The Atelier series by developer Gust has a long history. The games began on the PlayStation in the late '90s, but only in Japan. The series made its way to North America in 2005 with the first PS2 Atelier game, and has also made appearances on the Nintendo DS and GBA. This week sees the launch of the first Atelier game on current gen hardware, namely, the PS3. Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist Of Arland is sure to please series followers and is widely accessible to newcomers (such as myself) as well.
Synthesizing A Good Game
If you haven't played any of the Atelier games before -- or any of the alchemy games for that matter from Gust (which include the Mana Khemia games) -- fear not. I had only briefly played Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy on PS2 and Atelier Annie on the Nintendo DS before diving into Atelier Rorona. Despite the series' deep roots, for the most part, the games are independent of other another and you need not have played the previous entries to get the full experience of Atelier Rorona.
That said, gameplay in Atelier Rorona consists of several key components. First, there is alchemy, or synthesis. This is literally where your character, Rorona, "cooks up" dozens of different items from recipes that she's learned -- more on all that later. There is also a significant turn based battle aspect to the game which occurs primarily when you are out gathering materials. Battles are both turn based and team based, with your party including one or two partners. Naturally, Atelier also has a large RPG element to it that has you meeting and talking with lots of characters, performing various quests, and leveling up your skills and equipment. These various gameplay elements combine to form an addictive and enjoyable title whose only real fault is repetition.
So the adventure begins with a brief opening cutscene that tells us that the small, isolated kingdom of Arland was built upon some old ruins many centuries ago. This was a peaceful society, but one day, ancient relics known as Machines began to appear. No one knew what these relics were for, but, a traveler showed the people how to use them. Arland prospered, and the lives of its citizens further improved. As a way of thanking the traveler, the king was to grant one wish to the traveler. That wish was to be able to setup an alchemy shop in Arland. The wish was granted, many years passed, and that brings us to the present.
At the alchemy workshop, Astrid is the master, and Rorona is her best pupil. Astrid is an excellent alchemist, but she's really lazy and sleeps a lot. The townspeople have stopped coming to place orders and the shop has garnered a low reputation. Worse yet, a knight from the palace arrives to pronounce that the workshop will be shutdown soon. Rorona doesn't want the shop to close, but Astrid could care less, it seems. In an unexpected twist she decides to rename the shop and give it to Rorona. It's up to the player to lead Rorona on the numerous quests she will go on to save her workshop from being shutdown by the king.
Assignments & Quests
The primary quests in the game are a series of twelve assignments that are given to you by the kingdom. The assignments have a deadline that you must keep track of. Fortunately, the HUD displays a calendar and the remaining days left in the assignment, so it's never hard to know how much time you have. While the assignments are the most important quest to monitor and complete, numerous other quests, many optional, come and go during the time that you are working on the assignment. One type of alternate quest is known as a Front Quest, which can be received by a lady knight in the palace. She will ask you to bring back a variety of different materials by a certain time. The reward for this is Cole, the currency used in Arland, and an improved reputation. Another type of quest is Friend Quests. Rorona will meet several different people around town, including a blacksmith, cafe owner, and her friend from childhood to name a few. Each of these friends will have requests for you to fulfill too that can strengthen your relationships.
To complete the assignments and other quests, you will need to guide Rorona through gathering materials and synthesizing a variety of goods. There are literally dozens of different materials out there that you can either find or buy. To buy materials, you simply need to pull up the Town Map (leave the workshop or press Select) and go down to the shops. Various sellers will have materials for you to buy and sell, typical of an RPG. Spending Cole can help in a pinch, but you really need to go outside the kingdom walls to find materials in nature. Search-able areas include a forest, cave, and ruins, and others. These areas contain several sub-areas, I'll call them zones, that have a similar appearance, but contain different materials and varying amounts and types of enemies. New areas are unlocked at certain story points. The zones within an area are unlocked linearly, meaning you need to complete one zone before the next will be available. Similarly, and rather awkwardly, material gathering is done in sequential order, too. Say you visit a zone -- if you don't gather the goods from the first marker you see, the next one won't appear; I found that a bit odd.
