As we’ve seen numerous times in the previous installments of the Atelier series, being a successful alchemist isn’t just about holing yourself up in your workshop for months at a time; sometimes you have to take to the field and get some practical experience.
In Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland, those excursions outside of the protagonist’s home base occupy something of a middle ground between the relatively short excursions of Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland, and the grand adventure which unfolded over the course of Atelier Totori: The Adventurer of Arland. Meruru never strays that far from home — but she does have important things to accomplish wherever she goes.
Let’s take a look at what life in the field is like for our tomboyish princess — and how she makes use of her alchemical talents to defend herself when things get rough.
Meruru’s adventures begin as soon as she manages to convince her overprotective father than her alchemy studies can be used to help develop the kingdom of Arls — and, by extension, to allow her outside the castle gates into the big, wide world. The initial tasks she finds herself getting on with are somewhat less than glamorous, but to her credit, she gets straight on with the job rather than complaining. Indeed, when presented with the task of weeding the nearby Moyori Forest, she actually seems rather enthusiastic about the opportunity to get her hands dirty — while potentially gathering some helpful ingredients in the process.
As the game progresses, Meruru gains access to a wider variety of locations. This either happens in story events which require Meruru to go to a specific location in the kingdom, or as part of a series of path-building development tasks that require her to enter several locations in sequence, defeating all the monsters present before moving on. Either way, once the locations are added to the map, paths are formed that allow our heroine to get around a bit more easily; early in the game, there’s generally only one route to each location, but a number of development tasks allow for various “shortcuts” to be opened up, causing paths to loop around on themselves and make life a little more convenient.
A good example of this comes when Meruru discovers an abandoned mine that used to be an important part of Arls’ economy. To discover this, you’ll have gone all the way around the lake which Arls town surrounds and effectively be just “behind” where you started — but until you clear a suitable pathway through the marshy land between the town and the mine, you’ll have to take that long way around every time you want to move between the two locations.
This is important, because although the majority of Atelier Meruru’s individual tasks are not time-limited, you always need to be conscious of the fact that there are long-term goals you need to accomplish. Meruru is ranked on her progress at the end of each of her first three years, for one thing — and if she hasn’t helped the kingdom’s population rise to a specific level by the end of her third year, that’s the end of her alchemy studies. Three years might seem like a long time, but when travelling between different locations always takes at least a day per “node” on the map, you can quickly use up a lot of time just coming and going.
Fortunately, as with other Atelier games, there are various ways to make travelling and exploring a bit more efficient. The most notable of these is the Traveller’s Shoes, a recurring item in the Arland series that significantly cuts down on travel time on the world map. Since in Atelier Meruru you can equip these “search” items rather than just holding them in your basket as in Atelier Totori, they are saved as part of your clear data and subsequently carry over to New Game Plus runs, meaning from your second playthrough onwards, you can likely be much more efficient.
The same goes for the various other search items, also. Also of note is the Harvest Glove, which causes less time to elapse when Meruru picks items from gathering points. As in Atelier Totori before it — and unlike Atelier Rorona, which consumes a set number of days per “area” in a dungeon regardless of what you do there — gathering items and getting into fights depletes a time bar on the screen; when this empties, a day passes. The Harvest Glove doesn’t eliminate this time pressure, but it does lessen it somewhat, meaning you can gather a bit more without guilt.
Then you have the Secret Bag, which allows you to directly transfer items from Meruru’s limited basket space to her much larger container back in her workshop without having to go all the way back home. This is an enormous time-saver, particularly in the early game, and means you can take much more substantial gathering trips without having to keep in mind how far from home you are quite as much. When combined with the Warp Gate — which allows you to instantly teleport back to the workshop, but is an item which must be re-crafted each playthrough rather than permanently equipped — you can make every trip really count.
The locations that Meruru will visit on her travels fall into two distinct categories: minor locations, and development sites. Minor locations are just areas where she can find various monsters and ingredients and tend to have quite small maps. Development sites, meanwhile, are much larger areas that have numerous tasks attached to them. With each group of tasks completed in one of these areas, the layout and appearance of the map actually changes significantly — sometimes after an in-game week or two — so it’s one of the main ways in which you can see how your actions have a tangible effect on the game world.
Early in the game, you clear a thick forest to make space for farmland to feed the people; later on, you restore a dilapidated old fort, help build a water treatment facility and even harness wind power. There’s a real sense of the kingdom making progress every time you accomplish one of these development milestones, and it helps keep Atelier Meruru’s world feeling lively and vibrant for the duration of the story.
That doesn’t mean it’s a safe world, however. Right from the outset, Meruru will find herself coming face to face with the monster population of Arls, which ranges from small fluffy bunnies and the obligatory Punis to gigantic screeching wyverns and the spirit of a living forest. It’s fortunate, then, that she’s a dab hand at defending herself — and she has plenty of friends willing to come along and help out, too.
