One of the first games to be released in 2021 may actually be one of the best.
- Developer: GUST
- Publisher:Koei Tecmo
- Release date: 26th January 2021
- Genre: JRPG
- Platforms: PS5, PS4, Nintendo Switch
- Reviewed on: PS5 via Backward Compatibility
- Game Supplied by: Publisher
The Atelier series has been running since 1997, and in that time, there have been 22 main games. Never in the history of the franchise has there been a direct sequel to a previous game, but such was the incredible reception and financial success for the developer of Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & the Secret Hideout, they knew that they had hit a rich vein of form and decided to produce Atelier Ryza 2.
Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & the Secret Hideout was released in October of 2019, yet here we are, in February 2021, just 15 months later, reviewing their follow up game. Considering most of that time was during a global pandemic the fact that we even HAVE a game to play is astonishing, and something GUST and Koei Tecmo should be hugely proud of. What is even more astonishing, is Atelier Ryza 2 is not just a game rushed out to cash in on the success of the first game but is pure class in its own right. You might think that for a game to be made in such a short space of time, there would have been corners cut and glitches abound, but no. Nothing. The game has been built upon what was already a rock-solid base, and in all areas slightly improved, which when added up as a whole makes the game much better than before.
Getting settled in
Having recently completed the first game to its conclusion, and thoroughly enjoying the wholesome experience, firing up Atelier Ryza 2 instantly felt like putting on a comfortable pair of slippers, sitting back in a comfortable chair, and just forgetting the world outside my window.
Accompanied by a bright and cheery musical score, we rejoin Reiselin “Ryza” Stout, three years after the events of the first game. Becoming bored on her island and missing her friends, she goes to visit them where they now are on the mainland, and soon becomes embroiled in a new adventure, exploring ruins to uncover the local mysteries.
One of the pleasures of the Atelier games is that although the plot lines are serious enough to worry about the welfare of the world you play in, they are never too big or serious. Henceforth, the game dances along a delicate line of making the player care about events, but not with a heavy heart so that they can enjoy the humour, lightheartedness, and banter between the characters, and the writing is bang on point to bring this home, too. Before long, not only was I re-invested in what Ryza herself was doing, but also I was chuckling away and enjoying the new characters I’d barely even met.
The other great quality of Atelier games, and again here in Atelier Ryza 2, is that unlike most other JRPG’s there isn’t a massive cast of characters to try and get your head around. Here in Atelier Ryza 2, there are six or seven main characters and a few side personalities. With just a few characters to learn about, it makes it all the easier to get invested into their personalities and their back-story, rather than trying to remember who is who and what side they are on (Looking at you Trails of Cold Steel!)
Each mechanic has had a slight overhaul
As per all Atelier games, Atelier Ryza 2 has three main gameplay mechanics. Gathering, Alchemy, and Combat. The game is an open-world JRPG, and exploring the world is part of the pleasure of the game, and what you are encouraged to do to find items. Indeed, in some cases you have to craft items to get to the new materials you may need. For example, to catch butterflies you will need to make a net to catch them. However, before all that and to get you started, you simply walk up to items in the field, and either collect it or swing Ryza’s staff to destroy it. Using different gathering tools will in some cases alter what you collect, such as swinging a scythe at a bush will collect leaves, whereas a net swung at the same bush collects bugs instead.
The new aspect to gathering here in Atelier Ryza 2 is that, unlike before, when you approach an item it now highlights in a little bubble if you have gathered that item already, and if not, a question mark appears. This slight tweak improves the gathering process immensely as, rather than just collect everything as you go with a limited amount of space in your basket, you can now be more circumspect and collect only those items you haven’t collected before or just what you actually need.
Another new aspect for gathering is Ryza can now swim, use a rope to swing to higher places, climb vines up the side of rocks, all in an extra effort to increase the value of making gathering more interesting in the same areas. After 60 hours of Ryza not being able to swim in the first Atelier Ryza, it felt strangely liberating to have her dive straight into the water, and the game world exploits this aspect fully.
Much like before, alchemy can only be done in Ryza’s base of operations, where she keeps her cauldron, and much like before, items can only be made with the right ingredients and the recipe for them. Putting correct items into a material loop (recipe) unlocks the next part of the loop. The nuisance here is that players can choose how the loop goes. By introducing different elements into the same recipe, you can gain different results. For example, one item can have healing properties, however, if you use different ingredients it has extra XP qualities instead. To make an item more powerful, you can add the same ingredient a few times, but then this limits the extra effects you can attach.
The new aspect of the alchemy is also a welcome change. The previous game had new recipes locked deep in one material loop, which made it awkward and difficult to even find the new recipe you were after. In Atelier Ryza 2, the recipe list is completely separate from the synthesis list. All the recipes you need are found in a skill tree.
Each new recipe has a value attached to it, and as you synthesize items, you are given more skill points. You can then spend these skill points to unlock new recipes. It’s a much cleaner, simpler way of managing and finding what you need which is a welcome change to the previous system.
