Atelier Meruru ~The Apprentice of Arland~ DX Review (Switch)
This is it – we’ve made it to the end of an era-uh, well, the end of a trilogy anyways. What started out as a passing interest in a series thats aesthetic would, historically, turn me away in most other situations almost immediately has quickly become one of my favorite franchises to date. Favoritism doesn’t necessarily equate to quality though – just look at the cult following for a game like Superman 64, for reference. The previous Atelier Arland Switch entries, Rorona and Totori, passed my scrutiny, albeit without “flying colors.” That’s why I’m happy to inform you that this third entry in the Atelier Arland subseries is easily the best of the three. Here’s the scoop.
Set some time after the events of Atelier Totori, Atelier Meruru takes place in the up-and-coming kingdom of Arls, tucked a ways away from Arland. Ruled by Lord Dessier, this kingdom-in-its-infacy has hopes of combining with the much larger Republic of Arland, but it must grow exponentially before that is to be a reality. Dessier’s daughter, princess Meruru, has little interest in politics (a surprise to no one) but absolutely adores alchemy. Fortunately for her, it just so happens that Totori, the alchemist from the previous game, set up a workshop on the outskirts of Arls and has taken Meruru under her wing, though not at the behest of Lord Dessier. In fact, he outright denies Meruru’s request to become a full fledged alchemist-in-training. That is, until the two come to a mutually beneficial arrangement.
Meruru may continue her alchemy training in exchange for using it for the betterment of the Kingdom, but Dessier doesn’t mean through providing simple healing balms for wounded people alone. No, Meruru must really get her hands – and feet – dirty to expand the kingdom of Arls within a certain time period, else it will be all for naught. What I like about Meruru’s depiction of the “rebellious princess” is that she comes around and ultimately does the right thing, but in her own way. She’s not running off with her “prince” or anything like that, she has her boots on the ground from the get-go, making a direct impact in the evolution of Arls itself.
Of course, she doesn’t have to go at it alone. Both new and recurring characters will assist Meruru, including Totori and even a…different…version of Rorona, the alchemist trainee from the first game. While only a few of the newest characters were able to really stick with me, it is always entertaining seeing some of the more seasoned individuals again, such as Hagel the blacksmith. All in all, I’d argue that Atelier Meruru has the most interesting and tangible storyline of the trio of titles, for reasons previously outlined and more to be touched on shortly.
Kingdoms don’t build themselves, so it is up to Meruru and her companions to improve the scope of Arls through alchemical synthesis, exploration, and combat. Within the 3-5 year game cycle, you’ll have an overall kingdom objective to reach, which usually boils down to attaining a certain population level. The kingdom’s population will increase through helping its inhabitants, expanding its reach, and building new facilities – all of which ties back into alchemy. Atelier Meruru adopts an almost identical version of the alchemy system found in Rorona DX, bringing back some key quality of life component that were oddly absent from Atelier Totori.
Once again, you will be able to gather various ingredients of varying qualities and traits in order to combine them into brand new items via synthesis. Qualities and traits can be carried over into the new items, making the actual results of your crafts seemingly infinite. Obviously, the time is ticking here so you can’t really experiment to your heart’s content, but there is enough wiggle room in the schedule that you can do a bit of that at times. Objectives are primarily doled out in one to two ways: quests and development tasks. Quests are the typical kill/provision objectives which will improve Meruru’s popularity with the kingdom, as well as provide a means to fund her adventures and further build relationships with companion. Don’t ask me why a princess has to “pay her own way,” but it at least shows the kind of character Meruru has and that she’s willing to do what it takes to make her dreams – and to a lesser extent, her father’s – come true.
Development tasks are the main branch of new content in Atelier Meruru. Individuals and factions will run into problems and request your assistance either in person, or by mailing your workshop. These tasks are then assessed at the castle, and a plan is devised to tackle them which is usually split up in to multiple parts. Completing these objectives can reward you with numerous things but, most importantly, it gives you research points for constructing new buildings. These buildings, once construction completes, vastly increase your population in addition to other rewards, like new items/discounts at shops, bonuses to EXP gains, and improved efficiency in gathering. Beyond the overarching yearly population quotas you must meet, there are no additional time-bound requirements to most of these development tasks, but you’ll still want to complete them as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Developing the kingdom is one of the best things about Atelier Meruru because it does two important things. Unlike the two previous games, but especially in Rorona, the art of alchemy feels incredibly powerful and impactful to the story itself. Atelier Rorona had you synthesizing to keep your shop open, Atelier Totori in order to find your mother, but Atelier Meruru has it to build a freaking kingdom pretty much from the ground up. Words are cheap though, what really sells this concept here is the fact that completing development tasks changes the world before your very eyes.
