As a lifelong RPG fan, I’m constantly amazed at just how many unique games, and even series of games, are out there that I’ve yet to play. Prior to writing this review, the Atelier series was something I knew little about, though I can still only claim to have just scratched the surface of the decades-old franchise. Judging the games from afar, however, only led me to thinking that it would not be “my type of game.” As is the case with many things in life though, you can never really judge a book by its cover. Well, you can, but you’ll definitely be missing out on some good stuff. Now, having played through the first entry in the Arland sub-series – Atelier Rorona – I can honestly say that I’m ashamed that I never indulged in the series beforehand. Not all the grass is green here though, so read on to find out more!
Years ago, the kingdom of Arland established itself upon ancient ruins which, unbeknownst to them at the time, were chock-full of technological goodies waiting to be discovered. The catch, however, was that the people did not know how to utilize the the technology properly – that is, until a wandering traveler offered to help. Arland prospered immensely with the help of the machinery, and the traveler was granted their sole wish in exchange for the help – the establishment of an alchemy workshop in Arland.
Time has a way of twisting once heroic deeds into little more than fairy tales though. Today, that same workshop, run by Rorona, an alchemist-in-training, and Astrid, her master, is now on the brink of being torn down to expand Arland’s ever-growing industrial zone. The duo’s work is to be assessed over the next three years, and failure at any point along the way could spell disaster for the workshop. Can a ditzy teenager apprentice and her lazy, self-centered master do enough to keep the workshop doors open? Let’s hope so.
Atelier Rorona does away with “ultimate evil” trope in favor of a more humorous, lighthearted narrative. That’s not to say that you won’t face danger along the way, but more emphasis is put on comedic relief than anything else. And, admittedly, it is entertaining to see how oblivious Rorona can be in almost any situation, but also concerning at times when a certain ally’s actions could be considered a bit…unorthodox (or they just have a really messed up sense of humor). Ultimately, I became invested more in just keeping the workshop open rather than becoming too attached to the characters, but the banter does have its moments.
Gameplay – Overview and Objectives
Gameplay-wise, Atelier Rorona primarily focuses on crafting – a la alchemy – but utilizes numerous secondary systems beyond that, most of which tie back into the primary mechanic. But before that, you must recognize the importance of assignments. Every three months, you will be assigned a task which must be completed within that period. More often than not, these objectives have you crafting various components, but they can also call for you to gather certain ingredients, or kill specific types of enemies. It is near impossible to “fail” these assignments, though your overall efforts can (and will) impact the the outcome of the story. In general, it is best to fulfill these objectives as quickly (and thoroughly) as possible, so that you can move on to other tasks.
In addition to the main assignment, optional assignments and quests are also available to the player. You’ll receive around a dozen or so optional assignments alongside your primary objective every three months, with “quests” serving as less time-consuming (but equally rewarding) tasks. Both mandatory and optional assignments drive a bonus bingo system that will reward those that put forth the effort handsomely on a trimonthly basis, while quests improve your reputation in-town – also important to the story ending selection – in addition to monetary bonuses.
On top of that, quests increase your friendship levels with various key NPCs in Arland. Initially, you’ll only be able to control Rorona and her friend Cordelia, but soon you are presented with numerous individuals that can fill out your party. Additional party members play a crucial role in exploration and combat, which will be covered later, but are generally not free. Rorona can “hire” these NPCs to help her out, with friendship levels factoring into their individual prices. In short, do good things for people, and they will be more willing to accommodate you without breaking the bank.
The alchemy workshop is the place you’ll likely spend most of your time though. Before spilling the complete beans on synthesis, it is important to note that the workshop also possesses the following features: resting, decorating, and saving. Resting allows you to use some of your allotted days in return for HP and MP restoration, with the latter stat being immensely useful, as it plays a major role in your ability to synthesize. Rorona can decorate the workshop with certain crafted items to reap some bonuses, and of course saving will become necessary over the course of your potentially multi-dozen hour playthrough. There is also a dressing room available for those that, uh, like that sort of thing.
