One interesting thing about the way the Arland subseries of Atelier develops over time is how its scale gradually increases.
In Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland, the action is primarily confined to the city of Arland and its surrounding environs. In Atelier Totori: The Adventurer of Arland, we get the opportunity to explore the Arland region in much greater detail, coming to understand a lot more about the context of various locations. And, as we’ll see when we come to Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland, the series then actually moves on to a whole other setting with connections to Arland, rather than unfolding in Arland itself..
Atelier Totori in particular brought about a very strong sense of worldbuilding and narrative context, and of the protagonist being just one tiny little part of a wide variety of events that would continue to unfold with or without her involvement. Let’s take a closer look at how the game achieves that feel.
At the outset of Atelier Totori, we’re given quite a different experience from that which we had in Atelier Rorona. While the latter unfolded in the bustling city of Arland, Totori begins her adventure in the sleepy seaside town of Alanya. It’s a tiny little place where we get the impression that everyone knows (and likes) everyone else, and news tends to travel fast. As such, pretty much by the time Totori has opened her front door to begin her journey, everyone in the village is aware of her quest and willing to help out how they can.
Totori’s early interactions provide a good sense of the “country bumpkin” preparing to do something they’ve never done before. Her chats with her childhood friend Gino build a sense of both excitement and unease at the challenges that lie ahead — particularly as Gino has some fairly unrealistic expectations of what the adventurer’s life will immediately involve — while speaking with her sister’s longstanding friend Melvia provides her with reassurance that someone with a bit of experience has her back.
There’s a fair amount to do in Alanya before you guide Totori out into the big, wide world for the first time, and this makes it feel extra meaningful when you finally see the world map screen for the first time. It’s the beginning of a new era for our heroine — and she starts her journey not quite sure of what to expect or even which way she should be heading first. This feeling will likely be mirrored in your own mind the first time you play Atelier Totori: The Adventurer of Arland, since once you step onto that world map, you get a good feeling for exactly how “open” this game is for the first time.
Unlike most console RPGs, Atelier Totori doesn’t have a rigidly linear narrative to follow. There are key events that occur, yes, but these tend to happen at specific times using the game’s calendar system rather than requiring you to visit particular locations in a specific order. As such, when you and Totori leave Alanya, you’re presented with immediate choices as to where to go and what to do.
Many of the individual “nodes” on Atelier Totori’s world map are relatively small, self-contained areas that primarily play host to several gathering points and a few wandering monsters. The gathering points provide a random assortment of items from a “master list” for that specific zone, while the monsters are drawn from a similarly small list. Given the game’s focus on accomplishing specific objectives to earn points on Totori’s Adventurer License, this means it becomes important right from the outset to learn what you can find where so that you can be as efficient as possible. Travelling takes time, after all, and you only have so much of it in total — however far off that three-year deadline might seem at the outset of the game.
Thankfully, you’re not expected to memorise what you can find where. Fight a monster or find a gatherable item and Totori will record it in her notes, meaning you can just hover over the relevant node on the world map to see what can be found there. And once you’ve visited all of the nodes in a particular region of the map at least once, any remaining “blanks” you might have in these lists will be automatically filled out for you; a mechanical reflection of Totori feeling like she has a solid understanding of the area as a whole in terms of both flora and fauna.
The different regions in the overall world are highlighted in two main ways: firstly, they have a descriptive phrase on the world map screen (such as “Alanya area”, “New World of Arland”, “Wastelands” and the like) and secondly, they each have their own variation on one of the main musical themes found in Atelier Totori: The Adventurer of Arland — a tune called Following the Footsteps.
This tune has a variety of different versions, including one for the world map itself:
One for the foresty regions around Alanya:
One for the various caves around the place:
One for remote, wilderness regions:
One for the plains near Arland:
One for abandoned ruins:
And even a tropical themed version for when Totori finally builds a boat and sets out on her journey at sea:
As we hear these different versions of the same theme, we get a real feel for the fact that Totori is going on a journey, discovering new places and gradually going further and further afield in search of her mother. It feels like a significant moment when you reach an area with a new mix of Following the Footsteps for the first time — particularly when it comes very late in the game, like the “Island” arrangement.
It helps, of course, that Following the Footsteps, whatever version you’re listening to, is a pleasantly pensive, understated piece with a certain amount of melancholy about it. This is entirely appropriate for the tone of the game as a whole — however colourful and vibrant the setting and characters might be, however cute and adorable Totori might be, however gay for her Mimi might be (and the answer is very gay), we can never really forget that the whole reason for Totori’s journey is a potentially sad one. Those footsteps she’s following are those of her absent mother, remember — who may or may not have perished somewhere out there.
As Totori continues her journey, she’ll come across more significant locations. These tend to be larger zones with more to explore, more to gather and unique scenery that errs on the side of the outlandish and fantastic in several cases. Appropriately enough, each of these areas also has its own musical theme to highlight how much of a special location it is, and these also tend to be the places where Totori can fill out Exploration objectives on her license by finding specific landmarks, or Battle objectives by defeating the area’s special one-off boss-level monsters.
What’s interesting about the larger locations is that they provide a bit of subtle environmental storytelling. Between Alanya and Arland, there aren’t many populated locations, and those areas that do have buildings appear to have been long-abandoned or left in ruin. This is never specifically pointed out or acknowledged by anyone, but we can perhaps draw a few conclusions from it — chief among which is the fact that while Arland has thrived through its years as a kingdom and subsequent transition into a republic, many people have clearly moved from the countryside to the big city, perhaps in search of fame and fortune — or perhaps just a more comfortable life. Even Totori can be argued to be doing this to a certain degree.