For example, early on you’re tasked with scouting and clearing out an area in order to make room for a farm. When you have completed this request, that zone will forever be changed to reflect the farm rather than staying as a wooded forest. Later, they need their tools upgraded, which again changes the zone in another way. These things aren’t unheard of in the day and age, but it helps ground the somewhat open-endedness of the whole alchemy system in a more tangible way than was the case in the previous Arland entries.
Combat in Atelier Meruru, at least difficulty-wise, falls right in between Rorona and Totori, and we’re strictly speaking from the main story perspective and not considering the optional/extra bosses in all three titles. Atelier Meruru is definitely on the easier side for the most part, but not quite as easy as Rorona. I think the driving factor here is that so many of your companions have access to multi-target abilities that cost no resources to use (other than their turn). Additionally, the ability to chain multiple attacks back-to-back returns after going on vacation in Atelier Totori. Things aren’t always a complete cakewalk – you’ll still hit some roadblocks here and there – but most obstacles are easily overcome through synthesizing better gear and consumables.
Atelier Meruru has combined the mechanics of the previous two Arland titles to establish something a bit new that still feels familiar. Nodes on a map can be harvested for ingredients, and some of these points can occasionally be a rare version of itself, rewarding you with better and/or rarer components. Like in Totori, gathering will chip away at your overall time but not in an overly abusive way. You can only carry so much in your basket before you have to unload it at the workshop, so you must consider travel time to and from in order to maximize your efficiency.
Graphics and Sound
Being the third game in a trilogy, it is no surprise that Atelier Meruru is the best looking one of the bunch. It is nowhere near a technological achievement, but it looks nice enough for the style of game it is going for. As has always been the case with the Arland games, the character designs are superb and, of course, the experience wouldn’t be complete without a bit of fan service…and a dressing room. There’s a lot less fan service here than previously though, so if you’re banking on that alone then you’ll want to play something else.
Sound-wise, there’s not much to say about the effects as they remain pretty consistent across the Arland games – not bad but not super memorable either. The soundtrack itself is pretty good, but not quite as appealing to me as the one present in Atelier Totori.
Atelier Meruru introduces, or at least brings more into light, a couple of things that might be concerning for some players. For starters, this is the first time I’ve noticed a decent amount of spelling and grammatical errors in an Atelier Arland game. I’m sure they have existed prior to my outing in Arls, but not on this scale it seems. Also, the framerate seems to completely tank in some locations. Unfortunately, one of the first gathering locations falls victim to this practice. There are plenty of zones unaffected by these performance issues, but there are enough present for it to be considered nonetheless.
Atelier Meruru is easily the best Arland game I’ve played thus far. Before you lose your crap for me saying “so far” to a completed trilogy of games, the latest game in the subseries, Atelier Lulua, just released a couple weeks ago and I can’t wait to check it out. Until I experience that one however, I stand by my conclusion that this is the best Arland title so far. There are still downsides to consider though – even though I resonate more towards the gameplay mechanics here than the story, you’ll want to play the first two Arland games in order to get the most out of Meruru. Seeing as this game is the superior one of the trio, that kind of sucks.
That said, none of these games are super long if you’re only playing through them once, but that mindset comes with its own set of pros and cons. On one hand, you can complete the first two games and get started in the third one in around 40 hours, but some may not feel like they’ve collected their “bang for the buck” after only a single playthrough of each title. As I’ve said in all of these Atelier Arland reviews so far, they are very much games that encourage, and reward you, for multiple playthroughs. While I do see immense value in playing all of these games from just a gameplay-to-enjoyment ratio alone, you should consider these things before making the full commitment. Regardless, the Arland series thus far – especially Meruru – has taught me that going out of my comfort zone with RPGs can be quite a rewarding endeavor.