No game genre has suffered more from the generational jump than the Japanese RPG. At one time considered the pinnacle of interactive entertainment, the once lauded genre has failed to make a serious stake in the American market. Sure, Final Fantasy XIII sold a ton of copies, but not without a ton of controversy surrounding the choices Square Enix made. It's telling that the best JRPG in recent history is Persona 4, a PS2 game. I'm of the personal belief that unless Japanese companies learn from their American and European counterparts, their games will continue to stagnate.
Atelier Rorona is a prime example of a game that has passed its expiration date and has begun to reek. Follow me after the jump to find out why.
Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland (PlayStation 3)
Full disclosure: I did not finish Rorona, but I feel that I spent enough time suffering through it to write a review. I severely tried to finish this game, but after 60% completion and 30 hours of my life gone, enough was enough. I've also not played any of the other 11 Atelier games, so this is the rantings of a series newcomer. Take that as you will.
Atelier Rorona tells the tale of Rorolina Frixell, a young and naive alchemist's apprentice who finds herself running an alchemic lab in a vaguely medieval kingdom. Rorolina, Rorona for short, also finds out that her shop is set to shut down should she not meet the demands of the crown. Bummer. The shop's reputation is also at an all-time low in the village, so Rorona has her work cut out for her. Double bummer. The story takes place over three years as the player tries to fulfill the tests handed down by the kingdom, perform odd jobs around the village to boost her local repute and explore the nearby environments for alchemy materials.
The immediate problem with Rorona is the strict time limits placed on the player from the outset. You roughly have three months to complete every mission that the kingdom gives to you. While that seems like plenty of time to get things done, everything you do takes time. Traveling to areas to gather materials, performing the alchemy required, even recovering health eats away at what little time you have. If you head out of the village to the nearby forest, that takes a day. If you travel to a different area in said forest, that takes another day. Another section in the same forest? Eat away another two days. Want to come back to the village? Strike off another day. Do you have the recipe you need to make your required item? Guess what? Wait another two days and possibly have the recipe fail. Each time you leave the town expect to lose at least a week of game time, and that's only in the first area. Later areas require four or five days to reach, not counting moving within each area. Add to the fact that performing alchemy saps your HP and you'll be running around with your health in red for long stretches. The only ways to get your health back are traveling to and from town or actively spending time to rest. It is yet another strain on your precious time. The only thing that did not take up time or HP was creating armor and weapons. However, the item requirements were too high for me to ever be able to meet them.
This stranglehold on your time is made worse when you have the option to do some work on the side for the townsfolk. They'll ask you to either create various items, find alchemic materials or defeat particular creatures by a certain date while you're working on your main objectives. This isn't a problem at first, but after the first couple of main story missions the requests become aggravatingly specific, to the point where success relies on your luck finding specific materials to add to alchemy recipes. At some point, I had to make an decision to ignore all requests just to make past certain deadlines. It's a shame too, because I found the games premise quite interesting and I had the desire to make Rorona popular with the townsfolk. I just got tired of reloading saves when I couldn't find the necessary materials in time and went past my deadlines. A third of the way through the game an assistant is introduced who can either go out and gather low quality materials for you or attempt to make low level items. This does alleviate some aggravation, but not enough to make the game better.
As mentioned earlier, you have to go outside of town to collect the materials you need for your alchemic feats. You head out with Rorona and up to two additional party members. Unlike most other games, you have to pay these teammates each day they head out with you. This makes things quite difficult early on, since the only way you can make decent money is doing cheap side-quests for villagers...which require you to go out into the wild with party members. You can reduce the hiring costs by doing odd jobs for your party members, but it takes quite a few missions to lower the prices into a comfortable range.
Once you're able to afford to take a party out into the wilderness, you run headlong into the dullest combat this side of the 8-bit Final Fantasies. You see monsters scurrying around the field and combat starts when you crash into them. You can attempt a surprise attack by bashing them over the head with your ornate magical girl staff, but whether it works or not is seemingly up to luck. I clearly hit monsters first and they still went before me. Combat is your standard turn-based affair. You can attack, use a special, defend or run. The Specials are either stronger blows that hit multiple foes, elemental magic attacks or healing spells. Unfortunately, special attacks work off your HP, which leads to some aggravating decisions since Rorona needs her HP for alchemy. You can build up meters to allow your other team mates to either do a follow up attack after your turn or jump in front of a blow. Besides that little innovation, the combat feels like a massive waste of time and you feel little to no progression with your characters. When I stopped playing I started running into stronger enemies that finally started giving more money and experience, but by then I was over half done with the game and severely under-leveled. The fights would leave me low on HP and require I use the expensive healing items to continue.
I'll be the first to admit I've played some pretty crappy games in my time that were saved by either the music, graphics or story. If Rorona had were able to excel in any of these categories I might have tried to plow through the anemic combat and busted schedules. Unfortunately, Rorona disappoints yet again in both categories. The music is pretty atrocious, with town themes that sound like bargain basement muzak and combat music that's as thrilling as a lecture on the eating habits of marsupials. It was so bad that I turned the sound off and only turned it on when entering a new area or meeting a new character, just to see if things ever got better.
They didn't. The voices in both English and Japanese ranged from not very good to damn near intolerable. Rule of thumb here was the younger and more female a character was the more likely I was ready to toss my shoe at my central speaker. Mind you, this comes from a guy who used to have pedo bear as his icon. I'm used to cutesy young girls and even the beautiful character art couldn't get me to care one lick. Speaking of the beautiful character art, don't be fooled by screen shots. As beautiful as Rorona looked in static images it manages to fail in movement. The camera fails to present the colorful world in an appealing way, the nice looking character models are animated like they were straight out of an early to mid-life PSOne game and monsters are unoriginal and heavily pallet-swapped. The only time where I wasn't bothered by the lazy presentation was during the visual novel segments.
So I've gone on way too long for a game that had no respect for the player. The strict deadlines only impeded my enjoyment of the game. The inclusion of so many different methods of item fusion also made things artificially difficult and obtuse. While it may look pretty, it doesn't look good in action and listening to the dialogue and soundtrack for an extended period of time may lead to various objects being tossed about in annoyance. Avoid this game if you don't have the patience of a saint.
3 -- Poor (3s went wrong somewhere along the line. The original idea might have promise, but in practice the game has failed. Threatens to be interesting sometimes, but rarely.)
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