Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland is the latest in the long-running Atelier series, and the first of which to be released on the PlayStation 3. While its predecessor was released back in 2007, developer Gust and publisher NIS have kept the same action-crafting design – if that's not a real term, it is now – alive and well with the similar Mana Khemia series. Regardless of whether you are coming from Mana Khemia or Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm, you will be right at home in Arland.
If you aren't familiar with either series, both feature a similar system of tackling time-sensitive tasks by venturing out into the wilds with a party to gather ingredients which are later used to craft requested items. While the Mana Khemia series takes place in a school, using semesters and tests as a means of advancing the story, The Alchemist of Arland goes a slightly different route with you, as Rorona, having to complete tasks given by the crown. In Arland, the city is undergoing a change from a sleepy village to a bustling center of industry. Rorona's problems are twofold: not only does a minister within the king's council want to make room for more factories, but your master neglected her duties as head alchemist for so long that the townspeople no longer stop by. The only way to prevent the workshop from being shut down by the king or lack of funds is by faithfully carrying out assignments for both the crown and people.
That is easier said than done, of course. What's surprising about The Alchemist of Arland is how subtly difficult it is. Things only really began to click when I realized that the game isn't so much about fighting monsters or crafting, but about management. Everything costs something, be it money or, even more valuable, time. The crown gives out one assignment every three months for three years, making for 12 assignments in total. Within the castle is a front desk where the citizens can drop off tasks that they need help with, which can be anything from killing a certain amount of monsters to turning in a crafted item. But Rorona is only one person, and a young one at that, so to return with her gathered ingredients in one piece, she will need friends. These friends, save for her best friend the aristocratic Cory, charge for their services. But that's just the beginning of your troubles.
To get a better idea of how all of this can come crashing down on the unprepared, as happened to me, let me fully break down the trade-offs you will face. Ingredients and party members cost money, but ingredients can also be gathered in the outer areas of the kingdom and friends will lower their cost if you build up your friendship with them. Friendships are enhanced by you helping them with ingredients or crafting, which costs money, for which they repay you with a few points of approval. And until the eighth or so mission, the ingredients found in the wilds are inferior to those you can purchase, so you will have to spend extra to get the best assessment possible on crown missions. But even then, with money needed for ingredients and for help to get ingredients, it still isn't your biggest concern – time is.
Creating items for friends also takes time, which is time away from the crafting you need to do for the crown to keep your license and for the townsfolk to earn money. Reaching those outer areas of the kingdom also takes time, as does exploring their subareas. While it might take five days to get somewhere, its numerous subsections might take anywhere from one, three, or five days to travel to, and then that same number of days to get back to the beginning along with the five it took to get to the area to begin with. Bringing along friends – two, max – is crucial because Rorona cannot survive by herself. The main reason she cannot make it on her own is because health points and mana points are one in the same: she and the other characters use health to cast spells. Even if she's kitted out with some of her own creations – dynamite sticks, mini snowmen bombs, cannons – and health potions – salves, pies, soups – she simply won't have enough to face the hordes of five- to six-creature, bandit, and ghost parties that will dog her every step. Your hope is that you earn enough money through victory to afford your escorts, and that the ingredients you scoop up, graded between zero to a hundred and by various traits, were worth the time and expense.
Once back at the workshop, it's time to get to business. But wait, there's a hitch: crafting also requires strength. If you return too weak to craft effectively, you could botch the entire job and waste the ingredients. So now you must sleep, taking up precious time that could be spent filling the coffers, satisfying the crown, or building relationships. Oh, and you can also do jobs for the shop keepers, who in turn will become friendlier towards you and allow you to warehouse your items; that is, you can drop off a certain item for them to then mass produce. The items might be a little pricey at first, but I was saved more than a few times by a high-grade Supplement ready with no wait. The system gets even more daunting when factoring in the calendar system. Certain events, such as a visit by the young salesman Cole and various festivals, happen at set times of the year, which you are rarely informed of and can miss. You do receive help at one point, from an assistant who can retrieve items and synthesize some as well, though he (or she) starts at a lower rank. Even with the extra hand, you're still stretched for time and are always faced with several options, such as staying in to rest, working towards the king's tasks, building up your friendships, or going out and stocking up on ingredients.
