Imagine how easy life would be if you could create anything you ever wanted by throwing random things into a giant cauldron and swirling them around with a big stick. Fancy an icy bomb with which to freeze your enemies? Yep, you can do that – get swirling. How about your very own wine? Some grapes and water thrown into the cauldron (followed with a swirl, of course) have you covered. Potion of Youth? Well, slightly more difficult, but get training and you’ll soon get there. And this, really, is what the Atelier series is all about – a JRPG dominated by crafting, but still including a traditional turn based combat system, a game where picking flowers to use as ingredients is probably more important than beating every creature on the map.
Atelier Meruru Plus: The Apprentice of Arland is the third and final game of the Arland trilogy, following on from Atelier Rorona and Atelier Totori. Confusingly for those of you who don’t keep yourselves entirely up to date with niche gaming news it’s only the second Atelier game to be ported to the Vita, following on from the release of Totori Plus earlier this year (a Rorona Plus is hoped for at some future point). Although it’s the final game in a trilogy, and packed full of returning characters, Meruru is more than able to stand on its own without requiring any knowledge of the first two games (or indeed, any knowledge of the previous gajillion Atelier games outside to Arland series). As hinted at above, it’s a JRPG with a difference – it’s got the combat style you would expect and is chock full of talking head characters spouting dialogue, but it’s ultimately a much more freeform game, setting you free to gather ingredients and use your alchemy as you see fit.
So then, following series convention, you play as new character Meruru, Princess of Arls. A small kingdom located next to the Republic of Arland, the King of Arls has recently decided to abdicate the crown and merge his kingdom into the neighbouring republic. The game sees you move around Arls, initially helping to develop it from a bit of a backwater by using alchemy in preparation for the big merge, and then later on helping to rescue it from various nefarious beings. Fans will be pleased by the inclusion of both Totori and Rorona as party characters, giving you the option for the first time in the Arland series to field a party of three alchemists. This ‘Plus’ version comes with a ton of additions and balance changes, with the main highlights being the inclusion of all of the DLC released for the earlier PS3 edition and the addition of the Makina dungeon. You can see a full list of the additions here, although as comprehensive as that list may look there is no mention of the excellent balancing work that has been undertaken in the background. Suffice to say that this is no simple cash-in port, rather there has been meaningful reworking that will appear seamless to newcomers and force old hands to find new imbalances to exploit.
It’s important to grasp when playing an Atelier game for the first time that the crafting and time management elements of the game are the main mechanics that you’ll be interacting with. Everything you do, from walking around the world map to gathering alchemy ingredients to fighting enemies to swirling stuff around your cauldron and actually making stuff takes time. And time, of course, is important. Structurally the game is split into two parts, with a check after three in-game years on your progress. Fail to pass that check and you’ll receive an early game over, pass it and you’re given a two year extension to continue development while working your way towards one of the game’s many endings. Later on in the game you’ll be able to make certain items that will help you speed up your travel and cut down on time expenditure, but through your first play you’ll be fighting the clock as much as actual nasties.
Unlike with other games in the series however, Meruru is provided with a lot more guidance on what to do and where to go. Her goal is to develop the kingdom, and this is achieved through the completion of development quests, which in turn leads to the awarding of development points, which can then be spent on new buildings within Arls. Gain enough development points and the kingdom will ‘level up’, opening up new development quests and beginning the cycle again. Rather than arbitrarily giving you access to new areas at set points, Atelier Meruru instead opens up areas as a direct result of your questing, having you fight your way through smaller corridor maps to unlock routes over the wider world map to other gathering spots. The focus given here is fantastic, and certainly through the early part of the game there’s a great feeling of player power as your actions visibly translate into the development of Arls. Meruru doesn’t only have development quests to deal with however, your relationships with other characters are also central to Atelier Meruru, and as you travel with them or complete synth quests for them you’ll raise their friendship level and be treated to various scenes demonstrating their growing trust in Meruru.
