Getting Schooled

We go back to class with NIS America and Gust's latest RPG, Mana Khemia.
Author: Sam Bishop
Published: February 7, 2008
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Japanese developer Gust has managed to carve out an impressive little niche in the role-playing space despite offering games with visuals that are decidedly low tech thanks in large part to their pleasantly old-school gameplay and a healthy helping of one very important defining characteristic: synthesis.

Creating items isn't a new process to RPGs, but few developers have put it front and center in their games as much as Gust has. Throughout games like Atelier Iris and the surprisingly good Ar Tonelico, the developer has incorporated some form of alchemy or item creation with wonderful results, but with their newest game, Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis they've managed to not only send spell checkers the world over into conniption fits, but built an entire game around making stuff.

At first, the game seems rather similar to their previous efforts, and in many respects -- particularly the sprite-based 2D visuals and soundtrack -- things are instantly familiar. The setting and characters even seem lifted from the Aterlier universe, but unlike their previous games, Mana Khemia makes sure you get schooled right from the start.

We mean that quite literally, in fact. Leading man Vayne Aurelius is plucked from his forest home with talking pet cat Sulpher right at the start of the game and somewhat forcibly enrolled at the nearby Al-Revis Academy, a school for alchemists. Though he appears to be stricken by the same amnesia malady that seemingly affects 90% of most JRPG protagonists, his innate ability to not only craft items but hold his own when it comes times to throw down in combat makes him at least more useful than most, "..." or "who am I?"-babbling leading men.

It also helps that Sulpher, his Mana or spiritual "assistant" can turn into a weapon and morph into armor that Vayne can wield when it comes time to fight. Yeah, Mana Khemia is definitely Japanese.

Combat, along with combining various materials to make new and useful items are the core parts of not only the training that all the fellow freshman alchemists at Al-Revis undergo, but the larger game as a result. Early on, Vayne is befriended by a spunky lass named Jessica, a rather brash second-year student by the name of Flay, and Nicole, a catgir-errr "beastman" more interested in exploration than alchemy. The four-person group effectively makes up a "party" that works together in their own workshop.

If you haven't gotten the idea by now, Vayne's initial few days at Al-Revis aren't exactly freeform. Things at the academy are decidedly structured in nature, but in a way this helped us come to grips with the main aspects of day-to-day life, which is to say there's a whole lot of schoolin' involved. Classes are a fundamental part of any given day, and the assignments given out at the end of each is graded. Better grades let you pass to the next course, and failing grades force the need to take makeup classes on the side instead of using the free time to explore.

The school itself is huge, offering a number of student-focused stores to buy crafting materials, pre-made items and equipment like weapons and armor when the time comes to actually fight for any given materials. There's a school nurse, a teacher's lounge, library and more. Sure, it's fairly standard school stuff, but once you step off the school grounds and head into the wild, the game gets a little less conventional -- at least in terms of gameplay.
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