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// review by SoyBomb

It's like there's a Puni in my pants and everyone's invited!

You know... I've played many, many RPGs over the course of my lifetime thus far. They have ranged from ones that I truly drool over and praise to games that have caused frustration and mental anguish (yes, I'm looking at you, Final Fantasy VIII -- you were a decent game but your formula destroyed my brain). Brilliance is something that I love to bask in, yet sometimes even a brilliant video game can be a tad overwhelming. That's where the element of pure simplicity within an RPG shines -- not having to wrap your mind around a thousand different elements of customization and just focusing on enjoying a light-hearted quest. I had been waiting for one of those to come along for quite some time, and so when Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana graced my screen, I was quite surprised at what I was witnessing. Surprised, yes, because it was exactly what I was looking for.

Indeed, Atelier Iris is, above all, a straightforward RPG. There really isn't much mystery or aimless wandering to be found. Unlike many games, you are given a route on where to go next and what to do next: Point A to Point B... then on to Point C, of course! And if you forget, you can always get a pretty damn direct hint on the fly. That's refreshing, to be honest, though perhaps a tad simplistic to the avid RPG fanatic. But there's more than just a straight line of events; there is a good selection of side-quests to keep you entertained and off the regularly beaten path, usually to help secondary characters in their own journey towards happiness... or to go inside a giant slime creature... either way, it's good. As for the storyline itself, it does suffer a bit from the typical "madman who desires enough power to take over the world" cliché, and that was already getting old years prior to this game's development, but everything else plotwise has its own charm. Its delivery is an even more enticing point of order: through the expertly translated and amicably witty dialogue, you can really connect with each of the characters' styles and mindsets as they traverse the world together in search of answers and adventure. You'll get in touch with Klein, the lovable alchemist hero who is almost painfully oblivious to the affection of the female persuasion for most of the game; Lita, the tough-willed female lead whose thighs are occasionally the butts of jokes; Delsus, the hapless womanizer who has a bit more to his story than meets the eye; Norn, the catgirl whose voice I can't stand; and Arlin, the cryptic character with a mission of which only he is fully aware. Character development, albeit a tad sluggish and disjointed in pacing, is a crucial element in Atelier Iris, as indicated by its many, many, MANY little cutscenes. On the plus side, there is plenty of humor abound, much of it surrounding Delsus' womanizing and item collection agent Lector wanting to touch Norn's cat ears. Sexy scandal is in the foreground!

Amidst the countless little quests you must follow, you must engage in battles. I know, I know, it comes as quite a shock -- battles in an RPG, how absurdly Dickensian! -- but they are present and will take up a good chunk of your time, though not as much as in grindfests such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games. Battles, entered randomly by wandering about in the field or in specific areas (though generally not towns, unless there's a boss battle ready to ensue), follow the general pattern of the RPG. You and your party have the ability to attack, defend yourselves, use an item, or try to run like hell. Each character also is entitled to their own special attacks, be they physical or elemental in nature; these usually require Mana Points (the Atelier Iris equivalent of Magic Points or Ability Points in pretty much every other RPG on the planet). Some of them are more useful than others. For example, Arlin's Double attack, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like (a double attack), and serves to deal more damage and is crucial to certain boss battles. Norn's "Turn 2 Candy", on the other hand... delicious, but not always worthwhile. And don't forget the RPG rule: the more you battle, the stronger you get, thanks to experience points gained after battle. And the designers opted not to be total goons by giving characters not alive or not present at the end of the battle half the experience points of everyone else. That's better than nothing (Square Enix, take a note on this...)! Then there's primary character Klein: he can create specialty items on the fly using his awesome alchemy powers. More on alchemy... The battle system may be cute and all, but the real heart of the game (and frankly, the soul of every Atelier game out there... not to mention the Mana Khemia titles) lies in alchemy, the art of synthesizing items using elements. As you wander about the various areas, you get to use your enchanted staff of sorts to essentially "suck up" parts of your surroundings, be they rocks, shrubs, or even tasty baskets of apples. Everything is made up of elements, such as Water, Air, Fire, Stone, Holy, etc. which are used as ingredients for different items, the recipes for which you can snag from colourful chests as you progress. So in battle (and outside of battle), you can synthesize and use items to your whimsy, including ones to boost your status, shield you from harm, or raise your health. But you can't do it alone. You need the help of little magical friends called Manas to assist in the process. Each Mana has their own elemental specialty, and they can help you develop the goods you need to survive in this harsh world. Just don't let their health or spirit get low, or they won't like you or want to help you. That's how it goes. To be honest, before playing, I was worried that the alchemy system would be overwhelming, but in actuality, it's quite simple and more fun than you can shake a big stick at.

