Turning lead into gold is so passÃ©â€¦ but ya gotta admit: the concept behind alchemy is mighty attractive. When it comes to JRPGs, developers tend to take the dictionary definition and run with it as a catch-all explanation of the mystical, magical or miraculous. Need a power accessory to go with that new outfit? No problem. How about a sumptuous three course meal, fit for a king? Easy peasy; just toss a few strange ingredients in the pot and you can transform it into pretty much anything. Sounds like a recipe for fun, and it isâ€¦ but can you base an entire game on a medieval protoscience?
Apparently so; Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland is the latest in a long line of Atelier games, less than half of which have been released outside Japan. The Atelier Iris titles for PS2 are probably the best known of these, while Atelier Rorona is the first foray into PS3 territory. The setting is the small kingdom of Arland, where our heroine Rorona resides. Indentured to an apathetic master alchemist â€“ who seems to take delight in tormenting her student. Our gal inherits the alchemy workshop and must complete a number of assignments to save it from closure. Each assignment requires specific items to be manufactured (synthesised) and delivered within a certain time frame. Like our national pastime, itâ€™s a game of two halves, involving the collection of ingredients from the surrounding countryside â€“ often taken from the still-warm corpses of monsters; and the creation of items in your giant cauldron.
Unfortunately youâ€™re not at liberty to explore the map at your leisure, since there are deadlines to meet (and we all know that feeling, donâ€™t we?). Initially these take up a large chunk of your precious time, but as you gain proficiency in gathering and synthesising thereâ€™ll be more time on your hands to go adventuring. Later in the game youâ€™ll get an assistant to take on some of the menial duties, so if exploration is high on your list of priorities itâ€™s worth plugging away until you reach that point.
JRPGs are traditionally populated by anime stereotypes, and this one is no exception. We have heroes and rogues, a childhood companion, plus a couple of oddball characters thrown in for comic relief. The blokes generally have archaic views when it comes to women â€“ you canâ€™t really label it chivalrous behaviour. The ladies donâ€™t do themselves any favours either, being under attired and over endowed, with girlish voices and bouncyâ€¦ ah, personalities. The young heroine has self esteem issues and a tendency to become tongue tied. Apparently this is an endearing quality, because she often finds herself the object of affection on several fronts. Itâ€™s all bound together by a convoluted plot, which plays out like a graphic novel at frequent points throughout the game. Depending on your decisions it will culminate in one of several possible endings, but the intensity never peaks beyond a gentle simmer. If itâ€™s a â€˜save the worldâ€™ saga of epic proportions youâ€™re after, youâ€™ll have to seek it elsewhere.
The game is packed with quirky humour, which is evident in the dialogue, the toe-tapping background music and the comedy combat sound effects - such as the whoopee cushion noise which accompanies a killing blow. Even the character names are amusing; a prime example of this is the â€˜gizza jobâ€™ lady with the unfortunate moniker of Esty Dee (which may or may not have been intentional... let's give 'em the benefit of the doubt, shall we?). It doesnâ€™t take itself too seriously, and neither should you. The plot is unnecessarily laced with sexual undertones, though, which makes it unsuitable for the younger player. A pity, since a few simple dialogue tweaks wouldâ€™ve solved that issue, without compromising anything.
Controls take a little getting used to, but once youâ€™ve learned how to navigate the various menus itâ€™s fairly straightforward. There are no camera angles to manage and very little â€˜real timeâ€™ action. Hack â€˜nâ€™ slash junkies beware: as RPGs go this is pretty chilled out. There are monsters to fight; however combat is turn-based, and for the first half of the game you wonâ€™t encounter anything you canâ€™t spank within three to four rounds. The monster selection is fairly limited, too; often the only visible difference between a bog standard beastie and a tougher one is its colour. In addition to their standard attacks, other party members can also step in occasionally to assist the hapless Rorona, either taking a bullet for her or getting in a sneaky bonus attack. These assists are a nice touch, and can expedite victory. Levelling up occurs frequently - both as an adventurer and an alchemist - and the only decision you are required to make is where to assign skill points. Everything else is done automatically.
Once youâ€™ve filled your basket with weird and wonderful goodies, itâ€™s time to head back to the workshop and create all manner of marvellous stuff. Synthesised items become imbued with the properties of base ingredients, and are often used as ingredients themselves in more complex recipes. As well as dealing with the big assignments, youâ€™ll be filling orders for the citizens of Arland, so time management and multitasking skills are a real asset. And if thatâ€™s not enough to raise your blood pressure, further challenge is introduced in the form of tighter quality, quantity and delivery time requirements. Itâ€™s an extremely repetitive process, and wonâ€™t be to everyoneâ€™s liking. By the same token, synthesising a new item â€“ particularly a difficult one, provides a real sense of achievement.
At your discretion, spoken dialogue can be delivered in English or Japanese, although the latter has more content and character. Combat one-liners quickly become irritating no matter which language you choose; mercifully there is an option to do away with speech altogether. The 3D cel-shaded graphics are quite striking, with clean, simple lines, and semi-realistic backgrounds. Stills are used extensively to progress the plot, with each image recycled to convey several emotions (not always successfully).
In summary, there are many, many hours of playing time to be had in Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland; however repetitious game play and time constraints make it an acquired taste, best suited to fans of the series.