We go back to class with NIS America and Gust's latest RPG, Mana Khemia.
Published: February 7, 2008
Again, there's a structure to nearly everything, but most assignments (think of them like quests, really) allow you to collect the necessary bits of stuff in whatever order and by whatever means you'd like. Venturing out off-campus drops you into more open, interactive environments where things start to resemble the Atelier Iris games -- right down to chopping down grass with the Square Button to find hidden items, the ability to slash at the color-coded enemies to get the drop on them (AI fans will get the familiar Red/Blue/White colors for Hard/Easy/Pointless encounters, as well as enemy sizes to indicate toughness), and close attention paid to the passage of time.
Defeating enemies fast enough will net you a little bonus time, which is important because the time of day governs how difficult enemies are and at times their respective rewards; when nightfall comes, enemies get far, far tougher, so quickly scooting around the various environments as quickly and efficiently as possible is absolutely crucial.
So too is understanding the flow of battle. Again, like Gust's other games, the over-arching battle system is fairly familiar stuff. You've got a Burst Gauge that fills as you take or deliver damage, a card-based turn order at the top of the screen, and enemies that can be weakened and eventually stunned (turning their card red) if you pile on the attacks. Stunned enemies are completely open to attack and thus every hit is a critical. If you can successfully enter Burst Mode after filling the meter, you're given bonus objectives that, if pulled off, result in a huge attack that usually kills off most enemies but closes out Burst Mode in the process.
Rather than having your full party in the same row when the side-view battles kick off, a bit of Ar Tonelico was aped to create two different classes of fighters: Vanguard (the attackers) and Support (take a wild guess what they do). Tapping Support class characters lets them jump into deflect an attack or retaliate, and when coupled with chained support attacks, it's possible to let nearly the entire party dole out a little payback.
What's interesting about Mana Khemia's character growth, however, is that the spoils of battle aren't experience (though you'll still earn cash), but rather Attribute Points, which are used in the Grow Book, a sort of mash-up of the Sphere Grid or License Board from Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XII, with respects. Using alchemy to create new items opens up chunk of the Book, and from there AP can be spent to learn skills related to that item. We've only spent a bit of time with it, but we can already see the potential for OCD players to get completely hooked.
In fact, the same could be said for the whole of Mana Khemia. The judicious use of time, balancing exploration and the search for high-quality items that could earn higher marks in class and in turn open up more free time to explore means that you're almost always doing something for a reason, and the gusty idea to ditch familiar levels and experience points (at least in the traditional sense) looks like it's going to pay off big time.
No, Mana Khemia doesn't have the sprawling, epic 3D worlds of some of the bigger budget games, but in a very real sense developer Gust (and by extension NIS America, who are smart enough to bring the games over) are piggybacking off tried-and-true JRPG mechanics to once again deliver a game that's familiar, but actually attempts something new. That we've only spent a few hours with the game and can't wait to actually play more despite being neck deep in upcoming titles speaks volumes about how much potential the game has. Not bad for a system that's still going strong after eight years. We love you, PS2.