Inheriting The Big Questions
HIGH “Why are you even here?”
LOW Muddling through unclear clues.
WTF Are you sure this basket came out of a pot? Because it’s obviously woven.
The next time an Atelier game comes out, I’m just going to change the character names and republish the previous year’s review. That’s not to say that Atelier Lulua doesn’t have anything new to offer — there are some interesting aesthetic changes and a new narrative angle — but it’s more a reference to the fact that the developers at Gust have so thoroughly nailed their gameplay and their stories that I’d be tempted to describe them as being on autopilot if they didn’t turn out such consistently excellent work.
This history of excellence is clearly weighing on the developers’ minds, as evidenced by their decision to built Atelier Lulua around a return to the Arland setting of Ateliers Rorona, Totori, and Meruru – frequently referred to as the best trilogy in the series. The new alchemist Lulua (Rorona’s adopted daughter) lives in the shadow of those who came before her, both metaphorically and literally, and constantly struggles under the pressure of trying to live up to their legacy. How can a person strive to be exceptional when they’re surrounded by heroes — and is that even a goal worth pursuing?
A more laid-back experience than the norm, Lulua questions the assumptions that go into fantasy narratives. The main character doesn’t start with a tragedy to recover from, or a mystery to solve. Lulua is training to be an alchemist because her mother is an alchemist, so it’s expected of her. While the plot points are fairly traditional — Lulua helps people solve their problems and investigates ancient technology buried under her town — the question of why Lulua does any of this hangs over the whole experience. What makes her think that she should have these responsibilities?
This willingness to question the basic concepts underlying a JRPG even make their way into gameplay elements.
While Lulua features traditional JRPG turn-based combat, there’s a strange sense that the combat is only there because it’s supposed to be. However, the narrative questions whether characters should be killing creatures for resources at all.
At the outset, a quest finds Lulua learning to speak the language of Punis (the Atelier world’s generic ‘Slime’ creature), and she quickly discovers that they’re not psyched about humans constantly invading their lands and harvesting them for parts. Lulua doesn’t stop fighting monsters, of course, but between the Puni mission, a legendary creature who poses the question that sends Lulua into existential crisis, and some other things that I won’t spoil here, giving non-villainous ‘monsters’ such an active role causes the story to grapple with a profound question — if Lulua is about improving people’s lives and making the world a better place, should wholesale slaughter be part of that journey?
The alchemy section of Lulua is predictably stellar. The puzzle and tile-based elements of item crafting have been removed and replaced by a more basic system of each material having an elemental value, and raising and lowering those values to hit a threshold on a given item. It’s intuitive and does a great job of gradually layering in more elements that allow players to tweak their finished products in specific ways, making it feel like they’re not just getting access to better items over the course of the game, but that they’re actually learning alchemy. The only drawback (and Lulua‘s only major flaw) is that she gets new recipes by unlocking clues in a book. While most of the clues are clear — craft an item of a certain quality, kill X number of a given monster, etc. — a few were written obliquely enough that I struggled to figure out what they were going for.
The production values, like the alchemy, are also stellar. While there are still plenty of well-written conversations between the characters, the static framing of those conversations is completely absent. Instead, every character has a fully-animated model, and a great amount of thought has gone into using movement and camerawork to bring conversations to life. Anime techniques abound with characters peeking over obstacles, sliding in and out of frame, and using exaggerated body language to sell moments of comedy and emotion. The Atelier series has a long series of well-told stories, and Lulua proves that the devs are able to use modern animation tools to help communicate with the player, rather than just showing off a higher budget.
Atelier Lulua is more than a case of ‘Gust has done it again’, although that’s obviously true. It’s a great game with a brilliantly-told story full of great twists. More than that, though, it’s notable because it takes the chance to question an element at the very heart of the genre — why is combat so central to the experience? Is it a necessary part of the story being told, or does it wind up limiting the kind of adventure that developers can to craft? There’s no clear answer here, but the fact that the question is being asked in such an interesting way deserves a huge amount of respect.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Gust and published by Koei Tecmo. It is currently available on PS4 and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4 Pro. Approximately 60 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains Fantasy Violence, Mild Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, and Use of Alcohol. There is drinking in the game, and of references to drinking alcohol being a signifier of maturity. The suggestive themes are tame by JRPG standards, and don’t amount to much more than the odd wink. As always, the violence is completely bloodless and fantastical in its presentation– it’s safe for even younger teens. Honestly, I didn’t notice the language at all. Was there a ‘damn’ in there somewhere?
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I played the majority of the game with the sound off, and had no trouble whatsoever. All dialogue has subtitles, which cannot be resized. It’s fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable. There is no control diagram. The left thumbstick controls movement, the right stick controls the camera, the face buttons cover interaction with the world and navigating menus. Shoulder buttons change camera distance and change movement speed, and the the D-pad is used to open the map.