As a newcomer to the Atelier series, I wasn't quite sure what to expect from the cheery art style, gorgeous pastels, and sunny disposition exhibited in the game's trailers. It surely resembled a rollicking good time, but coming in late to the end of the trilogy. I didnt' know if this would be a tale I could fully immerse myself in without eventually revisiting the previous two entries in the series.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the tale of the Princess of Arls was an accessible and wholly engrossing, one that, in a world of samey shooters and hackneyed dungeon crawlers, stood out to me as a shining beacon of sugary sweet core characters and a fantastically written script. In short, my first encounter with the Atelier series was an excellent one.
Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland (PlayStation 3)
Publisher: NIS America
Released May 29, 2012
Since I hadn't been around from the beginning to observe the mischief and magic, I was happy to read up on the back story to fill in a few blanks. Meruru, the Princess of Arls, is an aspiring young alchemist who wishes only to become great, just like her hero Totori, whom she respects and wishes to emulate. She devotes much of her time to learning the trade with Totori, and begins deserting her royal duties as future heir to the throne. Her father, the King of Arls, is fed up with this behavior and demands that Meruru give up her newfound hobby in order to start hitting the books and getting on track for her place as a member of the royal family. As you might imagine Meruru isn't pleased with this declaration, and calls her father a poopyhead. Such language!
As a result of Meruru's indignant outburst, she's given three years' time to prove to her father that alchemy is an art worth undertaking, and during that time she must convince her father that she can develop the Kingdom of Arls and aid the lands surrounding it in becoming prosperous.
And so a touching narrative surrounding Meruru's ambitious plan begins. Meruru's optimism is infectious, and though at times the game begins to drag due to the over-abundance of plot-driven dialogue, it's hard to feel negatively toward such a sprightly protagonist.
The game itself is split into multiple segments, most of which surround earning development points, materials for Meruru's alchemy projects, and taking steps to unlock hidden events. There's a good mix of exploration and combat (though combat is a little simple) but the real timesuck is undoubtedly the development of Arls as a powerhouse. Each area on Meruru's map has an assigned pool of tasks that may be completed in order to further progress during the three years allotted. Meruru's missions vary from cleaning out areas riddled with monsters, using certain items, or creating specific items via alchemy. Completing tasks nets you points that can subsequently be spent on developing Arls as you see fit. It's so easy to get lost in turning Arls into a vast expanse of gorgeous land, but it's prudent to be wary of how much time you're spending on these tasks as there are many hidden surprises and evetns to be discovered elsewhere within the game.
There's so much to see and do that it's easy to lose sight of your goal, but that's certainly not a bad thing. The sheer number of advancements you can make to improve the kingdom are intriguing in their own way, and it's exciting to see where you can take your fledgling country. The development process is quick and simple, and the changes that eventually result are quite gorgeous. The combat system is easy as well, and enjoyable even if many of your opponents seem too cute to do any real damage.
The game does occasionally suffer from "telling" instead of showing the player what's going on, and there is quite a bit of story to wade through even at first until you get to a point where you can make headway, but laugh-out-loud voiceovers with fantastic localization, characters you feel as though you can empathize with, and a cheery cause keep you coming back for more.
Atelier Meruru and the Apprentice of Arland is a fantastic entry to the series, and I'm quite sad to have started so late, that I'll have to go back and enjoy the previous games to really appreciate the atmosphere and the in-game universe. But if you decide to start here, you'll be rewarded as I was with breathtaking watercolor and pastel aesthetics, a pleasant soundtrack, and a story that'll leave you cheering in the end, even if only for how much Meruru has grown on you. Try Apprentice of Arland for a sweet time.
7 -- Good (7s are solid games that definitely have an audience. Might lack replay value, could be too short or there are some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.)
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