Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm PS2 Review
Ever since Tolkien let his epic saga loose on the world, man and boy has sought to recreate the spine tingling feeling of reading his books. Whether it was pen and paper role playing systems such as Dungeons and Dragons and Warhammer, or video games like Ultima or Warcraft the intent was the same; try and let the player experience first hand what Lord of the Rings told in third person. Although these different games have had a varying success at achieving anything like the scale of Tolkien’s myth, they share the simple fact that they are enjoyed most by players who bring their imagination rather than their scepticism with them.
The previous Atelier Iris games came out of this deep vein of fantasy game play. They harked back to this older more considered style of action and won many players over with their well intended simplicity. There has been an effort in Grand Phantasm to update things somewhat, but whether this adds to the overall game or detracts from its previous charms is up for debate. Some have said that this results in an inoffensive and forgettable adventure with a lot of character but little substance, but we want to know whether the quality is in the eye of the beholder or whether something is well and truly broken here.
Atelier Iris plays out as a youthful Edge, accompanied by Iris the alchemist, sets out on a search for wish-gems. Iris carries with her a strange book that is apparently a family heirloom, although it is hard to verify as the book is locked shut. The two protagonists are members of the Raiders Guild that pays quite nicely for adventures to complete a variety of quests. As is often the case in these tales of journey and return, the initial quest becomes swallowed up in much grander schemes. To this end, Edge and Iris stumble across an academic who tells them that Iris’s book is magical and able to grant wishes and knowledge, if they could only collect the six missing fragments. A race ensues as they battle to discover the pieces before anyone else does. Even with this plot dynamic, the adventure as a whole never quite achieves the epic feeling at which it is shooting. The front of the story is certainly a good set-up, but it tails off towards the end. However, let’s press on as there is plenty of adventuring still to be done within all this, and plenty of opportunities for a great amount of fun.
Another similarity between role play adventures and Tolkien’s original is that they stand or fall on the quality of their text. Both require the dialogue and narration to creating believable characters and a compelling world. The books have obviously proven their quality through the years. Atelier Iris on the other hand doesn’t get it quite as right. It feels as if their kooky humour is there to disguise the fact that they didn’t have an out and out author on hand to pen the on screen dialogue. However, as they keep plugging away they do make up for the lack of quality by the sheer breadth of characters; everything from a grouchy guilder to a love-smitten researcher and a cute ghost. The humour too does grow on you as you play on. We even found ourselves laughing at the odd one liner before too long.
The game is structured around a series of missions undertaken for the guild. Each time you need a new quest you can simply sign up at the guild. These are initially of the ‘fetch and carry’ type activities, slightly laborious but very useful for developing your trusty brigade. Once you have performed enough of these quests, you can start to try your hand at the more meaty tasks in the guild. Some of these require you to search out the local landscape. Particular areas or ‘alterworlds’ only allow you a certain amount of time in them before you are transported back to town. This gives your encounters with the forests and dungeons a little more weight as you are against the clock as well as the various enemies you come across. This is well executed and really adds to the whole experience and connects the player with both the world and their task.
When you get to the point of encountering an enemy you discover that rather than Atelier Iris’s previous real time fights, we now have a turn-based battle. This may seem like a bit of a departure for the series, but it does take some of the randomness out of proceedings, enabling the more thoughtful player to take their time and plan a thought through attack strategy. Within this system the character’s skills and equipment also have an effect that must be considered and put to careful use if you are to come away victorious. This style of battle has been seen many times before and probably better implemented elsewhere, it is testament to the difficulty of delivering anything new or interesting in the genre. It is probably telling that more often than not you will simply do your best to avoid these fights and move on with the game. That said, once you unlock some of the book’s powers, the battles take on a new meaning as you are able to posses and command a variety of characters through the old tome’s mysterious powers.
Visually, Atelier Iris delivers the same ensemble of hand drawn backdrops and two dimensional bitmap characters for which the series became famous. Much like we have seen in the ever popular Monkey Island, this gives the game a distinctive style, although one that is not as hard hitting as some of the more impressive three dimensional adventure role play games on the market. These scenes have obviously had an enormous amount of time and love spent on them, and the hand drawn quality does help evoke something of the old style pen and paper RPG experience that they are aiming for. Additionally, these backdrops have some impressive spot effects, such as the entrance and completion of various end level monsters. Battles themselves are also punctuated with a number of different effects that makes them some of a high water mark visually for the game.
The music and sound is on a par with the graphics, which if we are honest is not the biggest complement in the world. That said there are some nice tunes to move things along and the in game effects are pretty well considered. The voice work itself could have had more gravitas to it, but the lighter, more quirky tones suit the writing style pretty well.
It would be easy to pan Atelier Iris out of hand for not delivering to the exacting standards of other games in the genre. However, as we said at the beginning of the review, if you come to this with your imagination intact and play it with an open mind, there really are some pretty special moments to be found. At times they get close to delivering that holy grail of Tolkien experience, all wrapped up in a quirky almost comedic style that is all their own. This is something you will already know if you have played the previous games in the series. If you enjoyed them, then you will get a lot out of this new version. If however, you are looking for an easy introduction to inspire you about the RPG genre then you may want to look elsewhere. Whilst it doesn’t deliver the best RPG experience on the PS2, there is plenty of fun to be had by the willing player.
This is a game with a heart that is bigger than its gameplay.