Manas have more uses that just that. They can also be useful outside of alchemy, as they all have various powers they can offer Klein & Co. in the field, such as healing, gathering enemies if the need arises to level up more quickly, and even just to give you a simple stepstool for reaching high ledges. There are many powers that they can offer, and most of them, just like other in-game functions, come with a handy tutorial to watch and learn from. Furthermore, characters can "equip" Manas for additional stat boosts and other fun advantages. Lastly, Manas can also help in recharging Lita. Without giving too much information away for fear of plot spoilage, Lita's ability to stay alive dwindles the more she fights, so Mana power is required to "re-charge" her life force. This is the first time I've really ever had to revitalize a character other than healthwise... and it's a bit irritating. Luckily, Lita has a shelf life of more than a few battles, so it's not as though you'll be constantly running to the recharging machine (though you'll end up there for various plot reasons anyhow, so you might as well get charging).

You can also synthesize items in various shops, and although I suppose you could consider creating items through synthesis in this manner optional, it does add more charm to the game and more items to your arsenal. If you have the right ingredients, some shopkeepers will let you use alchemy to create new products for their store in hopes of attracting more customers. You also get to build bonds with the shopkeeper, which subsequently leads to more opportunities for new items! It's a win-win! I spent a large amount of time here as well, enjoying the fun things you can make. Oh, Bunny Ears... Developing items is also crucial for the sake of showing off to Lector, the item collector. The more items you boast having, the more extra features you'll unlock on the game's main menu, such as character profiles, a gallery, and the ability to listen to game music (plus she gives you money for each new item you snag).

One thing you'll notice as soon as you start playing is that, unlike all the other games being squeezed out for the PlayStation 2 at the time, this one's in 2D. No, you didn't fall face-first into a wormhole and spring up in the 16-bit era. They really are 2D sprites. And even the backgrounds in most areas are not really three-dimensional, but rather hand-painted illustrated art. It's perpetually awesome, as each area is vibrant in colour and rich in culture. It reminds me of the King's Quest PC games from the early 1990s, where hand-drawn backgrounds practically gave the games their edge. But your sprites do travel in eight directions, so don't feel as though it will look like garbage. Everything is drawn well, including the sprites... especially Lita with her cute girl thighs! Er... anyway, the music is also fairly catchy in this game, and I had a few of the tunes wedged into my head during play. As for the voiceovers, they're tolerable for the most part, except for Norn the catgirl. Dear goodness, please shut her up. When she freaked out over something surprising, I was concerned my television screen was going to shatter. Too bad she didn't die in this game. Damn. Oddly enough, on dozens of occasions, a character's speech would simply cut off early; luckily, I could also read what they were saying on-screen, but this is quite a nasty bug that should have been caught. After posting this problem on a game forum, I discovered that I was not the only person to experience this, so...shame on you, NIS America. Test your games more before releasing them to market.

Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana isn't particularly unique in any way, but all its elements are in solid alignment, leading to a satisfying adventure that is just the right difficulty level for a casual loafer like myself. It's actually the sixth in the series of Atelier games, but the first to be released outside of Japan -- and definitely not the last, with Atelier Iris 2 & 3 for the PlayStation 2 and Atelier Annie for the Nintendo DS, plus the first 3D entry in the series, Atelier Rorona, for the PlayStation 3 coming in Fall 2010. But this one is a great place to start if you're looking for a more quaint and casual RPG that won't hurt your brain and force you to customize your characters beyond the point of insanity.

Oh yeah, and there's a family of blob creatures called Puni, not unlike the Slime from Dragon Quest games. Do all RPGs have to have these? (Bet you were wondering all throughout the review what a Puni is, right?)

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