Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice Of Arland ReviewGreg Knoll
Call me crazy, but I grow weary of RPG epics. The airship, transcontinental, Inception-like plots that grow more confusing the longer you play type games. Every now and then I seek out a game that enthralls me yet doesn't stem much further beyond the core story line. When that occurs, when that mood hits me, I rely on one of two franchises: Dragon Quest or Alchemy.
Recently, I had the opportunity to immerse myself, once again, in Gust's incredible franchise. It had been years. My last true experience with the developer had been through Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis-a game that I had few complaints with, if any. So when their more recent, next generation sequel-Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland-became an option I requested it, given my current RPG funk. I entered into it hoping for something light, but intriguing.
And I found it.
Alchemy has always been a staple of the series, and an interesting spin in Mana but with my newest venture I found it comprised the entire game. Your main character Meruru is your prototypical princess, a young girl with her head in the clouds, fleeting dreams and lack of focus. She stumbles on alchemy through happenstance and finds perhaps a greater interest in it than she has her other countless ventures. So when she's placed before her stern advisor and focused father, she is a tad more passionate about seeing it through. The king initially declines, wishing his daughter would focus more on the people and the kingdom rather than her fly-by-night interests. With a little coercion from your advisor Rufus, your father decides that in the best interest of Meruru to let her try, but places a time limit on her, and works in a condition that will benefit all: if-within three years-she can use alchemy to benefit the kingdom and grow its legitimacy and population, he will allow her to continue. Fail and she must cast it away forever.
Whether that's true or not, I honestly could not say. You are given the three year time limit, yes, and you are asked to make extensive progress in so short a time but I never once ran the risk of missing the deadline-mostly because Gust made alchemy so bloody addictive. Meruru must use her alchemy to benefit and build the kingdom of Arls. Requests come in from all corners of the tiny kingdom-farmers needing food, miners needing lights, builders wood-and it is up to you to synthesize and bring them whatever they need. Each successful delivery adds to your development points, which can be used to build new structures: inns accommodate more travelers, libraries increase their knowledge. In addition to population increase, some buildings grant bonuses, like increasing the quality of the items you gather, or cutting down on the time it takes to synthesize new ones.
Once you start, it's really hard to quit. Each new development appears on your world map and the once tiny kingdom of Arls begins to grow before your eyes. New areas open up for you to travel to, allowing you to find different and rare items, even further increasing your alchemy abilities. More requests come in asking for them, and so begins the cycle of seeking the ingredients, traveling home to synthesize them then delivering them to expand even further. For anyone who's ever played Farmville or Castleville, you know how addictive and entertaining it can be to simply build and discover. Atelier is that, on a grand scope.
And while it doesn't have the limitations or exhaustive hours spent waiting for your items to develop, it is not without issues. The main one, really, is that they've made alchemy almost too addictive and there are several instances where that becomes a problem.
Combat is often very repetitive. The enemies appear physically so they're easy to avoid, but that's pure suicide if you wish to tackle other areas. Once you enter a battle it's the simple turn-based attack, defend, flee that has been around for decades. Your guards have special skills and any alchemist can use items, combo attacks are available but there is nothing original in the set up. Battles are fairly quick but still are just an annoyance when you're searching and eager to get back with your new ingredients.
And when you return back to your lab or a shop in town, random cutscenes are often triggered. Some are beneficial to the over all story and give you insight to the characters, others just seem like comedic relief or banter. Not a huge issue because they're put together well. The voice-overs aren't grating, the graphics not poor. They are ultimately entertaining but again, when you take into account that not only can you make new items but also weapons and armor, when you're eager to boost your stats, get in the lab and get working they always seem to pop up. More often than not, I glossed over them to speed the process of attaining my cool new toy or expand my kingdom even further.
I know many have complained about the lack of a real focus to tie everything together but I didn't see that. There is no countdown to doom, great evil to defeat or obstacle to overcome, true, but that's why I enjoyed it. I could simply play it, not have to worry about keeping some epic history straight or pedantic emotion forced down my throat, and that left me to focus solely on the alchemy aspect which-and I know I'm repeating myself-is, alone, worth the $60.
It's a must for most RPG fans-so long as they take that into account-or any fan of the develop-and-expand games that are now littering the web. Not sure if Gust planned it that way. If so, it was a wise choice to capitalize on the popularity. If not, the company is filled with predictive geniuses. Either way, they've definitely developed quite an entertaining and addictive entry to what is quickly becoming a franchise to be a fan of.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.
May I have the strength to lead with compassion. May I have a resolve strong enough to inspire it in others. May my heart be true, my motives virtuous, my spirit valiant. And whether I fail or succeed, may I at least be brave in the attempt.
About the Author: Greg Knoll
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