Let’s begin today’s tale with something of an unorthodox comparison. You see, I recently watched a fantastic hentai series (stay with me, I promise it’s relevant), inspired by the Atelier game series. It’s called Rune’s Pharmacy if you’re interested. As I was watching, I couldn’t help but find more relatability and likeability with protagonist Rune than I ever have with Atelier’s protagonists.
You see, like many of Atelier’s leads, Rune inherits her parents’ alchemy lab after their untimely deaths, however, she also inherits their substantial debts too. Determined to become a successful alchemist, Rune soon realises that she has to spend money to make money and takes on a couple of other side-jobs to support her income.
This is where the hentai aspect comes in, as not only does Rune indulge in some treasure-hunting on her travels, but she also dabbles in casual sex work from time to time. It only took a couple of episodes for me to realize that, from a narrative perspective, this actually makes perfect sense in highlighting real desperation.
Rune never freeloads, is committed to her career, and overcomes any barrier in her way. She’s a strong, independent young woman who soon comes to enjoy her work, and even finds a love interest or two along the way. She uses her time productively rather than spending absolute hours collecting flowers, stones, and scrap iron which she may never even use.
So, let’s compare this fun-filled, zero-filler adult narrative to a modern Atelier game. I’ll be brutally honest here. I’m going to be very hard on Atelier Ryza because the series has had so many chances to get the formula right with a whopping 22 entries at time of release. That, and I really don’t ask for much from a JRPG; fun combat, clear objectives, a simple to use interface and lovable characters, so when a series continues to get the basics wrong after so many entries, it really is living on borrowed time.
For me, Atelier Ryza is the series’ final chance after the grindy, stop-start messes that were Atelier Sophie and Atelier Lydie and Suelle. I did dabble with a few PS2 and PS3 entries from the franchise but was so underwhelmed that I didn’t even bother committing them to memory. Long story short, anything less than absolute perfection from Atelier Ryza, for me, will be the final nail in the franchise’s coffin. So, what better way to break previous bad habits than with a soft reboot. Join me and a few like-minded individuals who have kindly let me quote their comments throughout this journey.
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“Atelier is an ’18-rated’ concept told in a ‘PG’ setting” – Paul Valentine
Surprisingly, we’re off to a promising start. Meet Reisalin Stout, or ‘Ryza’ for short, an unambitious 17-year-old who spends her days freeloading, taking advantage of her hardworking parents (yes, we have a protagonist with living parents for once) and wasting time hanging out with teenage boys (which is something that hits very close to home for those of us with teenage daughters) though Ryza’s male companions seem to spend rather a lot of time in her bedroom. Not quite the first stirrings of sexual awakening in this coming-of-age story, but nevertheless, the potential is there.
While out exploring a nearby coast of mainland with her friends, Ryza meets another girl her age, Klaudia, and rescues her from a monster, only for the party to encounter another monster and require rescuing themselves by a travelling alchemist/adventurer duo. Lent, Ryza’s muscular companion, decides to study under Mila the adventurer in order to become a warrior and improve his reputation and that of his alcoholic father, whilst Ryza and Tao (her short, bookworm friend) study under Empel the alchemist in order to become a fellow alchemist and a researcher respectively.
We suddenly have ambition, drive, and motive. The previously tomboyish Ryza is becoming more relatable (and likeable) by the second. This is helped immensely by the fact that Ryza is very easy on the eye. She’s a curvaceous girl unlike Atelier’s usual slender protagonists and likes a tight-fitting outfit. Yes, she’s a hottie. Though you might not want to describe girls as ‘thicc’ around us Brits since calling someone ‘thick’ is a moderate insult where I come from and something of an invitation for a swift kick in the bollocks.
And here comes the decline. Every positive so far only highlights the surrounding negative. Yes, Ryza is beautiful, yet her companions aren’t portrayed with nearly the same detail or style. And yes, Ryza’s coming-of-age story quickly sparks interest in her relatable career progression, but you certainly won’t find her developing any intimate relationships with people. Where’s her character growth? Where’s the plot development?
