This isn’t the first time I tried my hand at Alchemy and it certainly won’t be my last since I really enjoy these games, but if it is your first attempt, this is probably your best modern entry point into the series so far.
Genre: JRPG, Visual Novel
Developer: KOEI TECMO
Publisher: KOEI TECMO
Release Date: 4 Dec, 2018
As alluded to, Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland, isn’t my first visit to the Atelier series. I have actually played quite a few of the Atelier games, although, not all of them yet so I still have something to look forward to. Often times there are groups of Atelier titles that are directly related to each other and then other indirectly related titles as well. For example, Rorona’s story is part of the Arland trilogy (soon to be tetralogy) and the games within the Arland trilogy are best played in the proper order to avoid spoilers and so that you understand references the characters may make. Another trilogy available on Steam right now is the Mysterious trilogy. While these are both Atelier series, they are not directly related to each other which means you can play either one without playing the other first. Oddly enough despite the Arland trilogy only being recently released on Steam and the Mysterious trilogy being around for a while now, the Arland trilogy is actually the older of the two. It’s essentially more of a remaster than a new series in itself. This can be quite obvious to anyone who has already played the Mysterious trilogy because the alchemy in it is considerably more primitive. This makes the Arland trilogy a great starting point for anyone interested in the world of Atelier. It will give you a feeling for what an Atelier series story is like and the basics of alchemy and gameplay in general without all the complexities the more advanced/newer titles offer.
Time Flies When You’re Having Fun
Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland is the style of game I have been enjoying a lot lately. It’s a Japanese Role-Playing Game and Visual Novel hybrid. If you have ever played a Neptunia game, it’s in the same vein however it also includes the alchemy minigame. The alchemy, which is the focal point of any Atelier story, actually adds a unique and fun element to what would otherwise be a pretty decent JRPG series. Even though Atelier Rorona is an older title and more primitive title in comparison to Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey, it still holds the test of time quite well. You might be wondering why I chose to compare to Atelier Firis over Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book since that is the start of the Mysterious trilogy. The reason I chose Firis is simple, it has to do with time. There is a time limit in Atelier Rorona and Atelier Firis. In Atelier Firis, you have a time system that makes you rush a little towards your end goal. While Atelier Firis is fairly forgiving in that it gives you a decent amount of time to reach the destination and then the game unlocks completely at that point giving you the ability to go back and do everything else you may have sped past, Atelier Rorona is not as forgiving. When I played Atelier Firis, it was one of the first titles in the Atelier series I played and I felt horribly rushed the first time I played it. The second time I played it, once I knew what I was doing and where I was going, the timer seemed more like a suggestion than a looming sense of impending doom. In Atelier Rorona, the time limit is much tighter and I often found myself having to sacrifice things I wanted to do in order to ensure I didn’t run out of time. The game even goes so far as to stop you in your tracks if whatever action you are trying to do will take more time than you currently have remaining. I’m sure when I replay the game down the road it will seem a lot less overwhelming, but on first journey I did feel a bit burdened by it. Instead of being a single long-time frame, like in Firis, Rorona’s time is broken up into the quarters of a year. You are given about three months to do everything you need to do. That sounds like a lot of time, but adventuring burns through days like mad. Also, alchemy can be very time consuming as well. You will often find that you are just getting up to speed when it comes time to apply the brakes.
The notion behind the game is that to avoid your workshop from being shut down by the Kingdom of Arland in order to make way for factories, you need to prove your worth to Kingdom. The previous Alchemist eroded the reputation of the workshop and it is up to Rorona to rebuild that shattered reputation and prove alchemy has a place in the kingdom still. The King, much to the Ebenezer Scrooge like Minister’s chagrin, gives Rorona three years to prove herself. If at any point during those three years you fail to satisfactorily complete your assigned tasks, you will lose the game. Besides just completing those mandatory tasks, there are also optional sub-tasks that can aid you, such as stat boosts, equipment or much needed Cole (money). Besides just ensuring your tasks are completed, you also need to manage your reputation. Technically you can ignore reputation, however, it is still a fairly important element in the game.
