Atelier Rorona is a very special little game that will unfortunately be overlooked by a lot of gamers out there. It doesn’t have the flashy graphics or bloated storyline of a mega title like Final Fantasy. Nor does is have the slick artistic style and hip music of a game like Persona (or more recently, Cathrine). What Atelier Rorona does have is addictive gameplay, large amounts of replayability, and a charming world. Sometimes, that’s all you really need. Read on past the break to find out more about this little gem.
As a side note: if it wasn’t obvious already, I’m an independent blogger, working on an independent budget. As of right now, that budget hasn’t included a nice HDMI capture card to get nice screen grabs of the games I play. That’s part of the reason I haven’t done many game reviews. It’s on my short list, and when I do get it, I’ll re-do all of the screen shots in this review. For now though, you’ll have to deal with these fine camera snap shots.
I’ve always been a fan of special edition game packages, even when I trade games in, I usually keep the special stuff just in case I decide to buy the game back one day. I don’t want to sound like a hipster, but I was into special and collector’s edition games before they became all mainstream in the US. I used to read about the cool versions of Final Fantasy (one actually came with real life potions) and Metal Gear Solid that were being released in Japan, and then have to go and buy the regular old US version when it came out almost a year later. Back in the PSX days I used to do a lot of importing so I did get to enjoy at least a handful of special sets.
Now special editions are all the rage in the US, with many games even having multiple tiers. Some of the stuff borders a little bit on ridiculous, and most of it bumps up the price to unreasonable levels. A lot of times its just garbage (nothing can live up to the legendary status of the Lunar and Arc the Lad sets on the PSX). So it’s really nice when I come across a game that gives you a little something extra, without putting you over the already high $60 price point of this generation of games. When that game happens to be a JRPG, it also just hits a little something extra inside me, and I can’t resist buying it.
I knew almost nothing about Atelier Rorona before buying it, except that it came in a big box, and my local Gamestop had two of them. I ran home ( I live across the street from a Gamestop, and no I didn’t actually run), checked out just enough about the game to confirm it wasn’t straight up terrible, (modern reviews of JRPGs are always mediocre anyways, sorry it’s not another FPS for 360) and went back and bought it.
When I popped the disk in and started playing, my heart sank. I thought “OMG I just bought a bad game…” it’s a really horrible feeling. The girly characters and simple battle mechanics really threw me off at first. It kinda felt like I had just bought a game for girls, or creepy basement dwelling Otaku. But you know what? After about an hour with the game, I discovered I had a big smile on my face, and it hasn’t left since.
Rorona’s story is pretty straight forward. Several generations back, a wise traveler taught the kingdom of Arland to use the technological ruins which were scattered across their land, thus greatly improving their quality of life. In exchange, the traveler was allowed to open a shop where they could sell their wares. This became the Alchemist’s shop. Several generations have passed and the shop’s current master has done nothing to benefit the kingdom. In response, the King has ordered the shop to be closed and its residents banished. Unless they can complete a series specials tasks set forth to benefit the kingdom. You play as Rorona, the young, dimwitted assistant to the genius alchemist Astrid, who has conveniently transferred ownership of the store to you in order to escape the responsibility.
Now it’s up to Rorona to consistently succeed in 3 years worth of tasks in order to stay in her home. Fortunately she won’t have to go it alone, as the town is filled with residents who are willing to help, and new friends who will pop up along the way.
The core gameplay revolves around completing the kingdom’s tasks in the amount of time given. On average you have 90 days from the time the task is issued, until the evaluation day. The majority of these tasks involve the creation of specific items with the use of alchemy. If you fail any one of the 12 tasks at any point you will end up with a game over, and Rorona will lose the shop.
That may sound like it doesn’t leave much room for player choice and non-linear gameplay, but that’s actually not the case. When done correctly, the tasks don’t take that long (some can be completed in one day if you have the cash), leaving you with long periods of time to do with as you wish. That could range from taking on smaller alchemy jobs from the palace or townspeople, to exploring and conquering each of the games dungeons. You can do one, the other, both, or neither, the choice is really yours.
Atelier Rorona features a multitude of endings – a good number of storyline endings plus an additional ending sequence for each of Rorona’s friends. Some endings are dictated by how you advance through the game, while others are dependent upon your relationships with your friends, while still others can only be gotten if certain conditions are met. Suffice to say, this isn’t a one play through type game, at least, if you want to see everything.