Atelier Ryza feels like an anti-RPG, built for the Minecraft generationJohn Nguyen
The flow should feel familiar. After all, it remains largely unchanged throughout the series. Hunt and harvest, then craft with what you find, occasionally triggering cut-scenes here and there. It still feels very random and unorganised. These simple fetch-quests and busywork involve a lot of coming-and-going and retreading old ground. This is helped somewhat by a fast-travel system that makes getting around the maps quickly a cinch, but it’s just not enough to keep the player entertained.
Whilst the excessive amount of crafting required in the series has always been overwhelming to me, it was at least easy enough to do. The formula was simple; combine two items to create your desired item and add a third into the mix as a catalyst to boost its stats. Ryza’s menus are far less user friendly, with branching item slots which are often locked out and require various criteria to progress. Doing so modifies your item even further and can transform it into something else entirely, which surely defeats the point of following a recipe in the first place?
Exhausted from alchemy, I threw myself into combat hoping to find some sliver of JRPG joy only to find the new part turn-based/part real-time combat engine that has received much praise elsewhere is little more than a revamped 90s active-time battle system with the unwanted addition that you only control a single party member, with your team-mates acting independently. Players of Final Fantasy VII Remake will find this very familiar. Those craving traditional party turn-based combat will be very disappointed, particularly when developer Gust has added some extra flare to the flashy special attacks which you’ll so rarely get to see.
And lastly, a major series blunder that keeps coming back to haunt us, our goal is clear enough yet achieving it certainly isn’t. One simply can’t progress any further until ‘X’ number of items have been crafted to boost your Atelier rank and areas with no apparent relevance to the current plot have been visited. I would often find my quest objective had changed without it ever being mentioned in the previous cutscene.
“Atelier sells itself solely on pretty, anime girls as main characters. There’s nothing else of note here” – Gary Green
Visually, it’s a decent step up from the blurry, juddering performance of Atelier Lydie and Suelle. Characters have those lovely smooth textures and shiny hair that we fell in love with in Blue Reflection. Environments are also nicely detailed and surprisingly varied, though you will still find a few copy-pasted assets from earlier games.
I’m really missing the English voice acting here. Full Japanese voicing for lengthier scenes is a real chore on tired eyes and ears and often diverts your attention away from the emotion on screen when distracted with subtitles. The soundtrack does have a gorgeous orchestral quality to it, even if the songs themselves never really stand out and the battle theme sadly never gets the adrenaline pumping.
There are improvements here, particularly in the graphics and music quality, but for every step forward there’s a troubling step back too. The missing English dub is still very much a mood-killer, and the combat no longer feels like a party arrangement, being hands-off at times and generally over-simplified to the point that you don’t feel fully in control.
As always, it’s the objectives that kill the game though. I’m not asking the game to hold my hand throughout, but at least tell me where to go next to advance the plot. It’s here where my brief playthrough ends, as multiple sweeps of whole areas failed to yield anything of immediate use when my next objective seemingly lies in the cold, dead hands of a couple of surprisingly lethal sub-bosses.
When even grinding to level up, cycling through menus of multiple items of varying potency in hope of finding something that can turn the tide of battle, and saving up special attacks still result in your party getting one-shot killed by a couple of monsters in a game that’s already testing your patience, Atelier Ryza and its many Atelier sisters have earned their one-way ticket to the gaming graveyard.
I wanted to like you Ryza, I really did, but this outing is far less of a polished franchise reboot and much more of a broken franchise remix. Sorry Ryza, even with your ample bosom you still have a lot of growing up to do. I’m breaking up with you. It’s over.
- Yeah, she’s pretty
- Visuals are better
- Combat is lacklustre
- Terrible progression again
- Crafting still too demanding and time-consuming