Japanese RPGs have never really been a genre I've enjoyed. I remember when I played Final Fantasy X; having rented it for a week, I loaded up my PS2, played for ten minutes, watched movies for 30 minutes, then fell asleep. However, every now and then a game comes along which makes me want to dip my toe into the genre again, and Atelier Iris 2: Azoth of Destiny is one of those games. Sadly, while a decent game, it doesn't really distinguish itself from any other title, save for one feature which is more of a hindrance than a wonderful new idea.
The game's story is pretty standard stuff: world in trouble, evil empire, small band of youths lead by a leader who is supposed to be male, but you'd have a hard time telling by the way he dresses. Felt, as he is called by parents - who obviously hate him - must venture forth from his home world of Eden into the alternate dimension of Belkhyde to save his home, which is being destroyed by mysterious earthquakes. His female 'friend', Viese, must protect Eden from further harm using her powers of alchemy. After the two part ways the game proper begins and lands right smack bang into traditional turn-based JRPG territory, with the evil empire needing to be brought down.
Most of the main quest is played by Felt, as he battles and collects items in his bid to rid the world of evil. However, using a magical item known as a 'Share Ring' (groan at the pun), Felt and Viese have access to the same inventory. What this allows you to do is collect items and recipes for spells and magical items, and then swap to Viese to actually use items in your inventory and create these spells. It's a novel idea but ultimately ends up being more annoying than helpful. At numerous points in the game you need certain recipes and items from Viese in order to complete quests in the main mode as Felt, which means scouring both lands for the required items so you can get past a single obstacle - a time consuming task which isn't that much fun.
Graphically the game is nice, if not especially flashy. The exploring sections are presented with "chibi" anime-styled 2D sprites on an isometric background, while the battles are performed using the same sprites, but on a 3D battlefield. They're certainly not breathtaking in the sense of the Final Fantasy series, with their million-hour-long battle animations accompanied by lighting and a full symphony orchestra, but it works and allows the battles to pass quickly with simple attack animations. You'll notice that the same enemy sprite is used over and over again, though, and by the time you've beaten your fifteenth identical imperial soldier, you'll be sick to your back teeth of them.
The battles in Atelier Iris 2 are actually quite entertaining. They are turn-based like most JRPGs, but you actually have the opportunity to interrupt an enemy's turn. At the top of the screen is a bar which shows how long each character has to wait for their turn, and once a character's picture reaches the end of this bar, it is their chance to attack. However, it is possible for you to hit an enemy with an attack that actually knocks them down this bar, making them wait longer. These 'Break' attacks allow you to stall an enemy and do major damage - something which comes in handy when facing a force with a strong leader. There are also a few other types of attack available to compliment the break attacks. 'Charge' attacks are more powerful than the breaks, but don't interrupt an enemy's turn, and 'Skill' attacks are unique to each of your characters and have different effects, such as attacks which hit multiple enemies or heal your team.
The game's main problems lay in its lack of originality and a massive amount of repetition. As stated before, sprites are used over and over and over again, and it doesn't help that some of these are very obviously inspired by other RPGs - I swear I saw a couple of Pokemon during a battle, not to mention a Chocobo-alike. Easily the worst offender is the constant searching for items, followed by trudging back to a camp site to swap to Viese, to search for more items, then the trudge back to the cauldron to mix the ingredients for the required spell, then swapping back to Felt and going back to the spot where you needed the spell in the first place. It's tedious to explain so you can imagine how annoying it is in the game.
All in all, Atelier Iris 2 is a decent RPG, but there's really nothing new or anything it does particularly well to make it truly standout. If you're a fan of RPGs you'll probably enjoy it, but it certainly won't stick in your mind for very long once the experience is over.