Anyhow, on with the first:
Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana (Playstation 2)
(I thought I'd reviewed this before, but if I did I just couldn't locate it in my old entries so... new review, if I *did* do it before!)
As soon as I got an hour or so into this game, I realized that I was playing what would become one of my all-time favorites. And once I got to the end, I never did change that opinion. It doesn't quite beat out, say, Star Ocean 2 or Suikoden 2, but it's close enough that it doesn't pale in comparison.
What is there to love in this game? Well, what is there not to love? Fun characters, an interesting storyline in which you get involved, a party-character bishounen (always a bright spot in any game!), a good but humorous translation, the option for Japanese voices... oh yeah, and the various item creation, magic, and other gameplay systems that are unique and really make it an all-around fun experience.
Okay, trying to be brief. This game revolves around Klein, an alchemist, and his, er, general trying to save the world. Well, okay, really, he's mostly just trying to become stronger as an alchemist, then ends up caught up trying to help some friends he meets and some townspeople and be a Good Guy, and then THAT leads into the whole saving the world thing, as his friends run afoul of the Bad Guys. So really, it works. It's not some guy setting out to change or save the world, but just instead getting swept up into bigger things and taking it from there.
The combat at first blush isn't all that different as it's a three-character system against a varying number of enemies, and vaguely turn-based. But once you glance at it, it gets deeper. For one thing, there is a bar at the upper left that shows the order of characters' actions, and different actions will take different amounts of time, and let you act again sooner or later, and characters with a higher speed move back up the bar quicker and get more actions. Also, some actions have the ability to push the target back further on the bar, delaying their turn, and if you get them far enough back they reach a "break" state, where they are stunned and more easily damaged until they recover.
Item use is also a bit more interesting, as Klein is an alchemist. Aside from normal items, you can also use "mana items," which are items created through alchemy. You can craft these ahead of time for other characters to use, or to use in conjunction with battle skills that alter the effects of them. Or, as long as you have enough elements stored, Klein can create and use an item on the fly during the actual fight, giving you a lot more healing and other abilities than you might normally have, IF you unlock all the recipes and take the time to prepare for battle by collecting the elements.
This leads me into one of the really cool parts of the game - the mana system. As you proceed through the game, Klein meets and makes friends with a whole host of different Mana Spirits. These spirits each have an element that they govern, and you need one or more befriended in order to create each particular mana item. For the most simple healing item for instance you only need your starting Mana Spirit, the mana of wood, but later on for some of the more damaging attack items you might need, say, the spirits of fire, lightning, and earth. (Just pulling that out of my hat, I don't remember offhand which spirits you need for some of the latter items.) Of course, for item creation you ALSO need a recipe and elements, but I'll get to those later.
Mana Spirits also have other effects, on actual exploration of the world. Each spirit has a different effect that you can use, such as the Mana of Earth giving you a brief step you can jump on to reach higher-up spaces, or the Dark Mana increasing the number of enemies you can find in a field, and sometimes making them tougher than you'd expect to find in that particular area. You can trigger these effects at will, when and where you need them, which gives you a reason to go back and explore previous areas again, towns, fields, and dungeons.
Now, back to the various types of item creation, and there are a few here, which is one of the reasons I love the game so. I enjoy systems where you can create your own items and tweak things, and there are multiple systems to play with here, in that vein. Like the aforementioned Mana Items. To create an item, you need specific spirits that can use particular elements used in the creation of that item, plus you need those actual elements. Think of elements as a sort of energy, with a different type for each Mana spirit - Wood Element, Water Element, and so on. And you can store up to 99 of these elements at one time. To actually get the elements you have a few options - you can "extract" enemies by having Klein deal the killing blow to them in battle (which gives you a set amount of one set element type, depending on the foe), you can extract them from certain items in the fields, towns and dungeons (barrels of water give you Wood and Water elements, while extractable stones give you Earth element, surprise surprise). Or you can convert items you are carrying into a small amount of a specific element, which is handy if you've collected an overlarge amount of some item, have more available to collect, and don't want them to go to waste.
As I said, you also need a recipe to create a mana item, along with the elements and spirits. Now, honestly it's been long enough since I've played this particular one (I might start changing that tonight actually, now that it's on my mind again), so I don't remember all the details of getting things like recipes. I do remember that many if not most you collect when you collect a sample of the mana item itself - for example, you find Mana Item C in a chest in a dungeon, and from that point on, you can craft Mana Item C yourself (IF you have the right elements and Spirit(s), of course). But I think you MAY also be able to unlock some recipes from the ones you find in that way, by befriending your Spirits, and so on. I don't really remember. Sorry.
Now. About the other item creation systems. Next up is a weapon enhancing system, although that opens up later in the game, IIRC. Honestly I didn't use this one as much, but in a nutshell (haha, again), you can use your befriended Mana Spirits to convert specific mana-stone items into various weapon enhancements, and some of your weapons have slots to put those enhancements into, giving the weapon different effects depending on just what you throw on there. So you might take a normal store-bought sword, pump up its attack power, and add the chance to poison an enemy when you hit it, giving yourself some added lightning element defense while you're at it. This takes place in your home base, in the starting town, giving you an extra reason to go back and visit from time to time.
One of my favorite of the item creation systems though is based around some (three, IIRC) (Edit: oops, it's either four or five) of the shops in the game, two of them in the starting town to give you something to do from the get-go. Bit by bit, the store owners start asking you to help them come up with new items to sell (some of the shops are food-related, some are item shops), in which you must collect the component items yourself, then combine them via a shop menu to form an item. This item is then added to the list of things for sale at the shop, and you can purchase them, or craft more yourself if you have the components for it. You can substitute some components though, which can increase or decrease the overall quality of the item, or sometimes give you a whole new item, so you're encouraged to experiment. The shop itself gets a higher or lower rating based on the quality of the items for sale there, and as you create more and better items for the shop, it unlocks new cut-scenes and often new recipes to start making, and so on. It's more fun than it probably sounds, at least for me, and one of the bigger draws of the game.
Since this has already gone on more than long enough (sorry!), I won't go into great detail on the world, the characters, and so on, other than the fact that they add even more to the experience. And I'm not even going into topics such as giving one character a mana-bath as her powers and abilities fluctuate as she runs out of energy, or befriending your Mana Spirits and what that can do, or the fourth-wall-breaking, adorable tutorials (which also happen to be damn helpful), or the item collections, or the sidequests you can uncover by going back to previous locations, or.... well, you get the idea. Suffice to say, there's even MORE fun stuff to this game, beyond what I've already been blathering on and on about.
So in short (too late): Damn fun game, good characters and world, but the biiig draw is the mana/item/creation system. Or systems. And the combat system, which is deeper than it at first appears. And a great foundation for the two games to follow. (I think this is the best of the three, but that's not a matter of many cases where a good first game is followed up by a couple of money-grab sequels that suck - it's just that it's such a damn hard act to follow.)
Now I have to try to catch my mental breath, and do the other two games in the series... but that ain't gonna be tonight.