"On paper, it seems rather simple, but in the game alchemy is presented as a very nuanced thing."
Sometimes you get a gift and can't really guess what's inside because of the wrapping. The twenty-first installment of the Atelier JRPG series is much the same, as I took one look at the game's artwork and wasn't sure what to expect. However, once the shiny wrapping is off, I found that at its core Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & The Secret Hideout is a solid, enjoyable gaming experience for those gamers willing to put in some time and effort.
I was instantly drawn into the colorful, bright aesthetic of its lively world, but I'm going to admit that the "wrapping" that made me uncertain about Atelier Ryza was the character designs, as I found some of them to look like fan service. The game tends to put a lot of emphasis on certain aspects of main character Ryza's body, and the outfit for warrior Lila is also a top fan service contender, though I should mention that I joked about swordsman-in-training Lent's outfit as being a slight mishmash of fashion fail as well. I found it a shame that Atelier Ryza went in such a direction, as I genuinely like Toridamono's art and the overall vision of the game's designs. The fan-serviced lens made me unsure what audience Atelier Ryza was trying to appeal to. Despite the title's more questionable choices, I'm ultimately glad that Atelier Ryza was my first foray into the Atelier series.
Players take on the role of Ryza, who lives in an isolated island village surrounded by ruins where nothing exciting or of import ever seems to take place. She dreams of starting an adventure along with her friends, the bookish Tao and defender Lent, the trio exasperating the rest of their village as a result. One unusual day, Ryza and friends end up meeting some newcomers: the meek Klaudia, who finds some new friends to encourage her out of her shell; the capable Lila, who Lent sees as someone who can train him to be a warrior; and Empel, who Tao believes can teach him how to decipher his ancient book collection. The mysterious Empel also brings an exciting new element to Ryza's everyday life through the practice of alchemy. It isn't long before the six characters become a rather close-knit family of sorts, and the three villagers suddenly learn that their "dull" village life is being threatened by an unknown force.
Overall, I quite enjoyed Atelier Ryza's plot. I'll admit that I did find the character development and story progression to be on the slow side, but that didn't stop me from ultimately finding the narrative insightful and rewarding. I came to really appreciate how the cast matured as the story progressed. Ryza, for instance, goes from being something of a daydreaming slacker to a person genuinely invested in the goings-on around her. Ryza's newfound appreciation for alchemy helps keep her grounded and focused in ways she never thought possible at the beginning of the game, especially as she fully embraces her imagination and creativity through its use. When all is said and done, I quite appreciated her journey as a main character. Lent had an extremely personal narrative of having to overcome a drunk and belligerent father and, while I may not have been the biggest fan of her character design, Lila easily became one of my favorite characters once the game delved into her backstory and reasoning for traveling with Empel.
Even the village NPCs have a lot of memorable scenes, from Ryza's long-suffering and exasperated parents to the guardian Agatha and Bos, another teen on the island who had a falling out with Ryza's group sometime back and has been trying to make their lives miserable ever since. Special mention should be made to Bos' character arc in particular, as it was really well done and showed much more depth to the character than I initially expected him to have.
Honestly, the biggest plot problem is that all of this wonderful and moving development is extremely gradual. Atelier Ryza has quite a slow crawl before getting to the main storyline, and I could see some gamers finding that pacing detrimental. Personally, I loved the detailed set-up the pace provided, but someone else might just as easily lose interest with the early portions of the game given how it only hints at a more overreaching and darker plot initially. Likewise, the ending's slow pacing could also be seen as somewhat anticlimactic, since the final boss fight doesn't halt the game and there is still quite a bit to do afterwards. I liked how the ending's focus was more about alchemical creations and how the characters had developed given their importance to Ryza at this point, but that doesn't make for the most insanely exciting ending.
Once you really start playing Atelier Ryza, you'll find a world of things to do. The main focus is naturally upon the alchemy that has so entranced Ryza, so players essentially gather materials from all over the world map and use them to create new items. On paper, it seems rather simple, but in the game alchemy is presented as a very nuanced thing. Each item's creation has branching paths you can take by adding different materials or different qualities, using different innate skills. That means that every time you create an item, it can be fundamentally different from a previous attempt. Experimenting with item synthesis gets extremely addictive as a result. There are always new recipes to uncover through book reading or experimenting with synthesis paths, and items can also be modified and leveled up after their creation using alchemy. I had a blast gathering the various ingredients I needed to create new products, especially modifying equipment and healing items to make them stronger.
