Atelier Series Overview – Part 1 – The Arland Trilogy

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A Brief History of the Atelier Series


If you count yourself among those that find JRPGs interesting, you very well may have heard of the Atelier series.  Established in Japan with the original title, Atelier Marie: Alchemist of Salburg, the series has just recently reached its nineteenth entry with Atelier Lydie and Suelle: The Alchemists and the Mysterious Paintings.  While the early entries of the series didn’t make it over to US shores, the majority of the series has found localization in on our shores.

In 2005, Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana on the Playstation 2 was placed in the hands of NIS America and since then, each entry of the series on home consoles has been translated and made available across various regions.  While the gameplay and format have changed and evolved throughout the series, the central concept remains the same.

Playing as an ‘alchemist’- someone who engages in the practice of acquiring and combining items to create other items with the magical process of ‘alchemy’- you are faced with an objective that requires you to expand upon your abilities to be met.  As the game progresses, more recipes for items are unlocked, as well as locales to acquire items that are rarer or of better quality. Nearly all of the items your party will use are created through these items- healing items, offensive items, weapons, armor; all of it becomes the product of items that you collect throughout your adventure.  Each game has a different twist on this and later entries find deeper methods of alchemy to give the player more customization in their creations, but at its base, this concept is what the Atelier series revolves around.

Throughout this overview, I’ll be explaining each grouping of games in the Atelier series.  Much like the Fire Emblem overview I’ve been working on, there may be some glances of opinion and theory here and there, but for the most part, this is meant to be informational for those interested in learning about the Atelier series or possibly for those already familiar with the series who would like to take a trip down memory lane.

Whatever your reasons may be, I hope you enjoy this look at the Atelier series overall.  As usual, please be aware that I make an effort not to spoil anything plot related that you wouldn’t read within the packaging of the game, but there is the occasional slip so if you want to avoid spoilers, you’ve been warned that they may exist here however minor.  If you have any comments to add, questions to ask, or just want to discuss the games in each entry, feel free to leave a comment.

In this first entry, I’ll be writing about the Arland trilogy, comprised of Atelier Rorona, Atelier Totori, and Atelier Meruru.  While not the first games to be localized, they appeared to be the first that many had heard of the series.  As some of the more easily obtainable entries to the series, they seem like the best jumping off point to explore the series from!
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Bringing Up the Average – PC – Final Exam – 2013

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Final Exam
PC
Mighty Rocket Studios/Focus Home Entertainment
2013
Genre: Action Platformer

Much like the most prolific horror series’ have, some games need reboots.  Castlevania saw one with Lords of Shadow in 2010, as did Silent Hill when 2009 brought us Shattered Memories.  On a less established scale, under-the-radar horror franchise, ObsCure, found itself requiring a reboot after Hydravision, the original developer of the series, had announced that it had closed its doors in 2012.  Shortly after, they corrected that they were rebranding as Mighty Rocket Studios.

Having marginal success with the ObsCure series and a few other games as Hydravision, the company decided to go in a different direction with the series by establishing Final Exam.  While there had been rumor that a third ObsCure game was in the pipeline, the game that was talked about and the game that Final Exam turned out to be were pretty different and initial reviews of Final Exam didn’t play well as the third game in the series (hence the unrelated title).

Given my mixed feelings between the first and second games in the ObsCure series, starting up Final Exam brought up some concerns: would I enjoy the game universe?  Would I just be mildly offended? Would I even finish if it followed in the second game’s footsteps?

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5 Moments I Fondly Recall in Games (That Others Might Not Necessarily)

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Off the top of my head, I can list a vast quantity of high profile gaming moments that everyone seems to have been affected by in their formative gaming years- Final Fantasy VI’s opera scene, the final battle with Shang Tsung in Mortal Kombat, any occurrence beginning with ‘the death of’; there are so many definitive events that people remember because of their magnitude within their games’ worlds or how abruptly they sideswiped the player.  This doesn’t change their impact. Heck, I have one of those moments tattooed on my leg it had such relevance to me.

What people don’t always actively take into account is that there are so many smaller beats that meant a lot to gamers for a wide variety of reasons.  Video games are established to illicit some kind of emotion or reaction from those participating in what they have to offer. Even through the memories of Final Fantasy VII and Chrono Trigger ripping at my heartstrings, I started to reflect on moments that stood out to me that may not stand out to the community at large and why they still remained so prominent in my retrospective eye.