As the name of the series suggests, this game is about alchemy, the mythological art of transforming one object into another. In this game it functions a lot more like cooking rather than turning lead into gold. Rorona has a list of recipes in her synthesis book that can be expanded by purchasing or finding new recipe books throughout the game. You create the alchemy items by combining ingredients from your inventory that fit the requirements of the recipe.
The system works well as there is a good amount of room to create items with custom attributes and higher qualities, but there isn’t much opportunity for experimentation. You can only make the items you have in your synthesis book; you can’t go around putting random items together to see what you get. That doesn’t really take away from the game, but it may have been nice. The system is simple enough to allow beginners to jump right in (or for you to breeze through if you’re not that into it), while at the same time packing in enough depth to keep it interesting through multiple playthroughs.
Regardless of how you feel about it though, alchemy is at the center of this game. Many aspects of the game’s ending sequences are reliant upon things like Rorona’s popularity in the city, as well as the level of depth in her friendships. Those attributes are increased by completing regular alchemy jobs for both the palace and acquaintances. At first they start out as simple gather quests, but by the time you’ve progressed past your first year, those requests will be testing the limits of your alchemy skills.
Alchemy does take time though, and that is the one thing that is in very limited supply in this game. While it never becomes a stressful, hectic race against the clock; time is something you are constantly aware of. Many of the games more advanced items can take a good deal of time to make (more if you’re lacking some of the supporting items) and you’ll often have to juggle your priorities to get by.
if you want to get the best ingredients for your recipes, you’ll have to venture outside of Arland and into the surrounding wilderness areas to do some gathering. The game has a multitude of gathering locations spread out over the world map, with each becoming available as the story progresses, and with each being accompanied by an increasingly long travel time to get there.
The primary purpose for venturing out into the wilds is to gather ingredients, and doing so is pretty straight forward. Once you enter a gathering location, all you have to do is walk along the path until you come across a gathering point (marked with a star, blue for normal, gold for special), at which time its only a matter of picking the ingredients you want from a randomly generated list, then it’s on to the next point. It’s a pretty simple system, but it gets the job done. The depth comes from tracking down the items with the specific traits and quality that you need. An ingredient with a high quality number won’t always be the best for you depending on what you need it for. For instance, if you’re trying to make equipment like a weapon or armor, something with more traits (like hp +2, or speed +1) would be best. On the other hand if you’re making something to sell, adding a trait like “Expensive” to a high quality item might be better.
While it’s possible to avoid it all together (with a few exceptions), it wouldn’t be adventuring without a few good battles. The monsters in each location appear onscreen at all times and there are no random battles (or even random placement), their movement is also very slow, so it’s usually quite easy to avoid most battles. The notable exception is when a slightly stronger monster is placed at the entrance to the next gathering location. Those must be fought in order to advance to the next location, but they are usually just a larger group of the same monsters that already appear in the level.
The battle system is refreshingly simple, which is a good thing for gamers who are new to JRPG’s, or for those who are a bit tired of the increasingly complex systems of the big name games. The system is a standard turn-based set up with each character getting their turn to select from a list of available options – there is also zero rush, because each character has unlimited time to take action before the turn passes to the next. The system has done away with any sort of “MP” bar, so the player only needs to keep track of the one “HP” bar, which also governs the use of special abilities. Additionally, Rorona is the only character able to use any sort of items, so you’ll have to make your choices wisely when you’re in a pinch.
The leveling and EXP system is equally straight forward, with characters progressing on a set path – you’re only responsible for deciding which skills to allocate points to. But if battling is not your thing and you’d rather run around alchemizing objects in peace, then you’re in luck. The game’s character recruitment system allows you to hire more powerful characters as you progress, which you can lean on a bit if you haven’t been doing any leveling yourself. They won’t single handedly allow you to beat any of the later bosses (they are all optional), but you will be able to get through most of the later gathering locations to get the items you need with little trouble.
For players who are more dedicated to beating up bosses than baking pies, there’s also a special “adventurer” ending just for you.
The game uses a map and menu system to handle most of the navigation duties in all instances. For example, once you step out the door to your workshop you’re taken to a town map. The town is divided into several sections, with some of them being further divided into specific locations. Picking a location instantly transports Rorona there, while hitting “Select” takes you back to the map screen. For sections with several locations, it’s also possible to run from place to place manually, but with load times taken into account, you’ll soon find that fast traveling with the map, is the way to go.
