So far in our exploration of Atelier, we’ve seen a series that is keen not to be seen as stagnating.
Each new game has reinvented itself when compared to its predecessor in one way or another, with the alchemy, progression and combat mechanics all differing from one game to the next — with some games being more drastically different than others.
Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy continues the trend of its two predecessors so far as its combat mechanics are concerned, which is to refine the systems introduced in Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm. So let’s take a closer look at how you fight in the latter years of the Al-Revis Academy!
The battle system in Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy follows a similar turn-based format to its two immediate predecessors, with a few notable differences. For one, while both Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm and Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis represented the ongoing flow of time in battle through a line of cards depicting player characters, enemies and recurring abilities, Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy replaces this with a system of “spheres” that are arranged in a never-ending ring.
Practically speaking, the purpose of this ring of spheres is pretty much the same as the line of cards in the previous games; it just requires the player to think a little harder about parsing the information in front of them. Is that a good thing? Your mileage may vary on that, but it certainly gives the battle system a distinctive look and feel from the previous two games, and it’s certainly not difficult to figure out.
For those who haven’t experienced the aforementioned games in the series, each order you give a character carries a hidden “wait time” statistic, which determines how far back in the ring of spheres their next turn will be. Powerful moves tend to take longer to “recover” from, while something like using an item is very quick. There are also skills that allow you to knock back enemies and delay their turn — though unlike Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm and Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis, characters don’t have an obvious stat that determines whether or not a normal attack will do this.
Managing your turn order is very important in Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy’s combat. The game features “Double Up” skills, which you order a character to do on their turn, but which only actually take effect when their “next turn” rolls around, and “Time” skills, which place extra spheres on the ring that each cause the effect to go off multiple times. Naturally, your enemies are more than capable of doing this, too — particularly the Time skills — and thus in the more complex fights it pays to ensure that you minimise the amount of repeated damage your party takes.
Like the character Roxis in Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis, certain characters in Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy have the ability to manipulate the enemy time spheres. A good example is young mechanical genius Enna, who is able to deploy an “Interceptor” that can block a repeating enemy Time skill. Doing so means that he’s not actively attacking that turn, but given that some of these ongoing skills can deal significant amounts of damage, sometimes it’s better to take a moment to protect yourself if you know you’re not going to be able to flatten the enemy before something bad happens.
Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy also features a similar “Support” system to its immediate predecessor. Here, the battle party is split into a three-man frontline “Vanguard” and a two-man back line with an occasional third “Guest” character stepping in for narrative reasons. During battle, the back-line characters’ portraits will fill up with colour until they indicate “OK” status, at which point they can be used either for follow-up attacks after a Vanguard member’s normal attack or immediate-use skill, or to step in and take damage in place of a Vanguard member when an enemy targets them for an attack. Both of these instances require reasonable reactions, since you need to press a button to trigger them before a second or two passes.
This system is introduced much earlier in Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy than it was in Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis, and thus it will tend to form a core part of your battle strategy while working your way through the game’s dungeons. It becomes doubly important when you take into account individual characters’ relatively limited pools of skill points (SP), used for triggering skills, and the fact that while they’re in the back row they will replenish these SP at a fairly rapid rate. Consequently, you’ll find your whole party is useful; deliberately sticking to just your “favourite” characters is only going to make things harder for yourself, though you may well find yourself gravitating towards a particular starting lineup to get the battle underway; Ulrika is a good starter, for example, due to her move that can potentially inflict all the status effects on her foes.
The basic follow-up attack and substitute defence moves are also replaced fairly quickly with unique attack and defence support abilities for each playable character — again, this side of things enters the picture much more quickly than it did in Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis, so it makes each party member more immediately distinct from one another.
Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm and Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis both feature combat systems built around a core mechanic known as “Burst”. The two games’ implementation of the system varies a little, but essentially it involves exploiting enemy weaknesses and landing as many hits as possible in order to fill up a gauge, then making use of the “Burst Mode” this gauge unlocks to defeat your enemies more efficiently and unlock bonuses.
Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy replaces this system with something known as “Unite”, but the principles are the same: you still want to land as many hits as possible and exploit the enemies’ weaknesses, because doing so will fill up a gauge; taking damage, meanwhile, will cause the gauge to drop — and this latter penalty is quite a bit harsher than it was in either Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm or Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis, so minimising the hits you take is quite important.
Upon filling the Unite gauge, an effect similar to Burst from the previous two games occurs. The background is replaced with dramatic flourishes and lightning bolts, and the game starts counting the number of hits you achieve on the enemies before the status ends. Here, though, rather than increasing the power of your skills as in Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm or simply buffing all your stats as in Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis, Unite mode increases the speed of all your characters, reducing the wait time of their skills and allowing you to unleash a flurry of attacks.
The Support system is of particular importance during Unite mode, too. Successfully performing support actions fills a second gauge which, when full, can be used to unleash powerful, spectacular, special “finishing” moves that can often bring a battle to an end with real style. This replaces the system from Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis where finishing moves were triggered by repeatedly fulfilling a special condition, and it’s a good replacement; while the previous game’s system was fun when it worked, occasionally the special conditions were impossible to fulfil if, for example, they tasked you with “exploiting an enemy’s weakness” and none of the enemies you were facing had any specific weaknesses!
On top of that, Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis’ “Variable Strike” system makes a return, with a bit of a twist. In the previous game, this was a mechanic whereby if protagonist Vayne was the last character to trigger a Support attack in a chain of three, he would unleash a particularly powerful multi-hit attack in conjunction with the rest of the party. It was fun and satisfying to pull off, but limiting it to just Vayne was a bit of a pain at times — most notably during a challenging battle where Vayne is not in your party!
In Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy, it is replaced by the entertainingly named “Intimate Strike” system. Here, while Unite mode is active, chaining two Support attacks together (and ensuring you press the dedicated “Co-Op Strike” button for the second one) will unleash a character-specific attack that has a gloriously ridiculous animation, hits a lot of times and does a massive amount of damage. Naturally, you will want to do this as often as possible, not only for the spectacle but for how effective it is — though note that performing one of these drains the Unite gauge significantly, making it quite difficult to fit two in before you need to charge up all over again.
Many of the combat mechanics in Atelier are designed to reinforce a recurring narrative theme in the series: the idea of togetherness and cooperation. This is nothing unusual in role-playing games and more broadly in Japanese popular media in general, of course, but Atelier’s particular focus on it is one of the main things that leads so many people to point to the series in its entirety and — quite justifiably — declare it to be pleasingly wholesome.
Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy’s evolution and development of the mechanics introduced in Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm are firmly in keeping with this philosophy — and, as we’ll see when we come to look at the various narrative paths through the game in detail, are of particular relevance to the stories the game has to tell.
For now, at least, know that Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy is a solid addition to Gust’s lineup of (very) late-era PS2 games from a mechanical perspective, and is as fun to play as it is enjoyable to engage with its narrative.
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