So feel free to check out some of my personal remembrances of times past!  They may not be industry shattering, but they are definitely a glimpse into my gamer inner workings.
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Turn Away from The Darkness – Playstation Portable – ObsCure: The Aftermath – 2009

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ObsCure: The Aftermath
Playstation Portable
Hydravision Entertainment/Ignition Entertainment
2009
Genre: Survival Horror

There are certain things that a horror movie needs to be effective, especially in the slasher genre.  First, there needs to be a discernible villain or danger; something that will strike fear into the viewer when it appears or is referenced by the characters.  Having a group of characters who are, for the most part, relatable and likable helps you want to root for the ‘heroes’ to survive and triumph over their circumstances.  Atmosphere is another element that cannot be underestimated, whether it is terrifying because of a lack of familiarity or because it is a familiar setting that has been invaded.

Cobbling together a survival horror game is the same way.  In 2005, Hydravision Entertainment released a game by the name of ObsCure, which was heavily influenced by 1990s horror films like The Faculty.  It introduced co-op horror in an effective way and made for a fun experience (which you can read my review of here, if you like).  Like any decent horror movie, it left the door open for the potential sequel, even if just a crack.  In 2008, ObsCure: The Aftermath hit the shelves for the Playstation 2, Wii, and Windows.  The next year, it hit the Playstation Portable, and in just the past few years, it arrived on Steam.

While ObsCure was a delightful horror romp with a few flaws here and there, did ObsCure: The Aftermath manage to capture the same magic that it’s progenitor created?  Let me save you the trouble:

No.  No it did not.

Plot Synopsis

The events that occurred at Leafmore High, the setting of the original ObsCure, are a fading memory to Kenny and Shannon Matthews, sibling survivors of the horrific incident that they endured alongside their friends, Stan, Ashley, and Josh.  Trying to move on with their lives, they now attend Fallcreek University while Stan, having had some trouble with the law, is now a delivery truck driver. For the most part, however, they appear to be moving on as well as they can, given the trauma induced in the original game.

Fallcreek’s students, however, have been experimenting with a new drug- a black flower that makes them hallucinate.  This flower has just recently started appearing in the local flora, and when his friends offer for him to try it, Corey Wilde has a nightmarish trip involving monsters attacking him and his girlfriend, Mei.  Waking up face down in a bathroom stall, he realizes it wasn’t real; just a side effect of a really strong trip.

That night, Kenny and the girl he’s interested in, Amy, attempt to break into a party they weren’t invited to, but as they break in through the window of the fraternity, screams ring out and a student rushes toward them, telling them that something awful has happened.  It isn’t long before Kenny, Amy, Corey, and a cast of old and new characters are wrapped up in another series of horrifying circumstances, threatening to end their lives unless they fight to survive.

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Just do it, Shannon.  Take the shot.

Mechanics

Much like the original ObsCure, you consistently control two characters as you attempt to make your way through the campus of Fallcreek University.  If you’re playing solo, you can switch between the two with the push of a button. Should you have a friend who wants to play with you, though, they can tag in and help out by controlling the second character.  The camera still fixates on the first player, however, so usefulness is limited on a number of occasions.

Every character still has a different special ability but this time around, they aren’t just fun quirks to differentiate the characters.  They are integral to move the story along and reach vital areas, which means you are forced 90 percent of the time to bring along particular characters to progress, limiting the freedom of choice offered up by the original game.  If you find a high ledge, you absolutely have to bring Corey, as he can jump, shimmy and swing himself between ledges and other perilous areas. Need a large barricade or crate moved? Kenny or hockey-playing Sven can help. Just expect that these actions will not only help you head into the next plot point, but it will also dictate your pairing for you.

A useful new feature is that after a certain point, your characters will be able to draw a substance from the remains of the creatures they defeat.  If enough of this substance is drawn, it becomes a curative, which acts like a first aid kit and heals a large amount of a character’s damage, which is helpfully notated on screen when you attempt to change weapons or items by a small portrait covered red in relativity to how hurt they are.  As this game can get a bit tough, every little bit of help is welcome.

The Good, The Bad, and…

I am going to start this by attempting to outline at least one good thing in this game.  I distinctly remember the multiplayer being a good time when I played through this on the Playstation 2.  Thankfully, the PSP port also offers the option to play multiplayer over WLAN, though I didn’t get the chance to check it out.  Hydravision knew that this was a feature that was a big draw for the original game, and bringing it back for the second was the best move they made going into a sequel, hands down.

