The Atelier franchise of games is a rather odd one. The 12th game in the series (not counting spin-offs) has been released in Japan, but in North America, we've only just started getting the games. Despite being from the same franchise, the various Atelier titles are pretty different. Last year's Atelier Annie: Alchemists of Serra Island was more of a simulation game than a JRPG, ignoring the occasional foray into combat. The latest entry, Atelier Rorona: Alchemist of Arland, follows after Annie more so than it does any of the Iris or Mana Khemia games. It may have JRPG combat and a wacky cast of characters, but it's more about running an alchemy shop instead of battling monsters.
Atelier Rorona stars the titular Rorona. Her family is indebted to an alchemist who saved their lives, and in exchange, Rorona agreed to be the alchemist's apprentice-slash-servant until the debt is fully paid. Unfortunately for Rorona, the alchemist is a rather lazy woman, so the alchemy workshop has an extremely low reputation and very little business. Things are so bad that the kingdom of Arland is threatening to close it down and kick out Rorona and her master. If Rorona doesn't want to be exiled from the kingdom, she has to undertake a series of challenges issued by the kingdom over the next three years. If she can successfully complete them, Arland will agree to let her stay around. It won't be as easy as it sounds, as certain higher-ups in the kingdom want the shop gone for their own greedy reasons.
Atelier Rorona is a game that lives and dies by its characters. It's fun and addictive to build up your shop and relationships with other characters, but the primary reward is seeing more of Rorona and the other characters, and that turns out to be a mixed bag. I found Rorona to be a rather bland main character who doesn't have a lot going for her. She's wacky, clumsy and good-natured but not in a particularly likeable way. The other characters feel like a list of average stereotypes, and they lack some of the more exaggerated qualities that give a spark of life to similar characters in the Ar Tonelico and Mana Khemia series. They're rather bland, which is dangerous for a title that is so focused on the characters and interaction. If Rorona and her antics work for you, you'll definitely enjoy the game, but if she doesn't, you're going to have a tough time with the rest of the title.
At its heart, Atelier Rorona is more comparable to a social game than an RPG. The bulk of your gameplay is spent managing resources to do as much as you can in a short amount of time because of your three-year time limit. Every action consumes some kind of resource, and your most valuable resource is time. Synthesizing a basic item will take away time, items and even hit points from your character.
As such, most of your time is spent figuring out the most efficient way to do things. If you spend too much time synthesizing, you won't have enough time to adventure. If you hang out in dungeons for months, you can't build up friendships around town. It happens to be a game that features turn-based combat and popular Japanese RPG tropes, but it certainly wouldn't be counted as an RPG in the same way as a Final Fantasy or Tales game. Atelier Rorona is a lot more fun to play in short bursts when you have a few free moments, so the game almost feels like it would have been more appropriate as a handheld title.
Since this is a game about alchemy, you're going to spend a lot of time synthesizing items. In order to synthesize an item, you'll need a recipe, which can be purchased from shops, discovered in chests or discovered by creating certain items. Create enough pies, for example, and Rorona might remember she had another recipe book with more advanced pie recipes stashed away somewhere. Once you have the recipe, you can pick the ingredients, mix them together, and create a brand-new item. The trick is that many recipes are not overly specific about the items, so you may be asked to find a "plant." You can put in different items that match that description to alter the outcome of the synthesis. If you put in Big plants, you may get an item with the Big trait. Traits are not exclusive to specific items, so not all Uni will have the Ripe trait. You'll have to think about your synthesis selection instead of simply grabbing a bunch of a particular ingredient and expecting everything to turn out the same way.
While this sounds complex, it isn't really so bad. Most synthesis is very easy to do, and finding the proper ingredients is more a matter of time than super-complex alchemy. There are some situations where you might have to think, but this game is not designed to cause stress. It's very light-hearted, and the alchemy system is mostly there to give players a chance to experiment. Each time you synthesize an item, you're wasting valuable resources, so unless you go absolutely crazy with it, there should be more than enough time in your three-year limit to meet the requirements for every challenge.
Synthesizing can be used for a number of things. Your primary goal is to meet the synthesis requirements that have been given by the kingdom. They'll ask for various rare items and expect you to provide a number of them, which will be graded on many factors. People around town also need alchemic items, and they'll submit requests to you. These requests earn a ton of cash and the goodwill of the townsfolk. Not everything they ask for is an alchemic item, and sometimes they'll be happy with things you find on the ground or in the local shops.
The really worthwhile requests are those that you have to synthesize to create. Synthesis can create powerful attack items or equipment for the dungeons. There are some places in the dungeons that you can only access after creating a specific item. These limitations prevent you from fully mapping out each dungeon too early, so you'll have a reason to return.
