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Atelier Rorona
Platform: PlayStation 3
Publisher: NIS America
Developer: Gust
Genre: Traditional RPG
Format: BD-ROM
Release: US 09/28/10
Europe 10/08/10
Japan 06/25/09



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Note the calendar. Only 15 days left, Rorona!
 
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Girl power! Alchemy power!
 
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Everything uses HP. Keep it simple.
 
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That is some egg!
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Patrick Gann
Hands-On Preview
09/07/10
Patrick Gann

Like Paula Abdul did so many years ago, Gust's "Atelier" series is taking two steps forward, and two steps back.

In the "forward" department, we see a major leap in visual quality, which comes as a natural progression when you take your franchise up one console generation. Gust stuck with the PS2 for a solid decade (seriously: 2000 to 2009), but with Rorona they've finally jumped up to the realm of the mighty PS3. While the visuals aren't, on par with, say, Final Fantasy XIII, they are fully 3D, and look surprisingly smooth and fluid. Add high-res 2D character art to the mix, and you'll be charmed, quickly.

How about those "two steps back?" Atelier Rorona looks to be entering territory that the series hasn't touched since Iris (that is, since it came to North America). The original Atelier titles, particularly Marie and Elie, had minimal use for a combat system and put much of the player's time and effort into exploration, gathering items, gathering information in town, and then synthesizing new items. They're about resource management as much as learning new skills in battle.

This re-introduction of the basic premise of the Atelier formula is something I'd been looking forward to for some time, and Rorona (project "A11" in the Atelier series) seems to be the game that does this.

The exposition gives you all the details you need in a prompt 15 minutes. You play as Rorona (full name Rorolina Frixell), the apprentice to a reclusive master alchemist named Astrid. One day, a knight from the town's castle drops by to, as nonchalantly as possible, inform Astrid and Rorona that by order of the king, the alchemy workshop is to be closed. There's our inciting conflict right there.

Astrid, who appears to be completely apathetic to the whole affair, tells Rorona that it will be her job to save the workshop. After all, the reason Rorona is an apprentice in the first place is that Rorona and her family owe a tremendous debt to Astrid; years ago, Rorona's parents were afflicted with an illness that could only be cured by an expensive medicine that Astrid whipped up in a flash. Not having the money to pay, Rorona's parents instead decided to give their daughter as an apprentice. Life is hard for shy little Rorona, but she manages to make the most of her situation.

Further details are quickly revealed by the "higher-ups" at the castle. The workshop hasn't been popular among the townspeople, and more industrious folk would like to expand the town's factories to include the spot that the workshop currently occupies. However, the king has granted the workshop a chance to survive: if it can provide the kingdom with important materials over the next 3 years, then the workshop can stay.

Astrid decides this will be Rorona's responsibility. So forthright is she in this that she puts up a new sign at the workshop: "Atelier Rorona." It is now the alchemist workshop of the apprentice, not the master. Every 3 months, for the next 3 years (a total of 12 events), the workshop will be evaluated based on the type, number, and quality of items the requested by the castle town.

In this sense, we see an amalgamation of gameplay setup from previous titles. The three-year quarterly "assignments" are clearly something first developed in the Mana Khemia series, but the emphasis on time is played up much stronger in Rorona. Time is tracked to the day, and nearly every activity takes a certain unit of time to complete. RPG fans who played Persona 3 will catch on quickly.

Rorona will find the materials and recipes needed to fulfill the kingdom's requests by talking to townspeople, buying and selling goods, and roaming the countryside for rare ingredients. When she leaves town, she can "recruit" adventurers (usually her friends) to fight alongside her. Encounters are not random; you can see the enemies walking through the 3D field and you can attempt to avoid, or attack, these enemies. Some items can only be found on the corpses of the monsters you take out, though most can simply be dug/pulled out of the ground.

Rorona herself has two different levels: combat level and alchemy level. She earns experience for both, and attempting to earn both will ultimately cost her HP. That's right: doing alchemy diminishes your HP, and the only way to get HP back is to rest (which results in days wasted) or use healing items (which are hard to come by, at least early in the game). I'm only 5 hours in, and already I can see that strategic inventory management will be key.

Probably the single greatest limitation is the finite inventory. When traveling, you carry a basket that can only hold 60 items, and items cannot be stacked: if you have two heads of cabbage and three buckets of water, that's five items out of 60. Fortunately, back at the workshop, there's a storage container that holds 999 items total, but compare that to the three Atelier Iris titles and the two Mana Khemia titles, which had no max inventory (only a max stacking of any one item), and you can see how important it is to properly manage. When you're exploring outside town, it's not wise to pick up every last thing you find. You'll have to prioritize based on the current kingdom assignment, as well as any other jobs you intend to fulfill to earn more money. Money, too, is quite sparse in this game.

If you think you're ready for an "oldschool Atelier," which will actually be quite new to non-importers, I'd recommend preordering now. The level of quality found in previous Gust titles is surely present here, and with character interaction the driving force of the plot, along with a lovely provincial environment, players will likely have a charming experience. I'll reserve my full judgment for the review, which will come close to the September 28th (North American) release date.



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