Not counting Ar Tonelico, this was my first Gust game and definitely my first Atelier Iris game. Coming into this game, I knew that there would be an emphasis on alchemy and item creation. Just from screen shots alone, I knew the game would appeal to anime-humor fans like me.
First off, battle seems to be the usual turn based side-view affair that most RPGers are familiar with. When it’s a character’s turn, a radial menu pops up and the player can choose from a few options: regular attack, skill attack, defense, or using an item. There’s a line of "cards" at the upper left screen that symbolizes the order of turns and taking a turn moves the current character’s card to the end of the deck. Choosing "defense" for a character lets you put that character’s card anywhere in the deck. I like being able to see battle order in this way since it makes it easy to plan out which enemies to gang up on. The two characters I started out with are pretty basic: Edge, who is the hard-hitter, and Iris, the alchemist and magic user.
Battles and exploration takes place on different worlds and it seems that after a set amount of time, the world can "kick" people out through dimensional gates back to a forest near town. Grand Phantasm is different from other Atelier Iris games because of its quest-based system. There’s really only one town in the game and the player will spend the majority of his/her non-world time in town in either the workshop, where things can be created, or in the Guild Hall, where there’s a bulletin board for new quests.
The story is progressed by picking up quests, which is a simple job of going to the bulletin board, accepting the quest, and then warping to whatever world is necessary for the quest. Now that I don’t have all the time in the world, I prefer quest systems to the more traditional "Wander around all over the world" system of games like Final Fantasy. It’s like an annotated RPG — more focused on the endpoints than the journey.
Entering a world starts a timer, symbolized by an hourglass on the right side of the screen. When time runs out, fog comes onto the screen and players are kicked out of the world. There seems to be plenty of time to get main objectives done, but I think as the game progresses it’ll be harder and harder to explore under the given time-frame. Luckily, enemy encounters are not random because enemies can be seen on the isometric exploration screen. The enemies are also helpfully color-coded. For example, an enemy that’s red will be at a higher level than the members in your party. It’s also possible to gain the upper hand in battle by striking the enemy first when you encounter it in the exploration screen, kind of like in the Mario and Luigi RPGs.
One of the first quests I accepted required me to make use of Iris’s alchemy skills. According to Iris, alchemy is a dying science and it’s hard to come up with recipes on the fly. Fortunately, there are "hot spots" (symbolized by an icon over the area) in certain areas of the world that can be used for Iris to come up with ideas that help her with creating items. Thus, exploring a world isn’t just about fulfilling quest requirements, but also about finding new ideas as well as materials to create needed items.
Visually, Grand Phantasm looks the same as the previous two Atelier Iris games. Dialog is done through detailed still images that look like they could have come out of an anime series. I would classify the music as generic techno-opera, which isn’t bad if you don’t mind that stuff. The voice acting could be worse.
The game has a decent introduction to the basics of the world, which beats reading the manual any day. While I have never played any of the other Atelier Iris games, I felt at home with most of the game mechanics and I would feel comfortable recommending this game to anyone who wants a stab at this alchemy-heavy anime-inspired series.