Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland
Publisher: Nippon Ichi Studios America
Developer: Gust Co. Ltd.
Genre: Turn Based RPG
Release Date: 09/28/2009
I have to admit I was pretty cold to the Atelier series when it first started. I though Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana was a mediocre game at best, but as the series continued, I warmed up to it, even if I’ve preferred the Mana Khemia spin-offs more. That being said, my favorite experiences with Atleier characters have come from mash-ups like Cross Edge and my current GOTY, Trinity Universe. As I mentioned in my preview of Atelier Rorona, everyone on staff has thoroughly enjoyed the series. The question is, after a whopping EIGHTEEN games in the Atelier series, was Gust able to keep this latest entry from feeling stale or like just another sequel churned out by a developer for a quick profit, or has Nippon Ichi been able to keep their amazing streak of high quality games released in 2010 alive?
Atelier Rorona is the tale of the city or Arland. Arland was founded on the ruins of an ancient and advanced society that mysteriously died out. The cornerstone of the city is the old alchemy lab which was founded by the Atelier (alchemist) who taught people how to run the machines on the grounds of the city. Flash forward to modern day and the one beloved workshop is now run by Astrid, who is an alchemical genius, but is also lazy, unmotivated, hated by everyone in town . Couple this with the fact the Minister of Defense wants to bulldoze the laboratory and all the businesses in Artisan’s Way to make factories and other polluting and smog created industries and you can see the problem. Astrid however decides to hand off the laboratory to her pupil, a teenage girl named Rorolina Frixell, called Rorona by all her friends. Now Astrid has taught Rorona next to nothing and no top of that Ms. Frixell is well…kind of dumb. But even with those two strikes against her, Rorona is willing to try and save the laboratory by participating in 12 different assignments, each lasting three months to complete. So basically, you have three years to go from an uneducated airhead to the savior of the laboratory and Arland itself. Otherwise it’s bye-bye alchemy lab and you’re off to wherever your master chooses to go because she owns you body and soul thanks to your parents not having enough money to pay for a rare and expensive medicine a long time ago.
What unfolds is an RPG that isn’t just about hack and slash combat, but rather multiple paths that are almost reminiscent of something like Age of Wonders or Civilization. You have to balance the tasks assigned to you by the government with requests from townspeople to get your trust score up, requests from friends to increase their friendship rating and unlock story bits, create new items via alchemy to raise your alchemist level, go on adventures and kill monsters and/or bad guys to raise your adventurer level and travel to new locations to unlock new items to use in alchemy as well as new alchemical recipes. Atelier Rorona is as much a time management game as it is an RPG and there are so many different paths and storylines that it looks a bit overwhelming on paper. The good thing is that everything occurs pretty seamlessly. You just have to manage your time correctly.
One great thing about the story is that the game contains over thirty “endings” and the entire plot is dynamic rather than static. An event that occurs right away in one playthrough might not occur until the end or at all depending on actions you take in the game. For example, to unlock Pamela (the mascot of the series), you’ll have to find her teddy bear in the catacombs. If you haven’t been raising your adventurer level or you don’t explore in detail, you might never get the bear and thus never unlock her and her eventual item store. If you do a lot of combat, you can get it early on, but it also means your assignments may suffer, as well as your friendship ratings or trust score because you’ll be fighting rather than helping townsfolk. So depending on your actions, who you take on quests, who you help out in town and the like, the story can unfold quite different from one playthrough to the next. Oh and those “thirty” endings? They are specific character endings based on friendship and trust. One game might net you a dozen of those endings, which range from a specific character to how the town feels about you to being the master of pies. The overall package of how you do nets you one of four “core” endings: bad, normal, good and true. I have to admit I was pretty pumped to earn the True Ending on my first playthrough without using a guide or the internet. It’s probably due to my SRPG fixation and the fact I had my trust rating at 100% and two friends maxed out at 100% friendship by the end of the sixth chapter .
Overall, I really loved the story of this game and how incredibly deep the plot was due to all the branching paths and potential events. I really grew to care about all the characters and the city of Arland. I loved watching my trust meter go up and trying different combinations of teammates to see the different interaction scenes that I would unlock. It’s a lighthearted entertaining game that will be appreciated by gamers of all ages…except for the occasional lesbian overtones that are subtly hinted at with certain characters. Don’t worry though Mom and Dad! Little Billy and Suzie won’t understand what’s going on until they are older.
