I recently attended E3 2012, where I had the privilege of sitting in a large indoor stadium and watching as a pleading man had his face blown off, something my fellow journalists and media responded to with raucous cheering. Later, as God of War's Kratos worked tirelessly to filling the attractive projector screen with an absurd splattering of blood, I picked up my 3DS and spent the rest of the conference banging through some Tales of the Abyss 3D.
Point is, mainstream gaming has reached a level of violent absurdity, where the plucky hero of Uncharted can somehow continue cracking jokes even after murdering a good hundred people within the space of the past hour. If that's what you think games are supposed to be about, go at it, though I personally like to think we can make a decent video game that doesn't involve murdering everybody. Now to be fair, NIS America's Atelier Meruru isn't exactly the shining example of gaming excellence that the industry should be striving towards. But after enduring a weeklong celebration of blood and gore, I've found the game's cheery focus on fluffy pink goodtimes to be surprisingly refreshing.
Atelier Meruru is the third (and final) installment in the so-called Arland Trilogy, a series of PS3-exclusive RPGs which feature cute adolescent girls learning to master alchemy. As such, this game is really meant for those dedicated anime enthusiasts who aren't hung up on traditional masculine norms. Like in previous games, the overall gameplay remains largely simplistic. As Meruru, the princess of a small wannabe-kingdom, players traverse the world fulfilling quests, helping to raise the kingdom's status by investing earned development points in new town buildings. Banging out these various accomplishments at a regular pace will cause the kingdom will grow, cementing Meruru's status as a full-fledged alchemist. Failing to keep the wheel of progress turning means the kingdom's specified population goals won't be met in time, resulting in crushed dreams and a big fat "Game Over."
The focus of the Atelier series has always been the alchemy process, and Meruru continues to offer the same streamlined item creation system as the previous two titles. Basic ingredients can be cultivated from the game's simplistic dungeon/overworld areas, either located at specific gathering points, or dropped by enemies. Back in the kingdom, these ingredients can be combined into a variety of item types, whether healing potions or bombs to use in the game's traditional turn-based battles, or the items needed to fulfill certain quests. Complexity is added by the fact that every ingredient has a certain grade and bonus effect to be considered, and delivering high-quality items will fulfills quest requirements faster. Of course, some materials won't be available until certain quests are completed, as doing so regular unlocks new gathering areas or adds new features (goat milking, carrot patches…) to existing areas. Not to mention Meruru will also consistently stumble across new recipes as part of her studies, and the bulk of the game really does revolve around the constant creation of new and exciting items.
Of course, all of this item creation would be pointless if there was no threat to Meruru's alchemy career, which is why the Atelier series' most notorious enemy returns: the game clock. In Atelier Meruru, time advances with just about every action: traveling, gathering materials, creating items, resting up at home, etc. This means that every outing must be planned appropriately, and players who spend too much time gathering up useless materials while failing to complete quests, will soon find their alchemist adventure at an end. I learned this the hard way after failing to bring enough hay along to complete a mission, my foolishness resulting in an additional ten days of traveling and a severe setback to my kingdom's development. Admittedly, it's not too complex a system to keep track of, but it does mean that there's little time for dilly-dallying in Meruru's world.
Perhaps Atelier's most obvious problem is that the gameplay, though addictive, is a perhaps a bit too simplistic. Though the game is done up with an appropriate level of detail, the truth is that the core gameplay feels a lot like a slightly complex Farmville-style collection sim done up with some fancy window dressing. That being said, the detail really does excuse the game's arguable shallowness. The character graphics are stunning as always, while professionally voice-acted dialogue and fantastic artwork helps advance the plot. Meanwhile, the simplistic battle system is made a bit more exciting by Meruru's arsenal of magical bombs, and the occasional bit of fan-service will have 4chan denizens eagerly anticipating the lesbian tavern keeper's next cutscene appearance.
Overall, Atelier Meruru is a bit of simplistic fun with a lot of charm to go along with it. Though certainly not Game of the Year material, it's perfect fodder for the intended audience. If you're more the "shoot guys in the face" kind of gamer, then I can't believe you read to the end of this review. Did the plucky pink haired girl not scare you off yet?