So back to the dread anime pit of crazy weird games sent to me by NIS America. I always hope they’ll be good and sometimes they are and sometimes not so much. This week’s adventure into places I was probably not meant to go is the latest in the long line of the Atelier series, Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland. I played a little bit of the first game back on the PS2, what feels like a million years ago, but I haven’t really kept up with the series. The first game very much felt to me like one of the many also ran PS2 RPGs from that era that were all competent but utterly forgettable. That said the series has gone on strong in Japan with a number of sequels over the years and after this entry I feel there might be something to all this alchemy business. So let’s find out why this game turns my perceived RPG lead into gaming gold in today’s review.
There is a very specific reason I like this game and that’s because it’s similar Harvest Moon and I really like Harvest Moon. You see the thing that makes the Harvest Moon games special is greatness through constant mundanity and this game has that in spades. The game consists of pretty much just three things: making items through synthesis, running around monster filled fields, and developing your kingdom through NPC interaction and the first two items. The synthesis is dead simple, just throw the necessary ingredients in the pot and wait a few days. That said making awesome stuff requires lots of items and to make the best stuff you’ll have to spend hours synthesizing components, managing materials, and balancing a variety of stats and traits. Monster slaying is a big way you’ll get those items you need and the combat is pretty much the same as any other JRPG you’ve seen. The standard “Attack, Special Ability, Guard” system is at play here and while a couple other basic mechanics are laid over top it’s basically just good old FF style turn-based combat. It’s a very simple system but it works and the fact it’s as basic as it is keeps it balanced and fun. All this item making and monster killing is in service of something though and that is developing your kingdom. At any given time you’ll have a number of quests from your populace asking you to make them items, clear out areas, or kill specific bosses and upon completing these quests you’ll gain development points. These development points go towards making various improvements for your kingdom as well increasing your rank and population. The game sets out defined goals and deadlines and you can see actual notable effects from your actions. This kind of structure and reward system really makes the game fun to play and keeps you playing for hours on end. It’s this same “I’ll go to bed just after I do this one last thing” mentality that made me love Harvest Moon way back in the PSX days and despite all this game’s weird anime-mess-which we’ll talk about later- that obsessive mentality just kept me wanting more.
Before we get to the presentation and my requisite anime bashing, why don’t we quickly go over the bland but fitting story. So the premise here is that you are Meruru, the princess of a small kingdom called Arls, who wants to break free from her royal obligations and be an alchemist. Your father the king, sick of your bullshit, says fine but only if you can positively affect the kingdom with your alchemy in just three short years. From there with the help of your childhood friends and a bunch of characters from the past few Atelier games you strive to succeed in your goal …and that’s kind of all. To be absolutely honest it only feels like the first half of a standard JRPG plot, no greater evil or insurmountable challenge arises, you just hit an ending (there are multiple ones to pursue, some of which seem to let you play longer as I got a of total 5 years) and then the game slaps your hands from the controller and says you’re done. Odd as that is though it does work for the gameplay structure and I didn’t feel like the game was incomplete when I finished it, I just felt it was very short for a JRPG as I managed to blow through it in only 16 hours. I could go on a bit about the character interaction but it’s all very standard anime subplot BS and none of it really bears on the main story enough to warrant mentioning. If you’re into that sort of thing it seems fine but if you’re like me you can skip through the game’s MANY ancillary cut scenes with ease.
Lastly we come to the presentation which sits firmly on the Dragon Quest end of the anime spectrum. Everything has that very pristine and drawn “Japan’s idea of Fantasy” look which we all grew up with in games like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. Things are a little cutesy but not overbearingly so and there is enough variety in the enemies, items, and environments to keep things interesting. It’s a very basic look but just like the milquetoast story works very well with the laid back and relaxing yet endlessly addicting kingdom building gameplay. The music is a little all over the place but that’s because there’s way too damn much of it. There seems to be a different song or variation on a past song for every screen and character in the game and while most of it is quite good because there’s so much there it feels rather schizophrenic. Recorders, Spanish guitars, and I swear at one point a fucking washboard can all be heard in this game’s soundtrack and a consistent theme cannot be found throughout. That said I loved the Spanish guitar battle theme and the recorder tutorial music had me bobbing my head in idiotic glee. Put simply I really like the music in this game overall but it certainly does not seem to be a coherent part of the whole package.
So I went into this game with pretty much no expectations; I was thinking it’d be just another mediocre JRPG I’d slog my way through but instead I got the kind of obsessively fun experience that manages to get me to pull an accidental all-nighter. While it is certainly short for a JRPG at only 16 hours (at least on my playthrough, maybe I got the bad ending or something) I relished every one of those hours and was genuinely pissed off when it was over because I wanted to play more. So for the kind of addicting experience that makes even a jaded misanthrope like myself smile, I’m happy to give Atelier Meruru: Apprentice of Arland a 5 out of 5 stars. While the overt anime cuteness of this game will be too much for the greater gaming community to take if you’re already on the JRPG train and can deal with a bit of the anime then I cannot recommend this game enough, now if you’ll excuse me I have a second playthrough to start.