Story Rating: Very Good
Atelier Rorona marks a big change for the series as it makes the jump from 2D sprite gaming to full on 3D high definition goodness. As well, the game also decides to use cell shading to give the game more of a cartoon/anime feel. It’s definitely a nice touch for this specific game and everything looks cute, even if it’s not pushing the graphical capabilities of the PS3 by any means. Character designs are well done, especially with the static portraits that are shown when someone is talking. Monster designs however fall prey to being mostly palette swaps and tend to be a bit less impressive. A good example would be the bandits and their various colour versions that show up in the catacombs. They look more like Guy Smiley and other humanoid Muppets than the other human beings in the game. It’s a tad unsettling.
If you’re looking for things like big cut scenes made of anime quality visuals, you’re out of luck. You get a very impressive one in the opening, but all story scenes are then done with static portraits and/or regular in-game graphics. The focus here is on the story and gameplay rather than graphics, and that makes sense, since this is Gust’s first foray into 3D visuals with the Atelier series. What’re you’re getting isn’t like Heavy Rain or Yakuza III in terms of jaw dropping visuals, but is it enjoyable and fun to watch, and that’s really the key thing here. You won’t be disappointed by what’s on your screen for the fourty or so hours you put into this title.
Graphics Rating: Enjoyable
I love the soundtrack to this game. I really wish the review copy I received came with the soundtrack disc that people who preordered the game directly from Nippon Ichi received because they music is that wonderful. I would have the songs from the game playing in my head as I slept. I would be whistling the main track that plays in your laboratory while working. The opening theme gave me goosepimples the first time I listened to it. This is easily the best soundtrack to an Atelier game yet and I really hope Nippon Ichi gets enough requests to do a reprint of the soundtrack.
Voice acting is quite good too. I recognized a few actors that are mainstays to Nippon Ichi games. My only real complaint was that there was a new voice actress for Pamela. I absolutely loved the one they used earlier this year in Trinity Universe and felt it fit the character perfectly. I’m not sure why they didn’t use the same actress for a game that came out a few months later, but the new one is too humdrum and flat for my tastes. The rest of the cast does an exceptional job however. I loved Rorona, Hom, Cordelia, Sterk, Gio, and the rest of the cast from beginning to end. The game has a lot of voice acting in it and the cast and crew really helped make the world of Arland come alive for me.
I have to admit I loved the cast and soundtrack so much that I’m already chomping at the bit for Atelier Totori in hopes that we get everyone back playing the same characters that crossover. Everything about the audio aspect of this game is so serene and helps to make this a joy to play.
Sound Rating: Great
4. Control and Gameplay
Much like Atelier Annie, Atelier Rorona is divided into three years. Where AA was three years where you did three seven month long quests, this is three years with 12 three months quests. As such the game is longer and more drawn out. Each of the twelve assignments has a specific request for you, such as making a type of bombs, or barrels and cannons for the yearly big party. Things like that. You then have the next few months to do everything I mentioned in the story bit. The key here is time management. Travelling to a battle area takes days. Making alchemy items can take a day or several days. Doing quests to raise friendship and trust do not take ANY days however, so you can do multiple in a single day and end it with travelling or making an alchemical item. As such, I strongly advise you to go to everyone in town, see what requests they have, do the ones that ask for items you already have on hand, fulfill them and then move on to something that requires combat or alchemy. Do that and you’re guaranteed to get one of the better endings, if not the true one.
Your assignment is determined by a number of factors, and your current rating is on your “status” subscreen. Zero stars mean you haven’t started and ten means you’ve maxed it out so you don’t have to spend any more time on the assignment. If you’re lucky, the assignment will call for something you’ve already mass produced, either via putting it in your container, or registering it at a local store where they will set it for you. I managed to do this with Ice Bombs and actually had the assignment complete after just a week in (I had to make a few Spring Cups). Again, trying to balance all of this might seem overwhelming at first, especially when you start off and you have little money and everything is at rock bottom, so your first instinct is to do a little bit of everything. Once you’re actually into the game however, you’ll be surprised at how natural setting up a routine takes. Then it’s just a matter of deciding who you want to take into battle with you and which area you want to fight in and gather supplies at. Once you’ve completed your assignment that is.
The great thing is that you this is about as open world or sandbox-y as a role playing game gets. If I just want to focus on making alchemical items, I can. I don’t have to do fights. I can send my homunculus to gather items from other areas if I want. The reverse is true too. I can have them make alchemical items and I can because a crazy warrior lady. Well, Rorona can anyway… It’s all really up to you and what you want to do, who you want to help and so on. I also love that there is a path just for being the ULTIMATE PIE MAKER.
Combat is pretty basic. It’s a turn based system. You have regular attacks, defensive stance, skills and the ability to run away. Skills take hit points though, so make sure you’ve either purchased healing items, made some in your lab, or brought along someone with healing powers. You can go at combat alone or bring up to two other friends. Everyone except Cordelia will cost money to hire however, so keep that in mind, especially if you are short on cash. Luckily Cordelia can get pretty powerful but bringing new people into battle also raises your friendship with them.
