Rorona to Ryza: An Atelier Retrospective Part 1: Atelier Rorona

Atelier Ryza 2 was just announced and is on track to be great given Gust’s track record with Atelier. As a franchise, Atelier has gone through an odd evolution. If one were to skip one title in the series and then play the release after that, the gameplay wouldn’t seem to have changed much at all. However, if you were to skip three games and then play the next release, the gameplay would be next to unrecognizable.

Atelier’s gameplay slowly evolves from installment to installment, with subtle changes every game to either the core gameplay or the structure. So why don’t we take a look at how this series has evolved? From Rorona to Ryza, the evolution of Atelier. Over the next few weeks I’ll look at how the series has changed from entry to entry, slowly becoming what Atelier Ryza is.

We’ll start by looking at Atelier Rorona, released in 2009 and Atelier’s first entry on Sony’s Playstation 3 console. Why Rorona and not as far back as Atelier Marie from 1997? Because, to put it simply, modern Atelier is Atelier Rorona. While some of the older games like Atelier Iris have their fans, most people who are into Atelier now either got into it with Rorona or a post-Rorona game, and Gust recognizes that. Almost every post-Rorona game is built off of Rorona’s structure. So looking at it first only makes sense. Plus calling this series of posts “Rorona to Ryza” is fun alliteration and I want to title it that.

Now, let’s dig into the core gameplay of Atelier Rorona. On the surface, it’s a typical turn-based JRPG, you’ll encounter monsters with a party of three characters, select attacks, use MP, etc. However there are two things separating Rorona’s battles from a typical JRPG. For one, Rorona, your protagonist, cannot be removed from the party and is awful in battle, she’ll die quickly and barely hurt enemies. Second, there is no equipment to be bought in shops or to be dropped from enemies, so within a few areas even your non-Rorona party members will die quickly.

The 3D models of Rorona look much more chibi than later games

So, how do you accomplish battles if the protagonist is near useless and the others don’t have good equipment? That’s where Atelier’s central gameplay mechanic comes into play: Alchemy. You get alchemy ingredients by gathering them in adventure areas, defeating enemies, and gathering them in the shop. Everything you would need in a regular JRPG (equipment, healing items, etc) must be synthesized by you, the player. Whereas in most JRPGs you stop in town to buy equipment and items before going off adventuring, here in Atelier Rorona you are adventuring for the purpose of making equipment and items. The central gameplay loop of Atelier is spending an amount of time adventuring, losing or running out of basket space for items, and then going back to town and spending a long time synthesizing. The simplicity of this gameplay loop is it’s strong point. Atelier is addicting and you can easily waste hours of time playing this relaxing game.

The game teaches you very little about the alchemy system beyond the basics, and thus a major theme of the game in both plot and gameplay is figuring out everything on your own. The importance that quality and traits can lend to equipment is extremely valuable, but what traits are worthwhile and how to get a high quality is up to the player to find out. The system is endlessly complicated, with even traits that only appear if you mix together other traits. While a casual player can make it through the game fine enough without knowing the true inner workings of the alchemy system, a player who has studied how it works in-depth can make items of unparalleled power.

Rorona about to perform Alchemy (Image Source: Koei Tecmo Europe)

I want to dive into Atelier Rorona’s equipment crafting in particular at this moment. In order to make weapons you first need to make different types of metal and then bring those metals to the blacksmith who will make a weapon with the quality and traits of your metals. Or at least, theoretically that’s what’s supposed to happen. In reality, the blacksmith’s weapon quality is random. Sometimes he’ll take your high quality metals and make a low quality weapon,an obvious frustration as it will either lead to dealing with bad equipment, needing to spend several in-game days making more metal, or abusing saves until he gets you good equipment. Even for a slow paced game like this, dealing with this random factor of equipment crafting drags the pace to a halt.

This gameplay loop isn’t the main goal of Atelier games, and each one has a different way of using this loop, but for the purposes of this article we will only focus on Atelier Rorona for now. Every 3 months you are given an assignment you must complete or else your Atelier will be shut down. These assignments always involve using alchemy to create something and report to Sterk, the knight in charge of overseeing your progress, who gives you the assignments. After 3 in game years the game will end, giving you your time limit to accomplish your alchemy tasks.

Atelier has another appeal outside of its main gameplay in that a large amount of the game is seeing the cast of the game interact with each other. The series has a slice of life anime vibe that is really pleasing to see. Each party member even has their own ending if you can complete all their events and increase their friendship enough. Obviously what I just said wouldn’t matter if the cast of each game wasn’t good enough for that to matter. Atelier Rorona’s cast in particular is pretty good, but not the series’ best. Characters like Lionela and Hom are fantastic with either great arcs or plenty of humorous moments, whereas others like Iksel are passable, but not extremely interesting.

Hom is my personal favorite among this cast of characters

Now let’s speak of some of Atelier Rorona’s flaws. For starters, there’s how the game handles bombs. In areas like the mines there will be rocks in the path that prevent entry, which you will need to use a strong enough bomb to break through. However, for the point in the game that these rocks are introduced, a casual player will not have a strong enough bomb to clear the obstacle, halting progress as you need to trial and error your way to get a bomb that’s strong enough.

Then there’s Atelier Rorona’s biggest flaw, which is that the game struggles to run a lot of the time. I have experienced more crashes with Atelier Rorona than with any other game on my PS3. Even something as basic as alchemy would freeze my game frequently. I made sure to ask others if they experienced the same issues and that there wasn’t a problem with my disc and the general consensus is that yes, the game freezes very often. If one were to go back to Atelier Rorona now, save often is my only advice.

Of course, now there is little reason to go back to the original PS3 version of Rorona. After all, Rorona Plus, a full remake of the game, exists on PS3, PS4, Vita, PC, and Switch. I’ll go into Rorona Plus in a later post in this retrospective (since this is supposed to be covering the games in release order) but there is next to no reason not to play it over original Rorona. However, the original Rorona’s legacy of being the series’ best selling title since Iris upon release and bringing Atelier to a new, albeit still niche fanbase is not to be understated

Atelier Rorona established the formula of modern Atelier, however,that formula has evolved into a completely different beast. Come back next week and we’ll look at the next game in Atelier’s history: Atelier Totori.

Thank you for reading my article, if you are interested in reading more from me check out my Battle For Bikini Bottom Rehydrated Review

Or if you would rather see a review I made on another niche Japanese property check out my Sakura Wars (2019) Review

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