Mana Khemia 2 starts out with a fairy tale-like narration. It tells the story of Al-Revis Academy and its fall from grace. Al-Revis was a famous school known for producing some of the best alchemists in the world. Due to a decline in the number of capable teachers, it fell from great heights (literally!) to an institution on the verge of bankruptcy.
Zeppel Kreiver, the current principal of Al-Revis is at a loss for what to do, and is mulling the situation over when he is approached by Marta Sebesty, a member of the board, who brings with her a proposal to revamp the academy’s infrastructure. With few other choices available to him, Zeppel agrees to give her radical ideas a try. Instead of solely admitting students with a knack for alchemy, Al-revis opens its doors to anyone with enough money, regardless of talent. The administration introduces courses for combat, government affairs and other useful streams of education.
Slowly, Al-Revis starts to generate profits once more and returns to its once-renowned state. The catch being that, while the academy has more students than ever, the number of alchemy students has declined sharply. Like any good businesswoman, Marta suggests discontinuing the alchemy course from the following year, much to Zeppel’s dismay. In a desperate attempt — which initially sounds very much like a hit order — to change her mind, Zeppel enlists the help of Gunnar Damm, an Al-Revis alum from the first game.
Shortly thereafter, the new term begins at Al-Revis and you are thrown into the shoes of either Razeluxe Meitzen or Ulrika Mulberry, depending on which you prefer. Razeluxe is an interesting kid with an aptitude for combat who was taken under the care of a wealthy family, while Ulrika is…a hillbilly. An awesome hillbilly, I might add.
I picked Razeluxe — the manual, unfortunately, made no mention of Ulrika’s hillbillyness — and was given a short introduction to his character. Raze, an orphan, lived with his grandfather as a child. Once Raze’s grandfather was unable to continue working and support the both of them, he was sent to live with the wealthy Valendorf family, friends of his grandfather’s. There, Raze established a close relationship with Lily Valendorf and her maid, Whim, both of whom like to unbutton his pants and stare at his bone spear while he’s asleep (no, I’m not kidding).
Following the lengthy introduction to Razelux, Lily and Whim, and the Al-Revis campus, you’re asked to visit your first class, which just so happens to be "Art of Combat," taught by Principal Zeppel’s pal, Gunnar. The game then eases you into its menus and alchemical systems with a few short tutorials, while you run around campus and listen to characters echo your thoughts — "This school is so big." or "That chick behind the counter is kind of cute."
Once you listen to Gunnar’s lecture, you’re given your first assignment. Assignments are the game’s form of quests as well as how it passes the time in between days. They involve exploration, doing battle, gathering ingredients for alchemical purposes and so on.
I’ve never played a Gust RPG before, so Mana Khemia 2’s battle system surprised me. For one thing, there are no random battles. You get to see enemies on the map, which is great. Once you come in contact with an enemy, a symbol depicting the PS2 controller’s face buttons appears, prompting you to press either X, Triangle, Circle or Square. If you hit the right button in time, you get to make the first move in battle.
Once battle begins, it’s a standard turn-based affair. Your party can consist of six members: a maximum of three Vanguards who lead the frontline assault and the rest as Support Characters, whom you can switch in and out with the Vanguards at any time. SCs can also be used to perform Support Actions and if you perform more than two of these in a row, you can perform a Chain Attack for high damage. Furthermore, dealing damage to enemies efficiently by exploiting their weaknesses fills up a gauge, which ,when full, activates Unite Mode. In this mode, your Support Characters are capable of healing you faster and you gain access to more moves like Intimate Actions and Finishing Strikes.
It sounds complicated but Mana Khemia 2 is pretty good about easing you into its systems. Support Characters, for instance, aren’t even introduced until the second chapter and battles for the entirety of Chapter 1 are a fairly straightforward affair. The real differentiating factor that sets Mana Khemia 2 apart from other JRPGs right from the start is how you level up.
Or to be more precise, how you don’t.
In Mana Khemia 2, you’re attributed with Ability Points and an increase in HP/SP instead of XP at the end of every battle. Instead of leveling up, you’re required to raise your stats and skills by using the Grow Book, a menu that unlocks a variety of cards resulting from item synthesis. These cards can have effects that range from increasing your physical or magical attack and defense to giving you new skills. In other words, if you want to build a well-rounded character, be prepared to indulge in lots and lots of alchemy and item synthesis.
Alchemy is the entire point of Mana Khemia 2. Sure, you can buy basic goods and equipment at the student store, but if you don’t want to get your ass kicked — and the difficulty ramps up quickly after Chapter 1 — you’ll be practicing tons of it. There’s no "falling of alchemy" in this game: everything from armour to accessories to weapons to concoctions required for class needs to be synthesized using alchemy. And there’s none of that equivalent exchange thing in MK2 either. You want something synthesized, go out and find the items you need to create it.
Furthermore, when you’re synthesizing something, the attributes of the end result can vary greatly, depending on which party member performs the synthesis and the change in its Ether Level, which is controlled by the timing of when you throw each ingredient in. There’s a lot to learn and a lot of customization possible. Your grades in class will depend on how well you synthesize (among other things) so you might find yourself reloading your game every now and then to synthesize a better quality item.
Good grades are useful because an "A" nets you more points than a "B" (or lower) does. If you keep your grades high enough, you’ll be able to skip class and instead, spend your valuable time on taking up jobs, earning money and getting to know your peers. And getting to know your peers is one of Mana Khemia 2’s joys that we’ll be discussing in our next playtest.