Who hasn't looked at a piece of steak, a tangerine, a cup of flour, and some scrap metal and wondered how awesome it would be if you could create a powerful sword out of them? OK, so it may not be the first thing that comes to mind, but for those who wish that they could turn regular rocks into glistening gold, Mana Khemia may be the ticket to living out their greatest fantasies. Developer Gust has built a reputation on role-playing games heavy on the synthesis of items, and that mechanic has featured prominently in its Atelier Iris series. This time, item synthesis takes an even greater role, completely replacing the standard leveling of most RPGs. It takes a while to hit its stride, but once it does, Mana Khemia is a fun and involving experience that makes up for its lack of depth and beauty with a cauldron bubbling with witty charm and addictive questing.
This bear and dragon may be kissing, but they will never make up.
Vayne Aurelius is a normal kid, or at least as normal as a teenage forest urchin can be. He's plucked from the tendrils of his simple existence and enrolled in a school dedicated to the study of alchemy, where students use their mystical talents to make everything from magical cheesecakes to killer decks of cards. To help him muddle through his angsty adolescence, Vayne joins a workshop headed by Flay, a self-important but lovable lunatic who fancies himself a masked superhero, among other things. Vayne also befriends a flirtatious cat-girl perpetually in heat, a pink-haired gal who's always blowing up the lab, a ghost that loves to scare unsuspecting freshmen, and several other equally amusing folk. Mana Khemia doesn't take itself seriously. After all, one of your party members is a tiny alien with a pom-pom growing from his head who floats around in a pot, and another plays baseball with a bear in the middle of combat. This outward humor makes the story feel initially lightweight, but as you learn more about Vayne's past and watch him interact with classmates like the insufferably haughty Roxis, these kooks are likely to get under your skin.
Synthesizing items is a fun and straightforward process. First, you need to find the recipe, which means a visit to one of the campus stores or the completion of a side job. You may also find recipes in treasure chests, new possibilities will be suggested by your friends, and you will discover original ones when you try substituting ingredients in known formulas. The ingredients themselves are earned as loot for defeating monsters, or by gathering them in your travels. You can dig up minerals, harvest radishes, fish for trout and seaweed, and even use a boomerang to collect apples and oranges. Once you've had your fill, you take your raw collectibles back to the workshop or to a machine called an athanor, perform an enjoyable little minigame to determine the quality of your product, and voila! You now have a set of kitty ears or a helping of broiled blowfish of your very own.
The process gets pretty involving. For example, that sledgehammer you want will require multiple ingredients that themselves must be synthesized from simpler items. However, alchemy doesn't just provide useful armor and weapons; it's also the only way to earn new skills and enhance your base statistics. Each character has a web of abilities eerily similar to Final Fantasy X's sphere grid. To unlock a set of skills, you need to transmute the item associated with them, and use action points earned from doing battle. There are no levels to gain in Mana Khemia.
An ice bomb will make your sherbet explode with flavor.