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!
Atelier Rorona – The Alchemist of Arland (Playstation 3, 2010)
As the first Atelier game produced for the Playstation 3, Atelier Rorona is the eleventh entry in the series and the fifth entry in the series to reach US shores. While the series had sat under the radar on other systems, Rorona was the first game to really publicize itself, offering up a limited edition upon release. In a mix of watercolor pastels and sharp anime visuals in the screenshots, NIS America and Gust seemed ready to promote the series on these shores.
Atelier Rorona opens in the kingdom of Arland, a prosperous land that bustles with industry and commerce. This, at one time, involved an atelier that helped provide a foundation for their prosperity. Unfortunately, over time, the alchemists who ran the atelier grew to have a negative reputation, failing to help the kingdom and alienating the citizens.
Enter Rorolina Frixell (Rorona, for short), a young woman who is forced to apprentice at the atelier under the current alchemist due to a debt her parents incurred. While she has been trying to learn under the lethargic and questionable Astrid, her teaching has been limited by resources and positive interaction with her teacher. When a knight of the Arland arrives at the atelier to inform them that they have three years to prove their place in the kingdom, otherwise they will be shut down. Not only does this mean the only alchemists in the world will be out of work, but Rorona will also have to uproot and leave with Astrid due to the ongoing debt. Determined to keep the atelier afloat and stay in her home, Rorona sets out to pass the tests set up by the kingdom to prove alchemy’s worth.
This game sees the player controlling Rorona and her party as they travel the land to seek out ingredients for her alchemy. While outside of town, you travel between locations on the world map, which opens as the story progresses. Once you choose an area, usually based on what materials you need, you can choose an area within to narrow your search down further. Once in these areas, you can engage in search designated areas to pick up materials, as well as engage in combat (which can also present other materials like meat and claws). This is where your limitations begin to come into play, however.
Everything involves time management in Rorona and a number of the Atelier entries. Throughout the game, you are given deadlines for your tests, as well as money-earning side-quests and other less plot intensive aspects. Gathering items, however, takes a certain amount of time. Combat also takes a designated amount of time. Synthesizing takes, at a minimum, a day, as well. Time limits rarely feel too oppressive, so long as the assignments are handled with top priority. Instructions are always clear- make large amounts of ‘x’ item or item type by ‘y’ time- so getting on track to fulfill your assignments isn’t difficult. As expected, if you fail to fulfill your assignment at any given deadline, the atelier is shut down and you have to reload or start again.
As you travel the continent, you gather friends- well, companions might be more apt. Aside from Rorona’s best friend, Cordelia, you must pay members of your party to journey with you each time you leave town. The fees tend to stay within reason, but it does become a factor in your finances. These can be mitigated, however, by doing optional quests for them involving items you can harvest or synthesize. The more you do for a party member, the less it costs for them to travel with you. Each character also has a story arc of their own. If you bring them out with you and perform tasks for them, you will be able to progress in those stories, as well. None of them are particularly groundbreaking, but they can be amusing.
As each Atelier game appears to play with a different “theme”, Rorona’s main concept seems to revolve around ‘redemption’ and ‘reputation’. Throughout the game, you have a reputation meter that fills as you do requests (and drops as you neglect them). As Rorona walks around town and talks with people, they slowly evolve from flat our berating and dismissal due to the reputation her master has in Arland to a regular conversation and the occasional pat on the back. As the story continues on, even Astrid, whose reputation you are trying to crawl out from under, begins to change her tone regarding your work, despite her questionable manner and outlook. Ultimately, despite constant uphill struggles and a distinct lack of support from most people she isn’t paying to help her, Rorona works hard to help her kingdom and to bring honor to alchemy through sheer determination and passion. As a result, she kind of ends up with what we’ve affectionately referred to as “Meg Griffin” syndrome, where she seems to be beat up on and picked on throughout the game but she works hard to overcome all of it.
