Most games are released in a hail of marketing material, the culmination of the development and publishing processes flanked by the trickled revelations of trailers, screenshots and random announced features. Most games, that is, because some decide to keep themselves entirely secret until they are released and then yell ‘SURPRISE!’ right in your face. Atelier Totori Plus: The Adventurer of Arland is the second type of game, its appearance on the Vita’s PSN store shocking everyone. It was almost like the fevered prayers of Atelier fans were heard and then swiftly followed by a Godly finger-click and a magical appearance on the online store everywhere. This shocking appearance and lack of any kind of marketing didn’t do Totori any harm however, with the game rapidly rising to the top of the North American Vita download lists. Good job ninja marketing! Good job indeed.
Getting down to business then, Atelier Totori Plus: The Adventurer of Arland is the second game in the Arland trilogy, following on from Atelier Rorona and preceding Atelier Meruru. Released initially for the PS3 in 2011 Atelier Totori sees you play as the new character Totori, apprentice to the alchemist Rorona. Rorona players will find a slew of returning characters and in-jokes, and although Totori is a direct sequel to Rorona it is accessible enough to require no prior knowledge of the series. This ‘Plus’ edition on the Vita comes bundled with all of the DLC released for the PS3 version, allowing access to new player characters (once you have progressed far enough into the game!) and a Background Music player which allows you to play music from previous Atelier games.
Often promoted as a crafting RPG the most important mechanics of the Atelier series by far are the time management constraints placed into the game. Dropped into Arland and aiming to become an adventurer Totori is given a wealth of options to pursue, juggling unlocking alchemy recipes and synthesising items in her workshop with hitting the road and gathering ingredients for her work. Each one of these actions takes time, and while individually each may not seem like much collectively they quickly add up and provide a background pressure for you as you work towards seemingly distant long term goals. Days are quickly eaten up when away from your workshop with both gathering and combat taking up set proportions of the day; as the game progresses it becomes increasingly important for you to ensure that you only spend the time gathering the ingredients that you will actually use rather than hit every spot on every map. While more open than previous Atelier games consciousness of time needs to be there from the start lest you doom yourself to a ‘bad ending’ and have to restart with only your money and your gear in a New Game+.
The crafting system itself though is a thing of wonder, far more nuanced than any other on the market. Using the ingredients you have collected during the course of your adventuring you are able to synch (create using alchemy) a wide array of items, from bombs and healing salves to fish flavoured beer and homemade pies. Each one of these items has a purpose, either as a consumable or an ingredient in a future alchemy creation. The deepness of the system begins to make itself clear at the ingredient level; each ingredient has a quality level and an item rank, as well as usually having several other features. Each time you synch a new item and choose the constituent ingredients the quality of these ingredients directly impacts the potential quality of the created item – one could say that if you put manure in you’re guaranteed to get manure out. That’s not all however, as these new items can pick up to five of the features that the constituent ingredients possessed, allowing you to throw stat bonuses, elemental powers or even the ever welcome Gigastink onto your new item. Still with us? Here is where it starts to get complicated. Each one of these features costs a certain amount of points, and each ingredient provides a set cost level to your new item, so suddenly you have to juggle including that skill you so desperately want with finding a potentially sub-par item that provides the cost level for you to actually pick it. Add to this the fact that many items can have different effects depending on the quality of the item that you use to craft them and the system quickly becomes one that you can lose hours in, trying throughout to create the best item from the ingredients you have to hand.
Thankfully progression into the mid-late game opens up options that help reduce a potential crafting grind where you are forced to remake basic ingredients over and over. Wholesaling lets you register certain common items at the various shops in the game, allowing you to buy up to ten each time the shop is restocked, while Chims (small homunculi) can be created at Rorona’s workshop and then set to duplicate any ingredient or synthesised item that you have in your bag or container. While this duplication can often take a large amount of time (multiple weeks in the case of some of the rarer ingredients or items) because it occurs in the background it has saved you time and resources, a worthwhile trade in the grand scheme of things. However, the interaction between the crafting system and the questing mechanics feels clearly broken by the point you unlock the ability to wholesale items; synthesis quests are only very rarely given for items that you have within your bags, meaning that the savvy player can keep a tiny stock of most items they haven’t registered and simply wholesale purchase quest requirements as and when they need them. It results in the quest system becoming trivialised, something to quickly check for ease while in town instead of providing a short term driver for your immediate actions. With much of the meaningfulness of these short term goals removed Atelier Totori feels somewhat directionless, a handful of major plotlines preceded by tens of hours of open world slogging until you can reach them.