Ever wanted to make pie from a beaker set and a cauldron? Well, now you can! Your existence in Arland revolves completely around synthesis. There are a staggering amount of recipes in which you can learn, most of which are obtained via books purchasable in town, rewarded through bingo, or found in treasure chests. At first glance, the crafting system might appear simplistic, but you’ll quickly realize it is quite the opposite. Successfully crafting an item requires a few key parts: time, MP, alchemic experience, and raw components.
Every recipe consumes a certain amount of days to craft, expending some MP in the process. You have to be smart here – mindlessly crafting all day, every day can eat up your remaining days, as well as costing you MP you don’t even have! Crafting with little to no MP severely reduces your chances of a successful craft, which is why proper rest plays such an important role in the loop. Your alchemy skill will increase as you synthesize items, improving your chances of success with more difficult crafts exponentially as a result.
Of course, recipes call for certain ingredients. Often, portions of a craft have multiple ingredients that are interchangeable, but some will require very specific items to complete. Not all raw materials are created equal though – ingredients are discovered with a wide range of traits and quality types, meaning no two gathered materials will be the same. Quality and traits can be carried over into other crafts, and as a new player to the Arland series this was a bit overwhelming at first. It takes quite some time to wrap your head completely around the concept, but once you do, you can easily see why many people adore these titles. The act of crafting can be simple, but not always. In fact, some objectives require you to synthesize items with certain traits or quality levels, so it is important to understand this process as early on as possible.
Gathering and Combat
Where do these raw materials come from, you ask? Visiting, and exploring locations beyond Arland will have your alchemic baskets filled in no time. These locations are not only home to all sorts of ingredients, but monsters as well. Gathering is as simple as walking up to a node – indicated by an icon – and harvesting it. The contents of said node varies depending on the location, with high quality nodes popping up occasionally too. It doesn’t cost you anything to gather, but bag space is limited and “resetting” (or changing) locations does consume a certain amount of days in the process.
When out and about gathering, you do have to be aware of enemies. These can be seen on the map, most of which will chase you once you get within their line of sight. Coming in contact with an enemy initiates a turn-based battle. Combat in Atelier Rorona has a few layers to it, despite the overall difficulty of battles being incredibly low in the main campaign. Some noteworthy pieces of the combat system include item usage and assists. As far as I know, only the alchemist – Rorona – can use items, whereas the whole party might be capable of this in other RPGs. The alchemical concoctions you synthesize at your workshop can play a huge role in some combat situations, though likely not a whole lot in your standard, everyday encounters. That said, Rorona could very well be your only source of heals in certain party makeups, on top of the fact that she can synthesize some rather powerful offensive items too, which means item management can be key to success in more difficult situations.
Rorona’s party members can assist her both on the offense and defense. When using a skill or offensive item with Rorona, you can perform an immediate follow-up attack with another character, should you press the appropriate button on-screen and if you have an assist point in your reserves – these are built up as you perform regular actions. Store up enough of these charges and you can chain multiple attacks together, giving you access to more powerful, chain-exclusive abilities. These certainly help out in more difficult boss encounters but, again, don’t serve much of a purpose in the large portion of your fights. Defensively, one of Rorona’s party members can use an assist point to block an attack aimed at the fledgling alchemist – an invaluable tool should she be your sole source of heals. Overall, the combat is designed to be engaging, but unfortunately is only able to fully spread its wings in a small percentage of scenarios.
Of course, Atelier Rorona doesn’t shy away from RPG staples, such as level ups and equipment. Leveling up boosts your stats by a little, but the game changer will be equipment. Gear can be obtained through various means, including the bingo mini-game, enemy drops, shops, and synthesis via Arland’s blacksmith. Yes, apparently you can make food via alchemy but not gear, though the whole “synthesized food” deal matches up well with the current state of the food industry in the real world.
