I give this surprisingly fun school-sim game about item crafting...a 75/100!
(Although I'm using the title for the PS2 version, I played the PSP version first, which was called Student Alliance, and since that version doesn't have a Japanese track, I'm using the English names)
As some of you may know, I grew up on Pokemon and Kirby games, and only played those games all throughout my childhood. Anything other than those games, I decided, was too hard for me. Plus, I was only limited to what my parents bought for me when I was younger. But only recently did I really branch out and expand my gaming horizons, whether due to reading about them online, having access to money I can spend on other consoles to get games I've always wanted (Tales of Symphonia and Child of Light, anyone?), or watching internet reviewers critique or praise games they've played. But if there's one type of game I never thought I'd get into, ever, it was item crafting games. One of my friends recommended that I play the Atelier games, but I'd never heard of it until recently, and I wasn't sure if I'd be able to get into it, especially since some of the games had...questionable content that didn't sit right with me. I bought Atelier Escha & Logy first, but I randomly found Mana Khemia on the PS store for five bucks, so I randomly bought it on my PS Vita. I hear this is one of the more popular Atelier games in the English-speaking world, and I think it's popularity is totally justified...on the other hand, it has plenty of flaws that prevent it from being one of my favorite games ever.
The story centers on a boy named Vayne Aurelius, who's lived alone all his life save for a friendly cat named Sulpher. One day, a man finds him in his home and invites him to attend the prestigious Al-Revis Academy, a school where people become alchemists. Although reluctant to do so at first, Vayne accepts his invitation and becomes a student at Al-Revis. There, he befriends many colorful people, like Jessica, a friendly girl with a habit of making things explode, Nikki, a cheerful beastwoman, Flay, the always loud and obnoxious slacker who's always flunking his classes, Pamela, a mischievous ghost girl, and many others. Although the setup seems innocent at first, Vayne soon learns the truth about himself and his existence through his schooling, and whatever choices he makes will determine whether things will end well or badly.
I have pretty mixed feelings about this game, but for the sake of wanting to be objective, I'll focus on the positive aspects first so I can get those out of the way, and for what it's worth, it does have a lot going for it. First off: the spritework is really nice. In the overworld, the sprites are mostly stagnant with some exceptions, but during battle, the characters' sprites are lively and full of personality. You know how in Pokemon Black and White, the Pokemon sprites move around and occasionally gesture every now and again in battle if you let enough time pass? Mana Khemia's sprites are exactly like that, but a little less pixelated. The battle animations for each attack are also very good, even straight up awesome during the big attacks. The 3D backgrounds, while a little polygon-ish for their time, are also very well designed for a PS2 game. I wonder what program Gust used to animate the battle sprites, because I'd love to know. More sprites like that need to be present in more games!
The gameplay, for an item crafting game, is surprisingly fun. Instead of leveling up traditionally, your characters gain action points in battle, which are used to unlock various skills and boosts on a skill tree called a Grow Book. Each character has their own Grow Book, and you can access certain attacks and upgrades if you have a certain amount of action points. But here's the catch: no matter how much AP you have, you won't be able to access those attacks and upgrades unless you synthesize certain items. So yeah, alchemy plays a huge role in allowing you to level up and get stronger. The more items you synthesize, the more skills and upgrades you'll be able to unlock, and it also rewards you for messing around with which items you can make by switching the ingredients to make entirely new items. Plus, depending on the ingredients you use, you can create weapons and armor that'll let you use certain attacks. For example, if you use an item with a fire attribute to make a weapon, equipping that weapon will give you fire attacks, but if you make the same weapon with an ice attribute, the weapon will only have the ice attack. Alchemy and synthesizing makes up the core of the game, and it is rather fun to experiment with creating stuff with different abilities, upgrades, and attacks with every synthesis.
The music and the anime opening sequence are very good, too. The opening song is epic, setting the game's tone perfectly. But the animation accompanying it...is actually kind of poorly done. Some characters' eyes are weirdly out of place in some scenes, the anime designs seem rather simplistic and dulled down compared to the in-game sprites and cut-ins, and it doesn't really do much to really establish the characters and show who they are. The battle scenes in said opening sequence are about the only good thing about the animation, save for the song.
Oh boy, I have a lot of opinions on the characters, so straps yourselves in, people. I found the characters to be kind of a mixed bag. I love half the cast and hate the other half. Several characters are genuinely interesting, varied, and well developed, especially when you play through their character quests. But there are a total of three who I outright hate: Flay, Pamela, and Muppy, with Pamela being the most annoying to me IMHO. She's a cute ghost girl who hangs out with the gang, but not only is she a spoiled brat who constantly acts childish and hates it when people say no to her, in one of her sidequests, she nearly kills several people with a poisonous potion she made (Not realizing it's poisonous), and when Vayne calls her on it and tries to get her to take responsibility, she plays the victim and cries and gets off scott free whereas everyone else yells at Vayne for not "talking to a girl more delicately" or some bullcrap like that, and he did absolutely NOTHING to deserve it! Am I the only one who hated that scene? It makes me wish that Anna had successfully exorcised her in one of her own character quests, because that would have been awesome. At least she doesn't put up with Flay or Pamela's crap! It doesn't help that Pamela's English voice is very grating and annoying, even though normally I love Brianne Siddall's work. But she was straight up miscast as Pamela. And Muppy's just as bad in that department, if not more so (In that he does bad things but doesn't get punished as much as he should have been). Muppy is also a terrible character in that he contributes absolutely nothing to the story. Honestly, he felt very tacked on. I know Mana Khemia doesn't have the best story in the world, but when it came to his character quests, the creators didn't even try with him. His episodes were really bizarre and contributed absolutely nothing to his story and overall character. You could have removed him from the game entirely and nothing would have been lost. Plus, Flay's an annoying macho dudebro who constantly acts like this hero of justice but constantly causes trouble for the main characters and makes them do the dirty work because he can't be bothered to do anything useful. God, I wanted to deck him every time he opened his mouth! Why do people like this guy again?
So yeah, the character writing can be very inconsistent at times, where even some of my favorite characters are written to act out of character to the point of being really mean-spirited in some character quests, which makes no sense. Plus, with the game being strictly set in a school environment, we don't really know much about the characters' personal lives outside of school. What do they do in their spare time? How did Nikki survive in the wild, what with being a beastman and all? What's Anna's life like? What contributed to Flay's behavior? I really wish the game had delved deeper into the characters' backgrounds. That would have not only provided many explanations for some of their behavior and personalities, but made them more varied and three dimensional. There are some in-game explanations for why the characters can't leave school, which are valid and reasonable, but I think the creators missed some opportunities to explore the characters in greater detail.
Now don't think I hate this game. I really don't. In fact, I've played it twice, and it's been an awesome, addictive experience. I'd gladly replay it again, mostly to unlock other characters' endings and sidequests. So despite my grievances about the inconsistent character writing, I can definitely see why people love this game. The story is interesting, even more so near the end, you can spend hours exploring various areas without being penalized for it (Several Atelier games had time limits, and this one doesn't), collecting and synthesizing a variety of items and exploring their different effects, the characters (the good ones, at least) are varied and fun, the gameplay is really addictive, and the spritework is amazing. I kinda wish more games were like Mana Khemia in this department, and I'm glad one of my friends recommended it to me. I wouldn't have touched this with a ten foot pole when I was younger, and while I don't feel it's a masterpiece, it's still a really fun game that I'd play any time I have some time to kill, and it's definitely one of the better games in the Atelier series.
Overall, if you're looking for a fun, engaging, addictive item crafting game that's just plain fun, Mana Khemia is definitely the game for you.