I suspect there are many male (and female) gamers in America, a majority even, who are completely like I was prior to receiving Atelier Meruru; totally oblivious to the Atelier franchise of JRPG alchemy games. And I suspect many would see the cute characters and the animation, and the fact that you play as a girl and immediately write the franchise off. Personally, that’s how I was. I’ve never been big into Japanese games, particularly because I don’t like turn-based games all that much. My only experiences with Japanese role-playing games have all been pleasant though, but there hasn’t been many of them: Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy VII, the Harvest Moon series, and Rune Factory: Tides of Destiny.
In the Final Fantasy games that I’ve played, you play as a boy character who sets out to save the world from impending doom. Turn based or not, that’s a “manly” game. In the Harvest Moon games that I’ve played, you play as a boy (or girl if choose, I never did) and there is no combat; you’re farming and making friends with the townsfolk and trying to find a gal to date and marry, but then farming is “manly” too. In Tides of Destiny, you play as a boy (and a girl, they share a body), and combat happens in real time and there’s farming… It’s cute, but “manly.” With your first look at Atelier Meruru, if you’re not familiar with the series already, you’re probably going to be thinking “wow, that’s extremely girly.”
There’s no denying it or getting around it: Atelier Meruru is cute overload and does initially (on the surface anyway) seem girly. The world isn’t in danger and you aren’t tasked with restoring your grandfather’s farm and starting a family. Instead, you play as 15-year-old Princess Merurulince Rede Arls, better known as Meruru. She’s a bubbly and optimistic girl who wants to be an alchemist, but she’s also a bit clumsy and overeager causing her to act without thinking. Your job is to use the power of alchemy to develop the kingdom of Arls, and you have three years, initially, to do it.
Now before we get any further into the game itself, it’s important to point out that this is like the 15th entry into the Atelier franchise, and the third and final of the Arland series. However, you do not need to have played any of the previous Arland titles to enjoy this game. I’ve never played Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland or Atelier Totori: The Adventurer of Arland; these are stand alone titles. That’s not to say you won’t enjoy it maybe a little more if you’ve played the previous two titles before. Past events are brought up in conversation, and it seems that virtually every major character from the previous two games are in Atelier Meruru and many are able to join your party, which can consist of two other people (meaning you could go into battle with a three member party of Rorona, Totori, and Meruru… each the star of their own Arland title).
The combat here is of course turn-based, and classic style at that (you and your partners lined up on one side, the enemies lined up on the other). You can select which enemy you want to attack, and some attacks can deal damage to multiple enemies. Attacks are the standard RPG attacks using a weapon, an item (bombs, salutes, etc.), or a magic attack, although not all characters can use a magic attack (or item attack). I actually do enjoy the combat here a great deal despite not really being a fan of turn-based stuff generally. The layout here is crisp and the art style and animation within the battles is gorgeous. There’s even cheesy, but humorous, lines during battles like “suck on this” and “you’re dead before you can even blink.”
There’s a wide range of enemies to deal with; cute little rabbits to birds, giant lizard men to ghost… there’s a ton of interesting entities to battle with. Some are extremely easy at all points in the game, but man some of them are ruthless. Several times all three party members died quickly while above level 30 due to an encounter with some nasty creatures. There’s plenty of bosses to fight along the way too. The good thing with combat though, especially since this is a JRPG, is that there are no random encounters. If you don’t want to fight at a given time, you don’t have too. Enemies are shown walking around the map and you can avoid them pretty easily. Even if you get sucked into a battle you really didn’t want, or if things start getting dicey, you can always try to escape by using the flee command… And yes, I used it plenty of times.
You’ll want to be monitoring how often you’re fighting and gathering items though. This game does have a heavy reliance on time management. You’re given a goal at the beginning of the game to develop the kingdom to a certain rank and reach a certain population goal, and the days in this game go by extremely fast. There’s a meter when you’re out in a map hunting or gathering, and every time you gather or enter a battle, this meter will go down some. Once it goes all the way down, a new day begins. Add this to the fact that it will take days to walk around to the various areas (a matter of seconds on the world map screen), and synthesizing items will also take days, and you can see how the calendar starts rolling over pretty quickly. Luckily, time isn’t always passing. Unless you’re fighting, gathering, synthesizing, or sleeping (which you’ll need to do occasionally to restore HP and MP), time doesn’t pass. You’re free to walk around and spend as much time as you want talking and enjoying the scenery in Arls and any of the maps.
Control wise, and I never thought I’d say this about a JRPG game given my recent history with them, I absolutely love this game. No, you can’t move the camera around like you could in a Western developed third-person title, but this game’s camera and controls are amazingly fluid. If you’ve played the recent Harvest Moon games for Wii, or Rune Factory: Tides of Destiny, you’ll know how bad the camera is in those games. With this game, the camera will never once cause you any trouble whatsoever. And a lot of that has to do with the presentation itself. This game is absolutely beautiful. It has a wonderfully refreshing mix of 2.5D and 3D with anime style animation and amazing use of cell-shading. Visually, everything about this game pops and is pleasing to look at. It looks like a really amazing cartoon in high-definition. It’s extremely vibrant and colorful, and each map and area in the game is different and just a joy to look at it. The characters, enemies and the world itself may be cute, but the actual graphics powering this game are nothing short of gorgeous.
Atelier Meruru may seem like it could be somewhat intimidating if you aren’t familiar with the franchise. As someone is completely new to the world of Atelier games, I can safely say that that simply isn’t the case here. Yes, the game is centered on alchemy and how you’ll need to either purchase or find ingredients to make anything the game offers, but the game explains all of this to you in a fun and easy manner. At no point are you mistaken for a veteran of all things Atelier. The game eases you into it by introducing aspects at different times, as you would expect from any game, so you’re never overwhelmed.
