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Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland
Publisher: NIS America
Atelier Meruru is a real difficult game for me to describe. On one hand you have an RPG where you, as Princess Meruru, are trying to expand her kingdom and prepare it for the merger with another kingdom. Then there’s the kingdom expansion that is reminiscent of a town growth simulator. On top of all of that, you have an alchemy system that the game completely revolves around. I’ve never really experienced a more robust system inside a role playing game before, and I was definitely interested in trying something new.
Atelier Meruru is the thirteenth game in the Atelier series, which debuted back on the PlayStation 2. It’s also the third game of a trilogy that started with Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland. All three games tell the tale of the land of Arland as it slowly transforms into a republic and abandons the concept of rule under a monarchy. Yet aside from taking place in the same universe and the lead characters from the previous games crossing over and playing minors roles, Meruru has very little to do with the previous titles.
If you never played the previous titles, you are offered a prologue recap video at the title screen to catch you up to speed. It quickly goes through the events of Atelier Rorona and how she managed to become a great alchemist who was recognized by her kingdom. Then it jumps into the story of Totori and how she became and later became the apprentice of Rorona and then an adventurer like her mother. Totori soon became a master alchemist and moved to the city of Arls. Here our new protagonist, Princes Meruru, becomes fascinated with the art of alchemy and manages to become Totori’s apprentice.
And this is where our game begins. Princess Meruru is sneaking out of the castle, ditching her classes and royal duties, to study alchemy. Her butler Rufus, who is also her father’s advisor, is aware of where she is sneaking off to. Her father, getting tired of her alchemy shenanigans, summons her and challenges her to use her skills to help grow the kingdom within three years. If she doesn’t reach the goal she must cut all ties with alchemy. There is no backstory as to what is her father’s issue with alchemy nor is it ever explained. On top of the three year deadline, you also have another two years after that to continue growing the nation of Arls before the merger with the kingdom of Arland.
Starting out, you’ll receive your first set of quests from Rufus. However, afterwards you will start getting quests in the forms of letters in the mailbox at Totori’s house. From time to time you will also receive missions directly from Rufus again and even other characters, but primarily they’ll come from the mailbox. Missions usually require you to make items, food, potions, or materials to be delivered to people throughout the kingdom. The difficulty, however, lies in exploring the areas around the kingdom to find the ingredients for making said materials and such. This will take a while to do in the beginning since you have to explore and expand your territories. Other missions involve expanding your territories by wiping out monsters in each zone to form new paths. The last set of missions you get are accomplishment missions for experience gaining. This usually involves you either using your alchemy skills to make a certain number of items, item usage, reaching a new character level, or even collecting ingredients in the field.
Alchemy is the main component that everything revolves around in Atelier Meruru. Here you can throw whatever ingredients you have gathered into a pot and developed a multitude of items. You have healing items, some bombs, materials for weapon and armor making, or quest items like flags for the troops. There is a huge number of ingredients to find in Arland, most can be found literally lying around or are drops from the monsters you encounter throughout the game. Often times you will find that you need to make materials in excess in order to make something for your quest. Synthesizing items can, at many times, be very drawn out and tedious. Sometimes you will be in the process of making an item and find you can’t because you are out of ingredients or have yet to discover the items needed. But as you get further into the game you’ll find yourself in a better position because you’ll have more ingredients at your disposal with less running around to do.
The first series of missions will be slow going for the first time around because you have to learn to gather ingredients and read through a number of tutorials before you can finally be on your merry way. So for the early part of the game you’ll be wasting a few months as you try to get a handle of the game. Once you have finally completed enough missions, you can return to Rufus at the castle and work on your city’s development. This is the main purpose and driving point of Atelier Meruru. With every mission you complete, you will accumulate points that you can use to create buildings which will increase your population and increase the number of supplies and items in shops. You can also earn levels in town development, and with each rank increase you’ll be able to either develop more buildings or upgrade current ones.
