I’m always up for a good RPG, and if it’s in 2-D then I am even more interested. So I found reason to get on board when NIS first brought us Atelier Iris, and then the second one, and now we have a third entry. By now, I just feel like I bought in to a series that is similar to the .Hack// games, with each title being only slightly different from the last. Granted this series has some things that differentiate it from the past titles. I just feel like it’s high time for NIS and Gust to focus on something else. Or move this series to a platform that is more in need of quality titles, like say the PSP. Atelier Iris 3 is another entry in Gust’s long line of RPGs that focus on 2-D sprite based worlds, a simplistic combat system, and an item creation system that gets further refined as the titles grow in numbers. Not all is bad here, it just feels like it’s a phoned in effort on Gust’s part, while this is probably the best Atelier Iris game to hit US shores yet, there are a few nagging issues that should have been resolved by now and the story takes far too long to get rolling before the game is able to keep interest.
Atelier Iris 3 starts things off with a new story progression system. You have a great deal of quests to complete around town as the two main characters Edge and Iris work for a guild and must rank up, and it’s through these rank increases that the story progresses. It proves to be a fairly good mechanic for moving the story along however there are a large number of side quests that can at times drag on and on, this gets especially annoying when they are forced upon you to reach a plot device. Hell you won’t even get your first additional party member until at least five hours in to the game. The story is also fairly bare bones. Iris is the owner of a book called the Escalario which is said to grant wishes when it is fully assembled, blah blah blah, great power and such. The story is divided in to chapters that come to abrupt ends after a little bit of story appears to punctuate the end of the chapter. A lot of characters are given depth through personal interactions but I’m still trying to figure out why the hell Iris and Edge are hanging out together in the first place.
The battle system has received a few more tweaks and this time I feel like they nailed it. This accomplishment comes from the fact that the user has a lot more control of the flow of battle with abilities that can stall the enemy ala Grandia series. This little tweak makes battles a lot more fun as you can build a strategy around stalling an enemy, provided you have the skill meter to pull it off. This can lead to huge combos and quickly fill up the Burst Meter which, when filled, will completely fill up the skill meter and allow your characters to do even more damage with their regular skills. So the battles are a bit livelier. Add to this the ability to change your character’s “blades” and you will find a lot more depth than what was previously present in the past Atelier games which is actually a big plus because truth be told I don’t think I could slog through another one of these types of battle systems because after the balance and structure that Dragon Quest 8 brought to the table, it’s just hard to hold a candle to it. The only negative I would have for the Burst system though is that it can really turn the tide of a battle and a lot of the tougher boss battles have you scrambling to get the Burst Meter filled, so it’s not like there is a whole lot of strategy to follow when it comes to the tougher battles.
There is one thing I will say I absolutely love about this game when it comes to battles though and I hope more games follow it in the future because it hasn’t been done this well since Earthbound on the SNES. First of all the random battles are gone (YES!), and all enemies can be seen on screen. Eventually enemies will start becoming worth less and less experience as your characters grow in strength. So the enemies are color coded and the blue enemies can simply be dispatched and brushed out of the way with the quick swing of a sword. Sure there is no experience for it, but the time you save makes up for it in so many ways it actually makes exploration fun again. Of course the stronger enemies that are actually worth experience are more likely to impede your path and be something you are looking for when it comes to experience so just be aware of their existence and try not to ignore them all the time or you’re going to go in to battle under-leveled. Though I have to say I did this quite a bit and did not have much trouble.
Exploration for this game also seems to be less emphasized than previous titles. The various Alterworld locales are where all the exploration takes place, and you’ll be revisiting them often. A big reason behind this is because you are given a limited amount of time to explore. This is both a positive and negative as it keeps the exploration space small so not much time is wasted. But should you waste time, you’re going to have to start back at the beginning when you realized you’ve been going the wrong way for the past ten minutes. A good countermeasure to this is allowing the user to leave whenever they please.
Graphically this game really never makes much headway, and as much as I like it that way, we know that 2-D artists can make some high resolution sprites. The Guilty Gear series shows us the way with its detailed characters and fast paced action. An RPG may have different mechanics that dictate its resources but I’d like to think that we are at the point where 16-bit sprites are biting the dust especially with Odin Sphere out there on the market making all sorts of splashes with its art style and beautiful graphics. The large character portraits that appear when there is character dialogue give you an idea of what could be shown in a game like this. But then again they are not very animated and are simply stills. This is something else that I would like to think that this series could move away from. The world itself is fairly detailed and looks nice for the 2-D art it is given.
Audio is another story and this is one area where I think Gust really needs to re-focus some of their efforts. You’ll find a lot of recycled sound effects here that have been heard in a lot of their past efforts. A little bit from Ar Tonelico here, some samples from other Atelier games there. Granted it offers you a familiarity with the games, but it feels like they could have gone in a different direction with it. The music as a whole is good, but it has nothing memorable so in the end it is forgettable. The voice acting is the standard stuff you would expect from NIS, again there is nothing memorable here, part of that is just due to weak story development and average voice acting.
Atelier Iris has become a yearly staple for NIS and Gust and I wish Gust would get away from this and really try to shake up this series. It currently is very solid. But I keep feeling like they could just flesh things out a little more and make these truly grand adventures. Sure the “hardcore” audience will keep eating these games up. But personally, I’m starting to get a little bored after the third time around and I think it’s time Atelier and I took a little break.