The first in the long-running Atelier series from Gust to be released into the western market, Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana was a different kind of RPG than most PlayStation gamers were used to.
The initial instalment in the Iris Saga, which included ‘Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny’ and ‘Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm’, Eternal Mana released to positive reviews in 2006 and holds up surprisingly well to this day. Featuring a light and breezy plot and an emphasis on sub-systems and item gathering, it managed to buck the trend of gloomy protagonists that had been a staple of the JRPG genre on the original PlayStation and had quickly become synonymous with the genre. Gust games were bright, vibrant and fun.
Visually, Eternal Mana is a dated but visually pleasing title. The gameplay uses 2D sprites that can run and jump around the space they are inhabiting from an overhead viewpoint. Limited use of 3D is employed in the world map, which rotates around the main character’s sprite in a manner similar to that of the original Grandia. These 2D assets hold up well but aren’t seamless in the way that later entries into the PlayStation 2 era’s sprites would be, with some pixilated haze around the edges of characters when overlaid onto 3D elements. Visual design is striking however, with bold colour choices and some intricate character designs that benefit from the large sprites to incorporate it all. Locations are interesting to explore and well designed around both the rare jump mechanic and the multitude of exploration enhancing powers that are unlocked through play.
The soundtrack here is pretty and for the most part relaxing to listen to whilst playing, with some tracks played for drama or comedy and managing to hit their mark when sequences take specific narrative turns. Sound effect are extremely well recorded and there’s a vast amount of subtly different ones to take into account the different spells, actions, item effects and location sounds the player will encounter. It’s an attractive audio package and does include some limited vocal snippets as well, with ‘barrell!’ quickly working its way into an iconic status for many.
The games plot follows wondering alchemist Klein Kiesling, who has recently received his grandmother’s journal and has set off on a journey of self-discovery to polish his Alchemy skills. He has a chance encounter with Lita, who is a fiercely independent girl who works as a Galgazit in the city of Kavoc. She meets Klein when she stumbles across him being attacked by a monster in the woods near town. Helping to chase it off, she insults his fighting ability, general intelligence and then leaves, eventually meeting Klein again and inviting him to become a monster hunter with her. This sets the standard for the pair’s dynamic and slowly over the course of gameplay the pair begin to build first a partnership and then slowly a romantic relationship. There’s a focus on exploring and uncovering the history of the world, unearthing alchemy recipies and uncovering secrets in Lita’s past, which drives the latter half of the game. Dialogue is well written and bounces along well between characters in a surprisingly natural banter given the amount of made up words the games world employs and the story arc is pleasingly well paced, ensuring that the motivation is always in place to go back for more.
Gameplay is where this title really shines however, as there is a series of interlocking systems in place that make for a wonderful balance. Exploration is supported by the inclusion of a jumping and element gathering mechanic from the get-go that sees the player whacking elements of the scenery with Klein’s staff to break that item and turn it into Mana for later use. These make for fun diversions but are also supported by summoning actions for spirits you’ve gathered who can support your exploration in different ways, one allows you to shoot background sprites for a bonus/collection mechanic that plays out like a game-wide scavenger hunt, whilst another forms a solid block that you can use as a stepping stone to jump to higher points on-screen. Individually these elements are nothing new, but collected together they make for an enjoyable experience. Gathering Mana plays directly into the battle and item synthesis (alchemy) systems. Synthesis can be used to create items of all kinds, from food to equipment as well as expendable items that any character can use in battle, and most of the best ones have multiple variations that players can discover accidentally through experimentation. Klein can also create items from scratch on the fly in battle with the Mana available, summoning bombs and other effects that make him something of a key element for every encounter. The battle system in Eternal Mana is turn-based and fairly traditional at first glance. Combat is tactical in that the party members can have their positions arranged in their half of the playing field before battle, and can be knocked back by some attacks. Each participant in the battle chooses an action from the ring of commands available and basic actions such as Attack, Skill and the use of pre-made Items are all present and accounted for. Every time a character levels up, he or she gains 3 points that can be added to the skills of the player’s choice and characters equipped with Mana spirits gain bonus skill points. Later in the game Mana is given an additional function when using Lita, but we won’t outline that in detail here as it would spoil some plot events. NPCs give out synthesis quests in exchange for various bonuses and items once made begin to appear in stores so that they can be purchased in a more traditional manner. This creates a world economy that feels perfectly in tune with the narrative and gameplay hooks presented.
Overall, there are few faults with the game’s first Western release and aside from some slight pacing issues at the games mid-point and some cracks showing in the visual design on HD screens, the title holds up extremely well indeed. Sadly it’s not seen a re-release and physical copies are getting harder to come by, making this a game you should pick up for your collection if your see it out in the wild without going into the extremes of ‘crazy money’ in a manner similar to Suikoden II.