Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland – Royal Responsibilities

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We’ve previously seen how the other games in the Arland series have tended towards being “coming of age” stories; Rorona learned how to respect the balance between tradition and modernity while learning to believe in herself, while Totori endured a more gruelling journey to adulthood than most!

With Meruru’s inherent position of privilege at the outset of the story, she’s obviously coming to her adolescence from a rather different starting point than her two predecessors did. But she’s still got plenty to learn about herself, the things she believes in, the things important to her and, of course, her place in the big, wide world.

Will she grow into the role of a “proper” princess by the time she hits twenty years old? Of course not, she’s got far too much work to be getting on with between now and then…

Much like its immediate predecessor, Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland eschews a linear narrative in favour of a fairly “open” experience. As you complete various tasks in the game, you’ll uncover various storylines; some of these relate to the individual characters you come into contact with, some of them relate to the kingdom of Arls, and some relate to Meruru herself. Assuming you’re successful in Meruru’s core mission of growing Arls’ population sufficiently by the deadlines she is set, the exact conclusion of the overall story will be determined by which of these threads you decide to pull at and follow to its endpoint.

As we’ve previously discussed, the basic narrative of Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland concerns how the small rural kingdom of Arls is preparing for a merger with the Republic of Arland. Meruru, the young princess and sole heir of the kingdom, has been growing increasingly restless throughout her adolescence, and finds herself fascinated by the life of one Totooria Helmold, an alchemist sent to Arls by Arland to help this process along a bit. After all, Totori became a legendary adventurer and alchemist at Meruru’s age — building herself up from absolutely nothing and ultimately succeeding in a perilous journey across the ocean.

Meruru’s father Dessier is initially resistant to his daughter’s pursuit of alchemy, instead preferring that she focus on her royal duties. But Arls is a tiny kingdom as the story begins, and Meruru’s royal duties to date have mostly consisted of sitting around looking pretty and getting increasingly bored. So, in collaboration with castle butler and tutor Rufus, she hatches a plan to demonstrate to her father that by studying alchemy, she can both better herself and fulfil her royal duties. In fact, the possibilities alchemy provides for development of the kingdom mean that she’ll be able to actually help ensure the eventual merger with Arland runs smoothly — something that she most certainly wouldn’t be able to achieve by sitting on her royal hiney.

Dessier agrees, but with a condition: if she hasn’t proven herself to his satisfaction by the end of three years — two years before the merger is set to happen — then she will go back to being a boring old princess, no questions asked. Meruru, quickly demonstrating herself to be someone who is fairly confident in her own abilities, even if she is sometimes a little hasty to charge into things head-first, agrees to the terms, and thus begins her adventure.

Meruru learns some important lessons right from the beginning — most notable of which is the fact that if she’s serious about what she’s doing, she’s going to need to actually get down to ground-level and talk to the people. As someone who has never been particularly big on ceremony and formality, she has absolutely no problem whatsoever with doing this — and indeed there are numerous occasions throughout the narrative where people arrive in Arls and are distinctly surprised to discover the kingdom’s princess just wandering around in the streets chatting to anyone who happens to be passing by.

This aspect of Meruru’s personality is crucial to her success, though; her easygoing, friendly nature makes her very approachable, which means that people come to trust her very quickly. While the constantly declining “popularity” mechanic in the game (designed to keep you doing minor quests as well as accomplishing the major objectives in the game) reflects the fact that fame can be a fickle thing, we never see anyone really having a harsh word to say about Meruru. She’s widely beloved by her people, and her efforts are both noticed and appreciated — particularly as they’re well beyond the typical call of duty for a member of the royal family.

