, but unfolding in the same world about 5-10 years later.

As the title suggests, time has not been especially kind to the world of Mana Khemia, but that’s part of what makes what’s going on here so interesting. Let’s take a first look!

Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy is a little less well-known in the West because, unlike its four immediate predecessors, it did not get a European release. Exactly why this was the case isn’t entirely clear — particularly as an English localisation was already done for the North American market — but for one reason or another, Western localiser and publisher NIS America and its European branch elected not to bring this one across the pond.

The most likely explanation is to do with Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy’s release date extremely late in the PlayStation 2’s lifespan. The original Mana Khemia was already pushing it for some critics, who felt that a turn-based, isometric-perspective RPG with scenery built from textured cubes was a bit too dated for a world where the Xbox 360 had already been on the market for three years. And Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy was even later than that; its year of Western release was the same year that Street Fighter IV, Resident Evil 5, Demon’s Souls and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 came out.

In other words, a man in a suit probably felt like it “wouldn’t sell”. And they may well have been right. But as we’ve frequently seen here on MoeGamer, good games are timeless — and they only become more timeless as the years advance and the context of their original release becomes less and less important. So thank goodness we can still look back on Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy and explore it on its own terms in English!

As it happens, Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy does quite a few interesting things that the Atelier series hadn’t really experimented with before. Most notable of these is the fact that there are two protagonists, each with their own separate route through the story to explore before converging at the grand finale.

In the blue corner, we have Razeluxe “Raze” Meitzen, while in the red we have Ulrika Mulberry. Each has their own narrative to follow, along with their own cast of playable characters and unique equipment to craft, though thankfully once one route has been completed you can carry everything over to the second rather than having to start from scratch. And then you can carry all that over into the “Extra” mode in pursuit of the “true” ending once you’ve beaten them both.

The setup for Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy is that Al-Revis Academy has been struggling financially since Zeppel Kriever, homeroom teacher from the first game, took on the role of school principal. To be fair to him, the school’s downfall wasn’t entirely his fault, as ineffective as he might seem to be; a global decrease in the power of the world’s Mana has meant less call for alchemists, which means fewer quality teachers at the academy — which, of course, means the school hasn’t been doing as well as it could have been.

We join the narrative as Zeppel finds himself backed into a corner by a spokesperson for the school’s sponsors. This formidable woman, named Marta, believes that she can help make the school profitable again — though part of her plans involve completely scrapping alchemy from the curriculum altogether. Zeppel, having built his career on alchemy, is naturally hesitant to go along with this, but Marta is insistent. She introduces a new combat-centric curriculum in an attempt to attract new students, and intends to gradually phase out the alchemy programme.

This divide between combat and alchemy coincides with the difference between Raze and Ulrika. Raze is part of the combat class, while Ulrika is part of the alchemy class — though there is significant crossover in the pair’s studies. And in a nice callback to the original, the teachers for these classes are the questionably reliable Flay Gunnar and reformed school bully Tony Eisler respectively — and, although both are now theoretically “grown-up”, they still maintain much of their rivalry from the previous game.

We’ll explore more about the characters of the game when we look in more detail at the narrative, themes and characterisation of Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy as a whole. For now, let’s switch gears and take a look at how this next game explores the Atelier series’ core mechanical concept: item crafting through alchemy.

The basics of crafting in Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy are the same as they’ve always been in the Atelier series. Purchase or collect recipes, then gather or purchase ingredient items, then put said ingredient items together to make the things depicted in the recipes. Where the game distinguishes itself is in the mechanics layered atop those basics.

Core to Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy’s crafting system is the concept of “ether level” or “E-Level”. This was first introduced in Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis and refers to a figure from 0-100 that can be manipulated during the crafting process, with various item characteristics coming and going as the level lowers or rises.

In Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis, E-Level didn’t directly correspond to “quality” or anything like that; it instead simply represented the way that making an item in different ways can have different results. While this side of things is maintained to a certain degree in Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy, it is more broadly used to represent an alchemist’s level of understanding of an item. If an alchemist is capable of making an item with an E-Level of 100, they fully understand it on every level — and, as we’ll talk about further when we look at combat and progression mechanics, there’s a tangible reward for achieving this in game terms, so it’s something worth pursuing.

The actual crafting process is fairly similar to that seen in Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis in that there is an element of skill and timing — though the decisions you’re supposed to be making while this is going on are made much more clear this time around.

Upon starting to craft an item, you pick a partner to help you out from the party members you currently have. Each has their own specialism, usually but not always corresponding with a particular “element” of item. In this way, different partners are better for different recipes according to the ingredients you’re using, and this usually manifests itself by them having a larger effect on the E-Level of an item than you would normally do.

Once crafting proper begins, a spinning wheel filled with coloured elemental symbols appears, along with a card representing the ingredient. An important addition to this card over the previous game is the fact that it directly tells you what effect matching the colour on the wheel to the colour on the card will have: ingredients with an E-Level above 50 will increase your current project’s E-Level (with the effect being stronger the closer to 100 it gets), while those with an E-Level below 50 will decrease it. The latter can be counteracted by matching the opposite element that the card depicts; by doing this, you’ll actually get an increase rather than a decrease.

The key difference here over the first Mana Khemia is the way the E-Level is manipulated. In the original game, a project’s initial E-Level was calculated based on all the ingredients, and the effect you had by matching the colours on the wheel was always the same. In other words, mastering the basics of the alchemy system would generally result in the exact same items every time.

In Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy, meanwhile, a new project’s E-Level always starts at 50, but using ingredients with greater extremes of E-Level allows you to manipulate it more substantially. In this way, as the game develops, you can naturally produce “better” versions of an item by crafting higher E-Level versions of the ingredients — or even by deliberately dropping the E-Level of your ingredients as much as possible and using the aforementioned opposing element mechanics.

This may all sound rather complicated on paper — and initially it might seem that way in practice, too — but what we’re seeing here is a shift away from previous Atelier games’ “all items of the same type are identical” model, and the introduction of more variation. This is explored considerably further when the series makes the jump to PlayStation 3 with Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland, in which every single ingredient has its own unique quality level and properties, but Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy’s alchemy projects are definitely a step towards this, often requiring careful thought and forward planning.

Another area where Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy is clearly pushing towards something that ends up fully realised in the Arland series is in making item traits that were previously little more than flavour text into something more worthwhile. This marks the culmination of something that Gust started experimenting with all the way back in Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, where items’ “property reviews” had pretty much no mechanical purpose whatsoever, but were fun to explore nonetheless.

In Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy, many items of equipment will end up with various descriptors on them. And, unlike in previous games, where only traits that were explicitly named things like “Attack+” and “Healing” had a mechanical effect, here each named trait does something. It’s rather more obtuse than the prior system — though a helpful tooltip system does allow you to check what each descriptor corresponds to in mechanical terms — but it certainly makes things more interesting to explore, as well as softening the line between gameplay and narrative content somewhat. After all, there’s a lot more flavour in having a character with a “Ringing” weapon than one with “Delay+ (S)”, isn’t there?

It’s actually a tad trickier to get the exact traits you want on an item of equipment in Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy, too. Rather than crafting the ingredients in your workshop, then using the Athanor alchemy furnace to combine them together and just picking the traits you want, in this game the final traits of the item are determined entirely by the E-Level you end up with during the crafting process. Thankfully, to make planning things out a little easier, discovering a particular trait and the E-Level range at which it appears just once means that those conditions are permanently recorded in the menu for you, allowing you to easily recreate items according to your particular requirements at will.

Like the previous Atelier games we’ve explored to date, it’s worth noting that each type of item in the game can only have one set of traits and E-Level attached to it at a time. Let’s say you make a Heal Jar early in the game, and its traits aren’t anything special. All Heal Jars you acquire from that point on will have those same traits and E-Level — but, crucially, if you craft another Heal Jar with a higher E-Level or a superior combination of traits attached to it, all Heal Jars in the game, including ones you already have in your inventory as well as those you buy from stores or find in treasure chests, will take on the new characteristics.

This can be used to your advantage, as in Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis. For example, say you picked up a job that requires you to make four units of an item with a specific trait that only appears low down in the E-Level spectrum. You already have three of the item, but they lack the correct trait and, worse, you only have enough ingredients to make one more. No problem! Simply craft the one item with the correct trait and the three you already have in your inventory will automatically take on this trait too.

Much like in Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis, if you find a “perfect” combination of E-Level and traits you particularly like, there are a few ways you can “duplicate” items without risking the loss of your favourite characteristics.

Firstly, you can mass produce items once you’ve successfully crafted them once; this will use the same ingredients as you did last time to make exact copies of the item. This is a huge time-saver, and Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy adds a nice quality of life feature whereby if you’re missing a key ingredient for a recipe but are capable of crafting that ingredient right now, it will automatically switch over to that ingredient’s recipe so you can use the mass production feature to make what you need; it will then take you right back to the original project you were working on. Very nice — although note this won’t help you if the ingredient you need is a basic raw material you need to gather from somewhere!

The second method involves a brand new system for Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy, which forms the basis for the “wholesale” mechanic seen in the Arland series. During “Free Time” weeks when your protagonist has no classes, you have the option of spending a week opening a bazaar in the school store. Here, you can pick any of your crafted items, choose a member of your party to man the store and then play a timing-based minigame to determine whether you give each of your customers a bargain, a fair price or overcharge them. As you might expect, your bazaar’s reputation will be affected quite significantly by how this unfolds, which in turn will have an impact on your sales.

Succeeding in this minigame will not only make you money, it will also cause other vendors to notice your most popular items and begin carrying them in limited quantities. This, in turn, means that you can pick up frequently used ingredients just by using money rather than burning through your stock of ingredients. Again, planning ahead is important when bearing this mechanic in mind; it’s easy to see why some regard the Atelier series in its entirety to have as much in common with the strategy game genre as it does with role-playing games. And this is just another example of how the Mana Khemia series as a whole bridges the gap between the accessible RPG trappings of the Atelier Iris series and the more “traditional” Atelier structure and execution.

While Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy most certainly has more than its fair share of exciting exploration and spectacular battles as well as an enjoyable narrative to experience, it should be clear from these deep crafting mechanics that Gust was, at this point, very much trying to steer the series back towards its traditional roots.

Around the same time as Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy released, the company also put out the well-loved Ar Tonelico 2: Melody of Metafalica, which very much covered the “epic, narrative-centric RPG” angle that Atelier Iris had been exploring. This, in turn, allowed the Atelier series to pivot back to focusing on the alchemy concept in earnest — and while this may well have cost it a few fans who latched on to the Atelier Iris games because of their respective strengths as relatively conventional RPGs, in the long term it very much helped cement the identity of the Atelier series as its own distinctive thing that is still recognised — and well-loved — today.

As previously noted, this is by no means to say that the “RPG” side of Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy is in any way lacking. But that’s a story for next time, as we take a look at how this game adds its own twists on combat, progression and exploration.


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