Regardless, I found the smith’s usefulness over the course of the main campaign to fluctuate more than I would have liked – lots of powerful gear can be obtained through bingo and ticket exchanges (rewarded for bingo + some quests) alone, however I can see the value in being able to carry over (and synth) really powerful traits on gear during the postgame in order to better knock out those more trying encounters. There are Diablo levels of gear randomization here when factoring in traits, but you’ll likely never have the time – or resources – to fully appreciate its goodness.
Before diving into this section, please keep in mind that these issues are from the perspective of a new player to the Atelier series, and may not apply to those already familiar with the franchise. Since we’re hot off the combat difficulty discussion, let me drive home the fact that I do not like the balance here. There is nothing exciting about the majority of encounters being an absolute joke. On the other hand, some encounters towards the end are tuned to be the polar opposite, so much that specific items and/or an optimal party configuration is all but mandatory. The point is that there is no middle ground – it is either one extreme or the other, and a healthy mix of both would have been the best choice.
Atelier Rorona has lots of moving parts, which is good since you’ll never run out of things to do. While a baseline level of tutorials are given for pretty much everything – and are appreciated – some could have been a bit more fleshed out as to get the gist of the mechanics across more naturally. Case in point, as a new Atelier consumer, it took me far too long to really understand the importance of item quality and traits. Also, the gathering areas which require a specific type of item with specific traits are described obtusely. If time wasn’t such a crunch factor then the trial and error necessary to figure out such things wouldn’t be such a big deal, but time is never really on your side in Arland.
And that leads to probably my biggest issue with Atelier Rorona, though I realize it might be a recurring theme in the series: replayability. In many ways, Atelier Rorona is designed to be digested across multiple playthroughs. The mistakes you learn from your first run will make that next one that much more efficient, especially for newcomers like myself. The game features multiple endings that are joined at the hip of your performance, so this format is to be somewhat expected. However – and again, as a new player – the amount of mistakes you’ll potentially make and the things you won’t see in that first run leads to the feeling that a second is all but mandatory, which is bad news for someone (like me) that generally shies away from playing games more than once (unless they’re REALLY good or are more on the randomized/rogue-like side of things).
As it stands, I have little to no desire to repeat a playthrough not because I don’t enjoy the game’s mechanics – most of them I do – but because the story is not really interesting enough to merit additional hours of my time. Also, knowing that there are newer titles in the subseries to be played, I feel confident that at least some of these gripes will not exist in future outings, especially considering I now have one of these types of titles under my belt.
All that said, I must admit that many of these issues could simply be related to the growing pains associated with “learning” the franchise. I’m told that many of the mechanics in the Atelier series carry over from game-to-game, with tweaks thrown in for good measure. In the game’s defense, too, it marks only the beginning of the subseries within the greater circle of Atelier titles, and I have no doubt that the quality of the product, and learning curve associated with, will only improve with my familiarity of the franchise. Growing pains aside, I do hope that refinements to the overall difficulty are made in order to pave way for a more enjoyable combat experience.
Graphics and Sound
Atelier Rorona originally released on the PS3 back in 2009, but this version of the game features updated visuals, among other goodies. I’m not the biggest fan of heavy anime styles in games, but the character models here are designed well and look quite nice. Enemy designs and environmental assets, on the other hand, are only decent at best, but that is okay considering the history of the title. The sorest spot in its presentation would likely be the sound effects which, particularly in combat, are not appropriately “chunky” enough to really make an impact. The soundtrack, however, fares a bit better as some of the tunes are quite catchy indeed.
While not a perfect game, nor will it be for everyone, Atelier Rorona can easily provide hours of entertainment for those that dig time management, intricate crafting mechanics, and especially multiple endings/playthroughs. Resource management is a must in order to get the most out of the experience, and your familiarity with the franchise may end up affecting the overall opinion you form of the title when it stands on its own. As I’ve come to experience first hand, growing pains might detract some from fully appreciating the game, especially if you aren’t interesting in playing through it more than once. That said, the core mechanics have certainly piqued my interest, and I’m genuinely looking forward to my next outing in Arland, and there will be another soon!