With such a major change to the way her day-to-day life unfolds, it’s understandable how some of the people close to Meruru might be a little concerned that things will end up changing beyond her control. The one who feels this most keenly is Meruru’s maid Keina, who has been a close personal friend of our princess since they were both children. It’s strongly implied that Keina has an interest in Meruru beyond simple friendship — and, moreover, that Meruru wouldn’t be against such a relationship — but Keina is still uneasy. After all, Meruru has suddenly started living pretty much independently — and after a long period of happily and lovingly answering to her every beck and call, this is quite an adjustment for Keina.

Thankfully, having been friends with Keina for such a long time, Meruru recognises that it’s not easy for Keina, and often makes a point of including her in her plans — even going so far as to take her out into the field when she goes gathering ingredients or fighting monsters. Keina, incidentally, quickly proves herself to be the most formidable bag-wielding warrior we’ve seen in the Atelier series since Jessica from Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis, so Meruru has absolutely no problem bringing her along on her excursions — and Keina is, of course, happy to remain alongside her beloved princess. Everyone wins.

Meruru’s other childhood friend Lias is an interesting case. While clearly both a capable guard and a longstanding friend of both Keina and Meruru, Lias is absolutely wracked with insecurity and an inferiority complex. His brother is the aforementioned butler and tutor Rufus, you see, and Rufus is seen by many people — including Meruru — as absolute perfection. He’s intelligent, he’s refined, he understands how to deal with people and if you’re into the mysterious bishounen type, you probably wouldn’t kick him out of bed either. It’s understandable that Lias feels like he will never be able to match up to his big brother; it will doubtless be a familiar feeling to anyone with a successful older sibling. You want to be proud, but it’s also frustrating.

In many ways, both Lias and Keina represent two polar opposites; they both clearly care for Meruru, but their approaches to life are very different from one another. Lias is someone who tends to do what he is told rather than taking the initiative, while Keina is frequently seen over the course of the game just showing up to do something nice for Meruru. And as if to further emphasise the contrast between the pair of them, Keina seems to bring good luck to others wherever she goes, while Lias appears to attract misfortune on himself at every possible opportunity. To put it another way, Keina radiates happiness and positivity; Lias, meanwhile, is tormented by the darkness he turns in on himself rather than wanting to bother anyone else with it.

Part of Meruru’s growth over the course of the game as a whole relates to how she deals with people, and the stark contrast between Keina and Lias has provided her with plenty of practice at how to approach different personality types. Probably most notably in this regard, she actually proves herself to be quite good at getting Lias to come out of his shell and admit what is bothering him on numerous occasions; while she can’t cure the things that are troubling him, it does become clear that she is a positive, welcome presence in his life — and one of the few people he truly trusts.

Meruru herself knows how important it is to have someone that you feel like you can trust and rely on standing alongside you, and in her case, that’s where Totori comes in — she provides a different sort of comfort to Keina. While Keina provides comfortable familiarity and support, Totori is someone that Meruru trusts with her future; she recognises Totori’s skill and talent, and is happy to be subordinate to her as her student, despite technically being of considerably higher social status than she is.

The Totori we see in Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland is a little different from the rather meek little girl we were introduced to in the previous game. Her adventures made her grow stronger and more confident, for sure, but she never lost that gentleness at her core. More than anything, though, she seems both physically and emotionally exhausted after her myriad ordeals; while she’s always keen to help Meruru with her studies, more often than not we see her slumped in a chair in the corner of the workshop, looking like she wants nothing more than to just fall asleep for a few years. I’m sure we can all relate.

One thing Totori does make clear to Meruru is that she is very much appreciative of what Rorona did for her — and that she wants to be a similarly positive influence on Meruru. Totori acknowledges that Rorona most definitely has her quirks that, at times, may call her general competence into question — you may recall that Rorona’s first appearance in Atelier Totori: The Adventurer of Arland is when Totori’s father fishes her bedraggled form out of the sea — but she also knows that she wouldn’t have been able to achieve all the things she did if she had never met her.

