Version tested: PlayStation 3
Given that she's apparently responsible for the prosperity of Arland for reasons too complex and frankly uninteresting to detail here junior alchemist Rorolina Frixell isn't particularly well treated by its residents. Within minutes of this game starting, her shop is threatened with closure unless she completes 12 assignments in a three-year period. Her lazy alchemy master, Astrid, is too busy making suggestive remarks to do any work and judging by her understudy's lack of knowledge, she's clearly failed to impart a great deal of wisdom during her calamitous tenure.
So time's a-ticking and our hero has to learn the ropes quickly, collecting items in the wild and throwing them into her cauldron all the while attempting to win over the villagers who ask her not to stand near them and complain when she's 24 hours late bringing them gold ingots while they mooch around the village square all day. The tone aims for whimsy, but there's a slightly nasty taste to the constant exploitation of Atelier Rorona's female lead. Throw in a talking fox, a rape and a depressingly bleak denouement and it'd be Lars von Trier's favourite game.
Rorona herself nicknamed after Scooby Doo's favourite Mexican lager is your typical JRPG heroine, which is to say that she's skimpily attired, saccharine-sweet and almost intolerably shrill. But she's also strong-willed and prepared to knuckle down to save her workshop, digging up cabbages for hours on end to provide dinner for the very royals trying to shut her down so they can build weapons factories. Her constantly chipper demeanour eventually wears you down; she's so determinedly good-natured in the face of adversity that she's impossible to dislike.
Her life is split between her workshop and the monster-infested environments outside of Arland. Dungeons in all but name, they're segmented into a number of different areas, each offering specific ingredients to harvest and creatures to kill.
Bushes, clumps of rocks and nests hide items though 'hide' really isn't the word as they're helpfully signposted with a big blue star which can then be combined in Rorona's cauldron back at base. Most enemies can be avoided, though some are too big or too fast to sidle past on the narrow pathways, while others block key exits and treasure chests and must be beaten before you get to the best or rarest items.
Combat is a very traditional turn-based affair with little invention to speak of. Aside from standard attacks, each party member up to a maximum of three can choose from a series of Skill moves which, in a rare moment of creative economy, deplete HP rather than an additional meter.
As Rorona is the only team member who can use items, she's often cast in the role of healer, especially as her allies particularly after the first couple of assignments are much more powerful. Kindly knight Sterk might charge an exorbitant fee for tagging along on Rorona's journeys outside the village walls, but he can take out lesser enemies with a single blow. Party members can periodically defend Rorona or add an additional attack to her own, while elemental abilities eventually come into play, but it's clear that this is not where the meat of the game lies.
That comes when you unload your basket at the end of a hard day's foraging and start the process of synthesis. Key items have recipes, which are either learned over time or from purchasing books from the village shops, and you need to find the right number of each ingredient type to start mixing. While it's a shame you can't experiment a little more, some of the recipes are flexible in that they let you use any item that falls in a particular category. Who'd have thought beehives would be a useful ingredient in building a bomb?
Not all items are equal, however, and it pays to check the quality of the goods you're adding to your basket, particularly given the finite space. With just 60 item slots, it's wise to be picky, although it's not always the highest quality ingredients that make the best recipes. Items have different traits, and learning which traits to blend to boost an item's stats is the key to getting a good evaluation on the assignment's due date.
That said, you can occasionally get away with carelessly bunging a bunch of items in the pot, and still achieve decent results. Twelve bad cabbages and several buckets of water from the local well produced a batch of cabbage soup apparently fit for a king. In a fleeting moment of self-indulgence, I saved my finest quality Normal Pie just for Rorona, who'd been slaving over a hot cauldron for several days making that little lot.
Another side-effect of the alchemy process is that you lose time and energy, two valuable commodities in the Atelier universe. Though the deadlines are fairly generous, to get the best assessment you'll need to do more than the bare minimum, so careful time management is required. With other characters offering additional requests and the need to factor in several days' worth of travel to the most distant foraging spots, it's surprisingly easy to miss deadlines, especially if you allow Rorona to take on too much at once.
If you're regularly late in delivering on your promises, then friendship and respect levels will diminish, and you'll be charged more and rewarded less by your peers. It's wise, therefore, to focus on satisfying just a few customers. Whether you choose to concentrate on making pies or forging weapons, it soon becomes obvious that excelling in one discipline restricts you from doing so in another. You simply don't have the time to see all the endings in one play-through.
There's something of Harvest Moon particularly the Rune Factory spin-offs with their monster-hunting in the simple pleasure of routine and the satisfaction of keeping so many plates spinning at once. Yet there's not quite the same sense of achievement at the end of your toil. By limiting the player's capacity for experimentation, the alchemy process is ultimately no more involving than following instructions in a recipe book.
After a while, it all starts to feel a little too much like hard work, and you'll start to cut corners, buying ingredients from the shops instead of synthesising your own. It's like making do with takeaway when you've got all the ingredients for a nice stew in the fridge: sometimes you just can't be bothered going to all that trouble.
Typically for a Nippon Ichi title, there's a pleasing vein of humour running through Atelier's dialogue which occasionally ventures into slightly risquι territory. Arland itself isn't quite the bustling, prosperous hamlet it's painted as, with static characters constantly spouting the same lines of dialogue, though a neat visual touch sees Rorona's workshop fill with different items the more recipes she learns. A number of the incidental story threads notably one where a group of older men turn up to fawn over the pretty, young owner of the sundries store are amusing in a gentle, Sunday-evening-TV kind of way.
Like labelmate Trinity Universe, Atelier Rorona is a hard game to dislike, but it ultimately feels a little too tied to JRPG convention for its ideas to bear fruit. It might be admirable for a game to promote such a diligent work ethic, but it never quite rewards you handsomely enough for your efforts.
6 / 10