Review: Atelier Rorona Plus: The Alchemist of Arland

I adore JRPGs, but it’s hard to find the time to play them. Long grinds can be fun, but they’re tough to fit into a busy chedule. Atelier Rorona Plus is a JRPG about how hard it can be to find time for everything you need to do. As a cross-buy title, it serves as both a showcase of how time-consuming these games can be, and a shining example of how this problem can be alleviated.

The Atelier series has been around for a long time, although it only made it overseas during the PS2 era. With its gorgeous sprite art and charming sense of humour Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana is one of my all-time favorite games from NIS America. But while I love the old PS2 games to bits (as well as their sister series Mana Khemia), I ended up passing on the series’ PS3 outings. The “Arland Trilogy” abandoned the 2D look I loved so much and took on a less linear structure with a focus on time-management. It was such a departure for the franchise that I chose to avoid it.

Cordelia

But then something unexpected happened – and when I say unexpected, I really mean it. In March of 2013, with no announcement or fanfare, a Vita remake of the second game called Atelier Totori Plus appeared on PSN. It was followed in September by a similar remake of Atelier Meruru, the last game in the trilogy. With additional content and rebalanced gameplay, these two titles became the definitive way to experience the trilogy, and their review scores reflected that. Of course, there was still the problem of the mediocre first act, but Gust and their new publisher Tecmo Koei have now stepped in to remedy that with Atelier Rorona Plus on both PS3 and Vita.

Rorona is an alchemist and the apprentice/indentured servant of Astrid – the world’s premier expert on alchemy and ancient artifacts. Unfortunately, their alchemy workshop is set to be shut down by order of the kingdom of Arland, mainly due to the fact that Astrid never does anything. Their only hope of keeping the shop is to complete a series of tasks set by the King, and by “their” I mean Rorona’s, because Astrid doesn’t intend to lift a finger. Well, she might lift a finger on occasion, but only to stroke Rorona inappropriately and flip off her best friend Cordelia. Yeah, it’s one of those anime games.

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Rorona’s assignments generally involve synthesizing alchemical goods, and must all be completed within a three month time frame. During the term of the assignment, Rorona will wander around town buying supplies, spend time crafting in her workshop, and venture out into the world to gather materials for transmutation. Every action takes up at least a day, so she must be judicious with the use of her time if she wants to complete the assignment. On top of that she has to earn stat boosts and items by fulfilling bonus requirements – such as synthesizing an item of high quality – and accept requests from townsfolk to earn money and increase her reputation. The time management mechanics are reminiscent of the Persona games, which also found a very comfortable home on Sony’s handhelds.

It’s entirely possible for Rorona to fail requests and assignments if she’s not careful, and too many failures will lead to the shop being closed (the game’s worst ending). On the other hand, excelling at her assignments will allow you to see increasingly better endings. The narrative also branches out based on “events” that you see as you wander around town, with a total of 30 possible endings. These events are triggered when you increase your “friendship level” with certain NPCs or party members, and they thankfully don’t take up any days on your already tight schedule. When you use the fast travel menu, handy icons will show which areas have cutscenes waiting for you, so you’ll never have to resort to guess work. These scenes are often funny, and the storylines for Rorona’s friends are all packed with charm.

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You can increase your friendship level by filling special requests, but the fastest way to do it is to take characters on adventures with you. Close friends will help Rorona on the cheap or even for free, but she can also hire mercenaries who charge more mercenary (for lack of a better word) rates. You’ll need to venture into gathering spots in order to collect raw materials for your alchemy, and out in the wilderness you’re bound to encounter monsters. Rorona Plus uses a revamped combat system taken from Meruru, and has your characters take turns based on their position in a timeline. Enemy turns are also shown on the timeline, which means you can pre-empt their attacks if you can put enough damage on the board.

This is standard RPG fare, except for how it handles items and special attacks. As an alchemist, Rorona is the only character who can use items in combat, which means healing is largely left up to her. It’s wise to avoid using her special attacks, as she needs the MP to synthesize when you get back to the workshop, so she also needs to use offensive items like bombs to deal damage. Rorona also has an assist meter that builds as turns pass. For each level of the meter, one of her two companions can step in to guard her when she’s attacked, or land an extra hit after she uses an offensive item or special attack. Party members also have their own abilities, but Rorona will always be at the core of your strategy.

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The battle system is nicely complex, and the structure of gathering quests lends itself to short bursts of play. It’s easy and enjoyable to whip out your Vita over the course of a bus ride and blaze through an area. The repetitive nature of the gameplay makes it a snap to pick up at any point, and while the plot advances slowly, you usually have a new scene or two of character development waiting when you get back to town. In short the game always gives you something to do, and if you’re playing in small doses, you won’t mind that many of those things are quite similar.

Once back at the workshop, Rorona will need to start synthesizing. The game uses an upgraded crafting system that combines elements from Torori and Meruru Plus. At a basic level, you combine items to make new items that share some of their component traits. You’re able to select which traits to carry over, so long as they’re within the bounds of the item’s cost, and you can even create new traits with specific combinations. You can craft multiple items at a time, which is usually wise given that recipes all take up a certain fraction of a day, and the game will round up if you’re under. Every item you craft in a batch will have the same stats. On the other hand, materials have a quality rating, and the quality of your items is an average of all their components. As a result, bulk orders tend to be of lower overall quality due to the scarcity of good ingredients. It’s a meaty, deceptively complex system, not unlike the fusion mechanic from the Shin Megami Tensei series.

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Atelier Rorona Plus presents itself with an abundance of charm. Its visuals have been upgraded substantially using models from Totori Plus, which have a soft, cartoony style that looks absolutely gorgeous on the Vita’s OLED screen. Each character model is vibrant and expressive, and Gust’s team have pulled in some very talented animators to ensure everyone’s personality shines through. On Koei’s side of things, the English voice actors they’ve hired for the job are top-notch, delivering their lines with impressive energy and comedic timing. The soundtrack is upbeat and infectious, and even if you don’t like the default tunes you can change out every piece of background music for songs from every other game in Gust’s extensive catalogue. Overall, Rorona Plus is a treat for the eyes and ears.

Unfortunately, the Vita can’t quite handle all the visual splendor, and the game chugs a little when the action gets busy. You’ll run into slowdown and pop-in when you visit the more populous areas of town, which isn’t a huge issue but can be a little distracting. On the bright side the Vita does have one significant advantage over the console version. By tapping Rorona from behind on the Vita’s touch pad, you can startle her, causing her to adorably declare “you scared me!” It’s a small touch, to be sure, but an important one for a game that sells itself on charm.

Rorolina

Closing Comments:

Atelier Rorona Plus is a charming, lighthearted JRPG that’s more open-ended than most of its brethren. It can be a little on the repetitive side, but there’s just enough variety to make it a delight in short bursts. When you pull the game out on your commute, or when you have a bit of down time at home, there will always be something waiting to make you smile. It’s not the best RPG on Vita, but if you’ve exhausted Persona 4 Golden it’ll provide you with hours of enjoyment, and it has two sequels waiting in the wings. Plus, if you feel an itch to play on the big screen, it does support cross-save with the PS3 version.
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Version Reviewed: PS Vita