This actually ties in with an element of the overall setting that has been part of the Arland series since Atelier Rorona started: the impact that industrialisation can have on a traditional society. Indeed, the very point of Atelier Rorona’s narrative is the clash between an occupation seen as “traditional” — alchemy, in this case — and the perceived efficiency of industrial technology. Rorona’s entire quest in her own game is to prove that there’s still a place for artisans in a world where smoke-billowing factories can, in theory, churn out equivalent items for a fraction of the price.
As I say, this is not something specifically explored directly in Atelier Totori’s narrative, but it is intriguing to see as a bit of easily missed background detail — and perhaps make some interpretations of if you do happen to notice it. Has the industrialisation of Arland really led to the demise of the rural areas surrounding it — or is there something else at work? Interestingly, this is actually kind of the inverse of what happens in Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland; that game, like Atelier Totori, features a gradually expanding node-based world map, but in that case the heroine is specifically helping to develop the areas outside the city so the kingdom as a whole can flourish, not just its central town. But more on that another time.
Speaking of central towns, the Arland we see in Atelier Totori: The Adventurer of Arland is pleasingly similar to its original incarnation in Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland, though we don’t get to wander around quite as much of it, sadly. Coming off the back of Atelier Totori’s immediate predecessor, there’s a nice sense of comfortable familiarity as you cross the bridge between the town gate and Artisan’s Way — helped along by the fact that the background music is the same as in Atelier Rorona — but there’s also a sense that things are a little bit different now, too.
One of the most obvious but effective ways in which this is achieved is the fact that the camera angle is a bit different. In Atelier Rorona, the viewpoint on Artisan’s Way highlighted the fact that Rorona was a resident of Arland and had been for most of her life. The camera follows around the pathways and roads of Arland, and doesn’t really acknowledge the fact that there is an “outside”; at the time Atelier Rorona unfolds, we see that it’s regarded as quite unusual for anyone to leave town, and as such crossing the bridge to reach the city gates involves effectively running “off-screen”.
In Atelier Totori, meanwhile, the camera follows Totori from close behind as she enters the gates, allowing her a good look at the whole of Artisan’s Way as she approaches, before swinging around to give us a more familiar viewpoint as we approach Rorona’s workshop. It highlights the fact that she’s entering a new place — at least the first time she arrives in town, anyway — and that this is a place on a whole other scale compared to the tiny village she grew up in. It’s a subtle difference, but a surprisingly effective one if you stop to analyse it; someone at Gust obviously has a bit of an eye for cinematography, and this is an aspect of their games that has only gotten better over the years, as anyone who has played the beautifully directed Blue Reflection will be able to tell you. But I digress.
As you might expect, the populated areas are where the majority of “events” in Atelier Totori unfold. And these aren’t just “story” events — in many cases, these are events that involve characters you have become acquainted with meeting up, or particular combinations of party members interacting with one another prior to departing on an expedition, or simply things that happen to go on around town while Totori is visiting.
This latter aspect is one of Atelier Totori’s biggest strengths, because while at heart they are all triggered by flags and relationship values and can thus be manipulated by a player who knows the game well, when you first see them they appear to be unfolding very organically — like they’d happen whether or not Totori was there. On one visit you might stumble across weapon shop owner Hagel trying on a hilarious “wig helmet” — a sight that Totori refuses to accept is real, and which is never spoken of again — while on another you might find him getting drunk with local wannabe mad scientist Marc McBride. The former is actually a callback to an optional scene in Atelier Rorona, making for a nice bit of series fanservice for those who are in this for the long haul.
Sometimes as you interact with the various characters in Atelier Totori, they’ll mention that something is going to happen in “a couple of days” or “about a month’s time”. And this doesn’t mean “the next time you come to visit, we’ll wait”, like it might in some other role-playing games; it literally means “in a couple of days” or “in a month’s time”, and if you’re not there when the thing happens, you don’t get to see it.
In most cases, these are completely optional events that don’t really have any bearing on the main plot — a highly memorable scene where general store owner Tiffani gets absolutely trolleyed and rather inappropriate with both Totori and the Adventurer’s Guild receptionist Filly is a good example — but if you’re going in search of the game’s True ending, you’ll want to try and make sure you see as many events as you possibly can, as some of them relate to the various party members’ personal narrative arcs, all of which need to be completed to get that conclusive conclusion. Not only that, they give a feeling that unlike many RPGs, Totori is not the most important character in the world; she’s just another person trying to do her thing.
While it might be tempting to play through Atelier Totori with a guide right from the outset in order to “optimise” your playthrough, practically speaking pursuing the True ending is something best saved for a second or later playthrough, since your first is best spent just enjoying this beautifully crafted world, enjoying the feeling of events naturally unfolding seemingly independently of Totori’s intervention — and, of course, taking the time to make some good equipment for your favourite characters for the game’s later challenges. You can then carry all that equipment over into your next playthrough, leaving you with a lot more free time to chase down the specific events and endings you’re most interested in.
Many of the previous Atelier games we’ve seen prior to this point have solid worldbuilding and interesting settings, but Atelier Totori is one of the most striking in terms of how “alive” the whole thing feels. It’s a real strength of this installment in particular, and one of many things for the titular heroine to explore as she follows in her mother’s footsteps.
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