Posted on May 23, 2012 AT 11:51am
Turning RPG lead into gaming silver
Even if I’ve not played every one of its chapters, I have a long history with Gust’s Atelier series. I still remember seeing the reveal of the original Atelier Marie: The Alchemist of Salburg in Japanese gaming mags, as do I remember my shock—and delight—when the series saw its first chapter to be released in North America in 2005 with Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana.
The reason the franchise caught my eye was because it offered up something that, at the time, felt very different: gameplay based around item creation. Sure, the concept of crafting food, armor, or even people still seems a little weird even to this day—but it was a concept that made creating things cool, when so many RPGs were focused solely on how much you could destroy.
Fifteen years after Atelier Marie released in Japan, the series’ latest chapter—Atelier Meruru—doesn’t exactly shake up the basic premise. We’re once again introduced to our requisite young heroine, this time played by Merurulince Rede Arls—aka Meruru, princess of the Kingdom of Arls. Meruru idolizes the alchemist Totori (protagonist of the previous Atelier release), and as we catch up to her at the start of the game, she decides that she’ll better herself and her kingdom by learning the ways of alchemy—much to the chagrin of her father, the King.
Atelier Meruru is still a traditional RPG at its core, so you’ll find plenty of monsters, townspeople, and quests. Those quests in part lead us to the main component of the game—the creation or modification of items via alchemy. Meruru’s presented a wide variety of ingredients from the various areas of Arls; much of these materials will come from harvesting, collecting, and mining, but you’ll also be able to procure needed ingredients from shops or completing tasks. Alchemy is, at first, quite daunting. Meruru’s in-game tutorials kinda-sorta explain how to get started, and then thrust you into a workshop where you’ll definitely feel like an apprentice alchemist just learning the ropes. You’ll know that you want to make something, but not only may the exact combination of what to use to create that something be a little unclear, but what that something even is in the first place might also be a mystery to you. Soon, however, you’ll be brave enough for some good old-fashioned trial-and-error, and you’ll feel like a pro at creating a small selection of starter items. If I add this, this and this, I get that! Oh, if I use this item with this higher bar, it’ll produced this better thing!
Meruru’s alchemy system—like those in previous chapters—can feel overwhelming and more than a little obtuse at first, but it also provides a gameplay aspect with a lot of depth, an equal amount of enjoyment, and a great feeling of satisfaction. What starts as the required method for making the items needed to satisfy quests from townspeople turns into Meruru’s biggest point of interest and something you’ll find yourself sinking time into because you want to, not just because you have to for storyline progression.
Another of the things I really enjoyed about Meruru is its focus on world building. Instead of having that selfish “I want to be a better alchemist” type of motivation, Meruru has that desire to work toward the betterment of her kingdom. As you advance, you can construct or improve on certain types of new construction projects, such as a magical academy or defensive stronghold. It’s rewarding to watch as the game’s world map comes to life thanks to your hard work, and not only do these new additions to your kingdom offer up the chance to advance your abilities, but they also grow the kingdom’s population. A similar world-building element was part of Atelier Annie on the DS; while Meruru goes farther (in some respects) in these ideas, the concept is still woefully underutilized.
What about Meruru’s more traditional RPG aspects, you ask? They’re—well, they’re good, and they’re not so good. Though the cast teeters dangerously close to becoming blatant anime stereotypes at times, Meruru has an infectious appeal to her, and given time, the rest of the characters you’ll be interacting with will also grow on you. Plus, you’ve got to love the character designs going on in this game, all of which are brought to life stunningly by some of the best cell-shaded visuals you’ll see in gaming today. Every time I see a new Atelier heroine, I think she’s far more striking fashion-wise than her predecessor, only to feel the same thing again come the next round of characters. Meruru is easily my favorite lead character from the PS3 era of Atelier. That dress! That rainbow-colored cape! That slightly askew miniature crown!
Where my feelings on Meruru start to get dicey is when we get to the conversation of combat. Over the previous Atelier games, Gust has brought a few new additions—the biggest of which is the ability for teammates to either defend Meruru from attack or assist her via follow-up combos. The problem is that combat here never elevates to anything more than serviceable-but-not-stellar—and it also starts to feel terribly out of place after a while.
And that, in fact, is the biggest disappointment I have in not only Atelier Meruru, but the entire Atelier series as a whole. There’s so much potential in what exists here, and as it stands, Meruru offers up a lot of wonderful moments. And yet, Gust continues to feel like it must infuse these more stereotypical JRPG trappings into the games—trappings that actually take away more than they add.
Indeed, if Gust were willing to yank out some of these elements, the Atelier franchise could become something utterly great. Look at games like SimCity, or the somewhat similar smash indie hit Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale—ideas like world building or item crafting/selling can be the entire focus of a game, and not just one of its elements. Atelier Meruru doesn’t need random battles; its near lack of combat is why—to this day—Atelier Annie stands as my favorite Atelier chapter.
Atelier Meruru has such great concepts, characters, and charm! The fear for Gust, no doubt, would be upsetting the hardcore fans the Atelier series currently caters to. With a bit of daring and some extra creativity, games like Atelier Merurur could be less for niche otaku audiences, and something with far more universal appeal. Games like Animal Crossing have proven that such concept can and do work—and if a switch like that were to happen, maybe the Atelier series could finally stop pandering to the love-pillow-snuggling otaku crowd as it tends to do every now and then. (While I won’t spoil anything, there’s a certain situation with a certain returning character in Meruru that’s just far more creepy than cute.)
Whatever I may want the Atelier series to be at this point, what matters most is what Atelier Meruru is—and that’s an endearing tale of a young girl of nobility and her quest to perfect the ways of alchemy. Like its protagonist, Meruru can be clumsy, awkward, and unsure of itself at times—but it’s also just so damned adorable, charming, and worth getting to know.
SUMMARY: Though the Atelier series might not be the epitome of Japan’s RPG industry, I’ve always had a soft spot for its various chapters. Atelier Meruru isn’t “epic,” “intense,” or “exhilarating”—it’s charming, friendly, and fun, and it’s not ashamed of it.
- THE GOOD: An enjoyable RPG that celebrates fun, positivity, and creativity.
- THE BAD: Meruru would’ve been better had it shed some of its old-school-RPG skin.
- THE UGLY: The occasional elements that could really turn off female players in a game otherwise very welcoming to those players.
Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland is a PS3 exclusive.
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