The hard part, however, is that most missions give you a small number of points so you’ll find yourself taking on multiple missions at a time which can take a few hours to complete. It will also cut into your game’s time limit because it will require a lot of traveling around, gathering of items and item creation. Traveling to action zones takes a certain number of days, and gathering ingredients also kills time a couple of days. Each item, when using alchemy, also takes a certain number of days to produce and if you are creating multiple items, time will fly by at a record pace. At first, it is extremely unnerving to see time fly by so much, especially when you have to rest every once in a while to recover your magic points to perform alchemy. But once you are far enough along you are introduced to the Homs, a pair of elf like twins, who are a great help to you. The Homs act as assistants that can makes items or gather ingredients for you in certain locations. They are extremely useful for many reasons as it allows you to concentrate on other objectives while they work in the background helping you accomplish your goals. The only downside is that the Homs take longer to gather or produce the items you request of them.
Aside from the beguiling alchemy system and town building sim, there is a lot of free roaming exploration and combat to be had here as well. Exploring the world of Atelier Meruru is just like past games. You accept missions that require you to enter and clear an action zone of monsters so that more paths will open up. Running around each action zone is easy enough and there are some minor platforming involved here as well. The zones are also designed as such that if you so choose you can avoid battles and just go on your merry way collecting and gathering ingredients. Of course, you will soon find that that some items can only be collected by fighting monsters.
Atelier Meruru’s combat is a classic turn based system that is unfortunately a double edged sword. The combat is fun, fast paced, and at times involves heavy strategy. You play the whole game with a three party team where Princess Meruru is, of course, the only irreplaceable person. Meruru doesn’t have magic but is able to use items in combat, be it attack based or healing. The other two teammates are interchangeable, allowing you to create a balanced team. As you progress in the game you’ll be introduced to new teammates with their own unique abilities that can assist Princess Meruru. The two teammates have two bars that gradually fill up throughout combat. One of the bars is used as a combination or blocking assist. If Meruru use an attack based item, your teammates can follow up with their own special attacks. When the bars are full you can do quite a lot of spectacular damage. The other bar is a super meter gauge that when full, allows each character to unleash a devastating attack.
At the beginning of the game, you start off fighting nothing but rabbits, psychotic horses, and small mandargorian plant creatures. Needless to say, the early portion of the game makes combat feel unenjoyable and worthless. This gives you a false sense of security when you do finally go up against an enemy that turns around and wails on you pretty hard. The first batch of monsters that put up resistance was some killer pixies and ghosts. After a while of doing some leveling, you should be fine until you run into areas where the game then begins to feel a bit unbalanced. Deep into the game, I found myself trying to expand to the out most reaches of the game map only to turn tail the moment I faced pixies or a giant bug that nearly killed a party member in one hit. Even after upgrading my armor and weapons to the best available, I still found myself on the receiving end of a brutal beat down. These are usually coming from monsters that are of equal level to my own. I’ve had less difficulty handling bosses that were 10-15 levels above my own.
Unfortunately, one of the first weak points of the game is the game’s overabundance of still screen dialogue and conversations. While it’s not gameplay related, it does cut into it and kills any kind of rhythm or momentum you might have been having. Many times I have found myself trying to synthesize multiple items only to have a conversation interrupt each time I completed an item. In many cases, I would attempt to travel somewhere only to encounter a dialogue cutscene upon arriving at my destination. The biggest kicker is that many times when the conversation would end I would no longer be at my desired destination and would have to travel back and bam, initiate another dialogue cutscene.
It also doesn’t help that I don’t connect with most of the game’s cast. While the game uses these cutscenes and dialogue sequences as a way to make it appear like everyday life, most of the conversations just come across as boring and uninteresting. Some of the exceptions come from conversations between Rufus and his younger brother Lias, or from Meruru’s interactions with her mentor Totori where I really want to get into each character’s story. Other characters, like store owner Pamela or Rorona’s teacher, Astrid, just come across as forced comedic dialogue that isn’t very entertaining even at the slightest.
Cosmetically, Atelier Meruru continues to use the same cell shaded graphic style that the series has been using since it was on the PlayStation 2. It’s hard to say that this game looks good when Dragon Quest 8, a game that came out on the PS2 eight years ago, is graphically better looking in my opinion. Atelier doesn’t seem to harness the power of the PlayStation 3 at all. The cell shading gimmick still seems to be used to make Atelier Meruru pass as an anime game as it was when first introduced back in the early 2000’s. However, I’m not trying to say that Atelier Meruru isn’t a good looking game because in fact it is quite beautiful.