As if to emphasise the chaos that inevitably seems to follow Rorona around, it doesn’t take long for Rorona’s former master Astrid to show up on Meruru and Totori’s doorstep, with a Rorona looking distinctly younger than she should be in tow. It seems that there was some sort of accident with a Potion of Youth; while the potion had the desired effect on Astrid, it’s clear that Rorona was used as something of a guinea pig to fine-tune the recipe. That said, given Astrid’s apparent preference for young girls — a preference she is happy to admit without even a trace of embarrassment or a sense of impropriety — one might argue that everything worked out exactly as she planned.

Throughout Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland, we saw several sides to Astrid. We saw that she was a highly capable alchemist, but also a very lazy, resentful one; indeed, the whole setup for Atelier Rorona is that Astrid passes off a series of tasks that she can’t be bothered to do herself onto Rorona. On top of that, it became abundantly clear that Astrid was most certainly not above sexually harassing her young charge — and no-one seemed to have much of a problem with it, not even her parents.

With all this in mind, it’s a little difficult to trust Astrid. She’s a character designed to make you feel a bit uncomfortable — particularly because it doesn’t take long for it to become apparent that nearly everything she says is in an attempt to manipulate the situation to her advantage. She lies, she cheats, she steals — and yet it’s hard to think of her as truly evil — particularly as she plays an important role in Atelier Totori’s tricky to accomplish “true” ending.

Rather, Astrid feels more like an agent of chaos; she shows up, and things immediately become more complicated. Not necessarily bad, but complicated. At one point in the game, for example, all the water in the wells in Arls inexplicably turns into milk shortly after Meruru builds a facility that Astrid has requested; no-one is too bothered by this, because the milk itself is delicious and the situation resolves itself after a few days, but this is certainly only something that could ever happen while Astrid is in town.

Interestingly, it turns out the only one who is truly able to deal with Astrid with any degree of reliability is the young form of Rorona; on several occasions we see Astrid utterly defeated by Rorona’s relentless energy, enthusiasm and desire to get what she wants. While child Rorona is depicted as having lost most of her memories, over time we see that she’s clearly retained some aspects of her former life deep in her brain — since these include complicated alchemy recipes, it’s not unreasonable to believe that “how to deal with Astrid’s bullshit after putting up with it for so long” would also be locked away in there somewhere.

And while Rorona herself doesn’t feel like she’s of critical importance to a lot of the overall story in Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland, she is the catalyst for several of the narrative threads that appear later in the game and lead to specific endings. The fact that she’s clearly important to Totori — and something of a legendary figure in her own right by this point in the overall Arland timeline — leads Meruru to believe that seeking a way to return her to normal might not be a terrible long-term goal to pursue alongside her development of Arls.

An alternative take on planning for the future comes in the form of two returning characters from previous entries in the series: former knight Sterkenburg Cranach and his senpai Esty. Over the course of Atelier Meruru, we see both of these characters confront their advancing years in markedly different ways; the one thing they have in common is the fact that they are absolutely not happy about the passage of time, and would very much prefer it if they could go back to do things over. And preferably stay back there.

Sterk, who has been a fixture in the Arland series since his role as Rorona’s assessor in Atelier Rorona, has spent the years following the abolition of Arland’s knighthood wandering the land, attempting to recapture his glory days — and telling himself that he’s in pursuit of Arland’s former king Gio in the process. In practice, he’s been doing little more than acting as one of the many adventurers around the land — though in Atelier Totori we discover that he did act as something of a mentor for Melvia in her early years on the road.

Sterk actually cuts a bit of a tragic figure by the time Atelier Meruru rolls around. He’s let his hair grow into a mullet that is arguably somewhat unbecoming for a man his age, is clearly becoming increasingly delusional about his role in a society that has left him behind, and doesn’t appear to want to accept reality. While considerably older than Meruru, it’s often the young princess that ends up talking sense into him, rather than the other way around.