Another special thing about combat is that you have a support meter available. As Rorona is attacked or her friends attack enemies, the support meter for each character grows. Once it reaches a certain point, a character can protect Rorona from damage or get an extra attack immediately follower Rorona after her strike. Rorona should have the highest defense on your team and she has a skill that automatically raises her evasion rate once combat starts, so after a year or so in, you should focus on extra attacks rather than defense.
All in all the system is exceptionally tight. I did have the game crash on me three times though, two of which were in loading screens and the third was in a boss battle. As well, there are two small bugs. The first is that even when I earn trophies, they won’t show up on my “gamer card” or my “latest trophies earned” section, but they will show up on my personal collection and they can be viewed if someone synchs with me to see what I’ve earned. I could care less about trophies, but for those who do, you might want to know that going in. Now it could be possible that it has something to do with me playing the game before it’s officially been released, but that hasn’t happened with other early release titles, either from Nippon Ichi or other publishers, so just a head’s up. The second minor issue involves doing trust based quests with Sunny Crystal. Whether you do these successfully or chose to duck out, it will drop your trust rating by five points. This sucks, and it always happened to me with Sunny Crystal quests and never with any others, so DO NOT DO THESE. Especially if you are going for the true ending. Aside from these issues, which range from small (trophies) to annoying (crashes), Atelier Rorona is a well made game. Just remember to save often as you don’t want the game to crash and then discover you’ve lost two months (in-game time) of progress. Oh that was bad.
Control and Gameplay Rating: Good
With four core endings and a lot of extra bits added on based on your actions (or lack thereof) in the game, there is far more replay value to Atelier Rorona than in a lot of RPGs. After all, the game can unfold quite differently just by not doing a single action or raising a character’s trust value to a certain level. The only downside is that this is a full length RPG, so after you’ve spent three or so hours on a chapter micromanaging everything for a total of 30-40 hours, you might not be so hot to jump back in the saddle and play this for a second time immediately after the first. In fact, the micromanaging of everything might be too much for some gamers who are used to just leading their spiky-haired angst-ridden protagonist through a just killing things until they’ve saved the world. This is NOT that kind of RPG and again, it has more in common with simulation games than a straight JRPG. Regardless, Atelier Rorona has a lot of replay potential. It’s just up to you as to what you want to do differently on each playthrough.
Replayability Rating: Good
I was actually surprised at how balanced this game was, especially with all that there was to do in it. No matter what path you choose to go, or if you decide to attempt all of them, you’ll find that the game offers you a bit of a challenge. Monsters can beat you if you don’t adventure enough. Items can’t be made if you don’t collect enough alchemical recipes or tomes. Some quests might call for items you haven’t made (or don’t know how to do yet), so if you take them, you may inevitably fail due to the recipes being hidden in a treasure chest behind some monsters and the like.
Friendship can be raised through taking people into battle with you or by completing their quests. I love that raising friendship is what unlocks story bits (as does the overall trust rating you have) rather than the game being linear. This makes the game feel more fluid than a regular RPG, as well as gives it that sandbox/free-roaming quality that have made a lot of action games so popular. You have to make your own weapons and armour too, so you need to decide between turning that Ingot into a mystery staff or using it to complete a quest. Do you want to make five cannons or do you want to explore the Highlands? It’s all up to you. There’s no right or wrong in the game…just make sure you complete those assignments. I absolutely love how open things are in this game and it feels almost like a tabletop RPG experience rather than a JRPG one because you have so much freedom.
Balance Rating: Great
Now one would think after all the praise I’ve heaped on this game that this is a rather original concept. Well, it’s not. This is the eighteenth game in the Atelier series after all, and quite a bit of it falls back to the same concepts we’ve since since the start of the series…or at least since the series has been brought stateside by Nippon Ichi. Making items, finding tomes, battles and the like are just as they have always been. Even the three year plan has been done before in the series like the aforementioned Mana Khemia and Atelier Annie. So in truth, the core of the game is fundamentally the same as it has always been.
What Atelier Rorona DOES bring to the table is the switch from 2-D sprites to 3-D cell shading, a host of new characters, a wonderful laid back storyline and the focus on being even more of a simulation and time management than previous games (Although some had that too). In truth, longtime Atelier fans will find this game to be more of the same of what they have liked about the series in the past but with a face lift and fanny tuck. I honestly can’t say the game is that original for the series as a whole, but it’s still one of the more outside the box JRPG franchises.