It's not difficult to juggle everything at first, and I did fine for quite a while. My problem came when I found myself stuck trying to complete a task in an area eight days away when I had less than 25 to do it in. Unbeknownst to me, the 16-day roundtrip was exponentially increased by the extra six or so I had to spend just getting to a certain spot to find a particular ingredient. No matter what I did or how I did it, I never made it back in time to synthesize what I needed or turn in what was gathered. And what was the result, despite my string praised finishes? Failure. Immediate failure. Despite the game's cutesy graphics, which are quite nice with some fantastic 2D art and lively 3D cell-shaded models, it will not hesitate to kick you to the Game Over screen. What I had to do was load a previous save that happened to be a good two hours prior, due to my negligence and the game not auto saving, and try again. A funny thing happened as I replayed those two hours, though, and that's that I discovered I had missed out on quite a bit.
As I retraced my steps, I also took the opportunity to explore a bit more. Exploring more resulted in an entirely new, and fairly important, character being discovered. Such discoveries were common throughout my 14 hours – well, 16 if you count the two wasted – as I was given access to a new area just three days before the game ended. You might have noticed that the game is quite short, and it is, but that's because its design encourages replaying. Replaying is actually required if you want to get the most out of the story, because going through it just once will undoubtedly leave a lot of questions unanswered. Building up relationships with your friends is crucial because not giving them enough attention can cause them to turn a cold shoulder or even leave town, leaving plotlines unresolved. Your first playthrough is so confused with deadlines, demands, and trying to make heads or tails of all the ingredients, recipes, and areas that it's easy to neglect one (or several) parties and find several of the plotlines will be unresolved by game's end.
On the one hand, having a short role-playing game with several layered elements is pretty cool – especially since subsequent playthroughs come with the benefit of hindsight. But on the other hand, it does leave for a somewhat wanting initial run. Despite my best efforts, several important plotlines simply fell by the wayside. Plus, it's just odd to have characters and stories pop in and out for a few hours only to vanish, as if they were never there to begin with.
The design is also one that goes for a lot of little rather than a little of a lot. Instead of having a robust combat or crafting system, The Alchemist of Arland's are very lightweight. The pattern-based attacks of Enchanted Arms and boost gauges of Final Fantasy are far beyond the rudimentary fighting system here, with the most advanced feature being the ability to have one of the two teammates take a hit for or attack with Rorona. Crafting has also taken a step back from the Mana Khemia series as the element-adding mini game is gone, replaced with you simply selecting the items to add, viewing your chance of success, and then choosing to go ahead or back out. When considering that there is so much going on and that a limit is needed to make subsequent playthroughs viable for more players, then that makes sense; however, that's not much consolation for those who get their fill of it the first time around.
Crafting does bring up one of my pet peeves with the game, and that's how items are handled. Rorona has a basket that can hold up to 60 items and a container in the workshop that can hold 999 items. The problem is that there is no way to group-select items, and the few grouping options available are applied inconsistently. Say you want to use a Supplement, if you need to pick 20 of them out of the container to move to the basket or vice versa, then you will need to go through the motions of selecting all 20. There are times when items can be grouped by type, name, quality, etc., but this isn't available every time the basket is in use, though it should be, and even then that just saves a little time as you still have to manually select every single ingredient. Items being both graded and having traits is one reason why grouping might have proven to be difficult, but Gust has been down this road more than enough times to offer something more useful.
Much of what makes the game unique is also what will turn some people away, and that being the unknowns. In most games, all you really need to do is hit a few major characters and locations to get the lion's share of story. Not so here, where skimming out on one character or event can lead to some pretty interesting and important elements being left out. It's the fact that they actually matter is what makes the game at once exhilarating and exhausting – you'll never know what's next or what you missed. A good bit of complexity has been sacrificed in the name of expediency, however, which makes the first playthrough enjoyable but not exactly memorable. It isn't that the game doesn't have its moments as the graphics and music are charming, the dubbed voice overs range from solid to silly while there's a Japanese option for the purists, and there are some pretty funny moments amongst the rushing back and forth, but it needs more resolution to be a substantial single experience. Well, the hopeless protagonist shtick does wear thin at points and some slightly creepy comments could've been left out, but other than that, the story and presentation is all in the typical whimsical NIS style. For as cheery as it is, the heavy reliance on replaying will be surprising to many as it places an artificial limit on a world that seems eager to entertain.
A brisk and light-hearted action-crafting role-playing game, Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland eschews complexity for brevity as it turns away from the traditional one-playthrough model by offering a short adventure to replay instead of a single epic quest. However, what will entice some to keep going after receiving one of the three endings will cause others to shrug and put it away, and that is the sacrifice of involved combat, crafting, and character interaction for a focused approach making the required multiple plays to get the full story more palatable. With its focus on time management, the game is at once simple yet hectic, which will hook some and leave others bewildered and wanting. The initial playthrough is enjoyable, but only the most persistent will get to partake in all that The Alchemist of Arland has to offer.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)