Time for some more CRPG musings! Today’s topic: Mana Khemia: the Alchemists of Al-Revis.
This game here? This is the real deal. This is a motherforkin’ CRPG. Jeebus Crispies, where do I start? There is so much that I like about this game. Let’s just break down a list of cool things.
Cool Thing #1: the Structure. So, the premise of this game is students attending a school for alchemists. Play is structured into terms, which are further broken down into weeks. Each week ends with a story event, usually involving some sort of climactic challenge tied to that plot point. During that week, you attend classes that require you to learn things and face smaller challenges, preparing you for the big one ahead.
That’s some for-serious game design right there. This genre has needed for decades to innovate beyond the “talk to this guy, then fight some stuff so you can go talk to the next guy, then wander around aimlessly until you figure out who you have to talk to next” format for advancing the story. You’re never left floundering in MK. You always have an assignment to point the way, and the big story events start on their own.
But there’s more! In each week, you get a certain amount of free time. Each day of free time can be used to go on a side quest with one of the other main characters. Doing this increments an opaque “friendship” score with that character, which has a few mechanical effects (particularly impacting cooperative synthesis in the alchemy lab), and even some more profound impacts on the game. For instance,
One of the main guys doesn’t have a familiar spirit and is bitter about it. If you do enough (a lot) side quests with him, he finally acquires one and becomes a much more effective force in the game. He’s still an asshole, though.
**END SPOILER ALERT**
Very, very interesting to me is that there doesn’t seem to be enough free time to do all the side quests. I never finished the game, so I can’t say for sure, but based on the timeframe in which you’re supposed to be attending the school, and on how much free time you seem to get per term, I can’t see there being enough.
Cool Thing #2: Sprite-Based Art. Some punk-ass gamers think that sprite graphics are teh suxx0rs. Those people are punk-asses. Sprite graphics are nearly always superior to 3D rendered graphics. You know why? Because the artform is older and the techniques are more developed. 3D is just out of its silent film era; 2D has already had it’s Citizen Kane for a solid decade by now.
Cool Thing #3: the Initiative System. The basic structure of the combat system is your usual Japanese CRPG fare: you’ve got hitpoints and magic points; on your turn, you pick “fight,” “defend,” “magic,” or “item” from the menu; and so on.
What’s really interesting is the initiative system. Rather than just going from fastest down to slowest or using something like Square’s Active Time Battle, each character has a card on the screen, and at the beginning of the battle, the cards are shuffled and dealt out across the top of the screen (with speed stats as a factor but with a heavy random element too), with the first-acting character at the far right and the last on the far left. That’s right, you get to see, right up front, when each character will act in relation to the others. Then, when you act, you get shuffled back in somewhere at the back.
You’ve also got a “wait” command that lets you postpone your action and move your card anywhere you want towards the back of the deck, enabling you to perform combinations and synergy tactics effectively and predictably.
But there’s more! Some skills have delayed or recurrent effects. These effects are also represented by cards and shuffled in. For instance, the “Healing Field” spell will recur in three consecutive rounds, and you can look at the layout of cards at the top of the screen to see when it’ll go off.
This is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in a CRPG. It’s also begging to be appropriated for some table-top roleplaying.
Cool Thing #4: the Synthesis System. This being a game about alchemists, there’s of course some alchemy going on. You go into the field to gather ingredients, then mix ‘em up in your workshop to make items. You won’t be buying many items at the stores; just ingredients, for the most part. Your basic items have standard recipes, which is nothing new. What’s cool is that you can substitute similar ingredients for each other and get the same item with some different properties. For the most part, these properties aren’t mechanically relevant, but there are some assignments that require you to make a specific item with certain properties.
But you get to experiment even further. You can go further off the recipe and substitute ingredients that are kinda similar, and end up with a totally different item. You can literally sit in that workshop for hours just checking out all the different combinations you can do. Not only that, but you should experiment, because of…
Cool Thing #5: the Advancement System. Of all the cool things in this game, this one takes the cake. So, when you win fights, you get some points. Looks like the same old EXP all over again, yawn – but hang on. Those points don’t level you up. You don’t even have levels. What’s going on?
Here’s how it is: each character has a personalized advancement grid, and you spend the aforementioned points to buy abilities and stat boosts from this grid. You can think of it as similar to the grids on FFXI, except they’re different for each character. Another big difference is that buying a node on the grid doesn’t unlock it’s neighbors. Nope, in order to unlock the nodes at all, you have to engage in alchemical synthesis and make certain items. The requisite items also vary from character to character.
It’s a hard thing to describe, but it is one of the most exciting and most rewarding advancement systems I’ve ever seen. Every time you get home from an adventure, you’re champing at the bit to get back to the lab and experiment with all the new ingredients you’ve found, both to see what kind of cool shit you can make, and also to see what making those things has unlocked for your characters. Not only is experimentation fun in it’s own right, but it’s also mechanically meaningful, even if you’re making stuff that you don’t intend to use.
All you table-top gamers out there: imagine if Ars Magica’s advancement and laboratory stuff worked that way. Is your mind blown yet?
There’s a phrase that I use when a game or subject or author is really jazzing me, to the point where I can’t stop engaging with it for an extended amount of time – often months – because it’s proving so rewarding and keeps having more and more to offer. I say that it’s “eating my brain.” Due to the above, this is one of the few CRPGs to ever eat my brain. This puts it up there with William S. Burroughs, Dwarf Fortress, Carlos Castaneda, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and Captain Beefheart. (The only other CRPGs I can think of that ate my brain are Vagrant Story and Baroque, unless ADOM counts.)
Now, every silver cloud has its gray lining, so let’s stop gushing for now. I didn’t finish the game, and had no qualms about trading it for some RPG books, so there’s obviously a reason for that.
Bad Thing #1: I lost interest in the story. Happens to me a lot with these games. This one end up a bit too sprawling for me, in a sort of soap opera fashion, and I never really cared about any of the characters. I really liked the ghost girl, though, for some reason. But then you’ve got the obligatory silent/shy protagonist, the obligatory samurai-and/or-ninja girl character, the obligatory hotsy part-animal girl character, the obligatory bitter rival who nonetheless ends up on your side, and so on. And, again, the gorram cute squishy alien. Why must there always be a cute squishy alien introduced in the latter half of the game? They adopt him as a mascot, which is fun, but, dammit. What a way to alienate (bu-dum-splish) your audience.
Bad Thing #2: You know that whole synthesis thing I was gushing about just a few seconds ago? Well, there’s a problem with it. When you get into higher-level syntheses, there ends up being a lot of steps. I mean a lot of steps. You want to make thing X, but first you have to make thing Y, which requires that you make things A, B, and C first, and before you know it, you’re writing out a spreadsheet to figure out the total number of raw ingredients you need, and then you’re synthesizing old things for five minutes just to try out something new. In other words, it becomes a chore. That, and trawling old maps for ingredients ends up being this game’s version of grinding.
It’s still a damn good idea; it’s just a bit of a bad implementation. What they should have done is design it such that multi-step syntheses are consolidated into one step, indicating all the raw requirements and allowing you to do it all at once.
But don’t let those bad things sway you. This game is a giant among CRPGs. It presents some real and desperately needed innovations to the field. If you like CRPGs even a little bit, you must play this. I bought it on Amazon; you can too. It’s expensive, but now you know it’s worth it.