So far in our exploration of Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland, we’ve seen how the game features a return to the time-limited nature of early Atelier games, and how the alchemy system has an unprecedented level of depth.
Today, we continue our look at this important and influential installment in the series with a closer look at how the whole game is structured, and how this differs significantly from the previous five games.
Most notably, Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland kicks off a subseries of Atelier that, while seemingly providing more restrictions than in the past thanks to the time limit, actually provides a lot of freedom for you to approach your long-term goals as you see fit.
As we’ve already seen, Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland is primarily structured around twelve “assignments” the young alchemist is given by the castle. Well, technically the assignments were given to her master Astrid, but Astrid never really does what she can palm off on someone else — particularly if that someone is her beloved student that she gets to watch struggle.
The stakes are high for Rorona, but unlike the last few Atelier games we’ve looked at in this series, that’s about it. The reason Rorona is confronted with these assignments is that a minister in the castle wants to close down Rorona’s workshop and build factories; Arland is undergoing an industrial revolution at the time we join the story, so this is a major plot point in the setting as a whole.
Before the minister was able to do this, however, an intervention from the kingdom’s rulership allowed the workshop to prove its value to the kingdom. If, within three years, the workshop had proven to be an important part of the city of Arland, it would stay. If, at any point in those three years, the workshop failed to meet any of its obligations, however, it would be closed — and, moreover, Rorona, Astrid and her parents would all be exiled from the town. Pretty harsh, but Astrid believes Rorona is up to the challenge — even if Rorona initially doesn’t.
The assignments all unfold in roughly the same way. Rorona is given an objective to complete, and a time limit in which to complete it. Most of the time, this objective involves creating specific items and turning them in. The more she turns in, the higher her star rating for the assignment climbs, up to a maximum of ten. Turning in higher quality items also allows her to fill the star meter more quickly, but in most cases quantity over quality is the most efficient means of working.
Initially, it’s just up to Rorona to accomplish these assignments, but as the game progresses there are some additional mechanics that unlock to make life a bit easier for you.
The first of these is tied to the game’s friendship system, whereby accepting quests from the named characters in the town — including party members and shopkeepers — increases Rorona’s friendship rating with them. Once this reaches a particular level with one of the shopkeepers, that vendor allows Rorona the opportunity to “wholesale” items at their establishment. This means that the shopkeeper will take an item from Rorona and then continue to duplicate it at fixed intervals, allowing Rorona to purchase batches of 10 at a time before she has to wait for new stock.
If we look back at Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy, we can see that this system has its roots in the “Bazaar” mechanics from that game, whereby a week of free time could be spent assigning one of the playable characters to run a shop selling items that you’d crafted. Items that had sold particularly well would subsequently become available from vendors, allowing you to mass produce useful items and ingredients without having to continually craft them.
There’s a bit of a twist in Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland’s wholesale mechanics, however, and this ties in with the increased depth in the alchemy system. You’ll recall that every item in Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland is potentially unique, with its own quality rating, effects and attached traits. This means that the exact copy of the item you provide to a shopkeeper is of critical importance, because when I say they duplicate it, I mean they really duplicate it — quality, traits and all.
This is obviously immensely useful if you manage to craft one particularly good quality example of an item that you need to progress in the game, but find that you need a few more. Simply donate that item to a shopkeeper — you can actually immediately buy it back if you need to use it right now — and come back in a week or so to find ten freshly-baked copies of it waiting for you. As you might expect, this mechanic can be exploited particularly well in playthroughs after your first; if you can remember which assignments call for which items, you can happily mass-produce these well in advance and potentially clear an assignment the same day you get it, leaving you plenty of free time for other activities.
Along similar lines, at a specific point in the narrative Rorona’s teacher Astrid asks her if she would “prefer a brother or a sister”. Some time after this seemingly innocuous question has been asked, Rorona returns to her workshop after a day in the city to find a strange pointy-eared boy or girl waiting for her, ready to accept her orders. This is Hom, a homunculus that Astrid managed to quietly create, thereby quietly reminding us (and Rorona) that despite her consistent indolence, she is indeed an alchemist of considerable talent in her own right.
Hom can be used in various ways. He or she can be sent out into areas that Rorona has previously explored in order to gather items, or asked to craft items that Rorona has previously crafted. There’s a small catch with both of these, however; Rorona doesn’t have complete control over what the final product will be. Instead, she can offer a preference when she gives Hom an order — for example, she might ask Hom to start making bombs with an emphasis on quality — and then has to leave things somewhat up to chance.
Hom gradually gets better at both gathering and crafting as he or she engages in both of those activities, and some of the optional objectives for the assignments also allow Hom to level up one of his or her abilities as a reward. Hom thus becomes more useful as the game progresses, but even earlier in the game, he or she can be immensely useful if you just need large quantities of a particular item and aren’t too fussed about the details of that item. Between Hom and the wholesale system, Rorona has a lot of options for “multitasking” as she goes about her business, and this is another of the reasons why some regard Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland to be as much strategy game as it is RPG.
But it is still an RPG at heart, and that means there’s exploring and fighting to be done. As we’ve previously discussed, Rorona can go out into the world and spent time exploring various “dungeons” to gather ingredients and fight enemies, and this aspect of things is just as important as the alchemy. The difference between what we’re doing here in Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland and many of the previous Atelier games we’ve seen in this feature up until now is that a dungeon delve in Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland is less about trying to get somewhere or “clear” the dungeon, and more about simply uncovering the resources that dungeon offers that can be exploited. Remember, once Rorona has been somewhere, she can send Hom out to gather ingredients from it, as well as returning there herself whenever she feels like it — time permitting, of course.
Each dungeon is split into several discrete areas that are represented from fixed camera angles. Before you enter an area, you’re given an overview map of the dungeon as a whole, which shows how many different exits are in the area you’re about to enter, and which rough direction they’re in. Once you’re in that area, you’re free to walk around, gather items from the specific gathering points and attack the enemies there. Neither of these things respawn until Rorona leaves and returns to the area, however — which always takes at least a day — so if you want to grind for experience or gather large quantities of a particular item, you’ll need to allow enough time to accomplish this.
The game makes use of a “symbol attack” system similar to that found in Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm and Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis, with one main difference: here, rather than enemies being represented as generic “blobs”, they’re shown as the actual enemy type you can expect to be fighting — or at least one of the enemy types you’ll be fighting in the coming battle. As in the prior games, successfully landing a “hit” on the enemy symbol prior to battle causes Rorona’s party to start with the advantage; later in the game, it becomes possible to craft an item that allows Rorona to instantly defeat enemies she significantly outlevels and take their drop items, though she gains no experience for this.
Once into battle, Rorona and up to two companions she’s brought with her enter the fray. Combat unfolds in a turn-based fashion, making use of a similar “cards” system to that seen in Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis. Individual actions carry a “wait time” that causes the character’s card to move down the stack; in most cases, this tends to mean that more powerful moves take a little longer to recover from.
Unlike the Mana Khemia games, there’s no mid-combat character swapping — those two companions Rorona brings with her are the only two who are available on that expedition. However, there is a timing-based “assist” system similar to the ones seen in the two Mana Khemia games. This makes use of a gauge that gradually builds up around Rorona’s portrait at the base of the screen; pretty much anything — attacking, defending, taking damage — causes this meter to fill.
In order to use the meter, however, Rorona herself has to do one of two things: use a skill (which costs MP) or use an item (which depends on you remembering to have brought one with you in Rorona’s basket). Assuming you can do one of these things, you can continue to spend “charges” of the Assist gauge on increasingly elaborate attacks from Rorona and her two companions, ultimately culminating in a ridiculous “finishing” move that deals heavy damage.
The Assist gauge also has another purpose that shouldn’t be neglected, however; whenever Rorona is targeted by an enemy attack, you have a moment to spend an Assist gauge charge to get one of her companions to weather the attack in her stead, with them getting a slight increase in defence to make up for their noble sacrifice. This includes area-effect attacks that normally affect the whole party; if her companion guards her from this, she will completely escape the effect of the otherwise party-wide attack — very useful.
In practice, combat in Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland is pretty simple in mechanical terms — each character only learns a few skills as they level up, so you tend not to have a lot of strategic options in the heat of battle. Instead, the interesting depth in the combat system comes from the equipment system — which, of course, ties in with the alchemy system.
Rorona and her two companions can each equip four items: a weapon, a piece of armour and up to two accessories. Weapons are unique to specific characters, armour is mostly gender-locked (with a few exceptions) and accessories can be worn by anyone. Like any other item in the game, all of these pieces of equipment have their own quality level (which determines how much more or less effective they are than their “base” stats) as well as traits that can be attached to them. And it’s with the equipment — particularly weapons and armour — that traits are of critical importance.
In order to craft weapons and armour, Rorona must first craft metal ingots (for weapons) or textiles (for armour). She must then take these materials to her neighbour Hagel the blacksmith — yes, another incarnation of the same bald, moustachio’d, singing weaponsmith seen in numerous previous Atelier games — who will turn them into something useful. Each piece of equipment generally requires two ingredient items, so to make said equipment as good as possible, you will almost certainly want to try and make two ingots or cloths with a full, different complement of useful traits that can be transferred onto weapons or armour.
It’s easy to get this wrong. If you’re a little less confident with the alchemy system, it might be tempting to just try and get the highest quality possible ingots and cloths without paying attention to traits. While quality is important when it comes to equipment, it’s the traits that truly make the difference. With clever use of traits you can massively multiply the amount of damage a weapon does with a single hit by infusing it with the ability to hit not just for physical damage, but also for fire, ice, thunder and earth elemental damage too. You can construct a weapon that heals the wielder with every successful hit. A weapon that does any or all of these things will always be better than an S-rank, 120 quality weapon that does nothing other than go “bonk” when it hits someone.
Equipped items are one of the things that carries over into a New Game Plus in Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland, so it’s a good idea to invest some time and effort into them in your first playthrough or two. Once you have all the playable characters tooled up with top-notch equipment, it becomes significantly easier to take on some of the game’s tougher challenges — and score some of the more complex endings.
Ultimately, Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland is all about the endings. These are split into two main categories: the main ending, which can be Normal, Good or True depending on the combination of how well Rorona did in her assignments and the reputation she ended the game with, and the optional endings, which are themed around specific characters or particular conditions you managed to fulfil in that playthrough.
Character endings require you to see all of a character’s events, which usually requires you to get their friendship rating up to at least 60. The easiest way to do this is generally to take them out adventuring with Rorona, which gradually increases their friendship as they spend time in the field, but it can also be increased by completing quests for them in the city.
Each character tends to have some unique requirements to fulfil in order to see all their events, however. Rorona’s friend Cordelia has a particularly troublesome series of events that requires you to deliberately take a hit to Rorona’s reputation and then rebuild it in time for the end of the game; at the other end of the spectrum, chef Iksel simply needs to be taken to all the game’s dungeons to find new ingredients he can use at his restaurant. Each character has their own story to follow, some of which run deeper than others; street performer Lionela has a particularly emotional story to explore, for example.
Where things get really interesting is in the condition-based endings, because these aren’t really spelled out to you in the game itself. These instead reward you for focusing your play style in a particular way; the “Adventurer” ending is your reward for beating the game’s toughest boss (among other things), for example, while the “Pie” ending represents the game’s most significant alchemy challenge outside of the postgame “Overtime” sequence. And the “Rich” ending… well, you can probably work out what you need to do for that one.
These endings are so interesting to pursue because you need to think about taking aim for them early on, and in that way they’ll inform the structure and feel of a whole playthrough.
As a practical example, let’s consider the “Pie” ending — this requires you to make all the pies in the game, each with a quality of at least 80. Initially, you’re only provided with the recipe for a basic pie, and it seems nigh impossible to reach the coveted 80 quality level with the ingredients that are readily available to you. However, take your time levelling up Rorona’s alchemy — and perhaps making good use of Hom to gather good quality ingredients — and you’ll notice the quality level gradually increasing with each attempt until you finally reach your goal.
Then Rorona decides that she wants to make more pies, so the process begins again, this time with harder to find ingredients. And each time she comes up with new ideas, they’re more and more ridiculous. By the end of the game, you’re making pies out of ancient dragon scales and Ruby Prisms — remember, the thing that gave Lita life in Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, and supposedly the lifelong dream of every alchemist? — and in that sense, you’re proving two things. One, what an insanely talented alchemist Rorona really is, even if she doesn’t believe it herself; and two, how much you’ve figured out the game’s alchemy system.
There really is a lot to discover in Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland, and while each playthrough is only in the region of 20 hours or so, each of those playthroughs can potentially be very different from your last one.
If you really want to challenge yourself, try and unlock the conditions for all of the endings in a single playthrough. It is possible! Just remember to save before the last day in the game so you can actually watch all of them…
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