As our exploration of Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland comes to a close, it’s time to contemplate the game’s narrative component.
As we talked about when we looked at the game’s overall structure, Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland is somewhat more non-linear than previous installments in the series. There’s a core linear progression based around Rorona’s assignments, but the bulk of the narrative content comes from the wide variety of optional events you can enjoy with the ensemble cast.
Between all those events, you get a good sense of what sort of place Arland is — and who Rorona and her friends really are. So let’s take a closer look!
At its core, the narrative setup for Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland is the clash between tradition and modernity. The kingdom of Arland is undergoing an industrial revolution, which threatens to all but wipe out traditional professions such as alchemy. Indeed, the very reason Rorona is confronted with so many time-limited assignments is because she needs to prove the worth of an individual practising alchemy in a world where factories can mass produce all the items a growing kingdom might need.
The interesting thing about Arland’s industrial revolution is that it hasn’t come about through entirely “natural” means. Rather, much of Arland’s machinery was uncovered as the remnants of a much older civilisation, and then figured out by those exploring the growing field of science in the nation. We get to meet one of those scientists in Atelier Totori: The Adventurer of Arland, but during the time of Atelier Rorona, one gets the distinct impression that those advocating for industrialisation don’t entirely understand the means through which this is achieved — let alone the long-term consequences such as pollution.
As in the real world, it ends up being the people on the ground having to deal with the consequences of politicians’ high-level decisions that come to understand the true cost of “progress”. Throughout Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland, you get the opportunity to chat with numerous non-player characters wandering around the various areas of Arland, and those living in the area which has become known as “Factory Way” are not at all happy with how things have developed. Their houses are covered with black soot, there are railway lines running right through the middle of the street and, worst of all, the local cats are restless. At least all the barrels that traditionally lived in the area are still safe and sound.
Alchemy isn’t the only field suffering from the kingdom’s march towards modernity, either; other traditional professions are, too. A key character throughout the entire Arland series is Sterkenburg Cranach (“Sterk” for short), who we’re introduced to in Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland as a member of the castle’s knights, and the one responsible for assessing Rorona’s efforts in each of her assignments. Sterk is a little frustrated that his role as a castle knight — once a position that would have conferred authority and respect from the people — is now little more than an administrative position.
Indeed, Sterk’s crisis of self-identity continues to be a running theme throughout the entire Arland series as a whole. His feelings of being trained in a profession that no longer appears to be relevant — or that he has no desire to do in its modern form, anyway — are peculiarly relatable to those of us living in today’s world, and they also form a means for him to develop a close personal bond with Rorona.
Given Sterk’s position as assessor for Rorona’s assignments, one might initially assume he is something of an “antagonist” in the grand scheme of the story, but it doesn’t take long for it to become very clear that he not only has Rorona’s best interests at heart, he also has Rorona herself in his heart. Naturally, she completely fails to notice throughout the entire game (and indeed onwards into Atelier Totori), giving Sterk’s arc a touch of the tragic about it — but he certainly embraces the role of the brooding bishounen perfectly.
Sterk’s senior and castle receptionist Esty is also feeling frustrated. While it’s clear she’s a talented swordfighter in her own right — particularly once you get the opportunity to recruit her later in the game in Atelier Rorona DX or Atelier Rorona Plus with its optional DLC — she is stuck behind a desk managing paperwork day after day. And her responsibilities — which one gets the impression she didn’t ask for — mean she can’t even take a day off to go and cavort in a skimpy swimsuit at the local lake when Rorona and her friends get the opportunity. (This injustice does, however, get suitably addressed in the postgame story of Atelier Rorona Plus and DX.)
Unlike Sterk, Esty is less concerned with the erosion of her traditional position thanks to the march of societal progress, and more with the fact that she is getting older and doesn’t feel like she has achieved all that much with her life. At the time of Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland, she’s pushing thirty and is feeling increasingly concerned about the fact she is still single, and this aspect of her character gets explored further throughout Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland in particular. As Atelier Rorona unfolds, however, she almost seems to have given up, instead spending most of her leisure time drinking herself into an oblivious stupor with her close friend, the widow Tiffani who runs the local sundries store.
Rorona’s best friend Cordelia is an interesting inversion of all this. While technically born into nobility, it later becomes clear that Cordelia’s father simply bought his title, leaving Cordelia feeling that she has no right to it. Instead, she specifically rejects the idea of tradition, refusing to act like a spoiled princess and instead actually getting up to do her own thing.
Indeed, if you follow her character events through to their conclusion, it becomes clear that she’s doing everything in her power to get rid of the riches she feels like she didn’t earn. Of course, the fact she’s secretly passing them to Rorona in exchange for completely mundane, easy assignments doesn’t win Rorona many friends in the process — in mechanical terms, every time you take one of Cordelia’s “special” assignments, Rorona takes a hit to her reputation — but Cordelia just wants to get shot of all this money she doesn’t feel like she deserves.
Cordelia is one of a few characters besides Rorona who seems to have things pretty together by the time Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland reaches its conclusion. By the time Atelier Totori: The Adventurer of Arland comes around, she’s in charge of the local Adventurer’s Guild, for example, and clearly commands a certain amount of legitimately earned respect from the people of the kingdom.
She doesn’t let “tradition” define who she is or what she should end up doing — instead, she chooses to forge her own path on her own terms, and screw what anyone else thinks. At least part of this is down to the stubbornness she has developed over the years — which, in turn, can be at least partially attributed to her frustration over her diminutive stature — but one cannot deny that out of all the people in Arland, Cordelia is one of those who works the hardest. Not just for herself, but for others, too.
The same is true of Rorona’s friend Iksel to a certain extent. Seemingly forced into single-handedly managing a restaurant on top of his duties as a chef, in some ways Iksel can be seen to be in a similar situation to Rorona — albeit without the threat of exile if he happens to mess things up. This, naturally, puts him in a good position to empathise with her situation — but he doesn’t do so in a patronising way. Instead, he tends to treat Rorona as his rival, which in turn spurs them both on to greater things.
This is an aspect of Iksel that persists even as he gets older; while it’s clear he likes to make out that he’s “the mature one” out of him and Rorona, it becomes abundantly clear over the course of both Atelier Rorona and Atelier Totori that he never quite finds himself able to let go of his childish, boyish competitiveness. It ultimately works out in everyone’s favour, though; his restaurant proves to be a big success in the long term, Rorona clearly appreciates his enthusiasm and encouragement — and as we’ll see when we look at Atelier Totori in greater detail, Totori also learns a lot from this cocky young man’s attitude, too.
Street performer Lionela, meanwhile, is trapped in a peculiar position. While it’s clear that she appreciates the traditional side of the arts — the first time we encounter her, she is apparently doing some sort of puppet show in Arland’s town square — following her narrative events also shows us that she has seen the darker side of tradition, too.
Specifically, she has been on the receiving end of fear and prejudice towards the unknown — or more accurately, a lack of willingness to engage with, explore and attempt to understand the unknown. Lionela has been blessed (or perhaps cursed) with some seemingly supernatural abilities, and this has led to her being run out of several towns for being a “witch”. As we get to know her, it becomes very clear that there isn’t a malicious bone in her body — so much so that she can’t even bring herself to hate the people who despise her simply because of their “traditional” attitudes towards things they don’t understand.
Probably the most striking example of modernity and tradition colliding is the character we initially only know as “Gio”. It doesn’t take long for us to deduce that the apparently missing King of Arland that Sterk is spending a lot of his time searching for is, in fact, Gio — and indeed Gio’s true identity is spoiled in both Atelier Totori and Atelier Meruru regardless of whether or not Rorona uncovered it in her own game — but a significant part of Rorona’s core narrative concerns Gio, his reasons for being so absent, and the behaviour of his minister Meredith Alcock.
