Atelier Rorona: Arland’s New Beginning

This article is one chapter of a multi-part Cover Game feature!
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As we’ve previously explored, the Atelier series is no stranger to rereleases and remakes — and at the time of writing, Arland trilogy debut Atelier Rorona has had more than most.

Initially releasing in Japan in 2009 as Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland before being localised by NIS America for North America, Europe and Australasia in 2010, the game was subsequently completely rebuilt in 2013 under its new worldwide publisher Koei Tecmo as Atelier Rorona Plus in an attempt to bring it more in line with the subsequent releases in the series. In 2015, Japan got a unique 3DS version of the game. And in 2018, Gust and Koei Tecmo brought Atelier Rorona DX — pretty much a port of Atelier Rorona Plus — to Nintendo Switch, PS4 and Windows PC.

Keeping one game relevant for nine full years and counting is no mean feat. So let’s take a closer look at some of the reasons this game might have stuck around for quite as long as it has!

Atelier Rorona’s existence was first revealed in 2009 through the popular Japanese magazine Dengeki PlayStation. The project was led by director Yoshito Okamura, who had previously acted as the main planner on the Mana Khemia subseries, the immediate predecessors to the Arland trilogy. Ken Nakagawa, who had worked on every game in the series from fifth game Atelier Violet onwards, returned as composer. And artist Mel Kishida, who had, at this point, not worked on a video game before, provided the game’s 2D illustrations and designed the characters. Kishida was specifically recruited by Okamura because he felt the artist’s distinctive style was in line with the aesthetic he wanted to adopt for the new game — and few would deny that the Arland trilogy as a whole most certainly has a clear, coherent visual aesthetic.

The game was intended to be something of a return to the series’ roots in terms of gameplay; while the later PlayStation 2 installments in the series had placed a stronger emphasis on adventuring, exploring and more “traditional” RPG aspects, the intention behind Atelier Rorona was to return to the simple concept of the earliest games: young girl isn’t very good at alchemy, needs to get better at alchemy against strict time limit.

In Atelier Rorona’s case, the narrative setup is that eponymous heroine Rorona is working as an apprentice to experienced alchemist Astrid. She’s not doing this entirely out of choice; prior to the events of the game, her parents were in need of serious medical attention, and it was Astrid who was able to save them. Unable to repay Astrid for her ministrations, the family agrees that Rorona should work as Astrid’s assistant to pay off their debt before promptly buggering off on a seemingly never-ending string of holidays.

Rorona doesn’t seem to mind too much, though; although she misses her parents, she enjoys the company of Astrid, even if the latter does get a bit gay and sexual-harassy at times, particularly when drunk. And while Rorona initially seems to struggle a little bit with the concept of alchemy, it’s not long before she shows herself to have both a natural aptitude for the subject as well as a seemingly endless desire to learn. Astrid describes this as her being “dumb”; she hoovers up information and techniques without really needing to stop to think about the hows and whys, and that’s exactly what makes a good alchemist.

Good thing Rorona has such natural aptitude, really, because big change is coming to the kingdom of Arland. Following the discovery of machinery from a past civilisation in recent years, industrialisation has gradually started creeping in to the kingdom, with some more keen to embrace the modern age — and the potential profit margins automation brings to the table — than others. Once such example is Meredith Alcock, head of the Ministry of Arland and a government official who is clearly trying to throw his weight around as much as possible in the apparent absence of the kingdom’s monarch.

Alcock sees alchemy as a relic of the past, and consequently wants to wipe Astrid’s workshop off the face of the town. Being a bureaucrat, however, he knows that this is not something he can just do on a whim, and so he goes about it in an official capacity: he gives Astrid three years to prove the workshop’s value to the kingdom, a responsibility which she promptly shirks completely, leaving it all up to Rorona. Now, you might think that this would be a convenient way for Rorona to escape her debt, but it’s not to be; were the workshop to end up closed at the end of the three years, Rorona and her family would be exiled from the town along with Astrid. Harsh.

