Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy – Special Measures in the Darkness

cropped-atelier-megafeature-header-1.pngThis post is one chapter of a MegaFeature!
< Prev. | Contents | Next >


Unlike the previous Atelier games that we’ve explored so far, Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy features two discrete narrative paths to follow, plus an “Extra” path once you’ve cleared them both that provides a “true” ending.

Your first playthrough of the game will likely take about 40 hours or so, but your second run with the other of the two protagonists will go by a little more quickly, since you can carry over almost everything from your first playthrough — including the recipes you’ve previously synthesised to unlock cards in the characters’ Grow Books. Expect to still spend another 20-30 hours though.

The two paths cover similar “macro” events and converge at the very end, but they are presented from very different perspectives, with a completely different set of characters at the forefront of the action and a unique series of events on the more “micro” scale. With that in mind, today we’re going to focus on the route fronted by female protagonist Ulrika, and follow up with male protagonist Raze’s narrative path — and the true ending — in a subsequent part. So grab your books and warm up your cauldron; it’s time to enrol in the Alchemy class.

The setup for Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy is, as we’ve previously discussed, the fact that Al-Revis Academy, the once-prestigious alchemical training institution, has fallen on hard times. As the years passed since the first Mana Khemia game, the power and overall number of Mana in the world declined to such a degree that the school could no longer remain isolated from the outside world on its Mana-powered floating island, and it crashed to earth.

The school thankfully survived this unfortunate incident, but the condition of its buildings are the least of new principal Zeppel Kriever’s worries. With the decline in Mana comes a decline in high-level, powerful alchemists — and thus a decline in both the numbers of prospective students who wish to learn the art of alchemy, and the ready availability of those who wish to teach the subject to a new generation.

As the story opens in both narrative paths, we see Zeppel reaching a point of desperation. The school is losing money, its reputation is in tatters and the poor man — who Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis showed us to be a passionate, caring teacher but rather cowardly when things got serious or dangerous — is at his wits’ end. He feels bad, not only for the students in his care, but also for how he believes he has let down the prestigious name of the academy.

The reality of the situation is that while Zeppel is clearly an ineffective leader, the academy’s difficulties are not directly his fault. This doesn’t become truly clear until the very end of the story, but you can understand how he might feel anxiety or guilt over what has happened. And you can definitely understand why he was quick to grab onto what appeared to be a lifeline from one of the school’s investors — a formidable woman named Marta Schevesti.

Marta is all business — quite literally. She restructures the academy to accept students from fields other than alchemy. She compresses the curriculum that was once three years into a single three-term year. And she plans to completely abolish the alchemy programme altogether once the year in which we join the story is over and done with.

Zeppel, as a former teacher of alchemy at the academy, is not too pleased about this proposal — but he feels unable to go against Marta’s wishes due to the fact that all her previous changes to the school ended up resulting in it turning a profit for the first time in several years. Thankfully, it’s not something Marta is able to implement immediately, since although the number of alchemy students has been declining over the years, there are still enough in the year of Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy’s main narrative to make it worthwhile. And so, one can imagine, Zeppel is hoping that this new cohort of students will prove the value of alchemy at the academy.

Enter Ulrika Mulberry, a fifteen year old girl from a countryside backwater village who scrimped and saved in order to come to Al-Revis Academy and study the art of alchemy. She has dragged her incantation-obsessed rich friend Chloe Hartzog along with her, and hopes to discover during her studies whether or not there is any truth to her belief that a strange stone an old man gave her when she was a child really is a Mana egg.

Things immediately get off to a peculiar start when during the school’s orientation ceremony, there is a loud and nearly violent disagreement between school bully-turned-teacher Tony Eisler and the school’s new vice-principal Flay Gunnar — yes, the perpetual student and wannabe superhero who finally graduated at the conclusion of Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis, and a man who has seemingly only become more unhinged since his delusional school life came to an end.

As exaggerated and comedic as much of the in-school action in Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy may be, it actually presents some surprisingly insightful, biting commentary on modern education — particularly with regard to schools that, for one reason or another, are struggling.

In the real world, there are many possible reasons for a school having difficulties. A particular year might have a low intake for one reason or another; an economic downturn might cause families to send their children elsewhere — particularly when presented with the choice between paid and state-funded education; political and societal change might drive people out of the teaching profession. In some cases, a school being treated more as a commercial business — as Al-Revis is in Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy — can lead to teacher and student alike underperforming as they feel increasingly cynical about the reasons they’re there.

Here in the UK, when a school fails to meet its officially mandated requirements to be considered “satisfactory” (and preferably “good”, since in the world of education, “satisfactory” is not actually considered to be satisfactory by many of the people in charge), it is placed in a state known as “special measures”. When this occurs, the school is subject to frequent inspections by the official overseeing bodies, and a great deal of pressure is placed on both the students and staff to ensure that the school survives in the long term.

