Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana
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In 1997, the Gust Corporation developed the very first installment of their long-running Atelier series, Atelier Marie: The Alchemist of Salburg, part of the Salburg subseries. For a few years, the franchise would remain in Japan, although after Nippon Ichi Software opened an American branch, they decided to translate the PlayStation 2 title Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana for Anglophone audiences, making it the first installment of the series to see release outside the Land of the Rising Sun. Atelier Iris was not the first PlayStation 2 title in the series, with the Gramnad subseries remaining in Japan, although it was nonetheless a nice introduction to the series for North American players.

The game mechanisms play a strong part in and out of combat. The player randomly encounters battles on fields and in dungeons that have them, with a skill ultimately becoming available to prevent fights. Outside battle, moreover, Klein can absorb various kinds of elements with his staff, which players can use to synthesize Mana Items that only he can use in battle, with players also able to use them from the main menu, and only allowed to have a maximum of nine of each Item. Klein has various MP-consuming skills allowing players to manipulate the range and power of his Mana Items, and late in the game, particularly during the final boss, players might want to keep him alive at all times.

It is possible to obtain regular consumable items everyone in the player’s party can use by synthesizing them at shops with raw materials, though these lamentably don’t have the power of Klein’s Mana Items. Battles themselves follow a turn-based structure similar to Final Fantasy X where characters, for the most part, immediately execute their commands once the player inputs them, although there are some skills that take some time to “charge” before their characters use them. In these instances, enemies can perform a “Skill Break” on characters preparing to use a skill, with the player able to do the same to enemies charging up their own abilities.

Other commands include attacking the enemy normally, with some characters, particularly Klein and Lita, able to attack multiple enemies with regular attacks. MP consuming skills also play part, most having a range of effect, along with regular consumable items, and Klein’s Mana Items, which he can synthesize from collected elements and immediately use, use a Mana Item already in stock normally, use MP to empower it or increase its range, and so forth. Outside battle, the player can place up to three active characters on a three-by-three grid, with the defense option moving a character back a square, and some attack skills moving them forward a square.

When the player has more than three characters, it’s possible to switch active characters with reserves at no cost. Winning fights nets players experience for all characters, some money, and the occasional item, with level-ups happening regularly, in which case the player gains some points players can invest into a character’s active and passive skills. Later in the game, players can equip characters with Mana Spirits for potential skill bonuses after battle, as well. The game mechanics work nicely for the most part, although there are some flaws such as the lack of a turn order meter, not to mention a a dependency upon Klein’s skills since his Mana Items can be the difference between victory and defeat.

The game interface is clean for the most part, with easy menus and shopping, being able to see how equipment increases and/or decreases a character’s stats before buying it, and the ability to get a reminder on where to go next (although the clue in a few instances is vague). There are some poor parts of the interface, however, such as the user-unfriendliness of trying to create mana stones to fuse to weapons, which requires some trial and error and sometimes a reloading of previous saves if the player’s experiences go awry. Still, Atelier Iris is generally good in the interaction department.

One aspect that could have been better, however, is the story, which seems to borrow elements from Lunar 2: Eternal Blue, with some similar characters and events, although synthesizing new items at certain stores adds to the plot. The localization is generally good, with decent dialogue (except in battle), although the ending can freeze, denying players the extra dungeon accessible after completing the game. All in all, the narrative could have used a once-over.

An area where the first Atelier Iris truly shines, however, is its musical presentation, with a nice variety of bouncy, upbeat themes and energetic battle music. The English voicework, however, is generally week, though players can luckily switch to the Japanese voices instead. The visual presentation is also nice, with colorful two-dimensional graphics, although the overworld is strangely foggy and poorly-textured. Still, a nice-sounding and looking game.

Finally, the game is fairly short, taking somewhere from fifteen to twenty-five hours to finish, with the extra dungeon, if players are fortunate enough to access it, extending playing time, although there isn’t really much replay value otherwise. Ultimately, Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, as mentioned, was a nice introduction to the series for gamers outside Japan, what particularly with its solid game mechanics, control, aurals, and visuals. It does have its flaws such as a derivative storyline and the aforementioned freeze that can prevent access to post-game content, although it evidently did fairly well in North America, given the localization of many of its sequels.

The Good:
+Solid gameplay and control.
+Decent localization.
+Nice music and graphics.

The Bad:
-Ending can freeze.
-Story is a little derivative.
-Weak English voicework.

The Bottom Line:
Good introduction to the series for North American gamers.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 2
Game Mechanics: 8/10
Controls: 7/10
Story: 6/10
Music/Sound: 9/10
Graphics: 8/10
Localization: 7/10
Lasting Appeal: 5/10
Difficulty: Moderate
Playing Time: 15-30 Hours

Overall: 7.5/10

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