Combat in Atelier Meruru is broadly similar to that found in the previous games, with it particularly resembling that found in Atelier Rorona Plus and DX — much as with the alchemy mechanics, one of the main improvements Atelier Rorona Plus brought over the original release was an implementation of Atelier Meruru’s battle mechanics with a few twists.
Meruru and up to two companions enter the fray, and the turn order is lined up as a stack of “cards” at the side of the screen. Each action a player character or enemy takes causes their card to be pushed down the stack, indicating how long it will be until their next turn. Optionally, you can choose to defend, which gives you almost complete control over when your next turn is — useful if you know a big attack is coming and you want to have some healing ready to immediately follow it up.
Unlike Atelier Rorona, which had a single support gauge shared between the whole party, each party member in Atelier Meruru has their own gauge. Most actions in battle cause this to fill a certain amount, and charges of this gauge can be spent either when a monster is targeting Meruru — which causes the ally to take the hit in her place, even if the attack is a multi-target ability — or when Meruru makes use of an item, which allows the ally to make a follow-up attack.
Like in Atelier Rorona, these follow-up attacks can be chained together if the respective characters have enough charges in their own meters, allowing for large combos, and later in the game this becomes absolutely essential to take down some of the more powerful foes — particularly bearing in mind two important abilities that Meruru learns as she levels up: Power Item, and Potentialize.
Both of these effectively have the same function: they take an item that Meruru has and buff its power up considerably. They can’t be used willy-nilly as in the Atelier Iris games, however; there are a few restrictions in place. For one, both must be incorporated into a combo, meaning that both of Meruru’s allies must have enough charges in their meters to make it happen. And for another, the item Meruru starts the combo with must have at least three charges for the full combo to occur, since the original use, Power Item and Potentialize all consume a charge each.
In practice, the system works like this. Let’s say Meruru is fighting alongside Esty and Hanna, and the trio is up against a tough boss enemy with a lot of hit points. Meruru begins by throwing out a healing item such as a Healing Bell, which not only heals immediately, it also places additional “time cards” in the stack for the effect to repeat. In the meantime, both Esty and Hanna make use of their MP-consuming abilities to build up their respective support gauges to at least two charges each. Meruru then throws out a bomb to start the combo; Esty follows up with a support attack, then Hanna. Meruru can then use Power Item for a larger bomb explosion, after which both Esty and Hanna can do a joint attack together with their second gauge charge. Finally, Meruru rounds things off with Potentialize, which provides a unique (and usually hilarious) special animation for each consumable item, dealing a colossal amount of damage — all in the space of a single turn.
Keeping these mechanics in mind is key when crafting attack items back in Meruru’s workshop, since many of the later, more powerful items only have two charges by default — meaning that you won’t be able to use Potentialize with them. This probably isn’t the end of the world for regular combat, which is generally over quite quickly, but once you start facing the game’s bosses and the enemies in the game’s optional dungeons, you’ll be thankful for that additional damage output. And thus you’ll want to start crafting items with an eye out for traits that increase the number of charges an item ends up having. This might mean you end up having to compromise on quality or in other areas of the item — so from there you’ll want to find ways to counterbalance those compromises… and so on. In other words, while the combat mechanics themselves are relatively simple and straightforward, the interlocking systems that make up the game as a whole make preparing for combat the real challenge.
You have a few other options in combat, too. Besides the support gauge, each character in the party also has a super gauge that fills as they land attacks and take damage. When this is full, they are able to unleash their own unique super-move — which, of course, has its own unique animation. There’s a fun twist, too; if the super-move will defeat the enemy it’s targeting, you get a longer version of the animation featuring a theme song for the character instead of the regular battle music. This is an absolute delight every time it happens, and helps encourage you to try and finish tough battles with a suitable “flourish” — if only to see the ridiculous ways each of the characters in the game put their true power on display.
Much like both Atelier Rorona and Atelier Totori — and unlike your common-or-garden RPG — you don’t have to defeat a final boss to “beat” Atelier Meruru. But several of the major story paths in the game do conclude with a climactic confrontation of some description, each of which unfolds in a distinctive way. In some cases, it’s about dealing as much damage as you can as quickly as possible; in others, it’s about weathering the storm of your enemy’s relentless attacks.
Like the other Arland games, you can’t get a Game Over by being defeated in combat, even against these tough foes; you just lose a bunch of time, and this penalty can be mitigated completely by crafting a Flying Carpet item. With that in mind, it’s sometimes worth going in to one of the “final” confrontations knowing full well you’re going to get your butt kicked, because witnessing exactly how and why you get your butt kicked will give you an idea of what preparations you might want to make back home before trying again. Is it worth trying to craft some new equipment using metals and cloths? Or should you focus on developing better healing and attack items? You should probably do both, just to be safe, but that clock keeps on ticking…
All in all, much like the rest of the Arland series, combat is by no means the focus in Atelier Meruru; it’s just one of many interlocking parts that combine together to create the entire game experience. Nobody said being a princess was easy — least of all if you’re a princess studying alchemy. But, as the saying goes, far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing. And few in Arls would argue that Meruru’s work doesn’t pay off for everyone in the kingdom over the long term!
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