Hot off the presses at NIS America comes the latest edition in the Atelier series, entitled Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland. This game is a Japanese RPG, as the title would suggest, but underneath the cute anime exterior is a deep and rewarding game. GUST clearly learned from the mistakes of the previous entries in the series to create a game that fans of the franchise, and even fans of Japanese-style RPGs, will truly enjoy.
This game follows the story of Princess Meruru and her burning desire to become an alchemist. Her father, the King of the rural province Arls, initially doesn’t know that Meruru has been practicing alchemy. Up until now, Meruru has been secretly under the tutelage of the kingdom’s resident alchemist Totori, but inevitably, the secret gets out, and her father is not happy about the news. After things calm down, the King finally agrees that Meruru can become an alchemist, as long as she agrees to help develop the kingdom of Arls with her craft before they merge with the neighboring kingdom of Arland. Meruru happily agrees and sets forth on the five-year mission to help Arls become a prosperous kingdom. Along the way, Meruru learns a lot about herself and the kind of leader she wants to become.
Superficially, this may seem like a silly premise, but there is a surprising amount of depth underneath. This dichotomy of light overtones with deep, meaningful undertones make this game quite interesting, especially when you compare how the game starts to how it ends. The story is also supported by some genuinely likeable characters that show growth as the story progresses. They also react to your decisions, which give the tasks you are completing some weight. There is also a subtle sense of humor throughout the story that leads to some funny situations, including some references to Japanese culture that may be lost on western audiences. However, they are few and far between, so it shouldn’t discourage anyone from playing this game.
From a graphical standpoint, this game looks great and is an improvement over the other games in the series. The graphics are crisp with a cel-shaded appearance. The colors are bright, there are new banners, and just the overall aesthetic appearance is better this time around. You will soon discover that Arls is a beautiful place. Few games use this much color to tell their story, but Atelier Meruru takes full advantage of the color palette it has available to them. If you like a bright and colorful game, few titles can deliver like this one does. There is also a new, fresh layout that is less confusing and gives you the information you need right in front of you. You won’t have to dig through menus to get an idea of what your character is doing, and that is only a good thing. Though the system isn’t drastically different from Atelier Totori, it still does a good job and tweaking it would only risk making the system worse rather than better.
The core of this game lies within your ability to create potions and salves from items you find in the kingdom. This should come as no surprise considering that alchemy has been a staple for the franchise since the beginning. However, this time around the system has been tweaked and optimized to make this game the best in the series. As you would expect, you will need recipes before you can make anything. The game starts you off with a book full of helpful items, but to get access to the better items, you’ll have to level up. This is a departure from the old system, where you would get new recipes from finding them out in the wild. This makes the game a little easier, but far less frustrating than past games. Every five to ten levels Meruru earns, she will gain access to a new set of recipes from Totori. This is just enough time where you’ll never feel like the game is getting stagnant and you’ll always be able to move forward at a decent pace. However, you will also have the ability to pick up new recipes from your mentor at the castle, so there is more to finding new recipes than just waiting for Totori. New techniques are also available to learn, so you’ll have a few different sources to get the things you need to become a better alchemist.
In addition to the core gameplay, there are many different mechanics that have been added that give you a sense of progression as time passes in the game. After you complete a mission, you will now be awarded development points. You can then spend those points developing the kingdom. In turn, these development points give you bonuses that help you out even more. Things like increased experience during battle or lowering the requirements for certain recipes are all things you can influence by improving buildings. The part that is most impressive is the sense of progression. As you spend these development points, the landscape starts to change. What once was a barren piece of land becomes a busy town center, and it is all directly linked to work you do in the game. This mechanic really helps to move the story along and keep the player engaged while they are performing task after task. You’ll want to see how these seemingly inconspicuous buildings become integral parts of your character.
One of the best parts of this game is the choice it gives players from the very beginning. Whether you want to focus on adventuring and taking down monsters, item collection, or even the alchemy itself, you’ll have the ability to do that while still contributing to the master plan. There are plenty of development quests, so you’ll have more than enough opportunity to tailor your experience with the story line and you favorite part of the game. The beauty of this game is that the quests do not expire, leaving you to take on projects as you wish. You won’t have to worry about getting to a certain place at a certain time, and that is something we won’t miss from the previous Atelier games.
If there is one area to complain about, it is certainly the voice acting in this game. Luckily, most characters are voiced well, but there are a few, including the main character Meruru, where there was some room for improvement. Perhaps a more mature sounding actress would have softened the blow a bit, but some of the lines didn’t come across as natural or appropriate for a girl of Meruru’s age. Another area that could have used some improvement was the soundtrack. The music did a nice job in keeping the mood whimsical, but it was boring more often than not. When you compare the soundtrack to something like Final Fantasy, it just doesn’t stack up. Luckily, you can customize the soundtrack to suit your tastes, but there isn’t a lot of choose from as far as style is concerned.
Overall, Atelier Meruru is an excellent game, and it should appeal to JRPG and RPG fans alike. This game is definitely the best game in the Atelier series. There are plenty of improvements over the previous entry in the series that make this game more accessible and more rewarding. There is plenty of game here to get through, and with multiple endings and tons of side missions, you’ll have your hands full. This game has everything you would look for in an RPG, and as long as you aren’t against JRPGs, we definitely recommend this title.
This review is based off a review copy of the PS3 version of Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland by GUST distributed by NIS America