Reputation grinding can be a bit tedious and also challenging because of the time limits imposed on you. You might have to do multiple rounds of alchemy to produce items the clients order and by the time you have it, they might be mad at you for not getting it to them on time. This hurts your reputation rather than boosting it. You can technically give them items you happened to have found in your travels or bought from the stores, but be careful as a low-quality item won’t do much for your reputation gains either. Boosting the reputation high enough has the advantage of unlocking hunt quests. If you happen to be going to that area anyway, they are a good source of free reputation as odds are you will be battling those monsters anyway. The main reason why you should boost it though is to unlock another character for you to use out in the field who is actually really good. It also improves the quality of the items in the token store and your reputation levels will have an impact on what ending you will get for the game. While on the topic of reputation, I should mention that there is another impact of reputation in the game. Named non-playable characters as well as playable characters will also make requests. If you fulfill their request your friendship with them will go up. For non-playable characters, they will have additional scenes for you to enjoy as well as offer item registration or other perks. Registration is an effective way to access items you have previously made for a small cost, rather than remaking the items again. This can be useful when trying to boost your reputation without wasting time doing the alchemy again. For playable characters, they will charge you less when you take them out on an adventure as well as unlock new scenes for you to view including their ending.
Let’s briefly talk about the ending of the game. No, don’t worry no spoilers! This game has a ton of endings. Luckily, if you save just before finishing the game, you can view each of the endings you qualified for. If you save scum a little or are extra careful as you go, you might even be able to unlock every possible ending without replaying the entire game a bunch of times. It would have been nice if you could skip the credits after the first time you saw them to make it easier to view each of the endings though. Rorona dancing at the end is cute and the song is a bit of an earworm, but it still takes a rather long time to view the various short ending sequences.
Let’s get back to making the magic happen, or in this case, the alchemy. The Atelier series has one element that binds all the games together even if their stories are not intertwined and that is alchemy. How they do alchemy usually varies a bit between games, with earlier titles such as Rorona being a bit simpler than the newer games. Alchemy in Rorona consists simply of just tossing the materials into the pot, stirring and hoping your level is high enough that your mixture doesn’t explode. Newer Atelier titles often have you laying the elements into a grid, worrying about shape and size with properties being based on colour matching or other such elements. In Rorona there is no material size or colour, just quality and attributes you may want. Higher quality items are generally better for reputation gains and for practical uses. Like in the newer titles, individual materials have different quality levels and attributes. If you have two of the same material, odds are they will not be exactly the same. One feature that Rorona has that newer titles typically do not is the fact you can mass-produce items. Rather than making them one at a time, and each one probably being a little different, you can throw a bunch of stuff into the pot and stir up a bunch of the same end product. This is useful if you have some rare/hard to find attribute that you want to be on multiple items. If you throw it in with a bunch of other ones, and the attribute is compatible with the new item, you can now clone that attribute over more items. Another reason to mass-produce is that some items have shorter or longer time investments for their production. If an item has 0.2 days to complete, if you make just one, it will still burn a day on you. If you make five of them, you will still only burn one day making them all. Performing alchemy utilizes Rorona’s magic (MP) so you may need to rest to restore it from time to time costing you additional days. Since you have to keep one eye on the doomsday clock at all times, mass-production can be a life saver especially if you just spent a bunch of days out adventuring for those materials.
When you are out adventuring, you will encounter enemies as one would expect in a Japanese Role-Playing Game. You can try to avoid enemies if you want as they are clearly shown in the field, but sometimes they move a little faster than you do, or they might be part of a forced battle if it is near an exit or treasure. Combat in this game is turn-based with a turn order slider being shown prominently on the right-hand side of the screen. Speed determines who will attack and when. Faster characters might get multiple turns in before the enemy gets a chance to attack while slower ones will likely not. Combat is rather straight forward and limited to just three characters at a time. Only Rorona can use the items that she has produced with alchemy (or really any items in general). Your hired help can only use their own abilities and weapons. In combat Rorona will gain assist tokens, these tokens are used either when an ally is told to take damage for Rorona, or when you opt to do a more powerful move. If Rorona uses an attack item or uses an ability, the other characters can be asked to join in if she has tokens available. The more tokens, the longer the chain can get and the more damage you will deal. Alternatively, if you max out on tokens, you can use her special ability which is rather powerful. These tokens are not kept between battles so you may as well enjoy them. Some of them are quite cute such as when Rorona and Hom explode a rather oversized basket bomb on the enemies leaving Rorona and Hom covered in soot.
Adventuring is where you will find most of your alchemy materials as well. You get them from the slain creatures or from the various nodes you encounter as you move between areas. Each area you visit has a limited amount of resources and enemies. If you want more of the resource you have to leave the area and come back to it or find those resources somewhere else. Either way it will cost you at least one day of your precious and limited time. If I had any real complaints about this game, I suppose one would be that adventuring wastes a lot of days on you. There is an item you can produce with alchemy later in the game but it doesn’t help that much. It reduces the number of days that need to be taken a little but not as much as I would like. For example, just moving your character to the dungeon you want to explore can burn anywhere from a day to a week just in travel time to get there and then each time you move within the dungeon between areas, you will burn a few days there too. Then when you return to Arland, you will burn more days traveling there, and then even more days resting to restore your health and magic. Luckily walking around town or within the same area of a dungeon (without leaving it) does not make time advance.