Synthesizing items is quick and easy; you have a list of items, and you’ll learn more recipes as you go along and level up, and each item will let you know what the ingredients are and how many you’ll need. If you don’t have the ingredients for one item, you may be able to synthesize it. If you can’t, you’ll have to venture out into the world and find the item, which is easily accomplished since the world map lets you know what ingredients are in each area. Later on, you’ll be able to purchase ingredients wholesale and send Homs out gathering items and even synthesizing items for you (regardless of whether or not you have the ingredients for it or not).
And while the alchemy is quick and easy, it isn’t overly simplistic. Yes, you can take that route and it’ll be very simple, but there’s a certain joy and accomplishment by trying to find the perfect good quality ingredients with certain traits to use in conjunction with other traits to make a high quality item that has multiple benefits. So while it is quick and simple, it can also be as time-consuming and complex as you want to make it in search of the perfect item. Experimentation is recommended here, so don’t be afraid to make it more complex.
There’s a TON of cut scenes and dialogue to wade through here, and there’s more than a few questionable comments made considering the main character is a 15-year-old girl with a 14-year-old best friend (one older female character asks if they bathe and sleep together, another slightly older 20-something female openly fantasizes about the two of them basically going at it), but then I’ll never pretend to understand the Japanese culture. I skipped some of the dialogue that wasn’t actually voiced and don’t feel like I missed anything. Speaking of voiced, the title has the option for either English voices or the original Japanese. A lot of people, especially JRPG fanatics and anime fans will probably prefer the Japanese, but I’m not an anime guy and thus I found the English voice work to be sufficient enough for me.
As for the story, well there’s not a whole lot to it and it certainly isn’t the high point of the game. Meruru comes off as vapid in the beginning and like she just decided to pursue alchemy because she had nothing else to do. But, in pursuit of becoming a great alchemist, she generally does take it seriously and work hard at it, and not just for herself to also to better the kingdom. Doing main quests, development quests, you’ll earn what’s called “Development Points.” These points are then used to build buildings and upgrades to improve and develop the tiny Kingdom of Arls into spectacular for when it merges with the Arland Republic. The world map is a beautiful drawing that changes when a new building or upgrade is finished, allowing you to see all the positive effects and changes that you’re leaving on the Kingdom. There’s also a ton of side quests ranging from gathering, synthesizing, and hunting. It’s the kind of game where there’s ALWAYS something to do and “one more quest” ends up turning into four more hours.
Now it’s time for the part that’s probably going to surprise a lot of people: the official score. I’ll preface this by saying that while this isn’t a game for everyone, it absolutely is a game that everyone who isn’t familiar with the series or maybe isn’t a big JRPG fan should try regardless. Put your preconceived notions and biases aside; this game is an absolute joy to play. There’s no such time as a truly “perfect” game, and as such we think the highest mark we can give, five stars, should be reserved for something the reviewer finds extremely enjoyable and special. As such, I am absolutely awarding this game our highest rating, four stars.
There have been some really great and awesome games that have come out since May 2010, some of which have received five stars from me. Portal 2 and Uncharted 3 comes to mind. But I can truly and honestly say that I have not enjoyed a game this much since Red Dead Redemption and later its Undead Nightmare expansion. I invested over 400 hours into Red Dead Redemption single player and multiplayer, and this is the first game since then that I could easily see pumping that many hours into eventually; and it doesn’t even have multiplayer. Skyrim, which we haven’t reviewed, is a great Western RPG, but even it isn’t nearly as much fun or addictive as this game has proven to be for me. I’m not kidding when I say this game is addictive; I haven’t wanted to stop playing it, and I never expected to be willing to walk away from the multiplayer of Max Payne 3 or Starhawk so quickly. The only other game I’ve managed to play since getting this has been MLB 12: The Show, and even then I had to make myself switch just to keep my season progressing as the real schedule progresses (I play one game a day as the Braves).
Playing this game has reminded me why you should never judge a game simply by how it looks in screenshots or even watching someone play the game in Japanese. I went into this game, completely a noob to the series, interested in it but not really expecting too much out of it. Instead of playing it for a little while, reviewing it, and moving on, I’ve found myself having a hard time putting it down. I’ve also found myself being completely blown-away and downright shocked at just how much fun this game truly is. This game actually makes me want to go back and pick up Atelier Rorona and Atelier Totori, even if they end up not being half as good as this one.
I don’t make a habit of talking about other reviews in my review, but for this one I just couldn’t help but look out there and see what my fellow reviewers were thinking about this title. I’ve seen high marks (a 95/100) and lower marks (IGN giving it a 6/10, but then I almost always disagree with IGN). Obviously different people have different tastes. You’ll probably either love this title or hate it, there most likely isn’t much in the way of middle ground here. Like I said, this was my very first experience with an Atelier game and I don’t have a lot of experience with JRPG’s in general. I can’t say how this game is in relation to the previews two entries in the Arland series. If you’re an Atelier fan looking to see what another Atelier fan/veteran thinks of the new game, then I’m not the reviewer for you in terms of letting you know if it’s better or worse than previous games in the series. I can only say that I, as a complete noob to the series, absolutely love it. I’m thoroughly hooked on the presentation and the gameplay (the story is secondary to me and I can’t say I put a high emphasis on it).
Assassin’s Creed III and The Last of Us remain my most anticipated titles of the year, however I now find myself eagerly awaiting an announcement from NIS America informing us all that they will be able to localize the next Atelier game (Atelier Ayesha, due to be released in Japan on June 28th) for us American and European folks. Until such time comes, I can easily say that this is a title that will remain in heavy rotation in my PS3 for a considerable amount of time. I highly recommend you give this one a swirl.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review.