One thing to note about Atelier Rorona before going forth with it is that it enforces the usual anime tropes that one would expect to find if they’ve played anything from the series or the companies involved. The game did get an 18+ rating in Australia, however, as there are some strong allusions of inappropriate behavior directed toward Rorona from her teacher, Astrid. Admittedly, there are some comments about wayward behaviors while she is sleeping, for example, and other business that is definitely inappropriate so it’s something to keep in mind if you’re sensitive to these matters. It’s never illustrated or given anything more than an isolated mention for those who may be worried or wondering.
Overall, Atelier Rorona is a decent introduction to the series, though the paces that it puts the players through in tone and mechanics are rigorous and can be a little tiring. It works to make the player feel anxiety at meeting deadlines but does well at offering small victories throughout. The world still feels pretty small, despite all of the expansion that occurs during the game both plot-wise and location-wise. While feeling limited, Atelier Rorona is a decent entry into the next generation of systems, if you can wrap your head around all of the mechanics that it presents.
Atelier Totori – The Adventurer of Arland (Playstation 3, 2011)
Taking place eight years after the events of the last game, Atelier Totori picks up in the village of Alanya, a coastal village that is part of Arland’s territory. People have started to explore and work to expand Arland’s influence and resources, which the kingdom has mitigated by starting issuing “Adventurer’s Licenses”. Those who wish to explore certain areas of the world must prove themselves as Adventurers. This has aided in the growth of Arland and brought about great discoveries since the boom of fortune the kingdom has received from a certain alchemist’s work.
Enter Totooria “Totori” Helmold, a young woman who, after a chance encounter with Rorolina Frixell, took up as her apprentice and learned the basics of alchemy. Living with her sister, Cecilia, and her father, she has lived with her mother, Gisela, working as a premier Adventurer, only stopping home to visit between ventures. A few years before the game opens, however, Gisela went missing. Everyone in the village seems to feel like she isn’t coming back; such is the life of an Adventurer, after all. Totori, on the other hand, doesn’t believe this to be true. Along with her friend, Gino, and under the guidance of her sister’s friend and Adventurer, Melvia, she resolves to become an Adventurer to find out what happened to her mother definitively.
Mechanically, the game runs roughly the same as Rorona. Rather than having three years worth of tests, however, the game becomes a bit more open in that you just need to raise your Adventurer Rank within three years. By performing a number of feats outlined in a notebook you can access throughout the game, you earn points that will help you promote yourself through the ranks- defeating a certain number of enemies, turning in a certain number of requests, using certain items and so on. If you reach the designated rank before three years is up, the story continues on for a few more years.
While a number of cast members from Atelier Rorona return- Totori and company make frequent visits to Arland and Rorona’s old haunts- the crew in this game feels a bit more like a traditional party with common goals. This is partially due to how the story is set up and partially because the need to pay for their help has been eliminated. The world also feels much larger, as rather than picking from a list of areas within a particular location, you travel from node to node on the overworld.
Other changes of note are cosmetic. Rather than using the “chibi” style models in battle, Totori brings correctly proportioned characters and a graphical style that has persisted throughout future chapters of the Atelier series. Conceptually and presentationally, Totori established the styles that have been the basis for future entries.
If the theme of Rorona is “redemption”, Totori’s would be “loss”, depending on how you look at it. I’ve made no secret that this entry is my favorite of the trilogy, and the themes and Totori’s characterization contribute to that immensely. This game lays on the emotions thick, and it rarely delves into the melodramatic, at least in the core narrative. Loss- or more specifically “fear of loss”- is an overture of the game makes it much easier to connect with on an emotional level. Totori, as a character, also has a level of vulnerability that differs from Rorona. Where you feel sympathy for Rorona because she’s presented as hapless and a bit of a punching bag, you sympathize with Totori because she’s relatable, both as an audience surrogate and as a strong (and occasionally snarky) character wrapped up in uncertain circumstances.
All in all, Atelier Totori is a bit more open-ended in most aspects, but it does just the right amount of refining on the foundation that Atelier Rorona put into place.
