Thursday, June 7, 2012

Review: Atelier Meruru (PS3)

I don’t understand why Atelier games get panned by certain bigger sites that shall not be named. I’ll put it down to the usual hypocrisy – people complain about something changing too much (in this instance “there are no traditional JRPGs any more!”) and then when a developer gives them what they ask for, they complain about THAT.

So be it. Here’s the reality though: Atelier Meruru is an incredible game. It’s a charming little JRPG that doesn’t take itself too seriously (oh... maybe that’s the reason critics mark it down). The bright, happy visuals and bouncing tunes – especially the waltz that acts as the main theme in town – complement a game that, despite having a time limit, is largely pressure (and stress) free.

The basic idea of the game is to take Princess Meruru from a tiny kingdom on a journey to save her little rural paradise by using her developing talent in alchemy to help the citizens with their many and varied problems. It’s very much a Japanese fairytale story, and the world map is built like a pop-up picture book to reinforce this. As the third game in a trilogy, it does help to have played Atelier Rorona and Atelier Totori before this game, though it’s not necessary and GUST has been thoughtful enough to include a short plot summary of those two games to lead into this one.

The alchemy is the focus of this game. Meruru scours the world for new recipes to make everything from healing potions through to elaborate explosives and physical equipment. She’s fairly useless in a fight without her alchemical goods, so you’ll need to stockpile a bit before going out adventuring. Making alchemical goods is as simple as finding the right ingredients and sticking them together in the virtual pot, but within that is nuances, as each good an inherit traits from its base materials. Use good quality products and that bomb can do more damage. Use bad quality products and that tasty pie won’t impress customers so much.

With the focus so heavily on the alchemy, combat is a fairly simple and standard affair. Levelling up happens quickly, so there’s no need to grind, and characters earn skills automatically. There’s some decision making involved in choosing the companions that Meruru will take on her adventures, but this is a very old-style JRPG combat system, and were it the focus of the game, it would be a pretty dull experience.

In between all of this, there’s also a fun little city management feature that is a first for the series in Meruru. As missions are completed, Meruru earns development points, which can be put to work building up the kingdom with new facilities, which can help boost the population of the kingdom, provide additional alchemy resources, or help build a military to protect the people. Those this kingdom building aspect of the game is fairly simple, there is some strategy involved with picking which building to focus on next, and it helps to make the game the most rounded, involving experience in the series to date.

The real challenge from the game comes from the timeframe you’re working to. Meruru has three years to make her kingdom a prosperous one, or her father is going to ban her from being an alchemist (fairy tale, remember). Every action taken causes the clock to tick on a little. That means every fight, every alchemy session, and even scrubbing around for materials needs to be carefully measured if you’re looking to get the best ending. While I’m not a fan of time limits in games in general, Meruru’s time limit is a gentle one, and while getting the better endings is challenging, it’s unlikely to be a game that ends with a bad ending for you, either.

The main appeal of the game, despite the well-balanced traditional JRPG adventuring, is the simple fact that the Atelier games are cute – in the otaku sense of the word – while never really going overboard. Where a game like Hyperdimension Neptunia is able to turn people off through its moments of obscene sexuality, Atelier Meruru (and its predecessors) tend to be more innocent. The voices get a little bit squeaky at times, but the happiness is infectious. There’s a little bit of fanservice skin in there, but nothing that should offend people, I would hope.

It’s difficult to express just how much I adore Atelier games, because in many ways, they’re traditional JRPGs, and that in itself doesn’t sound so mind-blowing in the modern era of big action, serious, “hardcore” games. As someone who grew up with the 16-bit Final Fantasy games, though, the Atelier games tick all the right boxes. There aren’t many left to compete against but as JRPGs go, Atelier is now the premier series, and Meruru is the most balanced and enjoyable game of them all.

- Matt S

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