The best Atelier yet.
- Developer: Gust
- Publisher: Koei Tecmo
- Release date: 1st November 2019
- Genre: JRPG
- Platforms: Playstation, PC, Switch
- Reviewed on: PS4
- Game Supplied by: Publisher
If you didn’t know, the Atelier series has now had over 20 games in the series, so it is a big deal when I say it is the best Atelier yet. It is also the best selling Atelier game ever, with 150,000 copies sold in Japan in the first week. Koei Tecmo was only expecting sales of 50,000 and there are reports of Japanese retailers being sold out through demand. Although the numbers, when compared to the likes of Call of Duty, aren’t all that impressive, they are more so when you realize the Japanese market is chocked full of JRPG games. To stand out in today’s JRPG market in Japan itself is nothing short of astonishing, and as alluded to, a big deal.
So why is this game getting so much attention? From the outset, visually at least, it’s really not too hard to see why. This game is jaw-droppingly beautiful to look at. More effort has been put into this game by developer GUST than in previous Atelier games, and the extra effort and gloss have been invested into the details. Character models look stunning, and the settings are just pure, picture-perfect panoramic beauty. Any player will be hard-pushed to resist taking many, many screen-shots as they play. The lighting is dynamic and changes depending on the time of day, and the colour pallet is varied as though an anime artist has been given free reign. A blissfully pretty nighttime landscape, full of deep blues, and twinkling silver is equally matched with the stunning autumnal yellows and oranges of the forest areas. Wisps of dust float along the path as you gently walk down it, while the flaps of fabric on the characters realistically flail behind as they transition from walking to running.
There is also an impressive amount of graphical fidelity when required. Mixing spells makes a detailed, somewhat sparkly explosion happen on-screen where you can clearly see every dancing pixel. Battles also have an impressive range of visual effects to emphasize the power (or not) of the attack, again with impressive, stylish visual effects.
However, it’s not just a visual treat, but an audible one, too. So many of the soundtracks are pleasant to listen to. Classical upbeat, almost modern tracks, gleefully push the player along as though they are ripped straight from an animated Disney film. The voice acting has not been localized, however, and is all in Japanese with English subtitles. Even if you can’t understand a word of Japanese, the emphasis, timing, and vocal talent still convey a sense of drama when required, so you won’t miss a beat.
The gameplay is where the game does stumble a little, but the main focus of the game is still hugely enjoyable. There are three aspects to it. Combat, alchemy (i.e. making spells), and harvesting materials to use in said alchemy.
Harvesting materials is the most basic activity and is mainly just exploring, like a treasure hunt, to look for materials. One of the more enjoyable aspects of the harvesting process is the variability and randomness with which items are found. For example, find a tree and hit it with your magical staff, and uni fruit drops to be collected. Hit the same tree later on with different tools, and depending on what you’re using, you will either yield bark or wood. It adds a little variety, even if most of the time you are simply walking around and collecting.
To find some items though, you’ll need to engage in the revamped combat system. The system here is certainly unique and for the most part, works well, and overall makes for fun combat gameplay. It’s a turn-based, real-time system. A bar on the left has icons of whose action turn it is, and when they reach the bottom of this bar it’s their turn. However, although you might be in a party of three, during combat you only actually control one member of the party at any one time. This is not an issue, as being in control of one person alone is quite challenging, and leads to one of the game’s design issues. Even with the combat set to easy, there is very little time to react or decide what to do when it is your turn to either attack, move, or unleash a spell or special move. While it’s your turn to figure out what to do, the game time doesn’t pause as the characters and enemies carry on fighting.
The issue here is that actions cost AP points, and to unleash a big powerful spell requires over ten AP points. As you and your team hit enemies, you gain these points, but just like you, the other members of your team can use these points up as well. So when it comes to your turn in the battle sequence, and just as you are dithering about whether to use the 5 AP point or the 3 AP point spell, someone else on your team uses a spell that means you now only have 1 AP point left, and it’s now too late to do what you were planning. This is frustrating as it could mean the difference in healing someone or not, and therefore losing a battle.
You can change the battle system so that other members of your team don’t do this at all, and only use physical attacks, but this means your overall team attack loses its balance as, admittedly, your AI team members are very good with their spells, too.
That aside, combat is a tight, varied experience that you do get used to after a while, but to begin with, for a few hours at least, it is a little frustrating.
The third aspect, alchemy, is by far the most deep and time-consuming aspect of the game. The game itself tries to explain that in order to make items and spells, you have item loops in which you need certain items to fill, to make, and other items can be added at your choice to then buff these spells in various ways. For example, you could buff the manufacture of a bomb to have, say, a fire element to also burn foes, or a bomb with ice elements to freeze them. The choice is yours.
The actual manufacture of said items and spells is straightforward, and you can even auto load the spells with the items to save a lot of individual picking and choosing. The issue comes in getting the most from the spells and, indeed, finding the items necessary to make them in the first place. The higher the grade of materials, the more potent an item or spell can be, and of course you want the best, most potent spells at all times.
Some of the spell loops are long though, really long, with many items in the strand, which makes acquiring them all the more confusing. How you piece them together in the way you might want or need to is confusing, so much so that when you put them together, sometimes you’re not sure how you did it, so it’s really hard to shake that nagging feeling that you aren’t getting the best out of this system.
The other issue is that at times it’s really hard to find the items you want. You may be looking for something that you’re not even of a high enough level to make anyway, but won’t know. For example, one of the very first tasks you are given (optional), is to make a bomb. This requires a certain type of red ore. After searching high and low in the menus, opening sub-menus, on other menus, I eventually found a little guidance as to where this mineral may be found. Off I went, collected what I could find only to come back and realize I still hadn’t got enough. However, I still couldn’t find a menu of my inventory to show how many I did have, and more to the point, how many more I actually needed.
Eventually, I got there and at the end of the day; the alchemy does make sense, works very well, and incorporates fun mechanics, but does have a few bumps in its learning curve along the way. In the end, I needed to find a YouTube tutorial to try and get my head around all the details that the game doesn’t really explain at all well, and after I did, it made much more sense.
Lastly, the story and the characters with their progression are excellent. The main character, Ryza, has moved away from the normal, fairy-like Atelier protagonist and is more of a cute girl-next-door, tomboy type. Pleasingly, there also isn’t a small nation of characters to get to grips with either, just four to five others, and you do get to know them well by the end of the 40 hours or so playthrough. Atelier Ryza features more adult themes than is usual for an Atelier game, but nothing too heavy. For example, one character hates going home in case his drunken father might beat him, and refreshingly the overall story arc doesn’t revolve around a “save the world” type plot. Everything is smaller and more localized to Ryza and her little world, but it is still an exciting adventure all the same.
One can not overstate just how refreshing, relaxing, and enjoyable this game was to play. Visually, you can drink in the views: the stunning artwork, character designs, and overall splendour. Audio-wise, you can relax and enjoy the music. Gameplay-wise, take your time on what can only be described as a glorified treasure hunt, with interesting combat and excellently written story. The only real stumbling block is locating ingredients and understanding the workings of the alchemy so you can get the most from it. Once you do, you will have truly unlocked a very special and hugely enjoyable game.