Being a JRPG you would be right to expect some form of turn based combat, and Totori provides. Fairly simplistic in style each character has a handful of special moves along with a basic attack and block, with many fights (especially early on) devolving into a simple war of attrition. Somewhat differently from other games however is the fact that Totori is comically weak and a total liability if you try to approach combat in the same way as you would other games. Instead Totori offers the party access to her synthesised creations, both in the form of better armour and weapons and access to crafted items. It feels like a real achievement to create a superb piece of armour or a weapon, essentially transforming one of your party from a has-been to an unstoppable killing machine. Craft a few bombs (or even exploding fish) and some healing items and get in the flow of protecting Totori and the simple combat is revealed to have legs. It’s not the deepest combat system that you’ll find but then the focus of the game is quite clearly elsewhere, the combat being more of an incidental inclusion rather than a major supporting mechanic.
Regardless of whether you are slogging away in combat or wandering around the town areas the game shines on the Vita’s screen, the stylised anime graphics and detailed character models looking simply fantastic. There is a price for this however, as frame rate issues manifest when entering areas, especially those with many people. Loading times upon entering the Ateliers seem to grow related to how many ingredients you hold in your bag and container, leading to black screens that seem to make lifetimes out of seconds. Some slow down can also be experienced when initiating combat, with juddering effects seen as you had Totori swing her staff at an oncoming monster to gain advantage in the battle, but luckily these issues seem restricted to the cited examples, allowing the rest of your playthrough to be both smooth and beautiful.
Credit has to be paid to the voice acting and writing within the game too, although this has to come with a caveat – the cutesy anime voices and dialogue can be saccharine to the point of sickness, and the opening segment contains enough high pitch girly wailing to make you want to throw your headphones down in disgust. Away from this though the characters, especially Totori, demonstrate real growth over the course of the game and these personality developments are always appropriately voiced and presented. It’s a shame then that this character development is derailed by the inclusion of (an admittedly small) number of ‘fan service’ scenes that present the characters as you would imagine them in the mind of the geekiest otaku. This fan service often flirts with an outright voyeurism that feels extremely uncomfortable considering the age of some of the characters involved (Totori is only fourteen when the game begins). For instance, tapping the rear touchscreen while Totori is facing away from the camera will result in her falling over and providing you a full upskirt look at her knickers, while performing the ‘Axe Strike’ special move with Melvia will pretty much give you the same result with her. Some of the optional sidequest scenes push the boundaries further, with certain insinuations and even forced touching hurting characterisation and being just plain wrong. These issues extend far beyond the expected territory that comes with JRPGs (the inclusions of swimsuits for instance) and quite frankly sit uneasy for a Western audience. In the grand scheme of things these issues may not interfere with the basic mechanics of Atelier Totori but they do help ensure that the title remains a niche pursuit, justifying the stereotypes held on the genre by many.
Whatever its ambitions then Totori remains mired in the seedier aspects of JRPGs, its innovative (for those new to the Atelier series at least) take on the relative importance of crafting and gathering to combat lost behind memories of tentacles, knickers and swimsuits. There is a good game here for those inured to such representations but for everyone with a more holistic view of their value system these minor incidentals provide a mental sticking point – instead of being the game where you synthesised yourself to victory, Atelier Totori becomes the game where you managed to see a young girl thrown into a couple of sticky (arf! See what the game made me do!) situations. It’s very nearly a very good game, and certainly the best introduction to the series for new starters, but it just misses out on feeling like a must have gem.