Each of the areas you visit is actually quite interesting and nice to look at. It’s understandable that the game was made quite some time ago for systems that had less resources available to them, but even with today’s standards this game still looks good. Sure, it did have an upgrade when it was ported to PC, but there is really only so much you can do without remaking a game. Each of the monsters looks good, and there are re-colours here and there but there is enough enemy variety that it keeps it rather interesting. The character models are all highly detailed and very nice to look at it. Every time you equip a new weapon, your characters are seen using that version of the weapon rather than a default weapon model. There are changeable outfits for some of the characters however being a bit of purist, and wanting the 2D images of my character to match my in-game character, I left Rorona and all the other changeable characters wearing their default outfits. Some of the outfits available to them were quite nice looking too but I found it a bit weird how Rorona would quickly go change in to her Atelier gear to talk to someone then change back in to whatever outfit I had put on her. They did make a joke later on with Esty Dee about her changing her outfit because she doesn’t want to get her uniform dirty and that armor is quite heavy to wear all the time so maybe that is why Rorona changes back. Kind of like working retail, you wear the uniform while working and your street clothes the rest of the time!
For the most part, anything important is fully voice acted in English. The small side conversations are not always done, but that is quite acceptable for these sorts of games. The music in this game also does not disappoint, it feels like a lot of time and effort went into the accompanying music. The opening and especially the closing song were both wonderful treats even if I could not understand a word they were saying. You would think with all the Japanese games I have played that I would start to pick up a few words here and there, but I’m not quite at that point yet. I can still enjoy it though. Mind you, some people play games with their original non-dubbed voices and while I can see the appeal, I’d still rather play the dubbed version myself. An issue with dubbing and translating though is sometimes what the character says and what is displayed on screen does not match. Generally, the translation means roughly the same thing, just it is a bit of a disconnect. It certainly isn’t distracting enough to spoil anything.
The controls in the game feel like they were designed with a gamepad in mind, and truthfully they were as this originated on a console, however, the game is still very playable with a keyboard and mouse. The game prompts you on screen what the appropriate buttons to press are and keeps you from having to remember or hunting down the correct button to press. I can’t really think of a time when the controls gave me any issues. The user interface is straight forward for the most part, however, some of the screens can get a little complicated if you want to filter something or read more details about an attribute. It still works well, it’s just that you may not instantly realize what information you have access to until you experiment a bit. There is also a detailed guide built into the game for you to read and learn about all the facets of the game too. The only really unfortunate thing is the fact you can only save by writing in your diary back at the workshop. If you need to take a break you either have to leave the game idle or waste a bunch of days traveling back to save and then traveling back to where you were again. Since time is such a factor in this game, it would have been nice to have a quick save feature. You also can’t rotate your camera so there are occasions when the camera has you running blindly towards potential danger rather than letting your rotate it manually to see where you are going but for the most part it wasn’t an issue.
So, should you pick up Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland? If you have played the Mysterious trilogy already, going back to Atelier Rorona will seem a bit of a downgrade. All the complexities of alchemy are pretty much gone. That is not a bad thing, mind you, because sometimes it could get frustrating trying to put all the component materials into the grid due to their shapes and sizes not being overly compatible with the particular grid you are using, but I still at times missed that aspect of the game. For the story sake, I would say if you are a fan of the Atelier series in general , including the character architypes, humour and general stories, then you would still enjoy Atelier Rorona even with that limitation. If you played the Mysterious trilogy and found the Alchemy to be too much of challenge for you but enjoyed the story, then Atelier Rorona is definitely something that would interest you. If you have never played an Atelier game, then Atelier Rorona would be a fantastic starting point into the series. It has all the charm and fun of a proper Atelier title, because it is one, but without the alchemical complexities of the future titles. The only real drawback of this game is that it has that time limit per assignment. Games such as the entry point into the Mysterious trilogy, Atelier Sophie, still have the calendar system as well as having a diurnal system but they do not impose any restrictions on your ability to progress the way you want to. With that said, the time limit isn’t that bad and it does make you feel the pressure to get the job done that it is intended for. If I could turn back time, I would rather play Atelier Rorona first then move on up to the others, but even without that ability, I still immensely enjoyed this title to the point where I was told I had two weeks to review it and I power played the game in three days. It has been a while since a game managed to compel me to do that… I find that last bit to be quite ironic considering I have a fairly large library of more modern, up-to-date games complete with all the bells and whistles that it was the older style that was so able to capture and keep my attention.