There is adorable and then there is Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland. This is a game of cute anime girls, pretty dresses and cheery, bright visuals. It’s the kind of game that a small subsection of the Western gaming market will absolutely lap up and one that will utterly confound others with its extremely niche design and old school gameplay mechanics.
As the outrageously cute, somewhat naive and often whiny, Rorona, it will be your job to restore the reputation of the local alchemy workshop that is in danger of being closed down by the king of the small town of Arland. Thanks to your lazy and rather rude boss, you have been given three years to save the reputation of the store by completing 12 crafting assignments of varying difficulties. With 90 days to complete each assignment, you’d think that you would have plenty of time to get things done, but in Arland, it seems that clocks run by very different rules – with whole days lost travelling, synthesizing goods and battling enemies, it’s very easy to fall behind on your deadlines if you’re not extremely careful.
While part of the Atelier Rorona experience is made up of traditional JRPG-styled exploration and turn-based battling, it’s the synthesising of items that will makes up the majority of the 15 hour + experience. Luckily, that creative crafting system is surprisingly addictive and holds a great deal of potential for those eager to experiment. On top of the 12 items that need to be created for the king in order to save your store, you’ll also get the chance to create an array of other useful items as well as basic gear customisation to increase your chances of success in battle.
The actual 12 items required by the palace are all relatively easy to create (you can also find and buy items on your travels) but the fact that you are graded for each item once you hand them in at the palace means that you’ll want to make sure that they are created with the very finest ingredients and as much care as possible. With items having numerous unique traits and qualities, it’s down to you to synthesise them in your workshop for the best results. The surrounding game does occasionally fail to live up to the creative possibilities available in your workshop, but for those eager to cook up the very best items, the depth allowed here will prove extremely welcome. With rare items to find and even rarer recipe texts to locate, it’s easy to get addicted to the creation process……and that’s where the problem lies.
With so much potential effort going into the creation of these items, the subsequent world in which they are used rarely calls for their need and too often rob you of the time needed to get what you want from the experience. Thanks to a simplified battle system, the need for true quality goods on the battlefield is a rarity while exploring for goods robs you off far too much time, leaving you in a rush to hand in your goods before the deadline. This ever ticking clock does lend the game a degree of urgency, but in the long run creates an experience that occasionally teeters a little too close to feeling like hard work.
Despite the limited scope that the nine locations of Arland provide (each one is separated into smaller, segregated areas), Arland is quite the joy to explore. It’s relatively linear and has rudimentary visuals in comparison to many high budget JRPGs, but like so much of Atelier Rorona, what it lacks in technical prowess, it more than makes up for with sheer, unadulterated charm. The characters are all beautifully animated with the game’s character-specific cel-shaded design helping them to genuinely pop out of the screen. The euro-centric environments by comparison (well, European as seen through an anime prism) are simple but nonetheless bold and always full of colour. The basic polygons and rigid lines often reminded me of the unique visual style that I first witnessed in Sega’s Power Stone series. Some will inevitably see it as old fashioned, but personally, I thought it looked great.
Dialogue is dealt with via static, anime animations. They are beautifully drawn but often paint the varied cast as much older than they appear in their cel-shaded form. It’s a tad strange at first, but actually harkens back to the visual disparity found in titles such as Final Fantasy VII. The story itself is all very cutesy but I was surprised just how horrible everyone seemed to be to the eager to please Rorona. I was also somewhat shocked by how perverse some of the dialogue was with numerous suggestive remarks made by many of the female characters. I don’t want to sound like a square or anything, but there really are a surprisingly large number of closet lesbians in Arland. I guess I shouldn’t be all that surprised given its Japanese origins, but given the otherwise saccharine storytelling, some of these comments did come deep out of left field. Still, if you can put up with Rorona’s whiney voice (whiney in both English and original Japanese), Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland’s tale of friendship, love and responsibility is actually rather enjoyable.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of the battle system. While there isn’t anything particularly wrong with it, the oversimplified mechanics and push over enemies fail to deliver a challenge worthy of the infinitely more impressive crafting mechanics. With character-specific skills, an elemental gauge and a varied support system all hinting at potential depth, their lack of evolution combined with a cast of unimaginative, oft repeated enemies that rarely deliver a significant enough challenge to get the best out of these limited systems, leaves Atelier Rorona with a turn-based combat system that is a little too easy to forget. Sure, it’s functional, but other than offering an additional way of attaining items, it is rarely all that enjoyable.
This niche tale won’t be for everyone and is certainly home to its fair share of flaws, but for some, its unique crafting system, charming visuals and kooky cast of characters will provide enough incentive to see past the poor design choices and antiquated mechanics. It’s a game as easy to love as it is to hate and one that will inevitably split opinion right down the middle.
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