Originality Rating: Mediocre
I had a hard time putting down this game. I micromanaged everything from the first day of the assignment to the last. I went around to each person who could request help from me, saw whether or not I could instantly fulfill their quests and if so, would accept it, go back to my workshop, collect the item and give it to them. I set my Homunculus (I chose the little Lolita girl one) to gather items and make large batches of high quality items that took forever to make so I could be producing while I was out adventuring. I would take the people who had the worst quest items in terms of ease of making or expense out fighting in order to raise their friendship level with me. I am not kidding when I obsessed over every little detail of this game. One night I even found myself falling asleep with my thoughts on micromanaging the game “I have to get three pies to Sterk, some honey to Tiffany and…ZZZZZ.” I even charted what items were most often requested by the townfolk and had them set up in shops so said shopkeepers would produce my product for me. It was hilarious to see a person who had my clear gelatin with a rating of 110 constantly ask me for some. I could buy it for less than it cost me to make it now. So I just bought it and handed it over to her repeatedly (as she kept asking me for it) until her friendship was 100. Brilliant!
Atelier Rorona is definitely going to be JRPG crack to gamers that usually prefer SRPG titles like Disgaea or Shining Force and it’s certainly going to make fans of simulation titles that you generally only see for the PC cave in and enjoy a console game as well. It’s such a wonderful blend of the two and I know it’s a game I’ll play for years to come. It’s that good and that hard to put down.
Addictiveness Rating: Great
9. Appeal Factor
The only real weak spot with Atelier Rorona is right here. I mean, *I* love that the game is a mix of JRPG and Age of Wonders, but who else out their likes that kind of cross over. Judging by previous sales of the Atelier series, not a lot of North American gamers. Which is a shame, because this game is excellent through and through…save for the crashes I experienced. It probably doesn’t also help that the story lacks angst, any real sadness or some world saving event where your protagonist turns out to be the savior of reality. The fact everything is so laid back here may very well prove to be a turnoff, especially for the Final Fantasy mindset RPG fan.
Again, I personally loved this title and it’s exactly what I wanted from an RPG. Each assignment lasted a few hours and I could totally immerse myself in it, then turn the game off after the three month span and it felt like I had beaten a mini-rpg. Repeat for nearly two weeks and it was a great overall experience. However it’s one I just can’t see the average RPG fan getting behind. Still, I highly recommend anyone reading this at least TRY the game, be they a newcomer to the series or a long time fan as it’s definitely the best Atelier game yet and it’s the second best RPG I’ve played on the PS3 in 2010 (Trinity Universe has been my favorite).
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
If you preordered this game from Gamestop or Nippon Ichi directly, you received a wonderful hardcover art book. Nippon Ichi has been doing an amazing job with their art books, especially those in their anime sets Toroadora! and Persona: Trinity Soul. The book alone is well worth buying the game and I preordered the game even with my beta copy NIS America sent me weeks ago, although in truth this was partly because I’m hoping the retail version doesn’t crash like the review copy did.
Aside from that crashing, Atelier Rorona was a wonderful game through and through and it’s just one more game on the pile of amazing that Nippon Ichi has given us this year. We’ve had Disgaea Infinite, Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love, Trinity Universe, Cladun: This is an RPG!, and next month we have Z.H.P.: Unlosing Ranger Vs. Darkdeath Evilman which I already have on hand and can tell you is one of the best roguelikes I’ve ever played. In fact, the closest thing to a bad game Nippon Ichi has published this year was Last Rebellion and that game was actually kind of decent. I can’t remember the last time a publisher has actually had a streak of high quality releases like this and it definitely has me laughing in the face of Capcom’s Keiji Inafune who said the following quote at this year’s Tokyo Game Show: “I look around Tokyo Games Show, and everyone’s making awful games; Japan is at least five years behind.” Well maybe Inafune should look at the insane stuff Nippon Ichi is churning out instead of his own crap like Lost Planet 2. Seriously though, it’s a shame that so many gamers overlook the titles Nippon Ichi publishers here in North America, because they tend to be the best Japan has had to offer in the past seven years RPG wise. If you’ve been foolish enough to let things like Disgaea slip you by, don’t make that mistake with Atelier Rorona and Trinity Universe. You won’t be sorry. I’ve reviewed over sixty games this year and I can honestly say those are the two best ones I’ve played this year.
Miscellaneous Rating: Good
Story: Very Good
Control and Gameplay: Good
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
FINAL SCORE: GOOD GAME!
Short Attention Span Summary
Atelier Rorona is a must own for anyone with a PS3. It’s charming, serene, and although it is a very laid back JRPG without any angst or world-threatening dilemmas, it has one of the deepest and most dynamic stories I’ve ever encountered in a RPG, Eastern or Western. The characters will capture your heart and you’ll be blown away by all the game has to do and how seamless the game combines JRPG turn based gaming with simulation aspects ala Age of Wonders or Civilization. Atelier Rorona is definitely one of the best games of 2010. Pick it up and see why.