Atelier Meruru – The Apprentice of Arland (Playstation 3, 2012)
Coming to the end of the Arland trilogy, we find ourselves in the nation of Arls, a small kingdom that is trying to become a part of the kingdom of Arland through a merger in three years. This is of little consequence to the kingdom’s Princess Merurulince Rede Arls, however, as she seems preoccupied with learning alchemy and doing anything but being a part of the kingdom’s politics. Visiting the local alchemist- one very familiar Totori Helmold- she takes lessons when she can get away from the castle.
After a particularly dangerous outing one day, she is forbidden by her father, King Dessier, to continue learning alchemy so that she can focus on her duties to the kingdom. Totori, however, offers to speak with the king on behalf of her ‘apprentice’, Meruru. The next day, the princess receives word through Rufus, the advisor to the king, that there is a way for her to practice her alchemy and help the kingdom through development. Eventually, her father gives her an ultimatum- help Arls by drawing in a population of 30,000 before the merger with Arland in three years time or give up on learning alchemy completely to devote herself to her duties as a princess.
Since we have the game, Atelier Meruru, it’s fairly obvious that she takes up the challenge in earnest.
Very little changes between Totori and Meruru in gameplay, but as with the transition between the first two games in this article, the trappings differ to fit the story. In this chapter, you still gain points by performing specific tasks to help certain areas of the kingdom- workers in a forest may need pies to feed them and keep them working while the farmlands you want to develop could use some fertilizer and other implements. As these deliveries are made, you earn Development Points that can be used in the kingdom for a few benefits. Not only will this help raise the population but it will garner benefits like new areas to explore, varied store selection and a number of boons for your party, on and off the field. You also receive a certain amount of population each month with more buildings developed, so it pays to develop what you can when you can.
Even more interesting, the developments you make actually form the land and change how the landscape looks and can be interacted with. One of your first stops is a ruined outpost that Arls needs operational to keep people safe. Upon your first visit, the outpost is a dilapidated pile of stones that resemble a structure, its former glory lost with only a couple of soldiers standing guard. Once you’ve donated the correct items, however, Meruru’s subsequent visit showcases a stalwart and secure edifice with a number of armored guards patrolling. You can now explore the outpost, finding some bombs and other materials that weren’t available mere days (in-game, of course) before. Each development area has the same condition: if you donate certain items, the landscape and offerings physically change which makes the world feel like it is constantly evolving despite the game’s available world feeling the smallest out of the three Arland offerings.
The theme at play in Atelier Meruru is “conviction” or, if you want to elaborate a bit, “following your dreams”. By far, Meruru is the most optimistic and energetic of the three Arland protagonists. This is reinforced not only through her interactions with the cast of the game but also through the music used throughout, ranging from a pop-rock opening theme to an amazing vocal battle arrangement the hearkens back to the magical girl genre of anime that much of the series derives its premises from. In comparison to the prior games, this is a more light-hearted piece overall. It’s hard not to like Meruru and what it has to offer, as watching the young princess rebel against preconceived expectations put upon her is engaging and inspiring, at least on a surface level.
Atelier Meruru does a strong job of tying up a lot of loose threads in the Arland series, which includes some strange plots that are introduced in its own compartment of the narrative.
The Arland Trilogy Conclusion
Overall, the Arland trilogy is a fun set of stories, though that’s exactly what it is- a group of stories with no real overarching plot to tie them together. The trilogy relies on the familiarity of characters from previous games to push together a cohesive tale so it may be best to think of them as an anthology of tales that tell about poignant moments in Arland’s history regarding alchemy.
The Arland series is a bit disjointed, but if you have an interest in the crafting system and the tone of the game, it is easy to find a favorite game out of the three and the three main characters are charming enough so that when they all wind up interacting, it becomes a moment that feels like a rewarding payoff, despite some strange plot devices to get from point A to B.
That’s all for the overview on the Arland trilogy, though I’m sure there’s plenty more to talk about! Stay tuned for the next entry of the overview!