The way Rorona is expected to prove her worth is through completing regular assignments for the castle, which range from synthesising specific types of item in her workshop to clearing out monsters from a nearby area. These assignments aren’t just selfish requests, however; they’re all placed in the context of helping the community with various situations — though in more than one case, everyone involved realises after the fact that their timing isn’t always the best. Setting Rorona the task of producing items to cool everyone off at the start of summer proves to be an exercise in futility, for example; by the time the assignment’s evaluation rolls around, the season is already changing to autumn, and no-one needs cooling items any more!

This is just one example of many throughout Atelier Rorona where the actual game mechanics are used to provide commentary on a variety of relevant modern issues, ranging from how mass production tends to result in overall quality suffering, to how layers of bureaucracy can simply get in the way and make life considerably more inefficient for everyone while providing no real benefit to anyone. Both issues just as relevant today as they were in 2009, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Atelier Rorona’s gameplay is split into a number of distinct components: the workshop, the town, the adventure fields and battle. All are closely related to one another, so you’ll need to pay attention to each aspect of the game in order to successfully progress — you can’t just hole up in Rorona’s workshop for the whole game and get by with nothing but crafting.

As you might expect for the series, the workshop component is one of the most signficant aspects of the game. It’s here that Rorona will make use of ingredients she gathers from fields and monsters to produce various items, perhaps then using those items to produce more complex items in turn.

Crafting an item in Atelier Rorona is, at its most basic level, a simple matter of selecting appropriate ingredients. For straightforward recipes, just an ingredient of the correct “type” is required — wood is wood — but for more complex alchemical combinations, you might need a specific item.

The exact mechanics beyond that vary a little between the original Atelier Rorona and Atelier Rorona Plus, the latter of which uses many of the systems and conventions found in Atelier Meruru. Most of today’s discussion will concern Atelier Rorona Plus and DX rather than the original — since although the original is still a good time, with how much better Plus and DX are in every way, there’s little reason to return to it.

Anyway, where were we? Right. Each individual ingredient carries a quality level, expressed as a number between 0 and 120; a letter grade rank; a cost value; and perhaps up to five traits. Different instances of the same item can vary enormously; you might find one piece of wood that is high quality but “Super Stinky”, while another might be “Big” but rotting away. Certain specific items also have inherent traits that they will always carry as well as these randomised ones, so you can use this knowledge to your advantage.

When you put the ingredients for an item together, various things are calculated. One of the most important ones to pay attention to is the item’s effect, which is represented as a bar graph. Different ranges on the bar graph correspond to different possible effects the final item can have, but you won’t know what these are until you’ve synthesised an item with that effect at least once. Alchemy is a process of discovery, after all — that and a very delicate balancing act between all your different ingredients!

In the case of usable items such as bombs and healing salves, effects will likely be something as simple as the base damage or healing potential, but through clever use of ingredients you might be able to add additional effects to the mix; a healing item might be able to cure status effects as well as healing HP, for example. In the case of other items, the “effect” might be to change the way the item looks or how it works; when synthesising a statue, for example, the exact creature that the statue depicts is in accordance with how high the effect bar is. “Low” effects produce statues of birds; “high” effects produce demon statues.

Here’s where the idea of mass production reducing overall quality comes in; since the “higher” effects are rarer, producing more items at once reduces the likelihood you’ll meet the appropriate threshold to trigger a particular effect. As such, you’ll often need to weigh up whether you should take your time over a single “perfect” item, meticulously crafted with artisanal skill, or just shit out a bunch of cheap knockoffs made from crap materials to get them done by the deadline. Different situations in the game call for different approaches, so there’s no one “right” answer to this.

When you’re satisfied with your choices, starting the alchemy process will consume a period of time and some of Rorona’s MP. Alchemy always takes at least one full day, however, so in the case of items that take a fraction of a day to synthesise, it’s sometimes in your best interests to try and produce several in one go if you have the ingredients to do so; it might save you a bit of time later.

After the time has passed, you discover whether or not the alchemy was successful — recipes lower than Rorona’s alchemy level always succeed unless she runs out of MP, while you are given a percentage chance of success for higher-level items — and given the opportunity to select the traits for the item. You can choose up to five traits drawn from the ingredients, though each trait has a cost associated with it, and the total cost’s worth of traits you can apply to the finished item varies according to a number of factors.

Traits are interesting because they’re not always immediately useful, but can prove very helpful if the item you’re producing ends up as an ingredient for another item. For example, if you’re struggling with a high-level item that seems to have no possible chance of success — a very real issue in the new postgame chapter added in Atelier Rorona Plus — then creating ingredients that boost your chance of success by a flat rate are absolutely essential. Likewise, traits that boost final quality are always welcome, since quality has a very real impact on the effectiveness of any item Rorona is able to make use of, be it equipment or consumable. And traits that allow an item’s effect to automatically trigger if Rorona’s HP drops below a certain level (pro-tip: hold on to items with “Pepped Up” until you’re making Elixirs!) become very helpful indeed for late-game healing.

The game doesn’t explicitly teach you quite how important traits are — though there are a few assignments and quests that request a specific trait — but this aspect of the alchemy system is probably the most important thing to master when attempting to optimise a playthrough of Atelier Rorona. It becomes especially important when crafting components that you will turn into weapons and armour — a weapon that can heal you with every strike you make is much more valuable than a staff that just hits quite hard, particularly when confronting some of the tougher enemies and bosses late in the game.

One major new addition to the workshop mechanics from Atelier Rorona Plus onwards is the ability to synthesise “decoration” items. These are items that take a significant amount of time and effort to synthesise, but when successfully produced and placed, provide permanent passive bonuses or the ability to harvest specific types of items directly within the workshop. In most cases, these provide a means of saving large amounts of time: “Traveler’s Shoes,” for example, reduce the number of days it takes to get to the various field areas and dungeons from Arland (and back again), while the “Flying Carpet” means that if you get knocked out in battle, you simply “wake up” at the entrance of the area you’re in rather than getting sent back to the workshop and losing 10 days or so in the process. Make these items early enough and the time they’ll end up saving you will ensure they more than “pay for themselves”.

Later in the game you also unlock a further means of saving yourself some time: Hom the homunculus. This is constructed by Astrid for several reasons: to show off (arguably the most important reason); to piss off Cordelia (probably the second most important reason); to give Rorona a “sibling”; to make absolutely sure Astrid won’t have to do any work ever; and, probably least importantly, to actually help out Rorona in the workshop. Whether Hom presents as “male” or “female” corresponds to a seemingly innocuous question earlier in the game where Astrid asks Rorona whether she’d prefer to have a little sister or a little brother.

Hom can be sent out gathering to any of the areas Rorona has explored, or set crafting specific items Rorona has previously synthesised. In both cases, Hom isn’t a simple duplication machine, unlike the wholesale mechanic; both synthesis and gathering results can vary enormously, though you can indicate certain preferences to Hom before setting them to work, and their capabilities can be increased in a few ways over the course of the game. And, much as the other characters in the game are fully fleshed out, Hom has their own little story to follow, too — and it’s really rather charming. I’ll leave you to discover the details for yourself.

Step out of the workshop into town and you have a number of different places you can go. There’s the Sunrise Cafe, which sells food-related items and which is staffed by Rorona’s longstanding friend Iksel. There’s the Beefy Weapon Shop, run by Hagel Boldness, a man who is very sensitive about his lack of hair up top, particularly having a name that draws attention to this fact in two different languages. There’s R&T’s Sundries, a general store run by an attractive older woman that the gentlemen of Arland are consistently swooning over — and who handles her alcohol very, very poorly. And, later in the game, there’s a shop run by Pamela, who is a ghost. Assuming you inadvertently find her on one of your excursions.

Initially, the shops simply sell ingredient items — typically of consistently higher quality than you might find in the field, but often lacking interesting traits — but later in the game more specialised functions open up for some of them. Hagel’s shop allows you to take him ingots and cloth for him to synthesise new weapons and armour respectively, for example, while developing your friendship with any of the shopkeepers allows you to “wholesale” certain items from your inventory with them. This means that they will gradually mass-produce exact copies of the the item you submitted — quality level, traits and all — over time, meaning if you want to quickly re-acquire a useful item (typically a consumable or ingredient), you can simply purchase it back from them rather than spending several days synthesising it again. Not every item can be wholesaled, however, and each shopkeeper specialises in different kinds of items, so it’s worth developing your relationships with all of them and getting a good lineup of products mass-produced just in case you need them.

