Being a Playstation 2 owner back in the early 2000’s meant that you got to experience some really fun JRPGs that didn’t have Final Fantasy in the name or were developed by Square. One of those series was the Atelier games. The Atelier franchise was a series of games created by Japanese developer Gust Corporation, starting back in 1997 on the first Playstation. The US didn’t see the series till 2005 with Atelier Iris for the PS2, and the games have been localized (for the most part) since then thanks to NIS America. This brings us to the latest game in the series, Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland for the PlayStation 3.
Atelier Meruru is the third game to come to the PS3 and is the final chapter of the Arland saga that started with Atelier Rorona. Though I have heard of the games before, I’ve never been able to get into them. I rented Rorona before and quickly returned it because it put me to sleep. This led me to skip out on Totori and move straight on to Meruru. Is Meruru more of the same sleep inducing game, or is there more to this series than what Rorona led me to believe?
SUGAR SWEET COTTON CANDY
Personal Character Growth - Princess Merurulince Rede Arls, or Meruru as she likes to be called, is one of the most interesting lead female protagoniststhat I’ve played in a JRPG. She displays a majority of the moe and princess tropes that are common to these games; she’s cute, clumsy, you want to protect her, she gets her way, she’s selfish, sort of an airhead, etc. During the first few hours of playing, I was ready to write her off as just being another stereotypical anime character that was only created to be moeand nothing else. But as you progress through the years as she learns alchemy, she starts to see her kingdom in a new light. She realizes that learning alchemy isn’t just about getting to see the world. It’s about using the abilities that she learns to help her people and those in need. We see this realization through the first three years that she trains as an apprentice alchemist and after that we see a change of attitude about her kingdom as she reaches her 20th birthday. We also see that she starts to grow out of being a clumsy, spoiled, always needing protection, only thinking of herself princess to a mature, selfless, hardworking yet still a bit clumsy alchemist working for the good of her people.
No Save the World Plot - Now I have no problem with RPGs that have saving the world from destruction as a plot. From Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Mass Effect 3 to Dragon’s Dogma and Gungnir, all these games had a form of 'save the world from the big bad evil and fulfill your destiny' plot. I enjoyed every minute of playing those games. But sometimes I want to play a RPG that has a plot that isn’t about saving the world; something lighthearted that doesn’t take itself seriously. Atelier Meruru delivers that. It’s like with anime: sometimes I want something that is violent and has me at the edge of my seat, like DeadMan Wonderland or Evangelion, and other times I want something simple, easy going and moe, like Lucky Star or K-ON.
Fun in Alchemy - Using alchemy to synthesize items to use in various situations is the main gameplay focal point in the Atelier series. Atelier Meruru continues this concept and increasesthe amount of items that Meruru can learn to make. From pies and enchanted farm tools to giant magical swords and cannons, quite a few things can be created. But this is just one half of alchemy, the other half is going out into the kingdom to gather ingredients to make items. The better the base ingredients are, the better the item will be. Also new to the game (new to me at least) is that later in the game, Merurugains access to a pair of homunculi that can help her with harvesting ingredients and synthesizing. This gives Meruru more time to do more missions and explore in order to find new and better ingredients for her alchemy.
Brighter Than a Rainbow - There’s a reason why this section of the review is called "Sugary Sweet Cotton Candy": everything in this game is bright and colorful like, well, cotton candy. Character models are wonderfully drawn and colored and look like they were taken straight from a fairy tale storybook. The color palate used for each character really brings out their personality. For example just by looking at Meruru we can tell by the use of pinks, peach and light purples that she is a sweet, kind and friendly character. If she were any sweeter, she’d give you cavities. This just doesn’t apply to Meruru, it applies to all of the characters that she meets and that join her in her adventures and even to the various locations that her party explores.
Music More Cheery Than an Episode of MLP - The music in Atelier Meruru out cheers the average MLP episode, and differs from area to area. From royal sounding themes in the throne room to salsa guitar, the music varies throughout. The overworldtheme sounds happy and sweet, and even the various battle themes sound so happy that even getting beat by a killer bunny wielding a carrot just looks and sounds so cute.
Right Amount of Fan Service - As with most JRPGs there will always some kind of fan service. Now, when we think of the phrase "fan service" we think of panty shots, still pictures of characters in compromising positions, or characters showing an excess amount of skin or cleavage. While it doesn’t detract from the experience (for me at least) there is such a thing as having too much fan service. In Atelier Meruru‘s case, there is a decent amount of fan servicebut nothing to over the top, in my opinion. Some websites will state that the sweet and sugary vibe that the game emits “sits uncomfortably alongside sexualized fetish outfits” of the female cast and that “costumes are taken to extremes with super-short skirts and corsets that it makes playing the game somewhat cringe-worthy.”The review copy of the game was accompanied with a small bonus art book showing off the character designs of cast that you will be interacting with and have join in your party. Flipping through the book, I felt that none of the female characters were dressed in “sexualized fetish outfits” but in outfits that were really sweet and cute. The only time that I encountered fan service was in conversations between different characters and it was always spoken and implied, never shown. Even then it was pretty tame and just girls talking with overactive imaginations, nothing more. I predict that these “sexualized fetish outfits” will be popular with female cosplayers in upcoming cons.
BITTER AS A PICKLE
Time Limiting - With so many things to do in order to grow the kingdom of Arls, the time limit of 5 in-game years is really limiting and can go by before you know it. Every action you take, from battle encounters and gathering ingredients in the field to making items and moving to different areas in the kingdom, takes away time. This leaves little time to explore Arls properly, little time to try to make items and little time to explore the relationships that Meruru has with her friends. You really have to manage your time here, which can detract a bit from the game.
Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland is fitting for the Arland saga. Meruru is a really surprising character, and I’m glad that I didn’t write her off as we see her grow up from being a spoiled princess to an alchemist working for the greater good. The overall look and feel of the game gives off such a sugary sweet cotton candy vibe that I feel like it’s giving me cavities…and I like it. The plot, which focuses on Meruru’s growth through alchemy and helping her people is something that we all need once in a while, and provides a break from the more serious "save the world from the big baddie" plots. Couple that with music that fits with the look of the game and the right amount of fan service, and my mind has been changed about the series. The only real fault that I had with the game was the 5-year in game time limit that rushes you to get everything done. Fans of the Atelier franchise will love this game, anime fans with enjoy it, and cosplayers will find inspiration in it.
*This review was based on the PS3 version of the game with a review copy provided by the publisher.*