If you’ve not played an Atelier game before then you’re in for a real treat with the crafting system in Atelier Meruru Plus. A major overhaul has occurred since Totori and the crafting interface has been improved beyond reckoning. Let’s start at the beginning though; each ingredient you gather has both a quality level and up to five various traits. When you create (or ‘synth’) an item from these ingredients using alchemy you are able to transfer up to five traits from the combined ingredients over to the new item. However, each trait has a cost, and each item only provides a certain amount of cost level, meaning that you’ll need to perform some juggling to afford all of the traits that you may want. With us still? It gets better. Certain traits can be combined with one another to create a new higher powered trait on the synthed item. This new trait is more expensive in cost than the two it combined, but of course you are now only taking up one trait slot on the new item. Over the course of the game you’ll face many instances when you’ll have to make hard calls on what to include on your items and what to leave, and many hours can be lost obsessing on how exactly to create the very best items that you can. One of the previously mentioned improvements is that you can now see both the cost of the relevant traits as well as the cost level of the new item before you actually commit to creating it, meaning you can play around endlessly tinkering to find your preferred creation rather than deal with the dullness of endless reloading or out of game spreadsheet planning.
It doesn’t end there though. If you want to progress to creating the very best items instead of randomly throwing things together you’ll have to plan meticulously. Key traits can be transferred to common created ingredients such as supplements or fuel types, and from there easily transferred onto preferred final items. Later in the game wholesaling makes an appearance, allowing you to register created items at Pamela’s shop and they rebuy them later, thus preserving those most commonly used synthed items. Thankfully while creating you can now easily access and create the constituent parts of the desired item, saving you from trawling through lists of options – this also has the added benefit of giving you even more control over your end product.
It’s not all peachy though. Enemies or NPCs can seem to take an age to load into the map when you first enter an area, and the framerate stutters for short periods when you enter a region. Balance is an issue from mid-game on, with created weapons usually leaving you dominating most of the usual monsters but still struggling against the bigger (albeit mainly optional) bosses. This balance issue extends into New Game+ too – the end game can be a wonderful place of appropriate challenge, but you’re faced with many, many hours of brain-numbingly easy grinding to get there again. However, these are tempered by the overall improvements to the Atelier formula; one of the main criticisms we had for Atelier Totori Plus (and, indeed, we hold for many other niche JRPGs) was the presence of over-bearing fan service throughout. At times it felt like you couldn’t complete a story scene or friendship requirement without tripping over some semi-deviant writing or artwork. The fan service is still in Meruru, but it’s been toned down and is more subtle than in previous games, a great step for a story where your main protagonist starts the game as a fourteen year old. There are still stereotypes that come across as a bit lazy - the heaving bosom of series’ staple Pamela, new girl Hanna’s gravity-defying top, Esty’s obsession with aging to name a few, but in the main Atelier Meruru offers well developed female characters who are strong enough to stand on their own. Meruru, in particular, is a breath of fresh air. Gone are the confidence issues of Totori or the randomness of Rorona, and instead we have a female lead used to being in charge who welcomes the accumulation of responsibility. She might be a princess in a world of slightly squeaky voices where everyone else is obsessed with cuteness, but Meruru knows how to kick arse when required.
Did we say squeaky voices? Yeah, we did. The voice acting is superb throughout (and there is even the option to switch to the original Japanese voice track) and it’s not as offensively pitched as Totori was, but you’ll still need to enter the game with an open mind. The voices can, at times, become disgracefully cutesy, the high-pitched sentences searing themselves into your ears. The characterisation, as well as the integration of the characters into the story, stops them from being off-putting and once you’ve got a couple of hours into the game they won’t seem weird or out of place to you at all – indeed, you may begin to look forward to being welcomed into the game by one of the alchemists every time you log in, apart from the one where you are slightly chastised for playing the game so late.
As a game Meruru is a step forward in every way from Totori, and as a port it screams out to be used as an example to other developers. The balance changes to the crafting system give returning players a chance to reinvent the way they approach the optional bosses in the end game period while the move away from moe-ish pandering is a welcome change to everyone (apart from perhaps five particularly perverted otakus currently fuming in a bedroom in their parents’ house). It’s taken them long enough, but the Atelier series is finally entering a space where you would be happy to recommend them to any RPG-loving friend, rather than leave them to that one guy we all know who only plays games with suspiciously young and underclad heroines.