There are many items to find, locate and recipes to make, and it was a worry of mine that it would simply all be too much – there are YouTube guide videos that take around 10 minutes just to explain the Alchemy art of the first game! However, I needn’t have worried as the alchemy process is easy to execute, hard to master, but always within my grasp. There was always some clue as to where you need to go to find an item or how to synthesize it.
However, be aware! There are occasionally mission-specific items to craft that do not make it abundantly clear where you need to go or what you need to do. One mission required me to make a demolition bomb and directed me to the skill tree to unlock the bomb recipe. Having done so, and having made them of the right quality, the game wouldn’t progress. What I eventually found out was that the game didn’t explain I needed these bombs to be part of a NEW recipe. The new recipe (Demolition Bombs), unbeknown to me, had actually sprung up at the bottom of another menu list. Even when I went to this menu the correct recipe was off the screen right at the very bottom of a list. It was only by chance and two hours later that I found what I needed to progress, simply stumbling across it after scrolling through every menu I could find!
The combat has had more tweaks to it than the gathering or the synthesis mechanics have, that again improve the gameplay system. However, despite the combat having had the most work done on it, they still haven’t quite got it perfect. Much like the alchemy process, there are lengthy YouTube guides to explain all the nuances, but it’s hard to master and, unfortunately, not that simple to use. Only after a lot of experimentation and a few hours will players, “get the hang of it”. When you learn what to look out for and how to get the best of the system, you will then start to enjoy it more.
At first, especially for new players, the whole system can feel overwhelming, as there is so much to look at all over the screen at the same time. However, when it mentally clicks with you, it suddenly appears as a very classy, very tactical, and immensely rewarding system. The reason is, when players understand not only how to unleash the most powerful critical hits, but more importantly when to do so, the beauty of the system shines through. This is because the system is all about raising enough points to get to the bigger attacks. You soon learn what isn’t included in the tutorials, which is that the system works best with tactical awareness and patience. The instinct, especially early on, is to use up all available AP and Core Charge points as soon as they become available. That will get you through most of the battles but not the hardest boss fights. These two factors (awareness and patience) are the key to tough battles, and it’s why, when all is said and done, the battle system in Atelier Ryza 2 is perfectly balanced, hugely rewarding, and stunning to be a part of. It’s immensely satisfying to be on the backfoot of a battle, only to use your most savage attacks at just the right moment to bring victory to your team.
As the adventuring and exploring continues, new systems for each element of gameplay keep arriving. You can be 30 hours into the game, yet still find you are learning new combat techniques. Because of this, it was always exciting to keep playing even late into the game as something new would come up, as well as the interesting story pulling you through.
The graphics of the game seem to be one aspect that hasn’t really changed, but Atelier Ryza 2 is still one of the most beautiful JRPG’s ever made. The art style is fantastic, with a lot of effort being made in making each character interesting to look at with a mixture of watercolour and anime visuals. Adding to the gorgeous characters is a vibrant and colourful world, deep in variety, and laden with detail. The world is full of interesting environmental effects, like mist rolling over the fields, or an over-exposure of the lighting on a sunny day. This sort of detail is standard fare for western developed games, but not for occasionally blocky JRPG’s. Atelier Ryza 2 hits that happy medium though, bringing realistic elements into an anime world.
The animations of characters in the cut scenes are smooth and fluid, but when they are walking around the world they are a little too stiff and rigid. However, players will probably spend so much time gawking at the scenery they probably won’t notice anyway.
The only real issue with the graphics is that the enemy types aren’t particularly interesting to look at, even though there are new types, and the character design on Ryza herself seems far too fussy. With so many items hanging off her clothing, it looks just a bit too ridiculous.
Finally, the audio of the game, both musically and narratively, are of the highest quality. Unfortunately the entire game is only available in Japanese with English subtitles, but even not understanding a word of Japanese I could still get a sense of drama and emotion from the wonderful voice actors.
Effects during gameplay were equally impressive, especially when landing big powerful hits during combat and the musical scores during the game are going to be listed as one of my favourites. When you play the same tunes for hours on end in long games, they need to be pleasant! They are most certainly that here. From tunes that sound like Christmas to far more brooding encounters, all are done with such high, dare I say Disney-Esque style. The music was so evocative that many times when playing I thought they should make this into a feature film, as the music was carrying the game so well.
For new PS5 owners, this will be the first next-gen JRPG they can get their hands on, and what a stunning first game it will be. Although it has improved in key aspects over the previous game, it still has a couple of little quirks it needs to address going forward.
I’m not a fan of the combat system, even with the improvements. There is too much going on at once all over the screen to really enjoy the system. It only really works well on single large boss fights, but there are many hours between those. The upgrades to the crafting system and world traversal paired with the beautiful environments, however, makes Atelier Ryza 2 a stunning game to get lost in for hours on end. Finally, an English speaking voice over is more of a wishlist item than a negative, and apart from that, it’s practically flawless.
The journey the game takes you on is a classy, wholesome, lighthearted, pure fantasy escapism of the highest quality – something so dearly needed in the turbulent times we live in today. Atelier Ryza 2 is a masterpiece of gaming that almost everyone will enjoy.