The cel-shading allows the character, NPC, and monster models to look nicely detailed. The main characters and most NPC’s all look exactly like their cutscene still images, right down to the strands of hair and clothing lines. Not every character is as detailed, though – as you travel you will meet most of the town’s folk who are just simple looking character models. In fact, you’ll also come across clones of some of these characters in your travels throughout the game. The monster models are equally as nice looking as most of the character models and in some cases are much more impressive. Enemies like dragons, ghosts, behemoths, and spectre warriors come across as some of the best looking models in the game. The special effects during combat are incredibly impressive however. Magic spell casting, special attacks, and item useage all come with an assortment of bedazzling colors, flashes, and auras that envelope each character.
The action zones spread throughout Atelier Meruru are unfortunately pretty generic and bland looking save for maybe the Arland mines and farmland. The mines are for the most part are rather vibrant looking with the large deposit of crystals giving off ominous glows of color, and the farmlands come alive with waves of grass weaving to and fro in the wind. Places like mountain paths, forests, and basic traveling paths all use the same dirt paths, bushes, and trees which don’t give off any kind of ambience.
The voice acting and music are the other weak points for me in Atelier Meruru. Musically the game really does nothing for me. It sounds like something I would hear if I were watching an anime like Ah My Goddess, as it’s mostly mellow background music which is played to keep you from getting bored. The only times the music picks up is during combat and then it really comes alive during boss battles as it gives you that edge of aggression and energy you need. The voice acting is a mixed bag, after sampling the English dubbed voices for a while I had them changed back to the original Japanese voice overs. Some of the characters come across as very bored when they talk or just way too overly excited.
My next issue with Atelier Meruru is the game’s length. For the amount of content that is in the game, with all the objectives I have yet to complete, all the lands I have left undiscovered, I was surprised that my game ended in under twenty hours. I honestly feel that the game should be closer to the twenty-five to thirty hour range with the amount of content Atelier Meruru has. It seems at first that you just don’t have enough time to do as much as you want in the game, but then the game does inspire you to have multiple playthroughs. On your first playthrough you’ll definitely be fumbling around trying to get past the opening act of the game as you are learning the system, but upon starting a new game all the awkwardness is gone and you can hurry through and begin producing items and expanding your town at a much faster pace. There are even thirty or so endings that are dependent on how much you’ve explored, how well you expanded your town, and how popular you are with your citizens.
Upon completing the game you also unlock a gallery of sorts. Here you can views models of every playable character, NPC, and monster in the game. You can search through and sample all the voice actors in the game and even read the library of content that you unlocked during your game. While it’s not a lot, it’s a good amount of content to go through.
Atelier Meruru is actually the kind of game I never thought I would find myself playing, let alone get heavily involved in. Some of the characters I truly find myself trying to connect with, especially with Meruru, whom seems genuine in wanting to improve her home by mastering the art of alchemy. The alchemy system is normally a part of most of the RPG’s I play that I tend to ignore, but here it’s quite robust and engaging and sure to take up the most time of your play through. The combat can be fun and fast pace once you finally get over the slow start the game gives you, but can have unexpected spikes in difficulty. Atelier Meruru seems to have made an unlikely fan out of me and I am likely to check out future installments in the Atelier franchise.
Graphics: Very Good
Control and Gameplay: Classic
Originality: Very Good
Appeal Factor: Incredible
FINAL SCORE: GREAT GAME
Short Attention Span Summary:
Atelier Meruru turns out to be more than I expected it to be. If you can manage to get past the slow beginning, it ends up becoming quite an addicting game with a fun alchemy and combat system. The town growing simulation is a nice feature that is sure to keep you heavily involved. While at times the dialogue cutscenes do kill the game’s momentum, it isn’t enough to ward you away from your pursuit of your main objective. Despite Atelier Meruru being relatively short, it does warrant multiple playthroughs and offers plenty of content, so you are sure to find something new each time. On top of that you have 30 possible endings, so you can try to improve upon each playthrough with a new incentive each time. Atelier Meruru is the first Japanese RPG that I have played since Dragon Quest 9 that I thoroughly enjoyed and I highly recommend it.