As you may have been able to tell based on the fact that I railed on the Gamespot review a couple of posts ago, I have been playing through Atelier Meruru, the latest game in the venerable Atelier series. Atelier Meruru is the final part of the “Arland” trilogy inside the greater Atelier series. The first game in the series, Atelier Rorona, was a surprisingly good JRPG built on a solid foundation of addictive alchemy gameplay. Its sequel, Atelier Totori, surpassed Rorona in every imaginable way and I referred to it in my review as “one of the best JRPGs of this generation”. Despite being called a trilogy, these three Atelier games do not share a story, and anyone can pick up any of these games without missing a beat. What connects them is that characters from previous games appear, and each new protagonist is mentored by the last. The series is most definitely not for everyone. Anyone who cringes at games strongly entrenched in super cute anime conventions, with an emphasis on off-beat humour should not even attempt to play this game. For the rest of you: read on.
|Bad cover design is bad. Maybe put relevant characters on the top left of the box next time.|
Atelier Meruru is about a young princess (Meruru) who one day decides she wants to be an alchemist. Her father, the king, would rather her buckle down and fulfil her royal obligations. After convincing him she can do both, Meruru is tasked with using her alchemy to develop the kingdom and prepare it for its assimilation into the Arland Republic, which was the setting for the past two games. There is some development of the main plot, but not much. There isn’t any kind of grand “save the world” type adventure, and that is what makes the Atelier series so unique. Meruru spends the game interacting with various NPCs, while advancing her alchemy and developing the Kingdom. It is a simple premise, and it isn’t what will hook you on the game.
|Did I mention how upbeat Meruru is?|
Firstly, Atelier Meruru has a wonderful cast. There aren’t duds in this game like the previous two (Mark, Tantris). Three characters are brought over from Rorona (plus one NPC-turned playable character); three characters from Totori; and three new characters from Meruru. This game has the best of the best the trilogy has to offer character wise and it really shows. Many different personality types are present from the age-obsessed 40 year old secret agent to the honour-bound knight. There is something for everyone in this game. While the plotline may not advance too much, character interactions are abundant, funny and rewarding experiences. None of these characters deviate too much from their set personality tropes, but Meruru isn’t a serious game with proper character development. It is a fun game that never takes itself seriously. When a character proclaims another is a devil for stealing her rare mushroom, you know the game is playing for laughs. There have been criticisms launched at this game for inappropriate innuendo, but the dialogue and story are clearly of a comedic nature. If it were taking itself seriously, it would be a different matter, but the game is meant to be funny.
|This was embarrassing for everyone…|
The main purpose of the game is to develop your fledgling nation, and you accomplish this by raising its population and building new buildings. Both of these are achieved by completing tasks given to you by your butler. This system is much looser and more addictive than the more restrictive task system in Rorona or even the Adventurer system in Totori. The reason for this is that there is a much wider variety of tasks at any given time, allowing players to really control the direction of development, making the game less linear. At the same time, points are obtained for completing tasks, which can be spent on buildings that will give you certain advantages. For example, training schools will give you more experience in battle and let characters gain experience even when not in your party. There are almost always more buildings available than points, so picking the building that works best to you adds another layer of depth to the game.
|The cardboard style map is a major improvement over the lifeless old ones.|
Of course the core mechanic of the game remains alchemy, and it is as addictive as ever. There are very few things more addicting than meticulously creating that perfect bomb with which to blow up that pesky Wyvern, or tiny little slime. With a huge variety of traits and items to build and experiment with, the alchemy aspect of the game is strong enough to completely carry it. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to. The main combat mechanics are traditional JRPG fare. Totori evolved past Rorona by adding an MP gauge instead of using HP for everything. Meruru expands on combat by making it more challenging and deep with the addition of some interesting mechanics like Power Item, which allows you to use the same type of item twice in a row after expending a unit of your two teammates assist gauges. Button mashing will win the day if you play it safe, but if you want to get to those rarer ingredients earlier, a proper understanding of combat and maximizing alchemy is required, making this game’s combat much deeper than Rorona, and a bit more than Totori.
|We call this “owned”|
Graphically the game is beautiful but not impressive. You won’t get Final Fantasy level production values, but the extremely colourful and cheery environments are a nice change from the current generations overdone browns and bland jungles. The character models do not seem improved from Totori, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as they look great. Musically, the game is a triumph with great background music, which can be adjusted if you preferred the music from either Rorona or Totori more. Voice acting ranges from excellent to just decent, but is overall on the positive side.
|Shame face tells it all|
There are only two downsides I can think of for this game. Firstly, the style of game will not appeal to the vast majority of gamers and the second is Meruru herself. Other reviews have complained that she is vapid and lacks the heart of former protagonists and to this point I disagree. For me, Meruru’s problem is that she’s rather boring. With the past two protagonists being in the game, Meruru has a hard time justifying her existence and she doesn’t separate herself enough from the pack. I would welcome it if she was noticeably vapid as that would at least let her stand out, but as it stands, she is simply another determined, cheerful young girl striving to meet her goals. She just isn’t compelling and that is noticeable when she is surrounded by much better characters.
|Meruru, surrounded by much better characters|
Atelier Meruru isn’t the major leap that Totori was, but it is still a great evolution to the series. Every little thing as been streamlined or improved, making it the best game of the trilogy from a gameplay perspective. Story-wise, the game doesn’t hit the same high notes that Totori does, but it is complimented with a much stronger cast of characters. Overall, Meruru is definitely a game worth playing for fans of the series or new gamers who may enjoy this type of game. Basically, if you see the pictures and aren’t immediately turned off the game, then you may want to try it out. If you are, subtract at least three points from my score.
Alchemy is addicting
Not for everybody
– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer