A year after Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy bid a fond (and very late) farewell to the PlayStation 2, the Atelier series finally entered the high-definition era with the 2009 Japanese release of Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland for PlayStation 3.
Since the original release of the game and its 2010 localisation, we’ve seen a few other versions. In 2013, Atelier Rorona Plus revamped the entire game for PlayStation 3 and Vita with the graphics engine and alchemy mechanics from Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland, the third game in the Arland trilogy. In 2015, Japan got a peculiar chibified remake for Nintendo 3DS. And then in 2018, Atelier Rorona DX, a port of Atelier Rorona Plus that included all its downloadable content, was released for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Windows PC.
From hereon, we’ll primarily be looking at Atelier Rorona DX, since that is the most readily accessible version at the time of writing — but most of what we’ll talk about applies to all the different versions. So grab your Basket and let’s begin a whole new adventure!
Yoshito Okamura, who was the main planner for the two Mana Khemia games, was given the responsibility of directing Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland. His intention for the game was to return to the series’ starting points while creating a distinctive look and feel for the game through a sense of modern, clean designs.
To that end, Okamura hired one Mel Kishida, who at this point had not previously worked on any video games, but whose artistic creations encapsulated the kind of aesthetic Okamura wanted to pursue for the new games. Kishida, if you’re unfamiliar, tends to draw images with a somewhat ethereal quality to them — an effect created through a combination of soft, pencilled outlines, pale pastel colours and elaborately detailed outfits — and this was very much in keeping with the kind of European storybook feel Okamura was going for.
Ken Nakagawa was also among the Gust staffers to return to the Atelier series, this time acting as the main composer for the new game and building on the distinctive, iconic “Atelier sound” he had been developing in earnest since the series’ switch to digital streamed music with Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm.
Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland enjoyed a strong debut in Japan, selling over 43,000 copies in its first week and over 121,000 copies between its June release and December of 2009. These figures made it the fastest- and best-selling Atelier game since the original Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, and total sales pretty much doubled once it came West, suggesting that Gust was very much on to something with this new series. And, zooming forward to today, the fact that this single game has managed to somehow remain relevant for over ten years at this point would suggest that, indeed, everybody loves Rorona.
So let’s take a look at how Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland moves the series into the HD era while simultaneously bringing it back to its roots from the PS1 days.
The most obvious similarity between Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland and the earliest Atelier titles is the fact that we have finally made a complete return to a hub-based structure — a process which had been gradually taking place ever since Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm. No longer is the game a “hero’s journey” in conventional RPG style; instead, we have a game that is very much based around the titular workshop and its owner — and the need for said owner to prove herself (and prove the value of alchemy) within a particular timeframe.
To go along with this return to the series’ traditional structure, we also see a return to the calendar system which was found in earlier games. While the two Mana Khemia games unfolded in discrete “weeks” and certain activities had to be accomplished before a specific week rolled around, it was entirely your choice as to when the clock moved on. Conversely, in the earlier Atelier games — and indeed in Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland — you need to plan carefully, because pretty much everything you do takes a certain amount of time, and you only have a limited amount of it in total!
Rather than providing the player with a long-term goal to accomplish by a far-off deadline, however, Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland instead presents the eponymous heroine with a series of tasks to complete, each of which has a deadline of two to three in-game months. This helps keep the time limit manageable — particularly as, with proper planning, you can bash these assignments out in a matter of in-game days, leaving you free for the rest of the time to pursue your own goals.
It’s still something of an adjustment for those accustomed to the more “freeform” structure of the later PS2 games, however, and as such it’s something worth bearing in mind if you haven’t previously experienced Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland. It is possible — though quite difficult — to get yourself into an “unwinnable” situation with poor time management, and the game’s numerous character-specific and special endings are quite dependent on you maximising the use of your available time.
Thankfully, the more esoteric additional requirements for some of these endings — such as deliberately playing the game in a suboptimal manner — were ditched as soon as Atelier Rorona Plus rolled around. Instead, the newer versions of the game keep track of which endings you meet the conditions for, and, once you make it to the end of the in-game timeframe, you can simply pick which eligible ending you want to see. Very friendly — though you’ll still want (or need) to take advantage of the game’s excellent New Game Plus feature to nail some of the more challenging endings that still do have specific requirements.
So what does take up all that in-game time? We’ll explore the details of all these aspects in the subsequent parts of this feature, but suffice to say, almost anything that allows some form of character progression will end up costing time in one way or another. This means that the things you spend most of your time doing in the game — crafting and exploring the world — are the things that will gradually eat through that time limit.
There are some interesting considerations to bear in mind when considering the crafting system — chief among which is the fact that an alchemy session always takes at least a single full day, even if the item you’re making only requires a fraction of a day to craft. This means that in order to be as efficient as possible, you might want to craft multiples of the same item in order to get the best possible “item to time” ratio — but doing this inevitably means that you’ll have to compromise somewhat on the ingredients you use, since the more items you craft at once, the more ingredients you’ll need, as you might expect.
To put it another way, crafting a single item and “wasting” some time means that you’ll be able to use the exact ingredients you want, maximising the quality and the traits you attach to the item in order to create the absolute best possible example of that particular item you ever did see. Very much a hand-crafted piece of artistry that you’ve taken your time over, and that additional time invested usually shows in its final quality if you’ve bothered to use good ingredients.
