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Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy
Score: 87%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: NIS America
Developer: Gust
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1
Genre: RPG

Graphics & Sound:
Things like sprite-based, 2D graphics and colors may be lost on the current visual landscape, but Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy places both front and center. Both the characters and environments have a decidedly anime feel. This may turn off some players, but the game manages to do "anime" without the over-the-top annoyances and "cute" that usually accompanies the style. Instead, the style offers a lush, colorful world and creative characters. These aren't your grim, silent swordsmen with leather fetishes and armor but fun, visually distinct characters that stand out.

Nothing about the soundtrack really stands out, which is both a good and bad thing. I can't remember anything I really liked, but nothing was overly annoying either.


Gameplay:
For lack of a better description, the Al-Revis Academy is the Hogwarts of the Mana Khemia universe... or at least it was. With the power of Mana weakening, the school comes tumbling down to the lower world. A handful of teachers and students are able to keep the place going, but the decline in Mana also meant a decline in alchemists. What's an alchemy school to do when there aren't many alchemists to train? Open its doors to new, non-magical courses.

For the most part, Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy plays much like the first game, or really any Gust-developed RPG. Playing as one of two characters, Roze or Ulrika, you travel through a character-unique story, fighting enemies, gaining levels and participating in other RPG-specific activities. Where the Mana Khemia series differs from other games in the genre is its unique school-based structure.

Gameplay is based around time-scheduled activities. Each "week" you are assigned a series of Lessons consisting of various activities. Meeting certain conditions earns you a grade. If you are able to get a satisfactory grade, you are rewarded with "Free Time" once your Lessons are completed. Free Weeks open up character events and jobs, giving you an opportunity to get to know your party members. Developing friendships is a key aspect of the game's crafting system and unlocks new items.

Lessons and Free Weeks are book-ended by Story Events. As the name suggest, these events open up the next section of the story. Each character follows their own path through the story. Rather than simply offering a different viewpoint, each offers a slightly different overall experience. Ulrika is one of the school's few remaining alchemists and wants to become a powerful alchemist so she can bond with a Mana once it hatches from its egg. Roze, on the other hand, is one of the school's non-magical students and is only at the school because he's forced to be there.


Difficulty:
The prospect of failing a class isn't daunting, at least not when compared to the original game. Lessons still offer a decent challenge, though I only failed once just to see what would happen. Although this diminishes the sense of accomplishment just a bit for Lessons, more time outside class is always a good thing. Getting to know other party members is incredibly important to your ability to craft better items (a major component of the core gameplay) and, frankly, the number of things you can do outside the school's walls is just more interesting.

Life on the outside falls into many of the same ease/ difficulty aspects of other RPGs. Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy feels more difficult at the outset. While far from overly challenging, enemy encounters feel just a tad more overwhelming than you would expect so early in the game. Over time, things tend to balance out.

One way to gain a big advantage is by spending time crafting items. This requires making nice with your party members, but also spending a lot of time crafting (and re-crafting) items. Crafted items are applied to a Character's "Grow Book," granting new skills and stat boosts. You can never be too powerful, so it's a good idea to play around with the system.


Game Mechanics:
Combat is turn-based, though the presentation and underlying mechanics have seen a number of tweaks. On a more superficial level, turns are displayed as a series of spheres rather than a line of pictures. It's small and doesn't matter in the long run, but at the same time, it's a cleaner system. I can't explain why, but it helps when swapping characters in and out of battle. The rest of the menus have also been streamlined. Battles are more complicated when you start to include all the different options, but the clean interface adds a slight uptick to speed.

Getting around is easier thanks to a better map system. It's a small thing, but makes a big difference. While roaming the wilds, you will eventually stumble across enemies. Before battle begins, you are prompted to quickly press a button. If you're successful, you'll gain the upper hand in battle.

During battle, you can swap out characters once a meter fills, offering the opportunity to unleash chain attacks and spread damage among all party members. As you inflict damage, a battle gauge builds up, opening up Unite Mode. Unite attacks are similar to Burst Mode attacks from the first game; they deal critical damage and reduce the amount of time before characters can tag in and out of battle. During Unite Mode, you can also pull off co-op attacks or single-player "Finishing Bursts."

Mana Khemia 2: The Fall of Alchemy isn't a drastic improvement over the first game, though the number of refinements makes it a better game than the first. If the first game did nothing for you, the changes probably won't change your mind, though PS2 owners looking for another great RPG (or PS3 owners just looking for an RPG) should give Mana Khemia 2 a try.


-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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