I'm going to sound like an ass saying this but I think it's safe to say that the NIS efforts for the PS3 have been a little bit, underwhelming. Cross Edge
wasn't very good, Trinity Universe
was a slight improvement, and I don't even want to talk about Last Rebellion
. So it was with a little bit of caution that I took a look at the latest NIS title to grace the PS3, Atelier Rorona. It's a plucky little RPG that feels almost too basic for its own good. From a graphical standpoint we saw better efforts out of second generation 360 games, and from a gameplay standpoint we've seen better from the PS2 era. Atelier Rorona feels like developer Gust is still trying to get their PS3 legs, and unfortunately this game goes a long way toward undoing all the praise and goodwill they had earned during the PS2 Atelier games. All the saccharin-soaked characters in the world can't save a game from plodding and downright boring gameplay.
Atelier Rorona's story follows a cheerful female protagonist, surprisingly named Rorona, who is an apprentice at an alchemy shop with an owner who comes off as lazy (on a good day) and has a creepy little sister complex to boot. The kingdom in which this shop resides has decreed that the shop must be closed down unless it can be proved to be an asset to the community. That's where you come in as Rorona, to save the shop by meeting requests set forth by the castle and by assisting the townsfolk. As the story goes on you'll see that the attempt to close the shop is not without ill intent and with the help of Rorona's friends you'll keep the shop from going under. The characters of Atelier Rorona are tolerable at best, with a somewhat loveable Rorona who's clumsy clueless attitude can be at times too much to bear with the rest of the cast falling a little on the dull side. You've got Rorona's rich yet bratty friend Cordelia, her cheerful chef friend Iksel, and a stoic castle knight named Sterk to name a few. Everything feels cookie cutter except for Astrid, the alchemist who owns Rorona's shop. But even her borderline deviant behavior toward Rorona can go from humorous to awkward in a flash.
These characters look great when you see them in their character portraits, but unfortunately the transition to 3-D is not very kind. Rorona goes from looking like she's 17 to looking like she's 12. The character models just feel like they aren't very detailed compared to their hand drawn portraits. The enemy models don't feel like they are much better. Even the basic Puni enemies look worse in 3-D, and the world the characters inhabit feels flat and lifeless. It's going to sound harsh, but the most accurate way to describe how this game looks, is like a lower quality version of Eternal Sonata, which was released years ago, yet still manages to look better than Atelier Rorona. I actually would have preferred high resolution 2D sprites instead of the lifeless 3D shells. Audio is your typical Atelier fare with lots of wind instruments and solid voice acting from a lot of industry mainstays.
A lot of what hurts Atelier Rorona comes from its sluggish gameplay both inside and out of battle. The alchemy system is the linchpin of Rorona's world, so you'll be interacting with it a lot. This means you'll be spending a lot of time tracking down materials to create items to meet the requests of the castle. There is a lot of menu navigation that goes in to getting from place to place which just feels slow and unnecessary. After choosing where you would like to go, you proceed through an area that feels sterile and empty, get in to fights, and find the proper components by searching through some easily identifiable spots on the map, it's literally just an exclamation point over an arbitrary spot in the location you are exploring. Once you've finished with an area, it's back in to the menus to either return home or go to the next area. In the midst of all of this you need to manage the time you are given to complete your tasks. The castle expects you to produce items created via alchemy on twelve different occasions, and you have about three months of in game time to finish them with an evaluation taking place at the end of the three months. Time in this game is spent whenever you perform a traveling action or whenever you create something via alchemy. If you wish to create a lot of items through alchemy then you're looking at spending a number of your allotted days doing so.
Creating items in the alchemy system is a rather simple affair. Every item has an ingredient type that goes toward creating a new item. Thankfully many different items can have the same ingredient type, making alchemy recipes easy to complete. For example, a rock from an ore cave have a gunpowder ingredient type, but simple rocks that can be found on the side of a road could have the same ingredient type, making the overall alchemy recipe cheaper and easier to complete. As previously stated the alchemy will require a set amount time, items, and hit points, but will yield new weapons, armor, or the items needed to complete the assignment from the castle. This will also increase your alchemic level which in turn will result in higher quality products from your alchemy.
This time management component of the game wouldn't be so bad if the game didn't do such a poor job of teaching you how to create the items you need. You really have to explore every nook and cranny in town to find the items that will teach you how to create stuff through alchemy. I had a hard time trying to track down water, until I found the well that was actually right outside of the alchemy shop, with no way of indicating that I could interact with it. Then it was a matter of finding the book to teach me the recipe to make the items that the castle requested. Which was being sold by the town blacksmith, but in the next chapter, the book might be somewhere else entirely. I don't mind being left to my own devices in an RPG, but a slight point in the right direction would have helped out this game immensely. Perhaps I could have been told at the start of every day where I should go to get my work done. I almost failed the first task because I thought I had to buy water from the general goods store and ran out of money since the first three items needed water in different amounts. Fulfilling requests for the town members will also eat up the time you have available to finish the main assignment, and these requests range from actually creating items through alchemy to simply gathering items for people around town. Unfortunately you are limited to carrying a specific number of items at any given time, so if you queued up a lot of jobs you might actually be shooting yourself in the foot by using time to travel back and forth between the gathering points and the town to drop stuff off.
If you're out collecting items for alchemy then you're going to be getting in to fights. Thankfully Gust didn't ditch the on-screen enemies, so no random battles, which is always appreciated these days. Unfortunately the desire to enter combat just isn't there this time around, with battles that are a grind to get through, which is quite different from past Atelier titles. Every attack feels like an overly drawn out display, which is kind of contrary to past games that were all about speed and getting through combat quickly. Every combat action results in a camera cut, as if to highlight the attack, which feels superfluous and unnecessary. Battles are also quite difficult in the early going, with enemies in the third chapter that are able to easily decimate your entire party, and having only one character available to use items doesn't make things any easier. Only alchemists are able to use items, while others are able to use skills that can heal party members or restore status effects, or they can be special attacks. Skills come at the cost of hit points which can be restored with other skills that use hit points (spend 9 hit points to regain thirty or so? Sure!) or by spending days sleeping on the couch back at the alchemy shop.
In conclusion, Atelier Rorona feels like a very rudimentary entry in the Atelier series of games. It almost feels like I've returned to 2004 when the first Atelier title entered the scene on PS2, but it doesn't feel new in any way. It's incredibly simplistic to the point of being a negative, it just does not advance the series in any way. Combat is the opposite of what the series is known for, slow and downright boring to play. The characters are archetypes that feel incredibly shallow with no one but Rorona having what feels like a legitimate reason to be present. Worst of all, it just didn't feel fun, at all. Previous Atelier titles had a sense of magic about them that made them stand out more, whether it was the ridiculous school system in Mana Khemia, or the interesting combat mechanics of Ar Tonelico. There are a few moments where the story is charming and endearing but those feel like rare instances when you have to spend so much time wading through mediocrity. All in all I really can't recommend Atelier Rorona, but here's to hoping that NIS can bring out Hyperdimension Neptunia, or even Atelier Totori and perhaps they can turn around this string of lackluster PS3 titles.
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* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
A by the books experience that feels dated and boring long before it has a chance to even show a spark of interest. Atelier Rorona will only satisfy the most die-hard JRPG fans.