Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm (PS2) – Review

Atelier Iris 3 - CoverAtelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm, developed by Gust and distributed by NIS America, is, like the previous games in the series, a sequel in terms of gameplay and concept to the Atelier Iris system known for its retro 2D look and focus on alchemy within the game. While this time around throws in a few interesting concepts such as a quest system, the game gets exceeding boring and repetitive in the late game, lasting probably 25% longer than it should, and other elements, notably the alchemy system, just don’t have the same oomph that it had in the other games. Tied with a rather bland story, the game is rather disappointing and definitely not a place to start for gamers unfamiliar with the series, nor a must-have for fans of the previous entries.

Story: B-

The story revolves around Iris, the only known Alchemist in the land, who owns a book wrapped in chains that she’s had since she was orphaned but has never been able to open. With her partner Edge and later Nell, they earn their way through life by doing quests for the Raider Guild. However, when one quest leads them to find a mysterious orb that absorbs itself into Iris’ book, they learn that Iris has the power to recreate the “Escalario”, a magic that can grant wishes. Because of its power, more than just a few others start trying to figure out how to get that power for themselves, leading the trio to race to complete it before the others can. However, stories of the past warn of great dangers should the Escalario be completed, and Iris must make weigh the consequences of the world against her own life before it is all over.

The story itself is a little tiring and predictable, and most of the characters are cookie-cut from standard anime stereotypes. Additionally, while there is potential danger to the world, you never get the feeling of dread that people should seem to have from this — it’s just a bit too happy-happy throughout. The story is told primarily through dialog screens using either the on-screen characters, or more often, more-detailed 2D anime characters. Most of the dialog is unvoiced, with only a few critical scenes where voice actors are employed. While this is par for the course for RPGs, it does get a bit tiring.

Atelier Iris 3 - ScreenshotGameplay: B

For the most part Atelier Iris 3 plays likes its prequels and other JRPGs. The game is set around your party of 3 (2 for the first 3-5 hrs of the game) taking on quests from the local guild and completing them to earn guild points and to go up in rank. Some quests just require you to work about the town or completing some alchemy items, but most quests will send you out into the fields called Alterworlds. As part of being in the Guild, there is a timing limitation set up when you go to Alterworlds and that you will be automatically returned back to town if your time runs out. The timing doesn’t take into account battle times, though by completing a battle quickly, you can prevent some time loss, and there are time gain objects scattered around the fields. Maps will show you where you need to go within the Alterworld to fulfill the quest (usually), though you will need to fill in the intervening areas as you progress (and as a helpful suggestion to avoid a late-game annoyance, it is in your best interest to search all areas from the start). As you can take multiple quests at the same time, you can try to complete two or more quests in the same Alterworld, using your time there more efficiently. Should you happen to die outside of boss battles, you’ll be returned back to town without penalty, which normally is great, but this gets you into a false sense of security with regards to saving your game: I had the game freeze on me twice, both times after I’ve put more than one hour of play since last saving. Needless to say, this was very annoying, and goes to show that you should save after after each return from an Alterworld.

With the Alterworlds are more friendly beings to talk to, items to collect, and the usual wandering monsters. These are always visible to the player, though will appear in different colors depending on the strength of the monster relative to the player. Blue monsters are well underpowered, and you can actually defeat these without entering battle just by swinging your sword at them, making it easier to move through levels but only getting a random item drop at times. White monsters are about the same power, while red monsters can be difficult. There also exists large red monsters that represent very challenging opponents. Some quests will require you to defeat certain monsters, and these are colored and appear appropriately. Because you lose some time if you stop for every monster, you learn quickly that you try to avoid some battles while taking on others in order to complete your quests quickly before the time runs out.

Atelier Iris 3 - ScreenshotThe game uses a standard turn-based battle system that includes an initiative system; if you pound on an enemy hard enough, you’ll cause it to be stunned and lose a few spots in its initiative. The party shares a power gauge meter that fills up either through time wandering in the Alterworld or by actions in battle; this power is used to perform special attacks or actions that are part of the character’s current Mana-infused being (more in a bit) or through equipment they are wearing. Additionally, there is a burst gauge that fills with each successful hit but is drained when the party is hit. Should you get the burst gauge filled, this sets off Burst mode: your party’s power gauge is maximized out, and the strength of the special skills are significantly increased. This mode is particularly important for nearly all the bosses, as this is where you’ll be doing most of the damage against them. Thus, by mid-game, it became obvious that I should focus my battle strategies on filling up the Burst meter as fast as possible, balancing that out with healing and recovery as needed. Between the various features of battle mode, this is one of the more strategic systems I’ve seen for turn-based games.