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Do you like sex jokes?  Because you’ll hear plenty of them.

Aftermath also plays really smoothly and has a few tense moments brought on by sudden enemy appearances and some puzzles that require quick reflexes.  Of note, a sequence where your characters are fleeing a major enemy into an elevator. Once they enter, the player is faced with a fuse matching challenge to close the door before the adversary reaches them.  While the tense moments are few and far between- the game tends to try for ineffective jump scares or overwhelming monster presence over timed challenges or close call escapes- the ones that exist are the most memorable moments of the game.

With those merits out of the way, however, the game is an absolute mess regarding content.  The new characters are almost entirely unlikable stereotypes and the stilted dialogue only reinforces this every time they interact.  Amy is constantly called “blondie” to the point that even her boyfriend delivers the line “take care of my blond girl for me” when she splits off to help another character with a task.  Mei’s gaming is constantly referred to, as is Sven and his Norwegian descent (because, y’know, he constantly refers to Thor and his ancestors). The uneven voice acting does nothing to help this feel any less awkward with solid performances turned in by half of the cast and the other half of the cast offering some rough performances reminiscent of Resident Evil some years before.  Even the bios of the characters range from sparse to vile.  I’d be hard pressed to find a cast of characters I could care less about.

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Some of the environments are great- but the tension is rarely atmospheric.

The game also demolishes what made the original ObsCure so special.  In the original game, if a character met their end, the story continued on.  It felt like a horror movie, and while it was inconvenient to lose a teen, you could progress the story at amped up stakes.  In Aftermath, if a character is killed, it’s game over.  You need to start from the last save point- where are sparse, as well- so instead of risking two characters, you have two walking potential game overs (one of which you can’t even control).  The wonder of choosing your own party is gone, as the character talents are now necessary to proceed. Any established player choice that the character was allowed to exercise in the previous entry of the series is alluded to here but not delivered.

Want to know my other issues with the game?  While I’ll go into it further in the next paragraph, to spare any potential players spoilers- the plot.  The plot is nearly non-existent with very tenuous plot threads connecting it to the first game. While the original game took a strong influence from The Faculty, this game takes from a host of horror movies from the 1990s and early 2000s, along with classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  On the surface, the problem is that the game doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be- a monster movie, a slasher film, a teen thriller; unlike it’s older sibling, Aftermath does a terrible job of balancing the genres.  What it does do well, however, is with the actual horror scenes and character deaths.  At its core, the game knows it’s a gorefest.

Plot, and Therefore Spoilers

Let’s start with the connection between ObsCure and Aftermath.  First, the game appears to assume that Shannon, Kenny, and Stan were the only ones to make it out of Leafmore High.  There is not so much as a mention of awkward cameraman, Josh, or tough-as-nails cheerleader, Ashley. While I’ll go into this in a separate article, it is strongly rumored that the two of them were supposed to appear in a game bridging the events of the first and second game.  It’s still a little strange to not hear their friends mention them at all, though upon further research, it sounds like there is a video or some other item that explains their fate toward the end of Aftermath.  In any case, what has become of our survivors since then?  Well, the experiments from Freidman, the mastermind behind the Leafmore incident, have left them all affected in negative ways.  Stan seems to be the most ‘well-adjusted’, taking medications to ward off the effects of the experiments. Kenny is also taking medications, though he seems to be succumbing worse than the others, most likely due to his being abducted from the get-go of the original game.  Shannon is the most interesting of the three. Her body has adapted to the experiments, giving her the power to absorb the ‘darkness’ to remove it from a given area. This introduces a strange kind of supernatural tone to the universe already set up, but she does become the ‘main character’ by most accounts because of it.  Honestly, the three variations on how the experiments and the darkness are being handled is probably the most interesting part of the game.

What is happening at Fallcreek University then?  With the rise of this strange flower drug that has been taking over campus, one would assume that someone would have noticed things getting a little too strange sooner- and honestly, if the rumors are right, the game that was never developed filling in gaps between ObsCure and Aftermath would have at least explained some of the sudden misfortunes plaguing the campus.  As there is no confirmation in the lore as to how these happened, though, this section may have a lot of loose ends and strange assumptions.  I may have to ask you to bear with me.