Conversely, crafting a bunch in one go means that you can’t be as picky with your components, meaning that the quality might suffer and you might end up with some undesirable traits. It’s a very clever example of the game’s mechanics providing commentary on how mass production may well be more efficient and economical, but that it can often lead to a loss of overall quality. It may not surprise you to hear that the conflict between traditional artisanship and modern industrialisation is a major part of Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland’s setting and story. But more on that when we look at the narrative in more detail.
The other thing that will take up a significant part of Rorona’s time in the game is going outside the walls of Arland and into the big, wide world to search for ingredients. Eschewing a freely explorable world, Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland is instead split into a number of discrete “dungeons” that gradually unlock over the course of the game, either through story progress or, occasionally, via witnessing particular events. Structurally, this may seem similar to how the two Mana Khemia games were put together, but the time aspect makes a huge difference. No longer can you just nip out into a dungeon to go and grab some ingredients without consequence; now you need to make sure you have enough time to achieve everything you want to achieve.
It takes a certain amount of time for Rorona to get to each “dungeon” — locations that are further away from Arland or in more treacherous terrain take longer, as you might expect — and then each discrete area within the dungeon also takes a certain amount of time to search completely. Like the alchemy system, there are no fractions of days here, so if it’s going to take at least a day to search a particular location, you may as well get the most out of it by gathering all the ingredients you can and defeating all the enemies you can; the latter not only provides Rorona and her companions with experience points, but enemies also often drop their own unique materials, too, so fighting is a key part of the gathering process.
On your first playthrough of Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland, the time limits can feel quite tight. But as you progress, Rorona becomes able to create various items that help to reduce the amount of time various activities take, as well as generally making her life a bit easier. Crafting a pair of “Traveller’s Shoes”, for example, reduces travel time, while better crafting equipment for her workshop can make her alchemy more efficient without sacrificing quality.
These items, which you must use to decorate Rorona’s workshop in order for them to confer their bonuses, carry across into a New Game Plus, so from your second time around and onwards you can take advantage of them right from the outset; for your first playthrough it’s arguably best to just get on with things and see what conclusion you end up with.
Two to three months might sound like quite a while, so you may well be wondering how a time limit like this can be “tight”, if, as I’ve already mentioned, it’s eminently possible to clear an assignment in a matter of days. The answer is that the main assignment deadlines are not the only time-limited things Rorona needs to worry about — though they are the only things that will end your game completely if you fail to accomplish them. Alongside the main assignments, obtaining the various endings in the game is dependent on Rorona completing quests, both for the town in general (which raises her reputation, which ultimately plays a part in determining how good the “main” part of the ending is) and for individual named characters (which raise her friendship with that character, triggering their events and ultimately making you eligible for their specific ending).
These quests are all pretty simple, initially only requiring Rorona to deliver items that she has either gathered or crafted, but as you progress through the game you’ll also get requests to hunt specific monsters in the various dungeons. Each quest has a time limit, and your reputation will suffer if you don’t meet the deadline, so careful planning is essential, particularly if you intend to take on a large number of quests at the same time. It can be surprisingly easy to accidentally find yourself five days’ travel away from town with a deadline looming, and your objectives nowhere near complete. Proper planning prevents poor performance!
That’s not all though. On the fifteenth of every in-game month, a young merchant named Cole visits Rorona’s workshop, providing her the opportunity to purchase some good-quality ingredients. If you happen to be out of town when the fifteenth rolls around, you miss his visit for that month. And this is important, because one of the areas in the game — with all its unique ingredients — is only accessible by buying a particular item from Cole, which triggers a conversation between him and Rorona about where he got said item. While this conversation can only occur after a certain amount of progress through the game, it’s obviously better to gain access to as many gathering areas as possible as soon as possible!
And there’s yet more, too. Atelier Rorona Plus added a series of optional objectives to each of the game’s assignments, with each successfully completed rewarding you with a “stamp” on a bingo card. Complete a bingo line and you get a prize — and these prizes not only include material things like money and items, they also unlock recipes and enhancements to certain game mechanics.
These optional objectives take several forms. Every assignment has objectives for you to craft a certain number of items, gather a certain number of ingredients, win a certain number of battles and complete a certain number of quests. On top of that, there are often objectives that require you to craft a specific item with a specific quality level or specific trait, as well as objectives to defeat specific monsters, completely explore a particular dungeon or use a particular item a certain number of times.
By themselves, they’re not especially difficult to complete, but like everything else in the game, it’s worth taking a bit of time to plan out what you want to do, and then try to knock out as many of these as possible in one fell swoop, because that then leaves more time available for you to continue building up Rorona’s reputation or improving her relationships with the other characters.
There’s a lot to think about in Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland, in other words, and we haven’t even looked in-depth at the alchemy mechanics yet. With this in mind, it’s understandable how some people consider the Atelier Arland titles to be as much strategy game as they are RPG — but don’t let that scare you off. Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland is actually an excellent entry point to the series that eases you into its mechanics at a good pace while gradually ramping up the challenge factor as you progress.
And if someone as strategically deficient as me can make it through this game — with some of the more challenging endings, no less, then I’m sure you can!
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