Gio is a good king, well respected and loved by his people — even if most of them don’t know him by sight, allowing him to blend in to the general populace of Arland with ease — but he strongly believes that the technological progress Arland is enjoying means that its structure of government needs to adapt and change, too. As such, throughout the game we have the opportunity to see him making significant efforts to engage directly with the people, to understand their thoughts, feelings and concerns — and to figure out whether or not he can trust the more republican side of his parliament.
Naturally, it isn’t all that simple, and Gio is entirely correct to “test” his ministers — particularly the game’s primary antagonist Meredith Alcock, the minister in the Arlandian government who placed the ultimatum at Rorona’s door in the first place. Alcock, it seems, is up to no good, though the scale of this isn’t immediately obvious. Early in the game, his villainous efforts amount to little more than schoolyard-tier pranks such as sending Rorona a stink bomb in the mail and putting a drawing pin in one of her flasks, but if you follow Gio’s events through to their conclusion, there’s a much more sinister side to what he’s up to.
Specifically, it becomes clear that he’s using items that Arland’s factories are manufacturing — including weapons and explosives — to supply local bandit outfits with equipment and provisions well beyond their normal means. This, in turn, would allow Alcock to achieve two things: firstly, to surreptitiously test the weapons and explosives without making the people suspicious; and secondly, to convince the people that it would be “necessary” to produce more weapons in order to protect the kingdom. And thus the cycle would continue perpetually. It is, of course, a cycle that we see quite often in reality, regrettably.
Gio, naturally, is having none of this; even if he has no desire for Arland to continue as a monarchy, he doesn’t want to leave it in the hands of someone who would risk the region’s stability in the name of making a quick profit.
And yet he doesn’t want to just oust Alcock, despite his poor behaviour; he takes great pains to point out to his minister that while he is aware that he has been completely misusing his position and power, his undeniable talent for the job makes him someone Gio feels comfortable leaving the kingdom in the hands of, should he abdicate.
There’s another side worth considering to Gio, too, and that is the fact that, as King, he could technically relieve Rorona of all her troubles with a single word, since while he still has the throne, he still has ultimate authority.
“But would that really make Rorona happy?” he asks when Rorona’s teacher Astrid points this out.
“I can’t explain why,” Rorona chimes in, “but I don’t think it would.”
Even if Rorona can’t explain it herself, we certainly can. By the time this event rolls around, Rorona has already proven herself not only to be a talented alchemist, but also a formidable combatant, a good friend, a respected member of the community and an inspiration to others. She has gone from her humble beginnings of being terrified of anything even vaguely resembling responsibility to being a beloved part of Arland in her own right.
Ultimately, Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland is really a story about Rorona learning who she really is — and, more importantly, accepting and embracing that real self. One of the interesting things about the game is that there isn’t one straight answer to this question, thanks to all the alternative endings on offer — and quite often, that answer isn’t simply “to be a good alchemist”.
In fact, there are several distinct endings in which after Rorona succeeds at her task, she actually plays down the importance of alchemy in her own life. In the Adventurer ending, she teams up with Cordelia to take on increasingly challenging quests in the wild, while in the Pie ending, she closes the alchemy workshop and follows her real passion — baking pies.
In both cases, alchemy still remains as part of what she does — part of the point of the Pie ending is Rorona proving that she can make a wide variety of fascinating and horrifying pies using alchemy rather than traditional baking techniques — but she doesn’t let it define her completely. We shouldn’t forget that despite her growing enthusiasm and talent for alchemy over the course of the game as a whole, initially she was forced into it as a means of paying back her teacher for the medical treatment her parents received at her hands. And while the study of alchemy becomes an important part of defining the person she grows into as she moves from adolescence into adulthood, she doesn’t want it to be the only thing that defines her.
Of course, there is technically a canonical answer to all this, given the narrative setup for Atelier Totori: The Adventurer of Arland. But until we start following those particular footsteps, it’s interesting to ponder “what if”? And Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland certainly provides ample opportunity to do just that.
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