Venturing beyond the city walls is also handled in a similar fashion. From the world map you can select where Rorona will travel to, each location on the map takes a set amount of days to reach and return from, so you’ll have to keep that in mind. Once you’ve traveled there, a smaller map of that location will open, with its own list of gathering locations, each with their own number of days to travel to. That means that adventurous players will be subject to the same time constraints as their non-violent counterparts, so you’ll have to be smart about when and how you choose to explore the game world. Fortunately though, the travel time to the individual locations is non-linear, so getting to the point where you left off in a particular location will take the same amount of time as getting to any other location on the list.
The game keeps the list short and simple, with a small cast of characters for Rorona to focus on, 6 of which are also playable. The primary method of getting to know each character (and advancing their storyline) is to take on job requests that are available every few days. Like I said before, these jobs start out very easy, but can occasionally throw a wrench in the works when they ask for something on the very edge of your understanding. Each completed job awards a small amount of friendship points that eventually add up to unlocking special events, or being able to hire that character to accompany you on your romps outside the city gates.
While they may be a simplistic collection of anime archetypes, the characters work very well in the environment of the game. Most of the characters are one dimensional in nature, but the game’s focus isn’t really on a riveting story filled with twists and turns; this is more Harvest Moon than Xenosaga. It’s a lot of fun building up friendships and gaining little perks along the way, and don’t be surprised if you’ve become unreasonably attached to a few of them by the time the game’s done.
Still, it would have been nice to have some of the character storyline progression move along as a default. Some aspects of the story come into play with characters late in the game, and if you neglect them, then you simply won’t experience that side of the story. One character in particular deals with the main antagonist of the game, and after a few default scenes, I never saw that bad guy again. He wasn’t much of a bad guy, and the game didn’t really need him, but still, it’s always a bit odd when someone just falls off.
This game won’t knock your socks off or have you running to your balcony to sing of its graphical excellence, but again, sometimes simple is best. The game’s anime stylings work well with old school Super deformed characters. In game conversation is fully voiced (in both Japanese and English, thank goodness for the age of blu ray), but there’s little in the way of cinematics for dialog scenes. Instead, dialog plays out with a series of talking anime busts with changing expressions, another staple of the traditional JRPG.
The game runs at a full 1080p natively, which is more than can be said for most of the games on the market (which often run at resolutions much lower than 720p and are upscaled), and for the most part flows at a nice 60 frames per second. Textures are all nice and crisp, and while the environments are a little sparse, they work well for the anime style that is being portrayed. The showcase story scenes are handled in vibrate illustrations that are the exact opposite to Square-Enix’s bombastic cinematics, but in the context of the story, they have the same effect.
The special edition’s art book contains a good amount of character art for fans of the series, but if you really want to collect all of the game’s artwork into one snazzy package, then check out Udon Entertainment’s Atelier Series Official Chronicle.
This game isn’t for everyone, in fact, it’s probably not for a lot of people. It’s a simple game that speaks to a simpler time in gaming. The graphics won’t blow your mind, there’s not a world class symphony orchestra behind the music, and the story doesn’t require a degree in theology or hours in a forum to understand. For me, that was really refreshing.
I mostly buy 100+ hour RPGs and convoluted games from Hideo Kojima. Sometimes I buy other stuff, but it inevitably gets traded in to GameStop. Like I said earlier, I almost had a fit like in one of those GameFly commercials when I first started playing this. But thankfully I gave it a chance, and now I really love it. The game touched a special place in my heart that allowed me to enjoy it as a game, not a life changing experience that will emotionally drain me when it’s over. But you know what? When it was over I was actually pretty sad, even though I didn’t want to admit it to myself. The next day I sat down and did something I almost never do ever, I started playing it again. For me that’s something that only a select few games get the honor of, names like Final Fantasy 7, Metal Gear Solid (1), and Xenogears. There have been a lot of games I really liked on PS3, but the thought of ever playing them again has never even been entertained. So for me, that’s the highest praise I can bestow on any game.
Who’s this game for:
Fans of JRPGs, or anyone who’s ever loved them some Harvest Moon.
Who’s this game not for:
Anyone who prefers their heroes with giant ridiculous guns as opposed to giant ridiculous swords.