Atelier Rorona Plus: The Alchemist of Arland Review
Sony PS VitaAlso available on Sony PS Vita and Sony PlayStation 3
The Arland games have been a funny old trilogy on the Vita - in fact, I can’t recall another trilogy ever, original or remastered, where the games were released in a chronologically incorrect order. There were reasons for the release order, of course – Atelier Rorona was always the game that would take the most work to get it up to standards, and perhaps we were all better off with having the easier releases pushed out earlier.
If you’ve been following the series since they started appearing on the Vita then you’ll know what to expect from Rorona, although the story is made all the more welcome by the fact that you finally get to see your host of returning characters at the very start of their tales. Rorona is a young alchemist, apprenticed to Astrid, the greatest alchemist ever. Astrid, however, is also exceptionally lazy, so when nefarious figures in Arland plan to close Astrid’s workshop down and replace it with a factory, Astrid hands the keys over to Rorona and leaves it up to her to save the workshop and prove that alchemy can be of value to the people of Arland.
As always with any of the Atelier games you’ll spend much of your time either synthesising objects or out in the world map gathering ingredients. Everything from bombs to perfume to a wide variety of pies can be created with the alchemy system, and it’s as easy as ever to spend hours tinkering with your creations, working tirelessly to find the best ingredients in your inventory and ensure that your final creation is ready to accept all the powerful traits you’re trying to squeeze onto it. You have three years of gameplay in Rorona Plus, and while that does sound like a long time you’ll quickly find that those few days spent walking somewhere, or making something, soon add up and those months will begin to fly by. You’ll need to manage your time carefully too – ignore too many requests from friends or neglect to work on your alchemy skill and you may well find yourself ill-prepared for future situations. All of this is backed up by a turn-based battle system where you get to show off your creations, smashing your foes to oblivion. Or not, if you’ve made crappy stuff.
In a departure from the other Arland Plus games some of the smaller scale time management aspects haven’t been implemented – you’ll still spend time crafting, or walking to locations, but the time spent exploring each location is specified up front – no more spending increments of a day in a battle or gathering. There’s a loss of micro-management here – now it’s of far more worth to kill every monster and harvest every spot in every map you enter, and that may well appeal for players looking for less fiddliness, but older franchise fans will miss the pleasure from min-maxing a map, saving a day by leaving behind a monster or a couple of gathering spots with poor ingredients.
Even if you are one of those older fans and you played through the original 2010 release of Rorona, there’s plenty here for you to see. For starters, the entire combat system has been replaced – gone are all the options that saw you expending health points to do anything, and instead the game now uses the combat system from Meruru Plus. Crafting has been improved to the same extent, again taking the Meruru Plus system of being able to choose your own item traits when synthesising. Throw into the mix new character models, more voice acting, new events and additional party members and you’ll start to see that this is far more of a remaster than the previous two games in the trilogy were. Oh, and a quick word to those of you scarred by the quest system in the original release – guild receptionist Esty now manages all of the character quests as well as the general ones, saving you countless hours by not having to run through the whole town every four days just to check whether anyone wanted anything.
As if all this wasn’t enough, a new Overtime mode has been added granting you an additional year of gameplay as time travelling antics by Astrid send both Totori and Meruru back in time to Rorona’s workshop – new events, classic dungeons and overpowered item traits make an appearance here, although to appreciate it fully you’ll want to have played the other two games in the series already. All of these changes are integrated seamlessly – perhaps the only area that felt a little strained was the (very) early game absence of items that could restore MP, although this is quickly resolved before it starts to aggravate too much. Regardless, in an instant Atelier Rorona Plus has devastated the original release, immediately becoming the only version that you should even consider playing.
While the additions and the mechanics in Rorona Plus are as polished as you could hope for, the sad fact is that the base game just isn’t as fluid as either Totori or Meruru. Rorona has to complete an assignment every three months, tying you down far more than either the free-form adventure in Totori or the kingdom development in Meruru. These are all easy enough, usually leaving you with plenty of spare time in the assignment period. The pain, however, comes from never being free from them. You can’t lose yourself in a flurry of synthesis, crafting the perfect something over the course of weeks or months because you’ll have another one of these demands popping up. You can’t travel around and lose yourself in adventure entirely – you’ll always have to come home for your assessment, and the reduced world map makes it more difficult to feel as though you’re in the middle of an epic journey.
The combat system feels like it takes a bit of a hit too. You have to wait until Overtime comes around to find yourself in the middle of consistently hairy battles that feel balanced to your strongest creations. Here every trash mob has the potential to cause trouble – or cause your pepped up elixir to trigger at least. The newer item traits found deeper into the Overtime dungeons see you create new iterations of your gear, and while some decent pinwheels and infinity meteors should see you through most fights, the quality of design is readily apparent. It’s just a shame that it took thirty-five odd hours of main game to get to the stage where the combat felt so rewarding. This shouldn’t be a surprise to franchise fans though – you can arguably link the combat disparity (you are either grossly overpowered or you grossly overpower) to the ongoing master-apprentice themes found throughout all of the games. Probably the real kicker here is that sub-bosses, who traditionally cropped up in new areas as you explored, are now placed in older gathering areas and listed as optional requirements for your tri-monthly questing. Sure, you’ll go out of your way to kill them if you’re after a particular requirement reward, but they are far easier to just ignore in Rorona Plus, winning you back even more time as you can then pretty much ignore upgrading much of your gear until relatively late on.
Atelier Rorona Plus: The Alchemist of Arland is a strange beast. The systems supporting the game are excellent – the crafting system especially feels like it is at a pinnacle and would be hard to beat going forwards. The story is fantastically written, characters are likable and well voiced, and even the odd bit of fan service doesn’t really get in the way (although that could just be because I’ve become immune to it after so many hours in Arland). Until Overtime of course, which has Totori flashing her knickers with every other special move. But, I digress – the framework is there for an excellent game. However, just as they did back on original release, the driving mechanics of Rorona Plus leave you unable to appreciate these systems fully, your journey around Arland never really feels epic enough, and apart from a couple of overpowered bosses towards the end the combat is too limited. These lessons have already been learnt, improvements have already been made – Totori, Meruru and even Rorona’s own Overtime show the progression that Gust has made in designing these games. Rorona Plus is worthy of a visit, or even a revisit, just don’t expect the world from it.