The Atelier series has been on the upswing since Ryza’s debut in 2019. Thanks to positive critical and commercial reception, developers Gust have finally received what they’ve needed the most: some breathing room. A seemingly higher budget and longer development cycle for 2020’s Atelier Ryza 2: Lost Legends & the Secret Fairy led to not only one of the best Atelier games to date, but also one of the best JRPGs of the year. Yet, how has the follow-up fared with even more time? Thanks to Koei Tecmo, we were able to get our hands on a preview build of Atelier Ryza 3: Alchemist of the End & the Secret Key. After just a couple hours, I’ve walked away thoroughly impressed with how much the series has grown and expanded over the past few years.
Unsurprisingly, Atelier Ryza 3: Alchemist of the End & the Secret Key is a direct follow-up to Atelier Ryza 2: Lost Legends & the Secret Fairy. It takes many features and elements of the previous games — including Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & the Secret Hideout — and refines them. Yet, such refinement of systems and elements isn’t limited to the Secret sub-series. Atelier Ryza 3 also takes notes from and pieces of 2022’s Atelier Sophie 2: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Dream. Of course, this entry also finally delivers on the promise that 2016’s Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey made: a nearly seamless world with massive zones that feel rich with flora and fauna.
Atelier Ryza 3 takes place just a year after the events of the previous game. Ryza and friends once more find themselves back home on Kurken Island, where strange events are again afoot. Moments after Ryza reunites with her longtime friends Tao and Bos, strange phenomena begin to occur. Islands suddenly appear in the lake from out of nowhere, as if drawn in from another time or place. Ruins and shipwrecks dot the new landmasses, yet something feels familiar about them. Could they be ruins of the ancient Klint Kingdom, or could they be from another world entirely? On top of the sudden influx of phenomena, Ryza also begins hearing voices in her head and visualizing strange recipes. With the support of her friends, she sets out to uncover the newest mysteries of Kurken Island, and discover the truth about the mysterious keys she’s created.
The first thing I noticed when starting Atelier Ryza 3 was just how impressive the visuals were. Not only do the character models look detailed and expressive, but the world itself has received quite a glow-up. Characters animate smoothly, and it’s easy to see the animation DNA from Gust’s Blue Reflection games at play. Another strength that comes from the aforementioned series is the cutscene direction and camerawork. Once again, every cutscene feels handcrafted, using the right angles for the right moments, all while accounting for the possible times of day. The developers have come a long way since their earlier games with talking portraits and stiff animations. In both an aesthetic and technical sense, every bit of Atelier Ryza 3‘s presentation is incredibly strong.
Most notable, however, is just how much the world has expanded. When we first visited Kurken Island back in 2019, zones were split off into their own little areas. The journey from the titular secret hideout in Atelier Ryza 1 to the sunken mines wasn’t exactly possible due to the zone transitions and loading screens. Yet in Atelier Ryza 3, this dream is now a reality. Gust has filled out every corridor and path between notable zones, which breathes a sense of life into a world previously partitioned by arbitrary screen changes. Now, the run from the hideout to the mines is a long and windy path that is chocked full of gathering points, enemies, and vistas galore. I was greeted with a warm nostalgia as I stepped onto an ever-familiar beach after roaming through craggy rocks and over fallen trees. It almost evokes the same feeling as seeing a familiar location in HD for the first time, and it makes the world feel larger and more connected. That said, players can still fast travel to any landmark almost instantaneously from the map.
Modern Atelier titles have taken great leaps when it comes to quality-of-life additions and adjustments. Using the in-game guide to track items, locations, traits, and effects is just as breezy as in previous games, yet the tutorials for the new systems are easy to read and intuitive. An appreciated change is the jagged highlighting of required material loops to fill for a recipe. Even for someone already accustomed to the synthesis system of the Secret sub-series, this is a welcome change and makes things even easier. While I’ve only had a couple hours with alchemy in Atelier Ryza 3, the system feels better than ever. Another small but appreciated change: the number of available slots left in the basket, and it goes to show that Gust had quality-of-life improvements at the forefront of their minds.
With open worlds, large open zones, or even giant sandbox maps, it’s incredibly easy to create a lifeless and barren world that is home to nothing and no one. Lately, Gust has seemingly focused on filling their worlds with plenty of items and enemies to ensure the maps feel packed, but not overcrowded. In Atelier Ryza 3, NPCs are dotted all over the town and smaller outposts, while a few can be found out in the world going about their daily lives. Approaching some of these NPCs may trigger a new addition to the Atelier series: Random Quests. These new quest types are short lived and on a timer, and they range from gathering items for NPCs, collecting a sudden upsurge of materials that bloomed, or quelling a breakout of monsters. Each of these quests mixes up the moment-to-moment gameplay, and while I’ve only handled a few so far, they keep things exciting.
On the combat front, a few changes have been made to the UI. Early on, I noticed the timeline was gone, replaced instead with a ring around the character’s Action Points, or AP. Once this ring is full, the character can attack with their basic combo and mix in their new skills at the end of the string. Depending on the skills or items used, the ring depletes and begins to refill once the character’s turn is over. At first, I thought the narrowed focus on just a single character’s turn might be a bit of a misstep thanks to my wanting to time assaults with other characters, but this new adjustment makes things a bit easier to do exactly that.
When in Support Mode, characters will use basic attacks to generate AP, which can then be spent manually on the controlled character’s skills, or automatically by the other characters when switching into Aggressive Mode. Spending AP on skills generates Core Crystals, or CC. CC is the resource required to use items in battle, and in Atelier Ryza 3, the CC system is finally perfected. It’s incredibly rewarding to build up AP to convert into CC, then top both resources up and switch to Aggressive Mode to deliver an onslaught of skills from your allies while dropping literal bombs from your inventory upon your broken foes. There’s an exciting back and forth in battle. The refined defensive system works quite well, and the synergy between all the systems and mechanics is smooth and intuitive.
After an hour or so with the game, I unlocked the titular secret keys. Once these keys are unlocked, Ryza can create hollow keys that can be shaped into other keys that have notable effects on gameplay. Keys may modify your synthesis outcomes, alter the types and quantities of items gathered in the world, and even affect battles by changing elemental properties or adding party-wide buffs. In battle, these keys are created once an enemy is at 80% HP or lower, and so far, it seems the outcome has a chance to fail alongside the end result being somewhat random per enemy type. The keys have a great number of effects, and while I’ve only just scratched the surface with them, I’m certain they’ll make Atelier Ryza 3‘s combat the most mechanically complex and rewarding in the series.
Atelier games are known for their massive soundtracks and diverse array of songs, ranging from the calm and peaceful town themes to the kinetic and catchy battle music. Throughout my time with the preview, I didn’t get to hear many new songs thanks to the focus on the cast’s return to Kurken Island. Some of the songs I heard in the original game, though their usage here is nostalgic. Hearing the theme of the town Rasenboden put a smile on my face as I immediately recalled hours of roaming back and forth completing quests for townsfolk. Of course, Hayato Asano’s signature style is on full display during the battle themes, and I can’t wait to hear what he’s come up with for the later themes.
Though my time with the preview was just a few hours at the beginning of the game, Atelier Ryza 3 starts off incredibly strong. The world is bigger and brighter than ever and the additional time and budget seem to be paying off quite well. Although the game was recently delayed in order to polish up a few more pieces, it shows that Gust really cares about delivering the best version of the game possible. Stay tuned for our full review of Atelier Ryza 3: Alchemist of the End & the Secret Key, which launches March 24th, 2023.