As Paula Abdul instructed us to do two decades ago, RPG developer Gust has decided to take “two steps forward” and “two steps back” with their latest title, Atelier Rorona. The 11th game in the Atelier series (discounting handheld titles and ports), Rorona advances both graphically and in the context of time-based limitations, but it also re-emphasizes alchemy and character interaction over exploration and combat, like in the days of old. The end result is a game that is certainly pleasant, but also extremely challenging.
Time Waits For No Woman
Those of us who have played the 9th and 10th games in the Atelier series (Mana Khemia 1 and 2) are familiar with the 3-year model. In both of those games, students went through three years of alchemy academy, turning in assignments and completing projects in regular intervals. The overall concept was pretty straightforward. The 3-year scenario is used again in Atelier Rorona, although the context here is quite different.
Rorona, the apprentice girl to master alchemist Astrid, is informed that the alchemy shop in her town is to be closed down by order of the king, presumably to make way for some industrial factories. Rorona’s only way out is to prove that the workshop still has some value to the townspeople. Astrid had been slacking in her work, perhaps intentionally, and was generally apathetic to the distress. But she saw a spark of talent and motivation in Rorona, and decided to rename the workshop “Atelier Rorona.” Having essentially handed over the keys, it would be up to Rorona to save the workshop. That’s the entire premise of the game.
To do so, the king agrees to let the workshop undergo a trial period, wherein it will prove its worth to the kingdom by completing special orders every 3 months for the next 3 years. In other words, 12 assignments. In doing these assignments, Rorona will have to learn new recipes, find ways to increase the quality and quantity of outputs, and explore the fields and dungeons neighboring the castle town central to the continent of Arland.
At its core, Atelier Rorona is fundamentally different from all other games, as it is truly a race against the clock. There was some time-based pressure in the Mana Khemia titles, but you could explore dungeons and level-grind to your heart’s content without letting a single week go by. In Atelier Rorona, nearly every activity is going to cost you some time, including earning money and collecting raw ingredients. In this game, the adage is true: “time is money.” Resources will always be limited; there is no way to stop the clock and gather, synthesize, or fight enemies for extended periods of time. At some point, you have to wise up and complete your assignments, or you will fail.
Almost everything about this game’s design strikes me as authentic and, at times, powerful. Starting with the graphics, let’s just say that for the developer (Gust) and publisher (NIS America), the transition to 3D was a big deal. They could’ve fallen on their faces in the attempt, but they took their time and got it right.
In-game characters are perfectly cel-shaded. Animation is smooth and fluid in almost all instances. The 3D environments are simple, colorful, and at times provocative. Of course, Gust still shines in their 2D character portraits. They’re more detailed, varied, and expressive than ever before. I was particularly impressed with this game’s version of the ever-popular ghost Pamela Ibis.
And while we’re on the topic, I may as well talk about the characters themselves. They, too, are “crafted” – by the scenario writers. Our protagonist, Rorona, is generally pleasant and chipper, but she’s also somewhat shy and often lacking in confidence. Cordelia, Rorona’s childhood friend (and the first of six playable characters outside Rorona), is a stubborn, spunky little girl, and the heiress of a wealthy family. She likes to poke fun at Rorona and demonstrate what she believes to be her clear superiority, but she also guards Rorona and wants to keep Rorona as her own. The relationship is not unlike Cornet and Etoile from the game Rhapsody, though in this case the friendship is more important than any presumed rivalry.
One of the game’s four shopkeepers joins your party early on. His name is Iksel, and he runs the local cafe. He fights with a giant iron pan (Princess from Mario RPG, anyone?). Of the game’s seven playable characters, he seems to get the least character development while in the party, but that is made up for by his time spent running a shop.
The young knight who originally delivered the bad news about the workshop to Rorona is also a playable character. His name is Sterkenburg, and he is bored out of his mind by the menial tasks he’s left to do at the castle. Thus, adventuring with Rorona is a nice distraction from the duties of a soldier during times of peace.
My favorite character of the bunch is a puppeteer named Lionela. Her “puppets” are two talking, floating cats named Aranya (female) and Horoholo (male). In combat, Aranya heals and Horoholo attacks with magic. Lionela is ten times as shy as Rorona, so in this case the relationship dynamic leads to Rorona becoming the courageous one.
The son of the game’s presumed villain (the man who wants to build factories where the workshop resides), Tantris is a traveling bard whose sole purpose in life seems to be charming the ladies. He loves to flirt. In the context of all the characters’ relationships, he’s a great catalyst to see the most emotion come out of master alchemist Astrid and Cordelia, both of whom are quite protective of Rorona.
Finally, there’s the old man, Gio. For all the innuendo this game sports, I was glad to see that they didn’t make the old guy a pervert. Gio is a noble man in every respect. He’s also, without question, the strongest character, and basically necessary to bring with you to any endgame dungeon during the third year.
Outside of the seven playable characters, there are many important non-playable characters, including shopkeepers, Rorona’s parents, and a created life-form nicknamed “Hom” (it’s a homunculus). Though there is some depth to all of these characters, players will struggle to learn more about each character, for reasons detailed elsewhere in the review. Again, time stops for no (wo)man.
I’ll also note, very quickly, the game’s audio. As usual, the soundtrack is strong. The “provincial town” aspect is particularly strong; Ken Nakagawa used all sorts of strange instruments on this one to get a “homemade” feel to the audio. As for the voice acting, the English VAs are excellent, though the amount of recorded English voice is about half that of the Japanese voicing. So if you want quantity over quality, keep the Japanese voice setting on. Me? I switch back and forth to get a feel for both languages.
You Can Please Everyone…
…It’s just really, really hard to do.
