"If games were cars, Atelier Rorona Plus would be a decade-old station wagon, fresh out of the shop with a new coat of paint and a hodgepodge of new parts."
2014 has been a busy year for GUST, as they've doubled up on their annual Atelier release schedule. A scant few months after the release of Atelier Escha & Logy, Koei Tecmo brings us an updated version of Atelier Rorona, which was the first game in the series released on the PS3. Not quite overhauled enough to be called a "remake," Atelier Rorona Plus introduces gameplay mechanics from newer titles in the series, as well as a retooled graphical engine and an extra scenario that takes place after the main story. It's undebatable that Rorona Plus is a better game than the original in every way, but at the same time, it retains many elements (a dull cast, ugly environments, and a repetitive structure) that continue to leave me dissatisfied, wishing I was simply playing a newer Atelier title instead.
The first game in the Arland trilogy stars bumbling novice alchemist Rorolina "Rorona" Frixell, who spends three years toiling away for the Arland government to prevent her master's workshop from closing down. There isn't much in the way of a main narrative; a villainous government official tries (and consistently fails) to thwart Rorona's progress at every turn, but that's about the only noteworthy piece of plot development. Instead, like most other Atelier titles, individual characters are developed through sub-events, most of which are optional. Regrettably, I don't like the majority of the cast, save for timid puppeteer Lionela and stone-faced knight Sterkenberg. They're too mired in quirkiness for any personality to shine through, and Rorona herself has the same "uwaaaaah, what's going on~!?" reaction to every wacky situation, which quickly becomes tiresome. Later series protagonists suited me better — I prefer Totori's quiet resolve and Meruru's spunky go-getter attitude to Rorona's ditziness.
Among the new features in Rorona Plus is a renewed visual presentation. The chibi-style characters and minimalist battle interface have been replaced with larger, more detailed models and a more detailed heads-up display. While the characters do look better, they aren't as drastic of an improvement as I would've liked, and seem to have the same "bone structure," animating stiffly compared to later titles' models. On the other hand, the drab colors and rudimentary architecture of field environments look like they've barely been touched. The locales of Arland are predictable and largely boring to explore. Likewise, the music is exactly the same as before, but thankfully the game comes with a large pack of tunes from titles through the Atelier series' history, which the player can assign to different situations to suit his or her taste. The voice actors from the original Rorona reprise their roles as well, and although new lines have been recorded for the game's extra event scenes, none of the performances here are especially impressive.
The game's two core activities, combat and item synthesis, have both been changed for the better. Previously, Rorona used a turn-based, HP-only battle system, meaning that every ability (including healing spells, inexplicably) utilized HP. This one-dimensional concept has been replaced with a standard HP/MP setup, which feels more natural and strategic, although it's still basic compared to other contemporary RPGs, including those within the Atelier series itself. It bears mentioning that two additional characters, Astrid and the unfortunately-named Esty Dee, also join the fray this time around, which should please longtime fans. Synthesis, too, has been streamlined; item traits can now be manually added based on the properties of ingredients, eliminating much of the guesswork in fulfilling requests for specific items. This eases the difficulty of completing mandatory story assignments in a timely fashion, although Rorona is still more strict than its successors in terms of story progression. There isn't enough narrative impetus to balance out the stress of meeting deadlines, as far as I'm concerned. An additional two-year epilogue has been added after the main story involving future protagonists Totori and Meruru, but it involves time travel and doesn't contribute to series canon in a meaningful way. Other small quality-of-life improvements bring Rorona closer to where it should've been at release, like a light gardening system, customizable workshop amenities, and quick travel via the press of a button. These additions make the game more palatable, but do little to change the experience at its core.
If games were cars, Atelier Rorona Plus would be a decade-old station wagon, fresh out of the shop with a new coat of paint and a hodgepodge of new parts. It's functional, and it's certainly in better shape than it was before, but when the Atelier Shallie-mobile rolls up alongside it, bumping that Dusk trilogy bass, the disparity in appeal is terribly obvious. Why go for an older model when there's a newer, prettier model with better handling right around the corner? Atelier Rorona Plus is a valiant attempt to bring the worst title in the series up to par, but it isn't quite enough to elevate the game to the same level as its peers.