Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland review
The eleventh entry in Gust's niche alchemy franchise is also the first to be released for the PlayStation 3, utilizing 3D graphics in place of the series' traditional 2D sprites. A direct sequel was released in Japan earlier this year, but I guess the Western publisher has been too busy not dubbing cinematics to keep up. That’s not to say that The Alchemist of Arland hasn’t been given star treatment when it comes to design, but the localization efforts could have been a little more thorough. Still, I think JRPG fans will be in for a bit of a surprise with this one, as I most assuredly was.
Atelier Rorona revolves around a young alchemist-in-training named Rorona. Rorona is cute but extremely ditsy and I’m not sure I’d trust her around any sort of volatile alchemy ingredients, let alone entrusting the fate of the entire alchemy shop to her, but that’s exactly what her master, Astrid, does. Even in the face of serious consequences (such as being shut down and forced to leave town), Astrid never takes anything seriously and would prefer to sleep on the couch rather than take care of business. One day a knight visits the shop and tells Rorona that it will be closed down if she does not successfully complete 12 tasks for the kingdom of Arland.
These 12 tasks essentially form the foundation of the game. Each one has a time limit of 90 in-game days, and completing them will progress the main plot forward. Being an alchemy game, the 12 tasks all revolve around providing specific items that must be created by the player. The first time you fail you will be given a second chance to carry on, but if you fail a task after that (or sleep for three months straight just to see what would happen, like I did) it’s game over.
Efficient time management is essential to completing tasks while juggling side quests, gathering ingredients, and leveling up. Certain actions, such as traveling to a new area or going into the wild to hunt creatures, all use up set amounts of in-game days. 90 days may seem like a lot, and at first it is, but as the tasks get more and more demanding and the rest of the game gets more and more complex, it’s easy to lose track of time and find yourself scrambling to finish whatever it is you need to do before the deadline. Also, if you focus too much on one aspect of the game but let another fall by the wayside, such as combat, you may find the latter parts of the adventure to be near impossible.
To find alchemical ingredients, Rorona will need to venture out into the wild where monsters roam. The monsters themselves are not the target, usually, but just so happen to inhabit the areas where random components--like acorns and twig--can be found. The 3D graphics allow these areas to be explored openly, but the paths are often linear and narrow, forcing you into many enemy encounters (though you can dodge or completely circumvent many others). The restrictive camera is also something of a nuisance as it never reveals the path far enough ahead to warn you when you’re about to accidentally run into an ambush.
Since traveling to and between action areas costs days of time, it’s important that trips to these locations are not wasted by skipping the chance to gain XP by killing monsters. You will do that in standard, turn-based JRPG-style, of course. You (and a couple of friend characters who must be "hired" in town) take turns bashing cute little slimes over the head, or getting bashed yourself by the game's decidedly more ferocious mobs. You can choose from standard attacks, items, or skills, but skills take HP (instead of MP or AP, which don't exist here), meaning it can literally be hazardous to your health to bust out powerful spells and attacks. Friends can build up a support meter which will enable Rorona to do combination assaults with her team, and this luckily doesn't cost anything extra but does take a few turns to get going. It's absolutely vital to stock up on as many healing items as possible since Rorona and co. do not regain health after each battle. If all characters are knocked out, it's not game over, but being sent back to town and losing a few days can be a death sentence in itself.
The alchemy portion of the gameplay is somewhat straightforward: you combine crap A and B to make crap C. Ingredients have different qualities to them that can affect the success rate of your concoctions, but as long as you don't try to make 100 items all at once, you'll usually be okay. It's a good idea to save before experimenting though, as you don't want to risk losing all your hard-earned items. Like the rest of the game, the alchemy aspect is fittingly formulaic, but in a good way. This is a game that's fairly intuitive and easy to get into, but rather enjoyable if you're not looking for too much of a challenge.
What also helps keep the game fun and refreshing despite its simple nature is the overall design. It's admittedly a bit cutesy, utilizing cel-shaded, anime-inspired character design and seemingly written by teenage girls for teenage girls, but the characters are all likable and entertaining for the most part. The 80's "we have to save my grandpa's apartment complex by winning the (random sport here) tournament" plot is also much more light-hearted than the standard "I've got amnesia but will save the world from a giant dragon-meteor anyway" storyline most JRPGs adhere to.
My biggest complaint is the game's presentation, particularly in regards to dialogue scenes. Atelier Rorona makes use of a visual novel-esque approach, meaning static 2D portraits of the characters accompany large amounts of text and stereotypical voiceovers anytime anything important is happening. The voiceovers are then dropped completely for smaller conversational scenes, which is one of my biggest pet peeves in RPGs. It should be all or nothing, not "this scene has them and this scene doesn't". I didn't choose video games as my primary hobby so that I could read all day. The nerve!
Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland is a light, colorful adventure that's easy enough to jump into but with combat, alchemy, and 14 different endings to unlock, is also layered enough to satisfy many standard JRPG subscribers looking for something a little different. The developers have described this as a step back to the franchise's roots, and combined with the shiny new 3D graphics, that was definitely the right direction to go.