"Atelier Meruru is shaping up to be the pinnacle of the trilogy."
Cadena. The word is both the title of the latest Atelier game's theme song and a perfect description of how the series is progressing: a steady, rhythmic evolution of story and gameplay. Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland is the final chapter of the Arland trilogy, in which players are thrust into the shoes of Merurulince Rede Arls, princess of a rural kingdom and aspiring alchemist. With the help of her mentor, Totooria Helmold (who fans will remember as the protagonist of the previous game in the series), princess Meruru studies alchemy in an effort to revitalize her country and gain the approval of her citizens. As one might expect, this places a pretty heavy burden on Meruru, but her lighthearted disposition and ever-expanding support network keep things from being too overwhelming. My time with the game so far has been very positive; more likeable characters, addictive new gameplay systems, and little improvements across the board indicate that Atelier Meruru is shaping up to be the pinnacle of the trilogy.
The first thing I noticed was the game's eye-catching use of pastels. Light yellows, pinks, blues, and greens decorate the game's world and create a laid-back, whimsical atmosphere. The rural kingdom of Arls is quaint and beautiful, which is a good thing considering how much time the player spends hopping around town. Character models seem to sport a bit more detail than they did in Atelier Totori, but that could just be the result of Kishida Mel's increasingly elaborate character designs. It's not the most technically impressive game on the PS3, but it has a certain charm that many high-budget titles lack.
Battles are almost the same as those in Atelier Totori, but that's not a bad thing. The HP/MP/LP system returns, and combat is a standard turn-based affair. Meruru can call for her allies to guard her or perform a follow-up attack if they have sufficiently built up their assist gauge. Later, passive skills allow Meruru to keep piling on the damage after assist attacks when certain conditions are met, adding another layer of strategy to the mix. The interface is also quite polished, with icons that pop and considerably cleaner fonts than those of past Gust games.
The key addition to Atelier Meruru is the "development" system. Like other Atelier games, the focus here is on synthesizing items, but those items are now put to use in order to bring prosperity to Arls. Meruru receives requests from citizens, either directly or by mail, which she keeps track of using a handy menu that records all required materials and tasks to accomplish. Fulfilling requests causes Arls to expand in various ways, bringing myriad benefits to the player. Shops begin to carry new items, characters receive passive benefits related to battles, and new locations open up to explore. These rewards are accompanied by a graphical evolution of the game world. The first request, for example, tasks Meruru with weeding an overgrown forest. At first, the only material present in that area is grass, but upon finishing the request, the forest physically changes to reflect Meruru's work and new items begin appearing at gather points. In addition, every completed task rewards "development points," which can be used to build new facilities like a library to boost Meruru's alchemy skills or a stone fortification to keep citizens from leaving the kingdom. The ultimate goal is to increase the population of Arls within three years, a task that will require players to make use of every asset at their disposal.
It's a shame that we have to bid this series adieu just as it reaches its zenith, but Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland looks content-rich enough to keep players invested for quite some time. Check back with us for a review when the game releases on May 23, 2012.