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Atelier Rorona: Alchemist of Arland
Graphics: 8.4
Gameplay: 8.1
Sound: 8.3
Control: 8
Replay Value: 8
Rating: 8.2

On the one hand, Atelier Rorona: Alchemist of Arland is very much a breath of fresh air and – in part, at least – the representation of what I’ve been missing for quite some time. On the other, it’s a “close but not quite” scenario as the developers settle their focus not on exploration, combat or even story, but on their unique Alchemy system. The combination of these two contrasting facts leaves me feeling a little conflicted but in the end, the positive emotions win out. It’s partially because the game is indeed turn-based (such a treasure these days) and partially because of its vivid, pleasant presentation and oddly addictive nature. I’ve had Gust’s production for a few weeks now and throughout those weeks, I’ve often found myself returning to the game for reasons that I well recognize from a long-ago time. And bear in mind, it got me to come back amidst play time with Halo: Reach. …that says something.

While most developers have long since gone fully 3D, this is the first true 3D graphical presentation we’ve seen from these developers. Some of the hardcore purists may not appreciate the “growing up” but when they see the visuals, they might change their minds. They’re not amazingly technically proficient, but they’re surprisingly clean, attractive and vibrant. The character modeling is excellent, the backgrounds are often beautifully depicted (albeit with a distinct lack of detail in the forests and fields), and there’s a solid amount of variety throughout. The best part is that such graphics really fit the charming, lovable atmosphere, and I couldn’t help but smile at the screen when moving about and exploring. Even the animations are super smooth and nearly flawless. No, it won’t be revered as a graphical benchmark but there’s a certain level of artistry and design accomplishment that is most impressive. It’s not supremely beautiful but it still qualifies as pretty.  Fans of the style will love it.

Usually, the voice acting tends to drag the sound down in most JRPGs these days. Being a huge fan of the genre, I hate to say it, but it’s true. Thankfully, while there remains a smattering of irritating, over-the-top voices that grate, the voiceover work for most major characters in Atelier Rorona is decent. Some are even borderline great. I would normally dislike the cutesy, childlike Rorona but this time, I actually found such a voice to be really adorable. The soundtrack is another big bonus; the tracks are both diverse and fitting, and those originally crafted compositions add a ton of flavor and style. The effects could’ve used some help, though, as they’re not quite prominent enough in combat and rarely accompany your basic traveling movements. That being said, the wide assortment of surprisingly well-voiced characters and the quality music only serve to bolster the entire experience, which is a definite positive.

If you’re unfamiliar, this is a series that has stretched on for quite some time. In fact, I think this might be the 10th overall game (some of which never left Japan), so there’s definitely a basis for comparisons within the franchise. In terms of gameplay, Atelier Rorona: Alchemist of Arland most takes after the Mana Khemia installments. It adopts the three-year formula, where you have exactly three years to satisfy assignments and quests, and depending on how many you fulfill, you’ll receive a different result. However, this new game only takes that concept from the aforementioned past titles; in terms of overall gameplay and structure, it’s very different. For instance, the time constraints are a prime focal point: you can’t even move to a field to collect materials or work in your Workshop without watching the days tick by. The bottom line is that you must balance the passage of time with your actions…always.

In all honesty, I’m not the biggest fan of this and it sort of detracts from the turn-based nature of the combat. It’s pretty ironic that while you have all the time you wish to make a decision in battle, simply moving from the forest to the town will eat up time. But even so, there’s a permanent sense of urgency that keeps the entertainment level high, if only because you must continually assess your plan of action. Sure, you can go and beat on some monsters for more materials, money and experience, but that means you can’t be in your Workshop, whipping up orders for the king (or your friends). What do you really need to focus on…? That’s always the biggest question, and once you reconcile yourself to the fact that micromanagement involves even stepping foot outside your door, you’ll be better prepared for the adventure. There are a few more unique elements, too.

For instance, besides the main character – Rorona – there are six other playable characters, who you can “hire” to join your party. Only your childhood friend, Cordelia, can be had for free, but the others require some form of payment before they opt to fight by your side. They may also have Alchemy jobs for you to perform, as will the townspeople, and doing so will increase your reputation in the quiet little community. But remember, you have to balance this with the king’s demands as well; you only have three years to prove your Workshop is worthy of staying open. All of this demands your attention, which puts the aforementioned combat preparations on the back burner. And you can tell it’s not really the prime focus as the battles aren’t exactly overwhelming or flashy. It’s turn-based, and there is one cool little element where a character can assist in blocking an enemy attack by tapping the R1 or L1 button. Then there’s the fact that Skills empty your HP, rather than a special dedicated meter.

For the most part, nothing about the combat is all that memorable, but it’s well done, well implemented, and because I’ve so missed the turn-based formula, I find it quite refreshing. I also like the really distinct characters; for instance, Lionela actually brings two weird-looking puppets into battle; the female, Aranya, heals, while the male, Horoholo, attacks with magic. Most of the characters have nicely defined personalities, too, and they’re not all suffused with anime-inspired insanity. As for exploring, you can run around certain portions of the town, and visit various fields to gather materials and fight enemies, but you don’t physically move around the world map. That’s where you simply choose where you wish to go, and move automatically. Still, you’ve got the traditional shops, NPCs, battles, forests/dungeons, and large amount of dialogue we used to always associate with the genre.

I will say that constantly checking your time and your HP (even producing Alchemical creations drains HP) can get a little tiresome, and you may not be satisfied with only one play-through. And because that will probably take around 30 hours, you may or may not wish to try again for a better ending. There are four endings: Bad, Normal, Good and the difficult-to-obtain True. The latter may not be possible without a walkthrough of some kind, because you need to satisfy two separate requirements: popularity amongst the townspeople and king satisfaction level. It’s just really tough to do both…as an example, you need 80%+ on your “popularity” scale to get the True ending, but that means sort of ignoring the king. And if you fail the king at the end of three years, you get the Bad ending. Oh, and for more longevity, there are specific endings for each playable character, but you’ll need a maxed 100% Friendship rating.

Atelier Rorona: Alchemist of Arland is a darn good RPG with an admitted emphasis on item creation, which won’t be alien to those familiar with the Mana Khemia or past Atelier titles. The graphics really are surprisingly clean and pleasant, the voices aren’t anywhere near as annoying as they can often be in this genre, and there’s great balance and a significant challenge. I still wish more emphasis would’ve been placed on the traditional role-playing aspects – and I despise being hurried – but the whole production is very appealing to the targeted niche audience. As usual, that’s the final caveat: if this is your bag, you’ll like it. If not, there’s nothing here that will suddenly turn you onto quirky JRPGs. That’s the best way I can describe it.

9/29/2010   Ben Dutka