Atelier Rorona Plus Review: I’m excited about cabbages
The Atelier series is a bit of a black sheep in the JRPG scene, well-known for being a middle-ground for multiple genres. Even a brief glance speaks volumes about the game: a cast of cute, young girls knocks many of the more extreme forms of conflict from the narrative checklist; its colorful art betrays its light-hearted nature; and a single fight is proof of where it lies between casual and hardcore tactics. Atelier Rorona Plus is the revamped version of Atelier Rorona, the first of a trilogy playable on PS3 and, thanks to the Plus editions, PS Vita. However, rerelease doesn’t do the game justice.
[Full disclaimer: I have not played the original Atelier Rorona and will therefore be reviewing this, the downloadable PS3 version of the remake from a gameplay perspective rather than focusing on its improvements.]
Atelier Rorona Plus is a clock.
The central cog in that clock is titular alchemist Rorolina Frixell, better known as Rorona. Bright-eyed, naïve and loveably clumsy, she slaves away under the tutelage of her alchemy master Astrid at their shop and home, the Atelier, in the town of Arland. Theirs is an upbeat and happy tale, devoid of a central evil or impending apocalypse, but not without taught strings. The hands start turning once the final gear locks in place: the Atelier is to be closed down, and in order to prevent it, Rorona must complete 12 tasks assigned by Arland’s government over the next three years.
There’s much to be done in Arland. As an alchemist, you’ll be synthesizing new ingredients, equipment, food, medicine and much more back at the Atelier. In order to so, you’ll strike out to neighboring lands and dungeons to gather ingredients, fighting all manner of baddies along the way. Above all, you’ll be racing the one law to which the entire series is joined at the hip: time.
From the left: Rorona, Astrid and Rorona's pint-sized childhood friend Cordelia, who is none too keen on her size. (image via Nerdreactor)
You have 90 days to complete each of your 12 royal tasks, typically requiring you to create and turn in specific items. What you do during that time is largely left up to you, but no matter what you decide, you will be using time. Synthesizing, gathering, resting, random events—everything knocks days from the calendar.
And if you miss a deadline? Perhaps misjudge a recipe or spend too much time away from the shop? You’re done; game over. The game whisks you back to square one—square one being your most recent save point—with nothing more than a “get it right next time.”
“Not as crushing as rogue-lite games,” you might say. Keep in mind that your most recent save point may very well be your last: if you didn’t meet the deadline the first time, what guarantees reloading from a flawed position will let you? If you saved with 40 days left, you’ve got time to stitch things up. With a dozen left? You’ve got a hacksaw and a stick to bite down on.
This is where the adorable façade of Atelier begins to crack, giving tenacious players a glance behind its cutesy minimalism. A gorgeous, almost pencil-drawn aesthetic masks the nail-biting drive to meet a fast-approaching deadline. Even the easiest of tasks can turn into a downhill sprint you’re not sure you can brake. On top of the royal assignments, you’ve got countless side-quests to tend to in order to raise Cole (gold) for your endeavors and stay on top of your friendships and reputation.
Never mind hours in a day; there aren’t enough days in a year.
This urgency is the backbone of the game, and flows through every last aspect—rather fortuitously given how simple much of the game is. Combat is traditional turn-based fare with basic attacks, each character’s handful of skills, and Rorona’s hand-crafted items, which only she can use. Fortunately, random encounters hold no power here; outside of mandatory fights, combat is governed by the “bonk it to get the first move” rule.
You can customize your three-man party by hiring up to two different partners, but all choices ultimately add up to the same two roles: offense and defense. There’s similarly little room for min-maxing in the way of stats. Higher numbers are better, and once you’ve conquered that imponderable, you’re through the fog of war.
Character stats as well as guides about in-game activites are available in the Library, a start menu of sorts. (image via lparchive)
Combat is deliberately kept digestible. Fittingly, a turn clock displays which teammate or enemy will act next, boiling most battles down to “dogpile the enemy that hits first.” It’s not boring, but it will rarely put you on the edge of your seat. However, more difficult fights—bosses which, I can confidently tell you, do not screw around—are more engaging, largely thanks to the Assist mechanic.
Assist points allow other members to block damage Rorona would take (in comes the defensive partner), and create combination attacks by piggybacking on her skills (bring it home, offensive). It’s unexpectedly satisfying to unleash a deadly combo after racking up four or five Assist points, and protecting Rorona is always something to keep in mind. She’s not a burden to the party, but you’ll want to conserve her MP for synthesizing whenever possible.
Gathering ingredients is just as straightforward: go to the place, find the things. Defeating enemies will net you a stream of basic items, but you’ll have to turn to specific resource points for the good stuff. The challenge here is budgeting the space of your basket. You can’t carry everything, so you’ll have to prioritize high-quality items and ingredients related to the current assignment. Revisiting an area will refresh its resources, but again, at the cost of time.
For your comparison: Rorona's original 3D model (left) and the model seen in Plus (right).
Combat and gathering are the silver and bronze to the gold of synthesis. The Elrich brothers had it right: alchemy is serious business. Dozens upon dozens of ingredients comprise thousands of combinations, complete with unique traits, cost, quality and more. There is no one-size-fits-all item; most requests requires specific traits, particularly if you want to earn Tickets, a side currency redeemable for items not obtainable with Cole.
You’ll need up to five different ingredients to synthesize an item, and more often than not, several of each. Making bombs? You’ll want a few levels of Forceful on them. Don’t have any direct ingredients with Forceful? Make new ones, filtering the Forceful trait down the ingredient tree. To give you more to play with, combining two consecutive trait levels (level one and two or two and three) results in unique skills. Hand-Crafted, for example, is unlocked by combining two levels of Quality, and is more powerful than them individually.
You’ll wind up with a network of synthesis combinations made possible only by upgrading and mixing carefully selected items, all for the sake of the best product. It’s an enjoyably involved process, and achieving a top-tier result is worth the effort.
This is a game at its best when you can’t do something, one cognizant of the fact that not having options and being forced to make tough decisions are very different things. You don’t have time to explore that area, no matter how valuable its ingredients. You don’t have time to resupply at the Atelier before heading to the next area; make do with the healing items you brought. You can’t ignore side quests in order to perfect the main assignment; do so and your relations with the townsfolk will crumble, meaning higher store prices and hiring fees (for party members).
Cannot, do not and should not apply pressure, but never become annoying. It’s not a matter of being denied options; rather, it’s the hunt for the most efficient one.