Rorona can carry up to 60 items at a time, and story 1,000 back at the workshop. When you have picked a zone or an area clean for the time being, or are simply ready to go back to the workshop, you need to only backtrack to the starting point of that particular zone. Fortunately, the zones are all quite small, but there are enemies placed throughout. These enemies can be seen in the gameworld while you are in the zone, and you can actually run past many battles if you choose to. Additionally, I thought it was cool that once you beat a 'random' enemy -- when you backtrack to the exit, that enemy is no longer there (until you completely leave and comeback, anyway). I prefer this method much more to constantly respawning random foes.
It should come as no surprise that getting from the workshop to the gathering areas takes time. Each gathering location has a time associated with it in days to indicate how long it will take Rorona to get there. Also, synthesizing goods takes time, too. The general unit of time in the game is a day, so even though your assignment may give you a couple of months, it can roll by pretty quickly. I found pretty early on that you in fact do have to keep an eye on the date so that your deadline doesn't slip by (because when it does, the kingdom shuts the workshop down and it's game over).
Materials will only get you so far though, you have to combine them to create new items. The only way to do that is by learning recipes from various books that can be bought and received from NPCs. Recipes can be as general or as specific as you might imagine. The specific recipes allow players to get more creative with what they put in to generate more potent creations. For example, a recipe may call for a plant, but what type of plant you use can sway the qualities of that recipe. Fortunately, at the start of the game, these details, while apparent, are not really important. As the adventure progresses, it does become more important to pay attention to what you're putting into a recipe so that you can get the most bang for you buck, so to speak.
Synthesis is a pretty simple procedure, once you have the recipe and the materials. The more you synthesize, the higher your Alchemy Level gets, meaning you can gain access to more and more recipes. The variety of recipe types is lengthy, and includes everything from commodity goods to health and attack items to pies (yes, pies). No matter the item being created, some amount of HP is used during creation, so be sure to take a Rest in the workshop to heal up (and pass time if you are wanting to accelerate the in-game date).
The battle system in Atelier that I briefly mentioned earlier is deserving of a closer look. It's a basic battle system that is more so functional than anything new or very interesting, but it's still a major part of the game. While gathering materials, Rorona and up to two party members (not necessarily friends since you have to hire and pay them) participate in turn based struggles with a large variety of enemies. The enemies include 'normal' things like wolves as well as weird creatures typically found in a JRPG. Actions are all turn based, and each character can be equipped with different armor, weapons, and accessories. All characters have stats in HP, Attack, Defense, and Speed. Only Rorona can use items (including those that heal other characters), but all characters have special attacks. The special attacks can be upgraded with points that you earn as you level up, too. I did appreciate the Assist feature in which after a few attacks, one of your party members can leap in to help you attack or shield you from attack. The Assist can be used immediately or on another turn and only requires that you press L1 in timely fashion.
I found the difficulty of the battles to ramp nicely. Only in the very beginning of the game did I feel completely secure in blazing through multiple gathering zones in one go (i.e., without returning to the workshop to re-stock health items or save my game). Beyond those first couple of hours, I've switched to a much more cautious style of play. Given that there are no respawn enemies behind you once you beat them upon encounter, backtracking to the exit is safe and recommended when necessary.
Overall, the game is nicely put together and enjoyable, but it does get repetitive. For me, it was hard to play more than three hours or so per session, despite there always being something to do, because the flow of the game doesn't change a whole lot. And while I didn't get hooked so much on the story or characters, I was interested to know 'what was next' in both the story and in the game world. It's one of those games that I enjoy and it's satisfying to play, but at the same time it's difficult to pull extended sessions. That said, this is certainly a game that can last you many weeks for one play through.
As for the presentation, the cel-shaded visuals are nicely animated and colorful. I found the graphics to be pleasant, but not very impressive; they certainly get the job done, but I didn't have any jaw-dropping moments nor saw anything that simply 'wowed' me. The audio presentation is similar; players can choose between Japanese and English speech, and there is a lot of recorded dialogue. The voiceovers (and some of the characters themselves, including Rorona) can be a little grating, but it's bearable. The effects and soundtrack are fine, too.
With that, let's get to the summary...