Some of you may be under the impression that Ben is our resident Atelier expert. You’d be right, actually- he’s played a heck of a lot more titles in the series than I have. But I know EVERY Atelier character thanks to having played Nelke and the Legendary Alchemists, a massive crossover spin-off that was also a town-planner sim. Though this means I don’t have as much experience with the Atelier systems, I am well-aware of the series’ staples: timed quest objectives, complex alchemy systems, gathering out the whazoo, and characters and scenarios that aren’t all that compelling, but are at least competent and charming.
In some ways, the Atelier series can be a bit of a daunting plunge. These games aren’t for everyone, but fortunately, Koei Tecmo seems to be listening to these concerns. While Atelier Ryza doesn’t offer a revolutionary experience, the quality of life improvements and advancements to the series are substantial and enjoyable. In many ways, Ryza is a great introductory point for Atelier newcomers, and offers new twists on traditions for seasoned veterans, as well. Will you fall in love with the charms of Ryza’s Secret Hideout, or will this game leave you cold in the Ever Darkness? Read on and find out.
You will be spending a great deal of time doing what Atelier titles always require: gathering and synthesizing materials to create new equipment, items, and products for distribution in order to continue a vicious loop for the most prized materials. Gathering is straightforward, for the most part: find something flashing blue and press the gather input. However, the inclusion of harvesting equipment means that a specific farm spot can yield multiple types of resources, further diversifying the materials and combinations one can obtain from even an earlier area. Likewise, there are some farm spots that require a good thwacking from Ryza’s staff, though her initial staff won’t be strong enough to thwack every rock or tree. She’ll need to upgrade this equipment as well is she wants to get at the sweet materials within each area.
Battles play out in a manner similar to a number of different titles, with a sort of Final-Fantasy-esque ATB system merging with a timelime indicator similar to Grandia, Cosmic Star Heroine, and Child of Light. While there’s not all that many opportunities for knocking enemies back on this timeline, the combat gains further complexity through its Action and Command Point systems. Each time a character uses a basic attack input, they will gain Action Points, which can be used to boost the Tactics level of the party during battle. By raising the Tactics level, skills become more potent and gain additional effects, and basic attacks can be extended by timing button inputs during their execution, thereby generating more Action Points. Though the Tactics level can only rise so much, Action Points can be spent in large chunks to initiate a character’s turn immediately- a valuable option should the need for a quick patch-up or massive attack be necessary.
Command Points are another aspect that not only improves the pace of battle, but drastically reduces the cost of synthesis on the player. CP is a limited resource while adventuring out in the field, but it can be spent in order to use a synthesized item’s effects and abilities without making that item disappear from your inventory. This is a major boon that can assist in turning the tides of battle, as a previously tedious-to-synthesize bomb can be utilized many times over in a quick pinch. Additionally, every character has their own request skills, which allows them to execute a more powerful ability when certain prerequisites are met. When they make a request of another character during battle, such as asking for a spell or healing item, they will then display their approval with enthusiastic and powerful attacks. This ability requires a fair bit of planning and execution, however, as specific requests can only be executed when you are not controlling a specific character. The game does allow players to switch in-between their three active party members, but making sure you are executing the proper requests in time for them to be useful is rather crucial.
There’s more to be said about combat, such as the varied abilities and tactics of each of Ryza’s six playable characters, but the general consensus regarding combat is that it is far deeper and more fun than what I came to expect from the series. Though characters take a bit of investment in order to access some of their better skills, “investment” is sort of the grind-worthy word you’d expect from the Atelier series, so I’m glad to see combat getting equal respect and treatment alongside Alchemy in this installment. And speaking of Alchemy, boy howdy, is synthesis a hoot in this game. An element that has always played a major role in the Atelier series, Alchemy and synthesis are presented in simplistic, yet easily addictive format. Every item that existed is presented with its own synthesis tree, and though this might seem like a herculean task to complete, many are interwoven and connected to one another via the mutation “grid,” which allows a more basic item to be expanded upon via following specific paths down their synthesis tree. Adding a material of a specific sort during synthesis can produce two extremely different results, and though the game is not particularly effective at communicating this point, mutations can be manually inputted via the grid itself, or reached through the menu. However, not all recipes are immediately apparent, and an item may be highlighted to show that it possesses multiple avenues, but one might need to experiment manually in order to unlock that option for quick-selection on the menu. If this sounds like I’m talking in circles, that’s because the synthesis grid and menu are cyclical in nature- though they might seem to be two separate methods of input and execution, one leads into the other, and vice versa.