Interestingly, Sterk is one of the few characters in the game who can actually shake the resolve of the normally unflappable Rufus. Outside of Sterk’s delusions of grandeur, his serious personality is very similar to Rufus’ — and naturally that means that they regularly end up clashing over the most ridiculously mundane of things, such as whether white birds or black birds are “better”.

Esty, meanwhile, puts across the image of someone who has mostly managed to adapt to the radical changes her homeland has been going through over the course of the various games in the series. For the most part, she seems comfortable in who she is; she knows that she is both a formidable swordswoman and a responsible, organised person — this is reflected in the way she goes about her duties in Arls.

Besides acting as a bodyguard for Meruru on occasion, it seems Esty was primarily sent to Arls to observe the people and the culture of the kingdom, as part of easing the merger process. As Meruru gets to know Esty better, we witness how she has a keen eye for observation when it comes to other people, often figuring out a lot of things about their personality and nature just from very simple, subtle behaviours. All this doubtless stems from Esty’s many years working as an administrator in the castle; throughout Atelier Rorona, she manned the front desk in the palace, after all, making her the primary point of contact for anyone who had official business with those in charge of Arland.

Occasionally, though, Esty cracks — usually when something or someone explicitly reminds her that she’s now over forty. Sometimes this is a careless word from her sister — who, between Atelier Totori and Atelier Meruru moved to Arls to man the quest desk in the little kingdom — and at others, it’s a good-natured letter from a friend saying that she’s getting married.

While Esty is a pretty good role model for Meruru in most regards, the fact that our princess also witnesses a somewhat less composed side of her any time this subject comes up doubtless gives her something to think about with regard to her later life. Does she want to settle down with someone special? Or is she genuinely finding meaning from what appears to be her life’s passion?

Speaking of special someones, the inimitable Mimi Houllier von Schwarzlang returns in Atelier Meruru, and she’s even more totally-not-gay for Totori than she was in the previous adventure. If anything, her tsundere tendencies have intensified as she has matured into an elegant young woman, creating a delightfully humorous and stark contrast between the refinement she shows upon meeting Meruru for the first time — Meruru, meanwhile, accidentally bites her own tongue during this initial encounter — and the babbling nonsense she emits any time she comes vaguely close to admitting her true feelings.

Mimi and Meruru actually end up developing a surprisingly close friendship with one another over the course of the game. Meruru recognises and understands Mimi’s discomfort about being honest and true to herself, and acts as a supportive, non-judgemental friend when it really matters; Mimi, meanwhile, learns from Meruru that someone who habitually speaks their mind and is completely open and honest with everyone can be just as popular as someone who is just keeping up appearances.

Meruru has a lot of people from whom she can develop her own outlook on life, and a big part of the overall sense of narrative Atelier Meruru carries relates to how she engages and interacts with all these influences. Much like one playthrough of Atelier Totori could be quite different to another based on the characters you spend the most time with and the events in which you participate, so too does Atelier Meruru provide quite different experiences based on how you play.

This is, as we’ve previously explored, most evident in the final two years of the game, during which all of the main “endgame” storylines get underway. You’re free to pursue any or all of these as you see fit while you play, but in practice it tends to behoove you to focus on one in particular. Some of these threads actually cross over or build on one another, too; for example, the route that leads to what is ostensibly the game’s “final boss” can be completed in several ways, resulting in several different endings — and likewise the attempts to get Rorona back to her proper age can conclude in a few different ways according to your specific actions and achievements along the way.

There are a lot of different ways to play Atelier Meruru, then — and your reward for exploring those different avenues is the opportunity to explore some markedly different conclusions to the experience as a whole. But whichever route you choose to take, Meruru undergoes some significant changes over the course of the complete narrative. She comes to understand herself a whole lot better — as well as, much like many other Atelier protagonists, discovering the joy inherent in helping others using her own unique talents. Talents that she figured out and developed on her own — not as a result of the privilege that she was born into.

That’s a pretty positive message on which to leave the original Arland trilogy, I’d say.

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