Much like Atelier Annie, Atelier Rorona features combat as more of a complement to the main game. The game is more combat-heavy than Annie, but it still isn't a focus of the gameplay. Many of the ingredients you need to make items can't be found in local stores. To get everything to complete the challenges, you'll have to venture to locations outside of the main village. Since this is an RPG, these locations are filled with dangerous monsters and rare items. The primary danger is actually the time that you're spending in the dungeons because of that pesky three-year time limit.
Dungeons are divided into sections, and visiting a section of the dungeon will take different periods of time. A small area may only take one day, but larger areas can take more. You also have to spend days travelling back and forth from the dungeons, so even a short trip to a monster-infested zone can take three days or more. If you get on a really good streak, it can take many more, so you have to balance exploring dungeons with keeping track of time. If you spend too much time in the dungeons, you won't have time to synthesize the items you're collecting. You're limited in how long you can spend in a dungeon because you can only carry a limited inventory in your "basket," and you have to make the occasional trip back to drop off your supplies.
Atelier Rorona has a very simple combat system. You don't have an MP bar, and HP is the sole resource that you consume to use special attacks or spells. Your supply of HP-recovery supplies is so ample that you effectively have infinite access to your abilities. Most of the fights in the game are simple, especially once you gain access to more powerful characters. Rorona can also get her friends to assist her attacks, either by joining an attack or taking a hit for her at reduced damage. The simplistic combat would be a problem if Atelier Rorona's focus was on combat, but it feels like the combat was included because it was expected, not because it benefits the gameplay. I would've preferred if combat had been removed or replaced by a minigame so that I could get back to the synthesis and crafting.
There are some neat elements to combat, but they're almost unconnected to the fighting. You don't have a set party in Rorona, but as the game progresses, you can recruit various townspeople. Most of these recruits want to be paid for their time and effort, so if you want to bring along a strong fighter, you'll need to pay him enough. You can get a substantial amount of cash rather easily, but it's a nice additional element of resource conservation. You can perform synthesizing quests for these characters to build up friendship with them, which reduces how much they'll charge you for their time. It's a good way to balance having useful characters with thinking about the cost of who you want to bring along. There are many ways to earn money, so you probably won't have much of an issue here.
Atelier Rorona is not a difficult game to finish. Most of the story-related quests can be completed fairly quickly. The meat of the game is finishing these quests while also keeping a good relationship with the people in the village. Doing requests for the various townspeople will build your trust and friendship levels, which has an influence on later plot events. There are multiple endings to the game, and plodding through and barely passing each event isn't going to lead to any of the best endings. You have to build up the workshop's reputation and Rorona's as well.
Atelier Rorona's biggest problem is that the user interface isn't very good. In many areas, the text is amazingly small, even on an HDTV. Having to squint to pick out the proper ingredient name from a huge list of potential items gets tiresome really quickly, and it may be pretty much impossible on a standard television. I can understand that the basket limits the number of items that you can bring back from a trip, but the gameplay experience would be improved if a few minor interface changes let me access the collection of items when I'm not in the field.
On the other hand, there are some really nice new features as well. Any time you take a request from a shop, you're given the chance to see if it's possible for you to finish that request in the time period. Rorona will tell you if you need more ingredients, don't know the recipe, or if you could turn it in right away. It's a nice feature and helps save on some menu exploration time.
I didn't find Atelier Rorona's visuals to be very charming. This is one of the first Gust games to switch over from high-quality 2-D sprites to 3-D models, and the 3-D models are not very good. While they have a charming anime-style quality, the animations are rather bland. This is especially noticeable in combat, where the attack animations are boring and unmemorable, the interaction between enemies and characters lacks any weight, and it's just an overall uninteresting experience.
It's difficult to come to this game from titles like Mana Khemia 2, where even the basic attacks were beautifully animated, bright and vivid. Most of the story is told in a visual novel style, using static portraits and occasionally large still art, much like the older games. It isn't a step back, but without the charming sprites, it feels like one.
The soundtrack, on the other hand, is reasonably good. It doesn't have any particularly exceptional tunes, but the music makes a good backdrop to the synthesizing and dungeoneering. The voice acting is good, and players are given the choice between Japanese and American voices. I rather liked the American voice acting, which did a good job of capturing the feel of the characters.
Atelier Rorona: Alchemist of Arland isn't a bad game, but it isn't a particularly great one, either. Like Atelier Annie, it's focused more on the social aspects instead of the RPG aspects, almost to the point where the RPG elements drag down the rest of the game. The 3-D visuals lack the distinctive charm of Gust's previous efforts, and the characters feel average. If Rorona's characters work for you, there is a lot to like here, and you'll get a lot of interaction with them. Others might want to look elsewhere, as there are better games available in the same genre.
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