While Al-Revis Academy isn’t facing any such official scrutiny from government bodies, as a private institution the pressure exerted on it by its investors — such as Marta Schevesti — is just as bad, if not worse. And as such, throughout the game we witness a school that is potentially on its last legs — and what that does to both the student body and the people who work there.

Tony, who ends up being Ulrika’s homeroom teacher, is a good example of this. He has mellowed a lot since his “secondary villain” status in Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis, and it’s clear that he’s now seeking something of a quiet life. He’s come to resent his teaching job somewhat, though over time it becomes clear that this is not because of the students or the alchemical subject matter he is in charge of. Instead, he resents the fact that the state the school has ended up in means that he hasn’t been able to go home and see his wife — whom we can assume to be his perpetual companion Renee from Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis, though this is never actually confirmed — for three years.

We can infer a few things from this. Firstly, the fact that Tony became a teacher at Al-Revis Academy suggests that although he took a lot of (well-deserved) hard knocks at the hands of Vayne and company over the course of Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis, his experiences at the school were, overall, positive. By extension, it appears that he wishes to pass on some of those good experiences to another generation of students, though a combination of educational bureaucracy and his own laziness tend to get in the way of him doing an especially good job of it.

Why does Tony stay when he’s clearly not enjoying himself, though? Partly his own sense of responsibility towards the students — despite the harsh words he often has for Ulrika and her friends, it’s clear he cares about their wellbeing — and partly because he doesn’t wish to see his alma mater collapse, because it holds sentimental value to him. While he is at total loggerheads with Flay right from the beginning of Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy, they at least have this much in common.

Tony is also enormously stubborn, as we saw throughout Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis. He got repeatedly beaten down by Vayne and company, but still kept coming back for more. And this is likely the reason he sticks around in Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy; he doesn’t want to admit defeat, even if the decline of the school is not directly his fault.

Adversity often brings people together, though — particularly in a close-knit environment like an educational institution. I can speak of this from personal experience; having spent time working as a teacher in two struggling schools — one of which ended up in the aforementioned “special measures” status — I can say that both the staff and pupil populations of both of those institutions were much more cooperative, friendly, supportive and keen to do their part than the teachers and students of a school that is just pootling along, doing its mediocre and unremarkable thing.

This sort of thing is reflected perfectly in Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy. Everyone at the academy knows that things aren’t quite “right” and that the school isn’t what it used to be — but despite some of the teenage students giving it a bit of lip and claiming to hate the experience of going to school, it’s clear that no-one actually wants Al-Revis to shut down, and no-one (except Marta) actually wants the iconic alchemy department to come to an untimely end.

The plight of the school itself is very much of secondary importance to the main narratives in the game, but it’s important to acknowledge it as an important backdrop to everything that is going on. In Ulrika’s route in particular, the unusual circumstances in which she is conducting her studies cause her to end up associating with some rather peculiar allies — the sorts of individuals that one suspects she would probably not have initially chosen to team up with were her school life a little more… normal. But under difficult circumstances, you team up with whoever you can find to help out — and so it is that the ensemble cast of Ulrika’s route ends up being one of the strangest, most memorable groups of characters in the history of the Atelier series.

We have Ulrika herself, who is a hormonal teenager whose mood swings at a moment’s notice. She’s serious about what she’s doing, though finds herself easily distracted — particularly once that aforementioned Mana egg hatches. More on that in a little while.

We have Ulrika’s childhood friend Chloe, who has little to no interest in alchemy itself, but is either an amazing or a terrible spellcaster, depending on how you look at things. Chloe takes great delight in the misfortune of others and openly expresses disappointment when she wasn’t there to see someone get hurt or embarrassed — but in her heart, she does care for Ulrika and wants to see her succeed.

We have Enna, a twelve year old boy with some seriously unresolved anger issues towards his sister Et. We’re led to believe that Enna was bullied so mercilessly by Et that she actually stole his name — though it’s a bit difficult to believe this wholeheartedly when you finally meet Et and discover her to be an endearingly dizzy girl who barely seems to understand what is going on at any given moment rather than the criminal mastermind Enna seems to believe she is.

We have Pepperoni, a huge musclebound redheaded man with bestial features who claims to be a “fairy in training”. And we have his friend Goto, a womanising possessed red ball who spends most of his time in an animal mascot costume, and who is seemingly on the run from the law for some sort of past romantic or sexual indiscretion.

Collectively, this appears to be a group of fairly terrible people, but their heavily flawed nature is what makes them so interesting and likeable as characters — and interestingly, towards the very end of Ulrika’s route it becomes apparent that there’s a thematic reason for this ensemble in particular being so… unconventional.

