By Ishaan . October 11, 2009 . 3:12pm
If there’s one thing Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy does really well, it’s keeping the player entertained. Right from the get-go, the game tries its best to keep showing you new elements of its alchemy system or characters or story at regular intervals so you always have something to look forward to — and while the game’s pacing is certainly part of its appeal, it’s these individual elements that really help define Mana Khemia 2.
The first aspect you’ll come to appreciate is the stellar voice-acting. And make no mistake; this is NIS America’s English dub I’m referring to — not the original Japanese voice-overs.
The story starts out with a quick recap of the events that took place before MK2. Al-Revis academy, a school for alchemists, was on the verge of bankruptcy before the intervention of Marta Sebesty, a member of the Al-Revis board. Sebesty convinced the principal of the institute, Zeppel Kriever, to opens its doors to a wider range of students in order to help it grow.
Zeppel is weak and indecisive and you’ll probably wonder how he got his job. Marta, on the other hand, is firm and has her head screwed on tight. She’s a businesswoman, and a damn good one at that. Through her impressive demeanor and decisions that undeniably yield good results, she guides Zeppel and helps restore Al-Revis to its former glory.
Mana Khemia 2 caught my attention right away because Marta Sebesty just so happens to be voiced by Mary Elizabeth McGlynn of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex fame. These initial talks between Zeppel and Sebesty that serve as the game’s first major scene were wonderfully and convincingly carried out by the voice-actors for the two characters and made me hope that the rest of the dialogue would be just as good. Luckily, it is.
Mana Khemia 2 is one of the funnier games I’ve played in a while and it owes that to its roster of interesting characters and their respective voice-actors. Yuri Lowenthal makes for a great sarcastic and irritable Raze, while Laura Bailey’s hillbilly take on Ulrika is hilarious. And these are just the two polar-opposite protagonists — the game’s supporting cast is equally varied and awesome, from the air-headed and carefree Etward to the high-and-mighty Lily to Gunnar Flay — Al-Revis’s combat teacher — who’s a little reminiscent of Mad-Eye Moody. These characters couldn’t possibly be any more mismatched, and watching them interact with each other is one of Mana Khemia 2’s many joys.
These scenes are made even better by the fact that they rely on an often hilarious script. Watching Etward’s impatience and airheaded tendencies get on the nerves of her peers, for instance, never stops being amusing. Lily, who tries her hardest to put on a facade of refinement and class, has her cover blown 9 hours into the game when her near-sexual fetsh for Punis — one of Mana Khemia’s monster types — is revealed. And while Lily and Et couldn’t be any more different from each other, they manage to get along just fine. The real rivalry is between Raze and Ulrika’s groups.
The encounters between Raze and Ulrika’s circle of friends are some of the best moments in the game. The first big showdown between the two rival factions results in a hilarious flinging of insults that range from "jerktown" to "fancypants" to "country bumpkin," followed swiftly by the game’s first truly fierce battle. Without the hilarious original script and NISA’s excellent localization, Mana Khemia 2 wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as it is.
The depth of the alchemy system is another part of what makes this game easy to recommend to RPG fans. There’s always something new to discover, whether it’s new alchemical formulae for items or new equipment, or even the jobs that you can take on during your free time. The alchemy is set up in a way that you can accidentally discover new combinations while trying to synthesize existing items. For example, you could toss in an ingredient at the wrong time and end up synthesizing a Refreshing Preservative instead of a regular Preservative. It lends a very natural feel to your alchemy studies and encourages you to experiment.
However, while accidents do make for some fun surprises, deliberate synthesis is what you’ll find yourself indulging in most of the time. You’ll want carefully crafted base items used in conjunction with the right party member assisting you with the process to ensure you make the most of your ingredients. This is important because the better your items are, the stronger your characters gets. For you see, characters in Mana Khemia 2 don’t exactly level up. Every character is assigned a collection of stat-raising cards, each pertaining to a item or piece of gear that you’ll need to synthesize before the card is usable. Depending on the quality of your item, you’ll be allowed to use the appropriate card to raise between 1-3 stats. Naturally, you’ll want to forge the best items possible as often as you can.
This isn’t easy, however. Since everything in Mana Khemia 2 eventually comes down to the quality of the base ingredients you use in synthesis, you’ll find yourself dabbling in a lot of alchemy. And in order to facilitate this, you’ll need to do a lot of item-hunting and gathering. Luckily, the game manages to make this entertaining, too, by allowing you to do it during character events, job assignments or major plot events that tie into the larger story. In short, it never really feels like a chore, and once an item isn’t as rare, you’ll probably be able to buy it somewhere on the Al-Revis campus anyway.
The school environment itself is a little reminiscent of the Harry Potter books. Flay’s combat class is a lot like "Defence Against the Dark Arts," and Tony’s alchemy class may as well be "Potions." The world, its inhabitants and its monsters are fleshed out well enough to really give you a feeling for what it’s like, studying at Al-Revis. As you walk around on campus, you’ll get to see the students going about their daily lives, indulging in idle banter and even shyly admiring their crushes from a distance.
There’s a lot to see and the game does a great job of spacing it all out and presenting it without overwhelming you. It took me about 8-10 hours just to get comfortable with MK2’s basics. You won’t ever find yourself in want for new things to try, and it really goes to show how much thought Gust put into the game’s design.
Even the soundtrack is catchy and fun to listen to. The music in the background never feels out of place and always does a great job of conveying the mood of the scene, whether it’s another of Flay’s dramatic class lectures or the upbeat battle theme. These are the kind of tunes you’ll find stuck in your head even hours after you’ve stopped playing.
Mana Khemia 2 isn’t flawless though. Its art is where it stumbles, which is unfortunate, since a lot of people tend to judge games by how they look. While the character portraits look great and the sprites are very well-animated, the backgrounds don’t hold up as well.
You’ll come across a lot of obvious tiling and low-res or blurry textures. The UI looks a tad unpolished and takes some getting used to as well. I found myself quite annoyed by it initially, as I couldn’t tell how a piece of equipment was going to effect my stats until I actually bought it from the store, among other issues (this ceased to be a problem once I learnt that you acquired most gear via synthesis, not by purchasing it from the student store). It’ll be interesting to see if the PSP version is any different.
Still, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Mana Khemia 2 to anyone that likes RPGs. There’s a lot of depth to wade through and a lot of fun to be had with the game. I love its alchemy system and the unique way in which it approaches character strengthening. And with two separate protagonists to choose from — both of whom have varied campaigns with different backstories — as well as a third route that opens up when you complete the first two, Mana Khemia 2 has a lot to offer.
If you’ve been dissatisfied with the flavourless tech-demos or clichéd grind-a-thons that pass for RPGs nowadays and are looking for something to remind you of why you love the genre, Mana Khemia 2 could very well fill that role.