Gathering materials is not without its fair share of danger, however. Beyond a few safe areas on the world map, every area has some type of enemy to combat along the way. Upon their defeat, those enemies also provide lovely raw materials for Ryza's alchemy. The battle system in Atelier Ryza happens in real time, and I found it to be a rather polished and fluid-moving experience. I quickly got the hang of combat and even enjoyed the tactical advantages of "leveling up" my regular attacks with AP usage. Linking character abilities made for very impressive battle chains, and there's a shortcut that skips the player character to the front of the line to use an item or skill before the player's intended turn that was truly a lifesaver. The AI for the party members not directly under your control is quite sharp and quick too.
Once Ryza sets up her own atelier later in the game, the titular "secret hideout," players can customize it by using materials to redecorate as they see fit, or by planting and harvesting materials in a garden. Eventually, a weapons forge is added to help further strengthen party weapons, and Ryza gains access to a device that uses a gathering material as a power source to create a "small world" where you can forage for certain materials. At about this time, the game also opens up the traveling by world map feature, which is a great way to move from place to place easily and provides helpful information on side quests.
Atelier Ryza has quite a wealth of content outside of gathering alchemy materials and fighting. In fact, side quests will open up all over the island with Ryza coming to the aid of various townspeople by either synthesizing or combating things, or even simply lending a friendly ear for them to vent to. I really liked how personal so many of the side quests are, and how much life they breathed into both the NPCs and Ryza. Finishing the game alone ensures more content to be had. Saving your cleared data opens up two new difficulty levels and events to watch, as well as a Bonus Menu on the main screen. Considering how much stuff there already is in Atelier Ryza, I was floored by there being even more to uncover!
With all Atelier Ryza has to offer in terms of exploration and gameplay, the biggest flaw I see with the title is that it lacks the option to save anywhere. Gamers can only save their game in either Ryza's room or the atelier, which means a lot of backtracking to avoid some unfortunate mishaps due to lack of save points. Once map travel becomes available, this issue is more of a nuisance than anything else. Still, having the option to simply save anywhere would have avoided many unnecessary steps.
Another frustrating gameplay element is the item carry limit. With so much gathering to do, and the fact that you can equip several different types of tools to help you gather even more items at a given time, having a limit to what Ryza can carry was detrimental to the overall gameplay experience. I'd often find myself running out of space in my inventory well before I was done exploring a locale, and then I'd have to hightail it back to the atelier to drop my collected goods off so that I didn't have to lose items before advancing again. A larger inventory size would have made that experience less frequent.
Atelier Ryza boasts nice graphics, and I found myself enamored by the visual presentation even if it was on the simple side. I loved the bright colors used for the island and its surrounding areas, and the contrasting color palette used to showcase an alien world later on. The visual novel style artwork used for certain scenes was lovely too. The only time I really noticed a dip in graphical quality was when event scenes played out. When you have to move the conversation forward, sometimes a character's arm or something else might move to a completely different position without any preamble that the motion was happening. The best way I can describe this visual discrepancy as is "choppy" animation and, while it doesn't occur frequently, it was rather noticeable whenever it did.
Atelier Ryza only comes with Japanese audio, and I was very impressed with the voice work's emotional range. The translation was well done, with only one or two instances of typographical errors to be found. Some of the highest praise I can give Atelier Ryza is its excellent soundtrack, as I felt like I was listening to genuine "ear candy" whenever I played the game. I loved every single piece of music I heard and even found myself humming some of the BGM to myself while not even anywhere near my PS4, which doesn't normally happen with me and OSTs. I also loved the vocal opening and ending themes.
All in all, Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & The Secret Hideout is a surprisingly personal game about growth and adventure existing simultaneously. I loved the plot reveals throughout the title, and had a blast creating things using alchemy throughout my time. Despite its flaws, this is a solid JRPG with a lot of heart, so I can safely say my first foray into the Atelier series was quite memorable. Ultimately, the gift under Atelier Ryza's questionable wrapping is worthwhile and has value.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.