For most people, a “good” RPG consists of some combination of a compelling story, solid combat mechanics and satisfying progression.
Many RPGs have stuck with the conventional “experience and levels” system over the years, simply because that is a proven progression mechanic that works well, offers continual rewards for continued play and tangible improvements in your characters over time.
Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis did something a little different, where character combat effectiveness was directly tied to your engagement with the game’s core alchemy system. And its sequel Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy follows suit — but rather than simply rehashing the previous game’s mechanics, it adds an interesting new twist. Let’s take a closer look!
It makes sense that the alchemy system be core to progression in the game; after all, it’s the main thing that makes the Atelier series distinct from other turn-based, menu-driven RPGs out there. It’s also interesting that after Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy, Gust returned to what one might consider a more “conventional” combat levelling system for Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland and gave alchemy its own completely separate progression mechanics rather than intertwining the two.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s focus on how Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy does things.
You may recall that Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis’ progression has something called the “Grow Book” at the core of everything. This is implemented as a node-based map unique to each character, where each node has up to three unlockable abilities or stat increases. Each node can be opened up by crafting a specific item in the game, and each individual ability on a node is activated by spending “AP”, which are acquired through battle.
The thing with the node-based structure is that it means getting around the board is dependent on crafting prerequisite items in order to unlock various “routes”. In some cases this leads to temporary bottlenecks while you acquire particular ingredients or recipes or even, in one instance, make progress in a specific character’s optional sidequest. For the most part it isn’t a problem, but it can be a little frustrating when you can’t figure out exactly what it is that’s stopping a particular character getting any further.
Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy completely revamps this system, and eliminates this problem in the process. What we have now is a Grow Book for each character that essentially acts as an “item collection”. Each character’s book is divided into several distinct sections: Weapons, which are completely unique to the character; Armour and Accessories, which are often shared between several similar characters; and two tabs of Material Items, which vary considerably between each party member.
At the beginning of the game, the contents of each of these tabs are represented by face-down cards, giving no indication of what they are. Once you know a recipe for something, the card will flip over and show a silhouette of the item and the item’s name; if you presently have the ingredients in your inventory to craft this item, the card will also be marked with the word “Available”. Once you craft the item for the first time, the card will unlock, showing the full item image and two abilities. And if you craft the item with an E-Level of 100 — which, as you may recall, thematically represents an alchemist having a full understanding of how an item is made and its inherent capabilities — you’ll unlock a third ability on its card.
Once a card is unlocked, the abilities can then be activated as in Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis: by spending AP acquired through combat. The first two abilities on a card are generally quite significant, consisting of large stat increases or new skills for characters to use, while the third ability is generally a small increase that it’s nice to have but by no means essential. This takes the pressure off those who don’t have the patience to pursue perfection for each and every craftable item in the game, but provides a tangible reward for those who do take the time to put in that extra effort.
It’s also worth noting that you might not want to just blithely unlock each and every ability that becomes available to you right away, particularly as AP is a little harder to come by than in the previous game. Increasing the Physical Attack power of a magic-centric character like Chloe isn’t going to make her noticeably more effective in combat for the most part, for example, so it may be worth saving your AP for something a little more helpful. Of course, eventually you’ll probably want to unlock every ability on every card for every character — but in the early stages of the game at least, it’s worth rationing your AP a little bit.
One of the main reasons you will want to unlock all the abilities — even the seemingly unhelpful ones — is the fact that at various completion percentages, the Grow Book confers an optional title on its owner to reflect their overall progress and development as a person. When applied, these titles add helpful and significant bonuses to the character. In the case of female protagonist Ulrika, for example, she is able to unlock an ability that significantly increases her chances of striking first in combat — ideal for kicking off a tough fight by afflicting all the enemies with status effects — while wannabe fairy Pepperoni and his animal suit-wearing friend Goto both have bonuses that relate to the Unite gauge in combat, making it easier to pull off the game’s flashier moves.
The catch is that each character can only have one title active at once. Once you get into the late game, you’ll probably want everyone to have their respective title that “greatly increases all stats”, but prior to that point, it’s worth carefully considering how you fight and what bonuses you think will make your party most effective in combat. It provides a nice bit of variety and customisation to the mechanics, allowing you to tweak the way your party performs to your own personal needs while still letting each character feel unique.
In practice, most players will probably find that progression through the Grow Book typically occurs at the start of a chapter, as this is usually when you get access to new recipes and new areas to gather ingredients. Before engaging with aspects of the game that will advance the main story such as the academy’s classes or character quests, it’s worth taking an hour or two of “freeform” gameplay to explore all the new areas to find new ingredients and perhaps a recipe or two in a treasure chest, buy any new recipes that are available from the shops around the school, and then take your time crafting each and every one of these items to as high a quality as you can possibly manage.
Once you’ve done that, you’ll unlock a bunch of new cards in the Grow Book and likely have enough AP to get a good number of the new abilities attached to them. If you play this way, character progression tends to come in big, noticeable jumps rather than being a more gradual process, which is rather satisfying. Of course, you can choose to deliberately spread your progression out a bit if you prefer — and the somewhat more restrained rate of AP gain in Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy compared to its predecessor means that you’ll likely do this to a certain extent anyway — but I suspect given most RPG fans’ enthusiasm for Making Numbers Get Bigger, the majority of players will take the approach outlined above.
Interestingly, the game’s dual scenario system allows you to carry over your recipes, items and encyclopaedia content from a clear file to the other protagonist’s playthrough. This means that you can likely unlock a significant amount of the other playable cast’s Grow Books as soon as you start their playthrough, as a fair few items are shared between multiple characters — though you’ll still need to earn the AP required to actually activate the abilities on the cards, so don’t expect a completely free ride. This is still a huge timesaver, however, so you can expect your second playthrough to go a whole lot quicker than your first one, as you’ll need less time at the start of each chapter to frantically craft all your new recipes. Unless you specifically choose not to carry everything over — which is an option if you’re feeling masochistic — but why would you do that?
Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy’s progression system makes for a satisfying feeling of growth as you work your way through the game. Making it to a new chapter always feels like a big moment, as not only will you be able to explore new areas in the game and see the continuing story, you’ll also be able to power your characters up significantly.
The best thing about it, though, is still the fact that out of all the Atelier games up until this point, this method of advancing your characters feels the most thematically appropriate for the Atelier series. If alchemy is the core to the series as a whole, it makes sense that it should take centre stage so far as important game mechanics are concerned, too. And that is most certainly the case here!
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