First off, I'd like to say that my memory is even more shaky on some of this stuff than I thought - for instance, the first game *doesn't* have the bar where you can see people's turns coming up or push them back into "break" - that came with the second game. Same with other party members using your mana items. And I totally forgot to mention some of the annoying bugs with the first game - like the fact that if you use the Japanese voice, it won't save that option (though it saves others) when you save and exit, so you have to re-set the voice each time. Or the fact that there's a horrid glitch that *sometimes* activates and freezes the game just after you kill the final boss.
But anyhow, this post isn't about that. *ahem*...
Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm (Playstation 2)
Now unlike the first to games, where one game set the formula and the second pretty much followed it while tweaking it a bit, this game really steps aside from the established format. This doesn't make it a *horrible* game, and it's really fun in its own way, but if I had to choose I'd still go with the first two games in general.
While the first two games were fairly straight Japanese RPGs, on the old-school style in feel if not necessarily execution, the third game in the series is a mission-based RPG. Instead of exploring a whole large world and just taking the story as it comes, you are based in one town, taking missions from a "guild," and only leave to go visit "alter-worlds" to complete your missions. (Or to train and explore in between missions if you like.)
This is entertaining in its own way - I've always liked games like Arc the Lad IV (or was it III?) that have a large mission-based system in place, because that just appeals to me for some reason. But it's even more strictly imposed here than in most RPGs that use the technique, and it's especially... odd, for lack of a better term, because in this case you can only visit the "alter-worlds" for a limited time. You can collect a few items in the field that allow you to stay slightly longer, but once your time runs out, you're automatically warped back to town. That's it, no arguments. (Luckily, fighting only runs down the clock to a small extent, here.) I'm not sure if I could call this quirk of the game good or bad, but it's certainly... different. It's also a bit of a shock after the more traditional first two games.
I have similarly mixed feelings about the revamped item creation/mana spirit system. There is no separate weapon forging this time around - instead you have the characters able to actually wield different weapons that you buy, find, or make through the regular item creation. As you might expect from this, now alchemy creates more than specific combat-related items, instead making pretty much all sorts of things from items you collect, or from other alchemy-created things. As with the second game you need to get a recipe in some way to make an item - you can buy them, or unlock new ones through levelling up your alchemy skill, and then by finding and examining a location to basically solidify an idea that the alchemist character has (you get a hint each time you level up of what you need to find, but it's not spelled out exactly). Then you can make those recipes once you have them, change some of the ingredients around to improve the stats on the items, or even make new items by changing the right components, as before.
With the change in alchemy, Mana Spirit handling also changes drastically. You can still find them and make pacts with them, but again they have no actual effects in the field. Unlike either of the first two games, they also have no effect on your actual alchemy creation. This time, collecting the Mana Spirits does only two things: it allows the main female character to summon them for a special effect in combat, and each spirit unlocks a "job," or "blade" as they're called in the game. The Dark Mana for instance allowed the main character, Edge, to use a Ninja-type form and learn those skills. In theory you're supposed to change Blades as the dungeon and situation warrant, but I think the general consensus of players is that you more or less find a Blade that you especially like, and use it for about everything. The game fell down IMHO on making challenges and enemies that each Blade would specifically work better against.
The combat system also takes a bit of a tweak, mostly for the better this time I think. Not only do you have the turn bar (although in a slightly different form) and the ability to "break" an enemy (although this too gets changed more to total damage taken, more than just happening to push them back far enough on the bar), but there are also "bursts" added - your attacks add to a burst bar, with attacks against the enemy weakness filling it up faster, while damage taken reduces the bar. Filling the bar puts you in Burst Mode, which temporarily Breaks the enemies, and gives you a serious boost to damage you perform, and allows you to perform skills while totally filling your skill gauge to 9.
The skill gauge is another slight tweak - the whole party shares the same skill gauge, and it increases slightly as you walk around the dungeon as well as attack enemies normally, and decreases by a given amount for each skill you use. More powerful skills, obviously, take more skill bars to use. This fluctuates though with the use of Bursts - pulling one off raises the gauge to the max of 9 at the start of the burst, but once the burst is over it either drops or raises to somewhere usually between 2-4 skill bars, which can be either good or bad for your party. So with the various tweaks, I generally like the combat system, although there are times I'd just rather have the more straightforward but neatly tweaked system of the second game, for example.
The one change that leaves me much colder though is that of the characters. This game is apparently totally out of the "world" set by the first two games, and instead of having an entire roster of around 6 or 7 characters you recruit (even if you can only use 3 in the party at a time), you only get 3 party characters *at all* in this game. Which is just... lame. Especially since none of them are particularly stellar. There is the main character, Edge, a swordsman. There is the female alchemist that you also have from the beginning, Iris, who's a bit... um... vanilla, honestly. And there's Nell, the big-boobed younger lady (for lack of a better term) who's... less than vanilla, really. Don't get me wrong, I don't *hate* the characters, and they all have their moments, but I've also seen better. And few of the supporting cast do all that much for me, either. (Although Ewan is fairly yummy, and the main fisherman isn't bad... *ahem*)
The story is also.. er... fairly cliche and dull honestly, and more an excuse to string a lot of missions together. I don't *mind* this as much as I normally would, mind you, since this is obviously a sub-quest driven game, but it's still something to tot up on the negative side, and something that I wish had been handled better.
So all in all I enjoyed this game pretty much, because I like mission-driven stuff and I like the item creation, but I still can't endorse it as much as either of the first two games. So buyer beware. (Although at least this installment is fairly recent, so you should be able to pick it up if it sounds like something you might want to try.