This aspect of gameplay is one of many reasons some people choose to describe the Atelier games — and specifically the Arland games — as being almost “strategy games” more than RPGs. Being able to get through all the game’s content involves developing both Rorona’s workshop and the various shops in such a way that you minimise the amount of time you waste unnecessarily — ideally completing the main assignments as quickly as possible, then spending the rest of your time on quests to increase Rorona’s popularity, gathering rare and high-quality ingredients, and simply exploring.

The other thing you can do in town besides shop-related activities and talking to various NPCs (none of whom are especially important, but whose comments vary according to Rorona’s popularity and your overall progress through the game as well as providing several entertaining “side plots” to follow) is visiting the castle to report your progress on your current assignment and its optional side objectives, and to accept quests from receptionist Esty Dee.

(Side note: Esty’s… unfortunate combination of names was a pun added during the original localisation of Atelier Rorona; in Japan she is known as Esty Erhard/Airhart. The “Dee” surname has been adopted as canonical for her and her sister in all subsequent Western rereleases of Rorona, even post-NIS America, and continues in both Atelier Totori and Atelier Meruru for consistency’s sake; however, the changes to the characters’ ages in the original Atelier Rorona’s localisation are now regarded as non-canonical.)

Esty’s quests take on several different forms. Synthesis quests require you to submit a particular item that you will have to synthesise yourself (or purchase if you’ve previously wholesaled it). Gathering quests require you to submit raw ingredients. And Hunt quests require you to either defeat a set number of a particular type of monster, or take down a specific boss monster.

In Atelier Rorona Plus, it’s possible to “overclear” quests by fulfilling special conditions; these might be completing a Hunt quest before a particular date or with more enemies than usual, or synthesising an item with a specific trait or quality level. Achieving these additional objectives provides you with additional rewards, but the main use of quests is to increase Rorona’s overall popularity level, or, in the case of character-specific quests, their friendship level. Popularity has a few effects throughout the game, but is most significant in combination with your overall rating for the assignments throughout the game in determining which of the main endings you’ll see. Friendship levels and certain other prerequisites cause various events concerning that specific character to trigger throughout the game, as well as unlocking the shopkeepers’ wholesaling system.

You’ll also need to be a bit careful; certain requests promise extremely generous rewards for minimal effort for reasons that will become apparent if you pull at this particular thread — but when other people see Rorona getting money for old rope (or pebbles, more accurately) they will start to resent her, and her popularity will drop accordingly. Pay attention to the jobs you’re taking, and as the old saying goes, if it looks too good to be true… you know.

Completing requests will usually require Rorona to go out into the big wide world… well, Arland’s immediately surrounding area, anyway. Initially, Rorona can only visit the nearby wooded region, but as the game progresses, more locales become available. Some regions only become available under certain circumstances; one that can be particularly troublesome is dependent on you being present in the workshop on the 15th of the month after a particular point, when travelling child merchant Cole turns up. Rorona will be intrigued by a particular item he has in stock, at which point she will learn where to go and gather it herself. Miss this conversation, you won’t go to that region!

This aspect of things is something you’ll need to get used to throughout the Arland trilogy. While you have hard deadlines for the most important things — quests and your assignments in Atelier Rorona’s case, with Rorona outright refusing to do anything that would cause her to miss the latter’s deadlines — other things are often mentioned as throwaway comments in conversation but not actually recorded anywhere, so you’ll need to remember them. Cole tells you outright that he’ll drop by on the 15th of every month when you first meet him, but he’ll only mention this once… and thus, from thereon, it’s up to you to actually remember to be home when he comes knocking.

There’s a strong sense of the world carrying on without you, regardless of your actions, and that can be daunting at times — some even find the strictly timed aspect of many Atelier games to be an actively offputting feature of the series. But it’s also firmly in keeping with the core narrative theme of Rorona growing from a nervous, self-doubting 15 year old girl into a confident young woman. Part of becoming an adult is assuming responsibility for things — and that means remembering to honour your commitments without others having to remind you, as inconvenient as that might be sometimes.