Atelier Rorona has four basic endings, alongside some character-specific ending scenarios and other special scenes. The four endings are: Bad, Normal, Good, and “True.” As stated explicitly in the game’s opening scenes, Rorona’s job is to keep the workshop open by completing assignments for the king. If you do this successfully, it will net you either the Normal or True ending. You see, this is one of two requirements. Rorona also has a “popularity” status with all the townspeople, which she can increase by taking on jobs for regular townspeople. Synthesizing items with certain qualities, hunting down enemies in a dungeon, the sort of thing you saw on the old task boards starting with A8 (Atelier Iris 3).
Here’s the thing: finding time to satisfy the king and the townspeople both is quite challenging. In my first play through the game (which took 24 hours) I got the Normal ending. Helping out the king was something I could do in 90 day increments. But my popularity? I had a 22% rating with the townspeople, and you need 80% or higher to get the True ending. If you satisfy the townspeople but you do not meet the king’s requirements, you’ll get the “Good” ending. Failing to meet either requirement by the end of 3 years? That’s the bad ending. No matter what you do, you will have exactly 3 years. There is no “game over” before that. Dying in battle will just cost you some days while you’re sent home with 1 HP per character.
In addition to the four basic endings, you can get one or more ending scenes for specific characters. You need to reach a 100% “friendship” rating with each of these people, which is done the same way one boosts popularity with the townspeople: complete requests. You get paid either way, but when you do a job for, say, Cordelia, it won’t affect your rating with the whole town: just with Cordelia.
It’s possible to get the True Ending on the first go-around, but you’re unlikely to do it without walkthroughs and multiple save files. The game is short enough that it encourages a second playthrough (new game plus only lets you carry over your money; no items, no recipes). Elitists and/or people familiar with the Atelier series will get the most enjoyment out of the game because of the sheer difficulty involved with time management. Casual players should either be ready for a challenge or an unsatisfying ending when playing this game. The journey towards the ending is plenty of fun, too, but it’s an awful feeling when you invest all your time into, say, unlocking every recipe and making at least one of every item, only to find out that this doesn’t matter to anyone. Meeting customer demands should be Rorona’s sole motivation.
HP > All
Who needs MP, TP, and all manner of other points when you can just make one generic point system? Rorona’s health, or “HP,” is tied directly to everything she does; even synthesis! Synthesizing items will cost you HP. Using special abilities in battle costs HP. And, of course, enemies rob you of HP by attacking you. Death comes quickly for the unprepared; and, worst of all, your inventory space is limited, so you can only bring so many healing items with you to a dungeon.
Even outside of the dungeon, you can make Rorona waste away in the workshop if you’re not careful. There’s a couch where she can rest if her HP gets too low. But, of course, resting means days lost! If there’s one thing you cannot afford to lose, it’s time. So be careful, particularly in battle!
There are actually two forms of experience points, though. Everyone has their own “adventurer level,” which is essentially their combat level. However, Rorona herself has an “alchemy level,” which increases by making more items (and harder kinds of items). Some items have a prerequisite level to reach; you can attempt to make, say, an elixir before you’re alchemy level is 20 or higher, but you’re liable to fail, which means you’ve wasted precious ingredients.
The only true complaint I have about Atelier Rorona is the inventory system. No, not the fact that you’re limited to 60 fully un-stackable items. That’s frustrating, but it’s all a part of the limited time & resources model that’s pushed so heavily in this game. No, my problem is managing said inventory.
You have a basket that holds 60 items, right? At the shop, you can hold an additional 999 items in a generic “Container.” And how do you move items around? I’ll tell you: one at a time. Well, technically, you can hit triangle, then select “move item(s) to Container,” then select all the items, and execute. That’s slightly faster. But even then, you put a check mark on each item’s icon in your basket first. There’s no dragging while holding X, even though that would make sense, since you can organize items by type. So, say I wanted to move all of my feathers and stones in one move. Too bad! I’ll still have to hit X 35 times in order to move them. Fortunately, screwing around in your inventory doesn’t use up time intervals. If it did, I’d use up a whole month just trying to put items where I want them!
Near the end of the game, you gain access to a recipe for a special item that lets you access the 999-item container from anywhere: shops, dungeons, the castle, it doesn’t matter. Frankly, I think this item ought to be made available within the first year. But even if it weren’t, what matters most is that they ought to make it easier to select groups of items instead of individual items.
There’s a reason why items are counted individually instead of stacking: each item comes with its own unique traits and a quality rating. It’s all part of what makes the synthesis system in the Atelier series so grand, so complex, and so compelling. But even then, previous Atelier titles have found ways to stack items. I suppose “micromanaging” is another feature of this game, though. Let me be the first to say that it’s one feature I’d gladly do without.
Becoming the Master Alchemist
When I started playing, I didn’t know what to think of Atelier Rorona. In some ways, I still don’t. I don’t quite have my mind made up on whether or not this game spells good or bad things for the series. There’s no doubt that it’s the most challenging game since the first Atelier Iris (keep in mind, I haven’t played Marie through Viorate, since no one has localized them). I know that while I definitely enjoyed this game, it was difficult to work within the time constraints. There was more I wanted to enjoy, but I wouldn’t be able to; not without repeating a lot of the same stuff in a second or third play through the game.
Looking ahead, Atelier Totori is already out in Japan. it is the second “Alchemist of Arland” title, it’s another PS3 exclusive, and in it, you play as Rorona’s apprentice. Now Rorona is a master alchemist, and the new girl, Totori, will learn from her! The strange blend of old Atelier style and new Atelier gameplay concepts works fairly well, but where will it go in the next game? I’m cautiously optimistic. If nothing else, Atelier Rorona is a unique departure/arrival point for the series’ future. If you have a PS3, I’d recommend that you give it the old college try. See if you, too, can make it through all three years!