Mana Khemia 2 ~ Fall of Alchemy ~ – Staff Review

One year, four months, and thirteen days ago I gave my opinion on Mana Khemia ~Alchemists of Al-Revis~, a title I described as “the union of several good ideas other games had but never put together before.” It was a strangely-worded explanation of a strangely attractive game; none of what I played then was all that new or unique, but so many elements came together into a deceptively entertaining gestalt that, frankly, I didn’t care. Mana Khemia was not unique, and I was fine with that.

Mana Khemia 2 isn’t unique, either. And I’m fine with that, too.

Our story begins by choosing a protagonist, either the County Fair Sweetheart Ulrika or RPG Standards Board #485 “Boy with Tragic Past” Raze.  Our hero-of-choice enrolls at the formerly illustrious Al-Revis Acadamy, which has fallen on hard times as of late. (Not to mention literally falling out of the sky, when the Wind Mana what used to keep the campus aloft decided to go home, cut its hair, and get a real job.) In the interests of fiscal solubility, the Academy has opened its doors to students of standard combat, as the numbers of new alchemy students has declined, following a trend of magic seemingly leaving the world.  We also learn that a wager has been made between the Light Mana and Dark Mana, though they tend to bicker like an elemental Statler and Waldorf rather than give meaningful exposition.

You've slaughtered one too many innocent mobs, young man! Feel the wrath of the Puni King!
You’ve slaughtered one too many innocent mobs, young man! Feel the wrath of the Puni King!

But that’s the high-level, overarching stuff. And, for as drastic as the mentioned changes to the setting have been, it really takes a back seat to the day-to-day, interpersonal exchanges between your chosen protagonist and your teammates. Every PC has their own series of storyline events, letting you really get to know your partners-in-arms…

… and here comes the sugar crash. Y’see, despite getting to view the central events of the game from one of two perspectives (or both,  thanks to our old friend New Game +), the plot is largely insubstantial. I found myself largely ignoring the Light & Dark Manas’ concerns in favor of following the much-more-entertaining rivalry between the two teams. When a mid-game skirmish with my cross-class counterparts gets me more keyed up than the final battle (which I’m amazed even was the final battle), the game has story issues. I wanted a full-course meal, and instead received a continental breakfast and a stack of Little Debbie products. One’s filling but unsatisfying, and the other is sweet and delicious but ultimately insubstantial and known to be bad for your health.

So what saves Mana Khemia 2? Mechanically speaking, it’s a fantastically sound RPG. It takes its battle, alchemic item-creation, and PC development  systems directly from its predecessor, adds a fresh coat of paint and features, and presents them again in all their time-absorbing glory. The “Support” system returns to spice up the combat, allowing characters to swap in and out during attacks and defense to bring upon special effects, more damage, or activate the new “Intimate Strike” and “Intimate Guard” crossover techniques. Characters in support also recover SP, allowing them to “recharge” during long and involved battles (and there are a good number of those, to be sure).  The turn order is depicted by a circle of spheres at the top of the screen, further enabling the micromanagement of strategy.

Speaking of micromanagement, the alchemy system reprises its role as the driving force behind character development, with new weapons and armor crafted rather than purchased and each new recipe enabling further parameter increases in each character’s “Grow Book” (think of Final Fantasy X‘s Sphere Grid, but without arbitrary directional restrictions this time around). It’s a very fiddly but very engaging system, and can improve and refine the items you come upon in your travels for improved utility and/or straight-up profit. A new addition to this iteration is the school bazaar, wherein you can spend an off-week to display and peddle your alchemic concoctions, which will then rise in popularity to the point where other on-campus shops will want to get in on the action by selling the same products. This can be a fantastic way of reducing the time needed to farm for materials; just sell the item once and buy more of it the next week.

You can tell the plot-relevant monsters by their stylish headwear.
You can tell the plot-relevant monsters by their stylish headwear.

The sound is an area where the game really shines. Ken Nakagawa’s soundtrack (included in the Special Edition box) bounces from genre to genre with ease, reflecting and enhancing the game’s eclectic mix of characters and motives. The whirlwind tour kicks off with “My Silly Days,” a J-poppy tune with hints of Pachelbel’s Canon in the bassline which plays under the opening FMV and, in an instrumental version, during some boss fights. Other notables include “People Don’t Learn in the Workshop” and its upbeat oboe solo, the lumbering 5/4 “Giant Fairy” (Pepperoni’s theme), and “Sacred Saber,” a howling hard-rock monstrosity that will have certain gamers (myself included) wondering what a track that so obviously belongs in a Guilty Gear game is doing in a Gust RPG. Complimenting the music is a high-quality vocal performance from a cast studded with big names (Yuri Lowenthal, Johnny Yong Bosch, Vic Mignogna, Richard Epcar, et al.).  However, stealing the spotlight is Liam O’Brien as cute-mascot-slash-pimp-daddy Goto, spreading his dulcid tones all over everything until the entire game is covered in a thick, sensual layer of innuendo.

Graphically, the game tries to reach for the brass ring… and falls off the horse. The sprites are cute and emotive (despite their apparently sunken, black, 2-D-from-Gorillaz eyes) and function fine on maps, but in battle, things get to be a little choppy. Now, part of this may be a function of the huge, over-the-top attacks that puncuate the fighting, but it just goes to show that if you go large, you’d better be prepared to support it with smooth framerate.

Mana Khemia 2 isn’t unique, and I’m fine with that. Though the story feels flat and the graphics stutter a bit, as a mechanical construct and mental exercise, it’s quite enjoyable. 20-minute no-holds-barred manas-to-the-wall boss fights are well and good (especially in this combat system), but one wants a little more plot buildup to such scrums. Still, despite its apparent shallowness, Mana Khemia 2 does just about everything else right. And I’m fine with that.

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