Really, the game seems to revolve around a greater organization that Friedman was a part of that has been posing as a fraternity on campus and attempting to create an ‘offspring’ from someone infected.  It is revealed through a file in the game that the drug spreading across campus appears to heighten sexual activity in those who use it. Paired with the fact that one of the villains- a mutated Kenny who has lost control of his darkness- impregnates Amy (yes, it’s as vile and ill-handled as most of the plot of this game) and she is taken in by special agents toward the end of the game because of this.  Given that there has already been an offspring of this kind between Friedman and Elisabeth Wickson, the nurse from Leafmore in ObsCure, this almost seems more likely.  Given that their son appears to be a bit of a failed experiment, as he appears in the form of Jedidiah Friedman, a chainsaw wielding maniac who cultivates his father to help spread the flowers that are being ingested by the Fallcreek student body, this point seems to be strengthened.  A lot of what the game presents on who is truly interested in this phenomenon concerns lies in Richard James, the professor who helps the group and seems to know a bit more about the Mortifilia- the flowers that the plot circles around- than he lets on.

Sadly, not much of this is expounded upon.  The ‘fraternity’ seems to be much larger than it at first seems, and the ending leaves things open to the idea that the impregnated Amy, taken away on a helicopter by Richard to be researched, gave birth to some terrible creature through an explosion of black smoke.  It seems like Hydravision was setting up a lot to be explained later, and in the midst of doing so much- exploring the Mortifilia, the Friedmans, the effect of the drugs on the school (which all seem like they should be related, and yet feel completely disjointed)- they threw as many plot points as they could in without tying much up.  It all sound very interesting, but without a sequel, there’s very little payoff and as a result, the game feels like it is lacking in direction and plot in general.

Presentation

Visually, Aftermath feels like an early generation Playstation 2 entry.  Some of the cutscenes are well crafted, but the overall look of the game is a little shoddy, specifically in the supporting cast- and by supporting cast, I mean everyone but Shannon, Stan, and Corey.  The rest of the characters feel a little less sculpted in movement and model. The environments are well-crafted enough, though, and the game really seems to shine in its monster menagerie and the beginning and ending clips.  Other than that, the graphics aren’t anything to write home about.

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Honestly, I don’t get why these people even hang out with each other.

When it comes to the music and sound in the game, though, it is on point.  I’ve already said enough about the voice acting without being insulting- and I would like to imagine this has more to do with direction than the voice actors themselves.  The music ranges from the alt-rock that populated a number of horror films of the target time to gorgeous chorale arrangements. If I take one positive thing away from playing this game, it would be the soundtrack, hands down.

Conclusion

I absolutely adore the original ObsCure, to reiterate.  If ObsCure: The Aftermath had billed itself as a satire, it could be an amazing game.  Not only does it take itself too seriously, but it feels like it tries too hard for shock and effect, and it sacrifices too many of the fun elements of the first game.  There are a few quality points to the game, namely in its soundtrack and that it’s a quick and dirty horror game that took me a few hours to forge through.

Unfortunately, with an unlikable cast and a near indistinguishable plot aside from ‘survive unfortunate circumstances’, the game isn’t broken but it’s pretty low on the survival horror totem pole, especially compared to the previous game.  When I attempted to play this on Steam, it was also near impossible to control without some hard reworking of the mouse sensitivity and some other settings, though that may have just been me. I wanted to like this game. I really did. In the end, though, it just hit too many of the wrong notes for me to suggest it to fans of the original or any serious survival horror fan in good conscience.

A Paler Shade of Blue – Playstation 4 – Blue Reflection – 2017

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Blue Reflection

Playstation 4
Gust, Co Inc. / Koei Tecmo
Genre: Role-Playing
2017

As a fan of a few magical girl series- Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Yuki Yuna is a Hero, and of course, Sailor Moon, come to mind- I’ve come to appreciate a number of tropes that they rely on to propel themselves forward.  Frequently, you’ll see themes of friendship, self-empowerment, and drawing upon personal wellsprings of strength both physical and emotional to succeed. This has been a draw to them for me for some time and finding games that also rely on those themes usually means that they will be automatic successes for me.

Happening on Blue Reflection in a magazine review, it seemed to have all of the trappings that would bring me running: magical girls, modern day settings, and Gust (developers of the Atelier series, among others) at the helm.  After receiving the game in my latest Christmas haul, I finally got to sit down and play it.

Did it live up the hype I created for it?  Did the power of friendship win the day?

Find out on this episode of 3PStart!
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