So I noticed while I was playing Cross Edge
that there were a few characters from the NIS series that I had never seen before. Well recently I got my hands on Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy and discovered that the characters from Cross Edge made up one half of the main cast for Mana Khemia, and I wish whoever they had used to write the dialog for Mana Khemia would have put their hands in to Cross Edge too after playing this surprising little title. Another one of the yearly updates to the Alchemy/Atelier series from developer Gust, you would be a little hard pressed to tell this apart from their previous games. Especially when you consider that Gust has a very distinct 2-D art style that makes their games look better suited for a PS1 era title rather than a late PS2 game. And whether or not that's a deal breaker for you is really a personal preference, for me it's all about the game play, which is by and large the part where Mana Khemia 2 succeeds.
Right out of the gate, Mana Khemia 2 is all about building on its predecessor and making it a better experience, and this is made apparent by the inclusion of not one, but two main heroes. Ulrika, the happy-go-lucky and sometimes complete ditz heroine, and Razeluxe, the male protagonist bound to a life of servitude to a totally overbearing spoiled brat who totally has the hots for him but would never admit it. If the teenage angst and saccharin doesn't kill you, then some of the more sadistic characters will. For example, Ulrika's got a friend who specializes in curses, or incantations as she would have you believe, and of course she needs someone to test them on. Or if you're Raze, then you'll need to be on the lookout for teachers. The cast is seriously all over the place in this game and they really don't seem to take it too seriously with the dialog here considering how dirty it gets sometimes. The story is also incredibly light-hearted and amusing, and if you've got the right sense of humor then this game will definitely put a smile on your face.
While this multi-character angle offers a lot of character interaction, it also gives you two paths of a game to complete with much overlap. Yes, if you want to completely finish this game you're going to be playing it twice, with a different set of characters. The upside being that you can carry items over between characters, making the second playthrough much faster. The problem here is getting through the game the first time around. The first adventure will clock in at about forty hours, and a lot of this is spent putting together alchemy recipes to get items for your second playthrough. There is also a ton of dry segments where nothing is going on in the story, and you're just exploring, trying to find ingredients, that are unfortunately out of your reach until much later in the game, but that doesn't stop the game from giving you recipes you couldn't possibly hope to complete at your current state, whatever it may be.
Having completed this game once already with one character, I feel inclined to go back and play again from the other angle, and the game did a pretty good job of crossing the character paths enough that you get a few ideas about the other team and their motivations and interest me enough that I would want to play it. But it's unfortunate that the entire game has to be experienced twice to get the full story. If the game had not included the option to carry items over from the previous playthrough then this game would be receiving a much lower score, because that really is the biggest fault in the title, is working with the cumbersome alchemy system that takes quite a while to get the results you want. Couple that with items that can only be made after finding items in the other character's story line and you can see where this gets old quite quickly.
Being an RPG, combat is obviously a big deal, and thankfully Mana Khemia 2 doesn't disappoint in this regard. Fights are speedy and have a good wrinkle of strategy to them. Similar to a lot of titles out there, you have a queue in which turns occur, and attacks will alter your place and the enemy's place in the queue. Strategy plays a big part in attempting to delay your opponents as much as possible. You've also got a “Unite” system in place to swap characters in and out at opportune times, allowing you to take advantage of special skills that each characters have. As you battle you will fill up a gauge which activates Unite Mode and allows access to your character's specific skills for attacking and defending. One character for instance will be able to restore a bunch of hit points after defending, while another will steal all the items your enemies are holding. This battle system is quite functional and is never dull, and when your game has a battle system where I never feel the need to run away because I am enjoying myself, then you know it's a pretty choice title. The only downside being that due to the frenetic pace of battle, the camera is all over the place for dynamic shots, which at times can be a little jarring considering how quickly the action is going on screen, but overall is a minor quibble.
Then there is the alchemy system that I talked about earlier. Quite possibly the most dull and time consuming aspect of this game. Basically you are tasked at various points in the game to participate in classes which teach you all about alchemy and battle. And the alchemy really winds up being the focal point. Without alchemy you cannot advance through this game. Alchemy is the source for all your consumable weapons, items, and armor, and rather than level up, you grow by creating items and dumping ability points in to a “Grow Book” where you trade points for stats and new skills. In order to get the most out of the items you must make them to a certain quality. In doing so you'll be sent on wild goose chases for the rarest of items to combine with your helper's skills to make these items, and after much trial and error you'll succeed. But the time spent to get there is long and arduous and at times makes the game feel like a much slower experience than it really is.
So, if you've followed previous NIS and Gust releases then you know what to expect from the graphics department. It's a 2-D title with some very dated looking visuals, but the characters and locales attempt to compensate for this by being quite varied and colorful. When you get in to battle things look a little different with wild character abilities and larger sprites and better detail. Overall I liked the character designs much more than the first Mana Khemia title, but they are still a little bit over the top. That giant bell on Et's neck, pass. Audio is a mixed bag when it comes to the music, it's mostly a rock affair while in battle, and the driving riffs at times just grate on the ears, and then there are the mellow ditties that are also forgettable while out traveling. There is also a heavy use of steel drum which really I didn't expect, and could really go either way on, a little variety was nice. The voice acting stars a lot of familiar individuals, so if names like Johnny Bosch or Liam O'Brien are on your radar then you'll be pleased with the acting. There is also the inclusion of a Japanese vocal track for those who are in to that sort of thing.
Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy is a pretty solid RPG title. It's not going to win any awards or dethrone Persona 4 from the top of my RPG pile, but it does a good job at providing a lighthearted story with some likable characters which is quite the opposite from a lot of games these days who just have an asshole protagonist with some sort of amnesia and the entire female cast throwing themselves at him. And it's not to say that that's a bad thing, but it is good to shake it up every now and again, especially when one of the new characters is a ninja who likes to go around dressed as a stuff animal and captivate women, yeah pretty off the wall stuff here. The combat system is a lot of fun and makes some good strides towards breaking up your normal turn based affair. If you're hankering for an RPG then this is a good title to pick up, especially when you consider that there is no progress on the next-gen consoles at getting us some decent titles in this category. Give Mana Khemia 2 a chance when you're picking up game boxes at your local game emporium, there isn't much out there right now, but this title will keep you going through that drought to Final Fantasy XIII.
So it's not quite the stuff of legends, but it's a solid game that has a great cast of lovable characters and a strong battle system, two of the biggest linchpins of any RPG.