As you progress, you’ll meet with friendly Mana spirits after defeating bosses that have engulfed them. These spirits willing give their power to Iris through either Edge or Nell; using a special circle back in town, you can set which Mana either Edge or Nell is currently infused with. This will change not only the type of weapon they will use, but also give them a different set of combat abilities. Combat abilities have to be learned by earning enough “Blade Points” from battle (just like experience points) in a progressive manner. While this is a nice way to vary the powers of the character through the game, it is annoying to have to return to this circle at your home base to do it each time, and it would have been nice to have the option to change in battle at some cost.

Besides this, the game, as with the other Atelier Iris games, feature an alchemy system. Using ingredients and other items created through alchemy, you can create better weapons, armor, healing and recovery items, as well as items needed for quests. In most cases, you have to learn of a recipe, either by purchasing it, earning it through a quest, or in some cases, having Iris example objects that are indicated on screen to give her inspiration. However, there are a lot more recipes than just those, and these can be discovered by attempting to switch items during alchemy synthesis. If a new recipe is possible, you’ll see an indication of this, and the new recipe will be added to your knowledge, though you likely won’t know what you are going to end up making until you make it. For recipes that lead to wearable or usable items, you can also decide which properties from the base items that you want that item to have; this gives you a way to do a little bit of character customization, for example, if you have a piece of equipment that has a low defense value, you could infuse it with the right materials to give the character the ability to automatically heal in battle. Figuring the route to some of these improvements can be difficult and not all improvements can be made this way. While alchemy has always been one of the interesting things in the series, I wasn’t very impressed with the system in this iteration. It was too easy to iterate through the short lists of possibilities for alternate ingredients, thus activating the new recipes, so there’s not a whole lot of trial and error to the game. Also, while previously you could work up similar property reviews to make better ones (for example, taking two items that both had a small gain to hit points to create one that had a medium gain, the properties don’t work like that here: you only end up with the option to pick a small hit point gain. Basically, it’s necessary to work through the alchemy system to increase alchemy rank in order to unlock more recipes and work your way to better equipment, but its not really as fun as the previous games had.

The game in general suffers from being overly repetitive otherwise. There are only 5 Alterworlds, and while sections of them are closed off until you complete certain quests, walking around town and then through the same parts of the Alterworlds to get to the new sections gets very old. Within town, fortunately, there is a boat that helps to move to key points quickly, but even then, the brief times to show the animation, click through the dialog, and the like start getting old by about halfway. Even as you gain power and can defeat weak foes, the arrangement of some of the levels make it difficult to judge where you need to swing or jump and its very easy to accidentally run into a foe you wanted to avoid. I do like how the quest nature of the game gave the game more of an open world feel than a linear progress (though it’s very easy to see that you need to complete some quests before others can be started), but I think that I would have taken more, smaller Alterworlds than the only having the 5 available.

Value/Replayability: C

Atelier Iris 3 clocked in for me under 40 game hours, though again, I note that I had to repeat at least a couple hours due to the game crashing on me. For most RPGs, this is about right, but the rinse-wash-repeat nature of the game through quests and the predictable story basically made this too long; 25 to thirty hours would have felt right. There are two different endings depending on how thorough you are in completing quests, and you gain access to bonus features after completing the game, but replaying it will result in the same experience. Probably the only notable benefit is that as a late Ps2 title, the game is priced at $40 instead of the usual $50 for new titles.

Graphics: B-

The game uses 2D spirits and isometric graphics as in the previous games, with a 3D engine behind to handle some aspects of perspective and parallax. While this is a hallmark of the series and normally works well, trying to figure out the location of a platform relative to the ground below can be difficult (this only occurs in a few places, though), and dodging and jumping foes with the fixed view can be hard. The game does seem to cheat a bit in that many of the graphics are reused from the previous games, which, for the monsters is ok, but there’s a few major characters that seem to be just recolored versions of past characters. (As a note, the story between the Atelier Iris games have very little to do with each other, so I am not expecting these characters to be connected).

Audio: B-

What voice acting there is is ok, but it’s neither stellar nor drab – it feels like a typical English dub of most anime series. It would have also helped that if they gave the actors more lines to say during battle; the voice of the 17 year old Nell is high and shrilly, and there’s a couple of her Mana forms where her attack phrase is really hard on the ears. Music is usually good – – expect that again, due to the highly repetitive nature of the game, the same limited soundtrack gets too much overuse and it can get old pretty quickly. Sound effects are fine but nothing spectacular.

Overall: B-

I’m generally a fan of the Atelier Iris games given that they normally put function over form and make gameplay enjoyable. However, Atelier Iris 3 has a rather lackluster game system; the alchemy is disappointing and the quest system is a nice idea but the world size makes it difficult to appreciate without getting tedious, though the battle system does have some nice strategic features to it. If you’ve not played the series before, this is not the game to start with, not because of the story (as there’s very minimal connection) but because you’ll gain a better appreciation by starting with the earlier games. For those that have played the series, you could probably consider missing this, particularly in light of the fall game bloat we’re about to have, and wait for the rental or used copy; it still is, at the end of the day, an Atelier Iris game, but it its just executed poorly.

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