“Gust/Koei’s ever-present Atelier franchise gets another taste of the Switch treatment. And last generation’s trio of Arland games are here one snug package, offering Switch gamers a fantastic entry point (it’s also seeing PS4 and PC releases, I hasten to add).”
These games are an absolute time sink, let me make that clear from the start, but there’s a lot on offer and I feel, on this occasion; given this release could open the gates to a new audience, each title warrants an individual review. This three-part series of reviews kicks off where it should, with Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland DX.
Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland DX
So, one day, an alchemist enters Arland, fixes some stuff, makes it prosper and the king grants them a single wish. Boom, alchemy shop in Arland (quiet, I’m not being as reductive as you think). Switch to the current day and your playable alchemist, Rorolina ‘Rorona’ Frixell’s job is to keep the place from being demolished by a creepy/greedy fat cat who wants… you guessed it, money!
Rorona’s lazy master, Astrid Zexis runs the alchemy shop in the land of Arland. Astrisd’s work-shy prerogative cuts the kingdom’s patience short so now, every three months for the next three years, the kingdom will give her an assignment to complete. Astrid decides to put the shop in Rorona’s name and kick back, leaving young Rorona to sort this mess out. With the threat of closure (and game over) through failure, our fledgling alchemist is tasked with completing the assignments within an allotted timeframe.
In fact, Rorona is a trainee alchemist who’s never actually been trained. With nothing but a trusty guide book thrust into her arms by Astrid, Rorona begins her quest to keep the shop in business. She’s the happy-go-lucky sort, freely shortening the names of those she meets before they’ve chance to say hajimemashite. Character interactions err towards light comedy and it creates a nice upbeat anime vibe.
C12H22O11 – How Sweet it is
Atelier Rorona DX is a graphically enhanced port of Atelier Rorona Plus, which itself is the definite edition of 2004’s PS3 original, Atelier Rorona. In a nutshell, Plus had huge gains in content and you’re getting all said content with slightly improved visuals. If you’re a series veteran, especially if you’ve had a go on any of the newer instalments, you’ll be familiar with the game’s setup and pacing but it may still be worth a revisit if you had fond memories of the original but didn’t see the extra content.
So, on paper this is ‘Fetch Quest: The Game’, but, and I’m pleased to report, this isn’t the case in practice. The Atelier series is all about alchemy and time management. Creating potions requires days at a time, resting time can be used to recoup, but leave your tasks unfulfilled and you’ll have to deal with a different problem; the looming threat of a game over. Translated in-game, this means you’ll need to be heavily invested in item sub-menu management, recipes and the reputation of the shop. Side quests are plentiful, though like most tasks in the game, boil down to a bubbly broth. You fetch, you kill, you mix, you earn. It’s fine, it’s all it needs to be. The complexity comes from the stats, traits and quality of your concoctions, which is a matter of trial and area; finding the right gathering points or enemy drops; storing ingredients so they don’t degrade; and levelling up your alchemy skill. It sounds more daunting in concept than how it plays out and it wasn’t long before I could work out how to raise the bar higher for items and equipment. However, even if you still find the proposition of menu-trawling a bit much, you don’t necessarily need to invest as much effort and attention to simply get through the game. That said, do bear in mind that those extra endings won’t find themselves (and damn, there are some very specific requirements; guide recommended).
Hopping between areas also has an, often substantial, time cost, making for some Persona-esque scenarios as you hurtle towards your deadline without realising it. In fact, the later Persona games’ template has a fair amount in common with Atelier, though on a much smaller scale. Scouring the streets allows you to interact with party members, nip to the local shops and check on your quest progress. Though the hub is on the small side and light on interactivity, it is a lovingly crafted fantasy town setting. The other NPCs look the part but they’re all a bit wooden, truth be told, with generic lines and little movement.
There’s a lot to be said of the art direction, with some similar qualities to the Valkyria Chronicles series, with the rural locations, painterly-palette and tones. The Alchemist of Arland, like the Atelier series as a whole, has some truly wonderful artwork, with Arland trilogy maestro, Mel Kishida providing what is probably the game’s strongest showing. The beautifully drawn 2D visual novel-style story parts had a massive impact on the overall presentation, assisting an element of immersion into your routine.
Atelier Rorona has an interesting party-building twist in that you don’t have a static team. Throughout the game you can hire up to two people within a slowly-expanding pool of friends, as required, to help you venture outside the town to gather ingredients. Relationship building unlocks special events and this element, coupled with meeting the right criteria, such as completing or scoring high on tasks, can unlock alternate endings, of which there are many. Hired party members slot in to your team nicely and, even if they are quickly shoved-in though circumstance with minimal introduction, there’s enough of a personality to each. Needless to say, Rorolina’s sunny disposition pulls through in everything, including battle, which is helped by the excellent Japanese voice case. If you don’t like the high pitched, over-pronounced anime style of voice acting though (as great as it is), you’ve also got an English option. Choice is the best!
Battles play out in a typical Gust turn-based, menu-driven style but the gimmick is that only Alchemists can use items. Rorona has a lot of choice in this regard, with her turns frequently holding the key to victory and fast levelling. It was fun to mix and match the items you cooked up but on a base level you’re effectively chucking different types of bombs at everyone for the most part. The only element of the battling I didn’t enjoy was the lack of dynamic camera. For some reason, all attacks, besides their respective charging animations, are viewed from an oft-awkwardly placed static position. It’s a minor gripe but it’s surprising how often I became aware of it.
Time Dilation Dissertation
There’s an ebb and flow to the methodical gathering/encounter cycle that sits-n well and, while you’re always going to have an eye on the calendar, it never gets overwhelming. Areas are individually split across small-sandbox maps akin to the traditional Monster Hunter games, sometimes with multiple routes. Once unlocked, you can fast travel to any specific map or sub-area, though doing so comes with a cost in the form of time, and of course time, being the enemy of us all, needs keeping in check. Other (less metaphorical) enemies are visible in the field areas and can mostly be avoided, which is a godsend for when you’re trying to maximise your ingredient gathering run, but your team is running low on healing items and MP.
Lots of quality of life touches are available with fast travel options, increased battle speed toggle and quicker field-movement speed. When fast travelling within the town, an icon displays to signify an event so, rather than having to walk and explore the town (which, would be tedious in given the aforementioned minimal interactivity of the environment), you can simply hit the ‘R’ button and pick from the list of labelled locations. The UI’s functional, though not the snappiest, and load times, sometimes an issue for Switch ports, are perfectly palatable in context. Again though, the art direction and menu animations really pull through for the overall UI presentation.
And now for the broken record: Aletlier Rorona works really well on the Switch’s small screen. Text size scales fine and the game is generally well-suited for portable stop/start play sessions. It’s worth mentioning there are frame drops and slowdown in busier moments, certainly when UI effects combine with field movement.
So yes, if you fancy living the merry-times of an adventuring alchemist, then just drop your soul into this unlabelled beaker. Atelier Rorona is a seminal entry point and comes fully recommended if it sounds like your cup of tea. Or cabbage soup.
Overall Score: 8/10
Format: PS4, Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PC
Price: £79.99 (three game bundle) / £34.99 each (UK eShop)
Publisher: Koei Tecmo Europe
Developer Gust Co. / Koei Tecmo Games
Age Rating: PEGI 12
Release Date: 04/12/2018 (UK eShop)
Review copy provided by publisher