Full name: Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana
Released: May 2005
: Nippon Ichi
/ NIS America (http://www.nisamerica.com
I don't really play Final Fantasy these days. There is a limit on how many times I can save the world with my hero of destiny, encounter random monsters several thousand times, collect all ten thousand foozles just to get that special widget, and hit Attack -> Magic -> Ice 3 over and over again. But if you haven't burned out on that sort of thing yet, then Atelier Iris, the current "issue" of the Atelier Series, is an excellent choice.
Why? Several reasons.
First are the excellent production values. The game is presented in traditional 3/4ths overhead, with highly detailed anime sprites for the characters. All environments and characters are a joy to behold for those who prefer colorful, detailed art over the latest in anisotropic filtering, bumpmapping and high poly-counts (which is to say, you won't find any here). The important dialogues have full voice in both English and Japanese, and the English translation is above reproach - many in-jokes for gamers and fans of anime alike can be found. The dialogue is presented in a "talking heads" format with even more detailed art. Finally, all systems (combat, movement, crafting) are simple to grasp - but if you miss something, there is built-in online help (with full voiceovers!) and even a hint system for the next task you're supposed to be doing. All of this makes Atelier Iris easy to get into and hard to leave.
Second, it provides enough content for a full meal or a 12-course banquet - and leaves it up to you to decide which you want. You can simply follow the story and finish the game quickly (relatively speaking), or you can attempt to complete all the sidequests and minigames if so inclined. There are multiple collection minigames (items, monsters and spells) and several crafting minigames (items, weapons and ... cooking) to fill your plate.
Third, the entertaining dungeon crawling. As you gain new powers, you actually gain abilities to use on the dungeon maps. At the beginning you can only eliminate a certain type of obstacle - useful for finding new paths. Later, you may get an ability to destroy more types of obstacles, or perhaps to create a stepping stone for yourself to reach higher ground. This adds variety to the inevitable backtracking (visiting the same places over and over at various points throughout the game) present in these types of games - now backtracking is actually useful. Not to mention the exploration itself yields elements needed for the constant generation of magic items - the Alchemy magic - involved in the game.
Finally, the pacing is very, very good. Even though the game world still revolves mainly around you, there are enough things happening each time you return from a mission / quest to make the world seem alive. Passers by comment on the recipes you've made, all characters have personality (including shopkeepers) and reactions that correspond to the on-going plot. The world truly does a good job of involving you in it.
The game is entirely story-based; you will gain abilities, friends and items throughout. Klein, one of the few "Alchemists" left in the world, seeks to regain the lost Alchemy spells; and there just so happens to be an ancient abandoned city around, rumoured to contain many of them. You meet a spunky girl with claws and a smart-aleck sleazeball crossbowman - hijinks ensue (you actually meet a few more folks, but this is your starting party). Saving the world is sure to happen at some point.
At your disposal will be the varied attacks of you and two of your party members (only 3 can fight at a time, although all are represented in cutscenes). Some will be stronger at their special skills (which you gain throughout the game), some at basic attacks, and of course only Klein can use Alchemy. The combat leans towards the casual, letting you change party members at will (without losing a turn) and allowing you to run away from nearly every encounter - the developers of Atelier Iris really don't want you to worry too much about combat.
Fights can occur on the world map - although most places are too near each other for that to happen much - and on the adventure/dungeon maps. These latter are packed with loot, puzzles and traps, some of which you won't be able to disarm or solve until later. The use of special abilities (absorb, destroy, stepping stones, etc) spices up the dungeon crawling a bit, although it's still done in a very casual manner - you won't have to wrack your brain to solve a puzzle here.
Finally there are the minigames - although they all have slightly different rules, they chiefly consist of having a certain variety of items available, and then combining them according to recipes. The clever bit is that you can substitute for items that you don't have - for example, using chili powder instead of wasabi powder in a fish dish will result in a spicier, more (or less) agreeable dish. I am not making this up, and it's surprisingly entertaining, especially once the townspeople start commenting on the dishes or items you've created. Deadly odor seems to be a frequent result of my dishes.
Between the combat, the story, and the minigames, Atelier Iris provides near-constant rewards.
Now the bad ...
And it's not really bad, as such. It's just that while all of these elements are fun, none of them are particularly deep. Number-crunching tacticians will find little here to amuse them; those looking for epic battles should look elsewhere as well. Intricacies of combat and minigame systems? Detailed character stats design and micromanagement? No, not here. Heck, the characters don't even display their equipped weapons on combat (defaults are used). All the dev effort instead went into providing a seamless and detailed storytelling experience.
Bottom line is, Atelier Iris doesn't do anything new or hot. It does however provide a solid, classic and polished old school RPG experience that hits all the right spots and gives plenty of warmfuzzies to fans of such. If you hanker for the olden days of Final Fantasy VI (aka III) when gameplay triumphed over graphics, cameos and asides were frequent, and there was a ton and a half of content, definitely pick this one up.