The Atelier Arland series has come to a close with its third and final game: Atelier Meruru The Apprentice of Arland. Don't worry alchemy fans; as I'm sure you know Gust has already announced their next Atelier game, it just won't be based in Arland. So does Atelier's "Return of the Jedi” continue the upwards trend in quality that it had from the last games, or is this more of a “Phantom Menace” scenario?
Well it's time to go back to Arland for some synthesizing, adventuring, and lighthearted hijinks. This time around you play as the third pupil in the line of alchemists: Princess Meruru of Arls. After proving herself as a competent alchemist in the second game, Totori has moved to the neighboring kingdom of Arls and its princess has forced her way into her Atelier. The king is apprehensive of the idea at first, but promises his daughter that if she can use her alchemy to develop and improve the kingdom to a certain point (before Arls joins Arland in becoming a republic in 5 years) then he will recognize her devotion to alchemy. So the set up for another game of time management and cauldron twirling is complete.
Since this is the third game in a series that just can't seem to let any characters go, there are quite a few returning from previous games. It's a lot like how Mass Effect 3 tried to at least give you a glimpse of what every character from the previous games was doing because they know somewhere there's a fan club for that specific Salarian (Mordin for life!). This means that there aren't as many new characters as you might expect, but since side characters are mostly there for their comedic value it's not a huge loss. Sterk's frightening face and Mimi's tsundere qualities are still good for laughs, and the new characters have their own foils to deal with. I particularly enjoyed the plight of the perpetually unlucky Lias as he found every trap in the woods and every spicy piece of food in the lottery style meal. Meruru herself is a spunky “can do” kind of character who is better at being funny than emotional and serious.
Like Atelier Totori before it the story here is a simple and personal one. Working on the development of an entire kingdom may seem like a grander goal but it's Meruru's kingdom. Unfortunately while the scale is the same the goal doesn't have the emotional impact that Totori's search for her mother did, particularly when it came to the conclusion. I guess it's lucky then that story isn't really what I go to Atelier games for.
What makes me really enjoy this series is the time management and alchemy gameplay. There's a bit more structure in this game's system than in the second, but thankfully it's not even close to the stringent requirements of the first. Along with the usual adventuring, gathering, and synthesizing, Meruru is given specific tasks to complete in order to develop the kingdom of Arls. Usually this means finding a path to a specific area, and then delivering goods you've made in order to make use of the land. You'll build windmills in one area, farms in another, and water purification plants in a third and as you improve the land, the quality and variety of materials you can gather there will improve as well. This last part is important because it means that eventually the kind of crappy little forest that was only a two day walk from home will get better and better until it spits out legendary Unis. You'll still have to make a trip for new materials, but at least the closer areas won't become useless halfway through the game.
Even if it doesn't result in directly improving the surrounding areas' materials, developing has some great benefits. Completing them will commonly give you a population bonus to your kingdom which is the main way your accomplishments are measured, but almost all of them will give you development points. These points can then be used to build beneficial facilities in your home town. A factory that gives you a monthly allowance, an academy that improves your alchemy results, and (my favorite) a training facility that gives your sideline characters the same experience as your front line party members are highlights. It's no Sim City but it gives you one more thing to work towards and lets you decide what improvements you're going to focus on first.
The battle system has been my main gripe about the Atelier series, and Atelier Meruru does little to change this. It's a fun enough system but it's so basic that most fights have no tactical decisions to be made and you're simply going through the motions. There is however a new super move that Meruru can do if you save up the support meters on both your characters. It takes three uses of one of your attack items so it isn't something to do much beyond boss fights, but it adds an extra wrinkle to whether you defend Meruru from an incoming attack or save up for one devastating combination. Overall though the battle system is still obviously not the main focus for the developers.
Synthesizing items through alchemy was definitely their main focus, and not much has changed to the general system from the second game. It's a daunting task at first with innumerable variations for each item's quality and traits and some recipes give you a surprising amount of freedom in what materials you use. There's really something to be said about a game where making items is the focus. Getting new equipment in most games is fun, but no other game gave me the sense of pride that making and equipping my first weapons with Rainbow Power did, regardless of how silly that sounds when I say it out loud. It's not just a matter of finding the correct materials, but making precursor items with the correct traits and figuring out a way to make an ingot with enough cost value that you can afford the trait. It's tough to explain without another page or so on how the whole system works, so just know that it gives me a sense of ownership to my equipment that I rarely felt outside of World of Warcraft (and with far less of a time sink involved).
Atelier Meruru has seen another upswing in the graphics quality for the series, but it's still nothing technically impressive. That said, I do have to commend Gust on getting closer and closer to making the in-game models look exactly like the drawn caricatures. Rorona's transformation into an 8 year old seems to me like an ode to how far this company has come on the hardware since she actually looks a lot like she did in her own game. My only real hope for the next Atelier is that they start giving me camera control, it's rarely an annoyance but it would make life so much easier.
The soundtrack is filled with those infectiously wonderful tunes that the series does so well and I really liked how different shops had their own version of the town's theme, but I wish there were more than just one song looping in the workshop since that's where I spent about half of my time. If you get tired of any of the songs you have the option to switch to songs from either of the two previous games, which is a nice touch. Voice acting was good although not common enough. It's unfortunate when important events aren't voiced, and I think a lot of the humor has more impact when voiced. I understand that this is a budget title and that comes with limitations, but that doesn't change my feelings on the end result. Also Pamela is still annoying, but that's more of a personal pet peeve than a critique.
Oddly Atelier Meruru took me exactly as long to complete as Atelier Totori did before it: 31 hours. There are a number of different endings, some of which are difficult to obtain in your first attempt so there's some replay value here. I just wish New Game+ allowed you to keep more than the equipment on your back. New Game+ is supposed to be one of two things, either going through and easily doing everything you couldn't do the first time around since you're crazy over leveled or keeping everything and upping the difficulty for a new challenge. Atelier Meruru's New Game+ serves neither of these purposes and is barely any different than just starting from scratch. The equipment is nice but since you still have to work at leveling yourself it isn't going to save you a ton of time.
The last couple of months have been quite great for JRPG fans like myself. With all these long awaited games finally making it to western shores, it's easy to forget or take for granted the series and companies that have been consistently giving us enjoyable and unique experiences like Atelier, but that would be a mistake. While it isn't the standard ideal for the JRPG genre, these item synthesis focused games can be incredibly addicting and no developers can come close to how well Gust does it. This is definitely the best of the lot, and I hope Gust and NISA continue their work for years to come.
This review was based on a retail copy of Atelier Meruru for PS3 provided by the publisher.