An interesting part of Atelier Rorona as a whole — an aspect that kind of spreads itself across all the main game components — is how Rorona’s relationship with her friends evolves over time. This is probably most apparent in her relationship with Cordelia, who is forced to accept the fact that Rorona’s growing skills mean that she can’t — and won’t — be dependent on her, but it’s also seen in how she interacts with various other characters. Probably most notable among these is how Rorona acts towards Sterk, a rather stern-looking knight from the castle who is ostensibly a representative of Alcock, but who is very much on Rorona’s “side”. Early in the game, Rorona is absolutely terrified of Sterk; by the conclusion, it’s clear they’ve become rather close and comfortable with one another. This is not only a sign of how their relationship has developed; it’s also a great symbol of how Rorona has matured and learned to cope with certain stressful situations.

Pleasingly, there’s also a sense of the secondary characters having relationships with one another, too. Form a party consisting of Cordelia and mysterious older gentleman Gio, for example, and the former will get extremely flustered over her immediate attraction to the latter. There are various other combinations, too; in conjunction with their individual events, scenes like this help all the characters feel like “real” people rather than just collections of stats and flags to trigger. This is a real strength of the Arland trilogy and Atelier in general, and only continues to improve as the subseries progresses.

But I digress somewhat; we were about to discuss Rorona taking a trip outside the city walls, so let’s return to that.

Exploring the regions surrounding Arland is a matter of picking a region to go to, which takes a day or more to reach, then exploring it one area at a time. Each of these “rooms” that make up the whole region have one or more exits, and passing through an exit you haven’t been through before will reveal the appropriate next area on the region map as well as causing a day or more to pass. In the case of areas with multiple exits, you’ll need to revisit the “junction” room several times to reveal all the possible routes you can take onward from there.

Within each of these explorable regions, you’ll find gathering points from which you can retrieve raw ingredients. The ingredients you’ll find are thematically appropriate for the region, so in a forest you’ll find wood, plants and berries; in a cave, you’ll find ore and rocks. Once you’ve visited an individual area of a region once, you’ll also be able to see what the most common ingredients for that area’s gathering points are, allowing you to skip areas that don’t offer what you’re looking for on subsequent visits.

Rorona can carry up to 60 items in her basket, including any consumable items she takes with her as well as any ingredients or loot she collects. Later in the game, one of the decorations you are able to create is a bag that allows you to transfer items from the basket directly to the larger container back in the workshop while out in the field, giving you an effectively bottomless inventory, but early on you’ll need to prioritise what you want to collect and plan your expeditions accordingly.

Some areas have obstacles for Rorona to traverse, and passing these requires some sort of synthesisable item. The most common thing you’ll encounter is a large rock blocking the way; you’ll need a bomb to destroy these, but said bomb will need to be of sufficient quality and type to destroy the rock in one hit. Other obstacles you’ll come across include bodies of water that can be frozen with an ice bomb so you can walk across them, and a lake you can dive under by making use of “Air Drop” sweets to breathe beneath the surface. Again, the game doesn’t remind you of these obstacles, so if you make a week-long trek to a region only to realise you’ve forgotten to bring any bombs with you — easily done, believe me — then that’s a lot of precious days wasted. Don’t be too proud to reload when this happens!

Besides gathering points, explorable areas are also teeming with monsters. These include wandering foes that Rorona can strike with her staff to gain the initiative in battle, “sentry” foes that guard specific points on the map, and boss enemies that are either stronger forms of enemies you’ve seen before, or, towards the end of the game, unique, powerful opponents you won’t see anywhere else.

In battle, Rorona and up to two friends square off against a formation of foes. Each character has access to a few skills that tend to be in accordance with their personality and specialisms — Cordelia’s aggressive nature means her skills are primarily offensive in nature, for example, while Iksel’s background as a chef allows him to cook up a healing breakfast at a moment’s notice. In the original Atelier Rorona, skills consumed a character’s HP, bizarrely, but Atelier Rorona Plus switched back to a more conventional MP system.