Fortunately, quality-of-life options exist that allow for quick-synthesis based upon the quality of gathered materials, and if a player should choose to complete the game on one of its lower difficulties or ignore certain quests, they’ll likely never have to unlock the deepest and most nuanced corners of the synthesis system. For budding alchemists, however, this system and its language are deep enough to act as an engaging distraction for many hours of gameplay, which is another way that Ryza proves its focus on player investment.
Aesthetics and Narrative
Though the Atelier games are hardly ever graphical powerhouses even in relation to other RPGs, Ryza manages to offer a delightful and aesthetically pleasing adventure on the Nintendo Switch. The texture work in the game is absolutely delightful, pulling off some impressive shading tricks to add realism to environments and outfits alike. The port village of Ryza’s world is lush and green, not necessarily tropic, but cozy and quiet. Equally impressive are the character portraits, which manage to ooze even more charm than the detailed character models. Despite this, there are some painfully generic environmental features in some areas- a field of flowers that looks a bit too neat to inspire butterflies in your stomach, and some checkpoints feel a little bit too out-of-place in certain environments. However, the quality of animations is still top-notch, with walk cycles, victory poses, and combat skills looking sharp.
Most infectious of all is the music, which is feel-good in all the right ways. Adorably inspirational tracks seem to float throughout the entirety of the game, from the snappy battle themes to the moments of triumph that each character experiences. It’s heartwarming in all the ways I never realized were possible, and it’s almost nauseating, to be honest. This leads directly into Ryza’s narrative, which is as saccharine-sweet as one might expect from the series’s prior installments. Though the friendships of all the main cast feel well-established, there’s little legitimate threat to be found in the seedy characters on display in Ryza’s world. Though the game won’t win any awards for it’s story, its charm is undeniable, from the eponymous Ryza’s boundless enthusiasm, to her comrade’s equally inspirational goals. It’s easy fun, but it’s meant to serve as a bridge between objectives and gameplay.
Impressions and Conclusion
With all of Ryza’s visual charms and engaging gameplay, there’s a simple aspect that cannot be ignored- almost the entirety of the game feels like a very extended series of chores. The game’s quest list is written as a diary- it’s almost unavoidable. Each synthesis, request skill, and tiny step towards unlocking more recipes, obtaining new skill objectives, exploring a bit more of the map, and inching the story forward. In some ways, managing Ryza’s Atelier feels just like a job- and if you like that sort of thing in an RPG, then Ryza is quite the time commitment. An enjoyable time commitment, one with uplifting character moments, heartwarming friends, and some scrappy, engaging combat, but a time commitment, even so.
There are plenty of other Atelier games to be found on the Switch, and with collections of previous titles on the way, a new installment might seem like a hard sell. But when one weighs the sheer quality of the content on display, it’s hard to argue that Atelier Ryza isn’t the latest and greatest installment. Some of the barriers of entry have been reduced- time limitations are no longer an issue, material grinding comes easier and more straightforwardly, and the synthesis grid is a beautiful thing to behold. For newcomers to the Atelier series, Ryza offers just about as laid-back and enjoyable an experience one can expect from a second job- for Atelier veterans, it will feel as if some load has been lifted. It’s a delightful and gorgeous game best enjoyed in small bites, as task completion can wear on the soul. When all is said and done, Atelier Ryza offers a magical, slow-paced, feast for the eyes that isn’t lacking in heart.