In the world of Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy, the decline in Mana population is explained as being the result of the union between Mana and humans, and the birth of offspring who aren’t quite Mana, aren’t quite human. The two Mana Kings — the Light Mana and the Dark Mana — are concerned at the effect this is having, and their discussions on the subject form the opening bookend for each chapter in Ulrika’s route.

With the dilution of Mana power through this interspecies breeding looking likely to bring Mana to the brink of complete extinction, the Light Mana proposes that Mana withdraw completely from the human world, while the Dark Mana disagrees.

This in itself is interesting; in many role-playing games, the “light” is typically represented as being the “good” side of things, while the “dark” tends to be associated with “evil”. Here, however, the “light” side is seemingly the most unforgiving and stubborn, desiring to make drastic changes to the world based on his own beliefs; the “dark” side, meanwhile, is more curious to see what unfolds, and demonstrates a certain amount of belief in both the Mana and human species to find an appropriate balance.

If this sounds a little familiar, you may recall our discussions here on MoeGamer regarding the Senran Kagura series, in which the concepts of “good” and “evil” are treated in a similarly unconventional manner. In that narrative world, “good” is an exclusive club that you can be locked out of if you do one thing “wrong”, while “evil” is actually the most tolerant, understanding and inclusive side. You can be too evil to be good, but you can’t be too good to be evil.

We can look at Ulrika’s ensemble cast in Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy in a similar way, because as events unfold over the course of the game’s narrative, it becomes clear that they are the favoured side of the Dark Mana. Indeed, the supposed Mana egg that Ulrika found herself taking ownership of in her childhood was not passed to her by a random old man dying in the summer heat as she believed, but the Dark Mana himself, making a wager with his Light counterpart. If a human being is able to raise a Mana from birth and not make a colossal mess of things, he suggested, then that is proof that humans and Mana can coexist. And Ulrika was that human being, chosen by the Dark Mana as the representative example of his belief in humanity.

Continuing on from this, we can consider Ulrika’s party to be a good example of “darkness” in humanity; the things that a lot of people in that world would probably prefer to keep hidden, or which might ostracise them from whatever is considered to be “normal” society.

Ulrika is arguably the most “normal” of the group, but she’s aggressive, stubborn to a fault, quick to anger and finds it difficult to maintain her attention on anything when something more appealing comes along. This is most commonly seen once the baby Mana hatches from her egg, and she immediately dotes on it to the exclusion of almost everything around her — her school studies, her friends, her alchemy training.

Chloe is the most obviously “dark” of the group, since she literally uses dark magic as both her in-battle skills and throughout her narrative. She claims to be studying “incantations”, but Ulrika and friends quite understandably refer to them as “curses”, since they always seem to end up having unintentional side effects. She frequently summons demonic entities during battle, and during her own series of character quests throughout the game, accidentally summons a demon to possess her, then subsequently makes said demon feel highly uncomfortable with the sadistic darkness within her heart. (To Ulrika’s credit, she notices that Chloe is a little different to normal almost immediately, but that, of course, raises its own questions about Ulrika’s own exposure to “darkness” over the years.)

Enna’s “darkness” stems from his inability to stand up to his sister — and the fact that he seemingly misrepresents her in order to justify his own weakness. Et’s strong, no doubt about that, but at no point in Ulrika’s route are we led to believe that she is actually abusive towards her brother. Of course, real abusers rarely work out in the open, and Enna is clearly traumatised by what he claims to have gone through in the past, so perhaps there is some truth to his claims after all. It’s difficult to tell based purely on his perspective, though, so in that sense the “darkness” that surrounds him can also be viewed as the mystery and unanswered questions regarding his family situation.

Pepperoni and Goto can be grouped together, as they have a pre-existing relationship prior to the events of the game. Both of them are also shrouded in a certain amount of mystery, but the little bits and pieces we learn over the course of Ulrika’s narrative as a whole make them some of the most fascinating characters — and definitely well in keeping with the “darkness” theme.

Pepperoni is obviously lying right from the moment you meet him. Fairies have been part of the Atelier series since even before Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, and at no point have they ever looked like anything other than dumpy, squat little boys wearing robes that are a bit too big for them. So when a huge musclebound dude with what appears to be a lion’s nose shows up claiming to be a fairy-in-training, his “fairy robes” nearly bursting at the seams as they struggle to contain his formidable pecs, one would be forgiven for not taking him entirely at face value. Though the more you speak to him, the more you start to wonder how much of the nonsense he spouts he actually believes.

You learn fairly early in Pepperoni’s story that he had a difficult upbringing, and that is how he ended up in the care of a reclusive, retired fairy in the forest. The exact circumstances of this difficult upbringing don’t become apparent until much later in Ulrika’s narrative — and they very much relate to the overarching plot, which subverts his seeming position as “comic relief” character rather nicely — but it’s clear that he’s hiding something.

