Hot on the heels of Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero?
(one of the most exciting 2D platformers in years), NIS America is back with their next exciting portable adventure game. Unfortunately, Mana Khemia: Student Alliance is definitely not worth getting excited about. This is a shoddily thrown together port of a so-so adventure game with annoying characters, ugly graphics and a serious amount of technical problems. Outside of a few interesting ideas, Mana Khemia proves to be nothing more than just another mediocre PSP role-playing game.
Mana Khemia starts out strong enough; it involves a Harry Potter-style plot where you, an incredibly old sounding teenager, transfer to a new school that will hopefully teach you to harness your inner magical abilities. After meeting with his new friends and the quirky faculty, our hero is off to collect items, combine recipes and, most importantly of all, settle in to his brand new surroundings.
Thanks to the game's ambiguous box art and lengthy introduction, it took me the better part of an hour to even figure out what kind of game this was. Having not played the original game (2008's Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis), I wasn't sure what I was getting myself in for. Was this a puzzle game? Would it be a role-playing strategy game? What would it be? Unfortunately I quickly discovered that this was, like most Japanese adventure games that make it to these shores, a traditional turn-based role-playing game.
With very few exceptions, if you've played a classic Final Fantasy game, then you will feel right at home with Mana Khemia. Where the game sets itself apart is when you are allowed to mix and match complex ingredients to create all sorts of spells and items. The whole game revolves around finding, winning and buying different ingredients and then combining them to create bigger and better weapons. As I played through the early moments of this game I really felt like there were a lot of good ideas here and I couldn't wait to explore them further.
But the game didn't want me to do that. For whatever reason, I felt like the game was fighting me every step of the way. For one thing, the game requires you to go out on these ill-conceived missions that aren't always real clear or detailed. Worse yet, it doesn't take long before these repetitive quests start to feel more like busywork. You're constantly asked to go back and forth from school gathering items, which never feels especially important or epic. The game's turn-based combat is about as generic as they come, and any hint at originality is stamped down almost immediately when you realize that it will involve a lot of pointless work for you. Before long I found that the very thing I was supposed to be excited about - the game's crafting system - was making me hate the entire experience.
But as repetitious as the core gameplay is, it's nothing compared to the game stopping load times. If ever there was a poster child for how to not use load screens, Mana Khemia would be it. I'm pretty sure that if you add up my time playing this game, I spent much more time watching load screens than I did actually playing the game (or reading the poorly written dialog). You start the game up. Loading screen. You go to look at your map. Loading screen. You go to the Faculty Lounge. Loading screen. You now walk to the door of the faculty lounge. Loading screen. You talk to the teach and ... well, you get the idea. Just to give you an idea, to go from the Faculty Lounge to the outskirts (where you can fight and hunt) you will have to endure four different load screens.
And we're not talking about short load screens, either. Many of these load screens are twenty or more seconds long. A loading screen every once and awhile would be fine, obviously the game needs to load every so often. But the places they put these lengthy load screens seems to break the flow of the story. Worse yet, they turn an already slow game into one of the most boring experiences I have ever had with the PSP.Unfortunately it's not just the terrible load screens that plague this game's narrative. As you play through the game you'll discover that the whole engine seems to sputter about as if it's in serious need of repair. When you are having a simple conversation the game will just stop for a few seconds to think, and then start back up. This also seems to happen when I'm just running around the incredibly cramped corridors. The game will just stop for a few minutes, as if it needs some time to catch up with the rest of the game. It also happens when you're jumping, moving from one room to another, entering battles, looking up the status in the menus and so on so forth. I'm never doing anything exciting, so, there's no reason for the game to feel so fragile. How is it possible that Rockstar Games can stream an entire Liberty City and Mana Khemia can't even fully load a single room?
And if the load times and constant disc access pause isn't annoying enough, the game also has terrible frame rate problems and, even worse, game breaking bugs. In all of the years that I have been playing PSP games, Mana Khemia was the first game to actually lock up on me. If the frustration of having the game break in front of your eyes wasn't bad enough, just wait until you realize that how long it has been since you last saved. The game gives you a place to save, but getting there can often be a hassle and wading through the load screens sucks.
There's more to the game that I haven't mentioned. I haven't complained yet about the horrendous graphics, a very odd combination of blown-up low res graphics and beautiful hand-drawn art. I haven't complained about the game's horrible voice acting (where everybody sounds about thirty years older than they should be). I haven't mentioned the cliche plot, which seems to chug along as a snail's pace. I haven't complained about how generic each and every enemy in this game is. Or how the game's big additions (such as a "jump start") is pointless and lame. I haven't mentioned any of these things because when it comes right down to it these things don't matter.
When your game is this difficulty to play and enjoy, it doesn't matter how great the graphics are. When you have to put up with a loading screen every few seconds, you aren't going to care how good the story is. When the game literally freezes on you, you aren't going to care if the voice acting was good. None of this matters because this game is practically unplayable in its current state. The fact that these problems also persist is annoying and lame, but it is not what breaks the game. It's just more reason for you to never, ever play Mana Khemia: Student Alliance.