Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Review: Atelier Totori: The Adventurer of Arland (PS3)

Atelier Totori is a pretty clever little package. Developer, Gust, has managed to reuse so much of Atelier Rorona’s assets and gameplay that this game, the direct sequel is a double dip in the truest sense, and yet by the same token if this is your first Atelier game, it’s not going to confuse you.

It’s good for Gust, because it keeps the production costs down. It’s good for fans of the original, because it’s providing more of the same, but with new characters to mess around with. It’s still friendly for the newbie. Everyone wins.

So what is Totori all about? It’s a JRPG that, startlingly, doesn’t focus on combat. The combat’s still there to be sure, and it features all the usual trappings of a very traditional JRPGl\; each of the characters have different skill sets (up to three characters in battle at a time), and there’s the usual HP and MP bars. Combat is turn based, and the array of enemies you’re fighting against are the usually cheerful bunch.

But, as I said, while the combat is there, it’s not the real focus of Totori. This is a game that is more about alchemy. Specifically, collecting raw materials from the many and varied locations within the nation of Arland, and synthesising them into potions, weapons and other such items.

These can be sold for money, handed in to complete quests (rewards are money and other items), or used within the party to improve its chances in battle. There’s a couple of catches here, though. The first is that those materials happen to be located in the same areas of Arland that the monsters occupy. The games world is split up into a series of nodes. Each of those nodes represent a small area populated with monsters and alchemy materials.

Fair enough, that, and anyone who has played an RPG will be used to the way all this works. That it’s a balanced and ultimately fair system is mere table stakes in this genre. What’s more interesting, and where the game’s real challenge lies, is that you’re on a finite timeline in this game. You’re given three years of in-game adventuring and alchemising to convince the “adventurers guild” that you’re still worth the license they gave you. Achieving that involves earning “points” – be that by exploring new areas, completing quests and synthesising items.

With three years, there’s plenty of time to achieve a lot. The previous game, Atelier Rorona, set players a series of far more tight deadlines to the same end objective. Where that game made sure people keenly felt the time pressures, the pace of Totori is far more relaxed.

Despite that far more reasonable pacing, players will still need to be strategic about how they spend their time from the very first hour of play. The challenge is that every action takes up time. Fight a monster? Better get it done quick, because otherwise a whole day can pass by. Make a potion? There goes a day. Rest to recover some hit points? There goes a couple of days. Time itself is a precious commodity in Totori, and it’s a system that, like Rorona before it is a breath of fresh air compared to more ‘traditional’ JRPGs.

It’s a whole lot of fun running around gathering materials, accepting the quests that introduce you leaning new recipes and fighting the occasional battle to spice things up. Indeed, it has that same meandering spirit of a Harvest Moon game, and anyone put off by the linearity of many RPGs will get right into this strange kind of sandbox.

In terms of presentation, Totori is aimed squarely at those “Moe” otakus. The game’s characters are terribly cutesy, and at times terribly sexualised. Don’t believe me? For example, then let’s take some experts from the game series’ commemorative art book (Atelier Series Official Chronicle). Quoted verbatim from the Atelier Rorona’s artist in captions to various in-game scenes:

“I was asked to show off Rorona’s bare leg, in a sexy way.”

“I really like this piece as well. I think her thighs turned out nice and sexy.”

“I was told to put her in something more skimpy, because this [the scene] was supposed to be a reward of sorts.”

Let’s not forget that Rorona is a girl of 14 in Atelier Rorona, here. Totori continues in much the same tradition. It’s an unpleasant counter culture in Japan, that Moe otaku/ junior idol one. Out west it’s borderline offensive, which is unfortunate because it’s going to put some people off an otherwise great game.

That said, it’s not nearly as bad as, say, Ar Tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel. And aside from those moments (and they’re not common) of unpleasantness, Totori is a very happy, charming game, with lovely cel-shaded visuals and some superb music tracks. Often ripped entirely from Rorona, but still lovely.

It’s not a hard and heavy game, and it’s not an especially memorable one. What Totori is is simple, joyous fun. It’s fun to play through, it’s fun to laugh at its silly moments. Don’t go in expecting a work of art, and you’ll get your money’s worth with this.

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