Although Rorona is a perfectly capable fighter, her real strength in battle comes from her ability to use items, which all other characters lack; in the world of the Arland trilogy, being an alchemist confers one with the unique ability to light a bomb and throw it at something. This means you have to adapt how you use Rorona according to the situation; sometimes she’ll have to be a healer, at other times she can make use of her bombs to deliver devastating area-effect attacks, at others still she’ll be in charge of debilitating the enemies with status effects.

Atelier Rorona Plus in particular places a strong emphasis on “assist attacks”, which are combos between Rorona and one or more of her allies. Rorona has an assist meter that builds up when she takes actions or receives damage. When she uses a skill or an item, she can immediately trigger a follow-up assist attack from one of her allies if she has one or more full meters. From there, a second ally can join the fray by consuming another meter, and, as the characters level up, unique skills unlock to trigger later in a combo, allowing for absolutely devastating flurries of attacks if you trigger them wisely.

Assist meters can also be used to protect Rorona from damage. When an enemy targets Rorona, you have a brief window to choose an ally to take the attack in her place at the cost of a single assist meter. In doing so, they will take less damage than normal from the attack, but still suffer any ill-effects from it. In the case of area-effect attacks, protecting Rorona will mean that two out of the three party members will be affected by the move in question. Although it’s important to keep Rorona up and about — being the only one who can use items means she’s also the only one who can revive fallen comrades — you also need to save assist meters for combos to go on the offensive, and bear your allies’ HP into account, too!

Combat for most of the game is relatively easy if you keep Rorona and her allies both levelled appropriately and equipped with suitable items. There are several distinct “tiers” of equipment that correspond to the various types of ingot and cloth you can produce throughout the game, so it’s clear when you make a significant improvement. It’s extremely important to attach good traits to equipment, though; weapons especially benefit from the Convert traits, which allow you to restore HP with regular attacks, while armour is a good place to apply stat boosts and elemental resistances, many of which can be stacked and improved considerably with savvy crafting.

Mastery of the game’s later content is dependent on you producing effective equipment and consumable items for Rorona and her allies, but interestingly, there’s no obligation to go and fight any of the toughest bosses if you don’t want to. All you need to do to get the “true” ending is ace all the assignments (easier than it sounds) and keep Rorona’s popularity at its highest possible level by the end of the last deadline.

The sense of adventure and achievement that comes from exploring new areas and toppling powerful foes is wonderful though; while Rorona’s core battle mechanics are relatively simple compared to more conventional RPGs, the depth of the crafting system provides a really satisfying sense of progression besides simple level-grinding, and being able to take on ever more significant challenges thanks to the items you create really lets you feel a sense of “ownership” of your victories; a delightful feeling of “I did that”.

With multiple “main” endings, character-specific additions to those endings if you complete their events, several “special” endings unlocked by accomplishing very specific tasks over the course of the game and a substantial postgame that features guest appearances from subsequent protagonists Meruru and Totori, Atelier Rorona is a game that could keep you busy for a very long time indeed if you’re so inclined. And with a single playthrough clocking in at a relatively lightweight 20-25 hours, simply seeing the main story through to its conclusion is within anyone’s reach.

It’s a highly replayable game with lots of possible variation each time you play — plus a simple but effective New Game Plus feature allows you to carry across equipment, money and workshop decorations to subsequent playthroughs, all of which help to take a bit of the time pressure off in their own way as well as allowing you to focus on other things.

And on top of all that — I really can’t emphasise this enough — it’s one of the cosiest, most friendly, most wholesome games you’ll ever play… and the perfect antidote to the bleakness of modern life, even more so than it was on its original release.

More about the Atelier Arland trilogy

Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.

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9 thoughts on “Atelier Rorona: Arland’s New Beginning”

  1. This is a great game. I’m a big fan of Mel Kishida’s art, too – there’s an artbook I have called Artworks of Arland that contain a lot of his illustrations, game CGs, character designs, all the usual stuff.

    I do wish Gust would make a prequel about Astrid, though. Atelier Astrid would be fantastic. Make your atelier the least popular business in town by blowing off customers and insulting public officials.

    Liked by 1 person

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