Growing Up Atelier

HIGH I have a pet Puni!

LOW The confusing harvesting system made me miss important items.

WTF That is certainly one adventurous goat!

To a certain extent, all of the Atelier games feature young women trying to find their way in the world while defying the expectations society has for them. Whether a princess who wants to do more than plan parties or a cave-raised would-be adventurer desperate to leave her mountain, the Atelier series always centers around characters who chart their own path through life.

Atelier Ryza bears down on theses themes like no previous title has, telling the story of five friends on the cusp of adulthood trying to find their place in a world that may soon be rendered uninhabitable by environmental catastrophe. If nothing else, it is of this moment.

As the latest entry in the long-running Atelier series of JRPGs, Ryza tells the story of an isolated island which is slowly running out of drinkable water. When mysterious alchemists offer a solution to their problem, Ryza, the daughter of local farmers, becomes obsessed with unlocking the secrets of alchemy and helping save her town. Along the way she’ll discover that she and her friends have surprising amounts of potential, and discover an unimaginable secret about the only home they’ve ever known.

I feel like I say this every year [editor: you do.] but Atelier Ryza‘s developments to the crafting and combat systems are a brilliant revelation. This is the start of a new miniseries, and the devs have taken the opportunity to go back to the drawing board again and offer brilliant new core mechanics.

The new crafting system does a fantastic job of streamlining alchemy while at the same time making item development feel like an organic part of the process. Gone is the “inspiration” system where the player completed tasks to develop recipes while juggling puzzle elements to create the best possible items. Now every item has a grid of possibilities that can be used to add and power up various traits.

Essentially, players can drop in two items to craft something a basic item, or they can spread out through the web of linked items, adding new characteristics and increasing the item’s quality.

This is where the new ‘recipe design’ system comes in — instead of building the best possible item, players can build towards a recipe slot, and provided they have the right materials, suddenly they’ll have built an entirely new thing which will be craftable from then on. This new system makes crafting feel more valuable and satisfying by offering its own goals and rewards.

Combat has been redesigned with an eye towards speed. Now the player controls just one character at a time while the other two members of their squad attack on their own. It doesn’t feel overly simplified, however, since the player is free to switch between characters with the press of a button. This is vital since NPCs won’t use skills or items on their own.

The most interesting development is the “tactical points” system, which functions as skill point pool for the entire party. It gets built up by hitting enemies, using items, and performing actions that NPCs request in the heat of battle. Skill use costs tactical points, rather than individual character SP, and if players let the tactical points max out, they can upgrade the pool up to four times.

This adds a key strategic element to each battle — use skills as they become available, or rely on the perks that come with a higher tactical level? Only by powering up to level five will they be able to unleash a super attack which has the side effect of dropping the tactical level back down to 1. When I saw that I wouldn’t be micromanaging the combat, I’ll admit that I was worried the franchise had decided to use simplified combat inspired by the Legendary Alchemists spinoff. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find the new systems ultimately offer some of the most satisfying combat the Atelier series has ever featured.

As ever, the story is a strong point. The dialogue is well-written and the characters are charming, but it impresses with a willingness to go deeper with its subject matter than usual. The basic plot is the kind the series has offered before — a calamity is on the way, only alchemy can stop it — but the details are surprisingly bleak. I can’t spoil the finer points, but some harsh criticism is made about colonial exploitation of the third world. It’s couched in fantastical metaphor, of course, but the key message is that that first world prosperity is bought with the immiseration of the third.

As I played through, I worried that the script was being a little naive in its presentation of such serious issues — major environmental and social challenges can be solved by a group of plucky youngsters with a good attitude? But, as the story developed, I realized that the devs weren’t concerned with concrete solutions, but with motivation. Fundamentally, this is a story about children gaining a clear-eyed view of the compromised world that their parents have built, and resolving to do better. It might not be actionable, but it certainly is inspirational. That said, their suggestion that the horrible trauma of child abuse can be overcome by simply getting physically stronger than one’s abuser is downright irresponsible.

Atelier Ryza knows that it’s the start of a new franchise, and it ends with the promise of more to come. It’s dangerous to assume that the developers can keep up this level of quality, but after getting through the story and a robust assortment of side quests, I’m as excited about as I was after completing Atelier Sophie. Ryza isn’t the best in the series, but it certainly has the potential to be the jumping-off point for the best trilogy yet.

Rating: 9 out of 10

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. 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 Alcohol Reference, Fantasy Violence, Mild Language, and Mild Suggestive Themes. The suggestive themes are even more harmless than usual, mostly boiling down to the lead’s short-shorts. While the violence is absolutely safe, I want to restate just how potentially troubling the game’s treatment of child abuse is. One of the main characters has a drunken, physically abusive father, and the game fails to treat that plot with the appropriate gravity. Be prepared to have a chat with your child about domestic violence if you let them play.

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 instructions are presented as text. Text cannot be resized. This game is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable. There is no control diagram. The left thumbstick controls movement, the right the camera, with face buttons covering interaction with the world, and navigating menus. Shoulder buttons change camera distance and change movement speed, with the D-pad used to open the map and quick-access menus.

Daniel Weissenberger
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