This feeling is only emphasised when Goto enters the picture and Pepperoni, as his apparent longstanding friend, is completely unfazed by this peculiar, seemingly noncorporeal character. On top of that, it’s clear that Goto has done more than a few morally questionable things over the years, mostly as a result of his extreme womanising. The “darkness” here should be fairly self-explanatory.

It doesn’t stop there, though. We can also, as previously noted, view “darkness” as the idea of something taboo that many people in society would prefer to keep hidden — or which it might be outright dangerous to reveal, depending on the circumstances in which they live. In the case of Goto and Pepperoni, it becomes increasingly clear as their respective narratives proceed that they are extremely intimate with one another, and seem to derive considerable amounts of apparently sexual gratification any time they are able to indulge in something physical with one another. The game stops short of actually referring to them directly as homosexual — or perhaps bisexual in Goto’s case, since he really does seem to enjoy the company of women — but the implications are exceedingly clear.

Before you take umbrage with the idea of homosexuality being taboo or an example of “darkness”, it’s important to consider the context in which this game was written. It came out in Japan in 2008, and while Japan as a country is somewhat more progressive towards LGBT people than some other Asian territories, it’s still perceived as somewhat behind certain parts of the West in this regard. For further context, it wasn’t until 2009 than Japan started to allow same-sex couples to marry overseas in countries that allowed such practices; Pride parades have only been running in the country since 2012; and it wasn’t until 2017 that Osaka officially recognised a same-sex couple as foster parents for the first time in the country.

Interestingly, Japanese popular media has always been a lot more open to the idea of same-sex relationships than real-world Japanese society itself. This can perhaps be attributed to a few factors: firstly, that popular media is used as a means of exploring fantasies that are impossible (or at least difficult or impractical) in the real world; secondly, that there is a strong tradition of homosexuality in Japanese culture, history and literature; and thirdly, across the world, art has always been used to depict and say things that challenge the status quo.

Pepperoni and Goto’s relationship in Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy isn’t trying to make a particularly grand statement or anything like that, but it is interesting and noteworthy that whenever the pair are indulging themselves in anything particularly “gay” — as happens on several occasions during Ulrika’s route as a whole — then the response from their peers is not “ugh, you’re weird” as in some other popular media, but rather just a somewhat weary sigh as they walk off and leave them to it. Goto and Pepperoni, meanwhile, don’t seem to talk about it outside of the times when they find themselves “lost in the moment”, so they could be argued to be lying to themselves and each other about the whole situation rather than truly embracing who they are.

Ultimately, Ulrika’s narrative in its entirely can be seen as advocating for acceptance and tolerance, much like the idea of “darkness embracing all” we discussed earlier; acceptance of a world where Mana and human can coexist is, after all, what the Dark Mana is seeking. Everyone in Ulrika’s ensemble cast is heavily flawed in one way or another — be it through their actual behaviour or just dishonesty — but they all learn to understand and accept one another by the end of everything.

This idea of acceptance is taken to its natural conclusion towards the end of Ulrika’s narrative as a whole, where the Mana Ulrika has been raising is revealed to be potentially very dangerous — and Ulrika doesn’t care. By this point, she loves him and wishes to continue taking care of him, regardless of who he “really” is — and that should tell both the Dark and the Light Mana everything they need to know.

More broadly, the theme applies to the whole setting, too. Everyone at Al-Revis — teacher and student alike — knows that it’s a difficult time, but it’s precisely periods like that where everyone needs to pull together and work for a common good rather than competing with one another or reinforcing arbitrary divisions between themselves. And, to their credit, that’s exactly what everyone does; even Marta learns this to a certain degree.

That’s a pretty positive message to pull out of all that darkness, huh?


cropped-atelier-megafeature-header-1.pngThis post is one chapter of a MegaFeature!
< Prev. | Contents | Next >

More about Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy
More about the Atelier series

If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting the site via any of the services below! Your contributions help keep the lights on, the ads off and my shelves stocked up with things to write about!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com PayPal

6 thoughts on “Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy – Special Measures in the Darkness”

  1. This series continues to surprise me with its nuance and its depth. I think at some point I got into a bit of a bad rut and just assumed everything from Japan was built out of a small pile of endlessly recycled ‘anime tropes’, but if Atelier is any indication, I was wrong, wrong wrong.

    The art style is gorgeous as well!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Don’t feel too bad — it’s a pretty common preconception that a lot of people have, and it’s not a new thing, either. Here’s something I originally wrote back in 2013 on the subject: https://moegamer.net/2017/05/15/from-the-archives-drawing-the-line/

      It’s basically the reason I set up this site in the first place. So I’m always happy when people are willing to have an open mind, look at something and say “huh, maybe there’s more to this than I thought.” 🙂

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.