Japan has no shortage of long-running, well-regarded RPG series. Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest and Persona, to name a few, have been ongoing for decades. But one franchise that is noticeably less prominent, at least outside of Japan, is Koei Tecmo’s Atelier series. Starting with Atelier Marie in 1997, the series has eschewed typical RPG tropes in favour of a focus on item crafting and time management. Now, the first trilogy from the franchise’s PS3 era has made its way to PS4, but how well does it hold up?
First, let’s look at what’s included in the Atelier Arland Deluxe Pack. The full trilogy is here – Atelier Rorona, Atelier Totori
The first game in the trilogy, Atelier Rorona, tells the story of Rorona, a young citizen of the kingdom of Arland. Thrust into the role of trainee alchemist by her negligent teacher, she must complete a series of tasks for the monarchy over a period of three years, or else her alchemical workshop will be shut down. The bulk of the game takes place in Arland itself, where you’ll tackle your missions and forge new items and equipment for yourself, and several landmark locations around the town itself, each of which is broken down into smaller zones to explore.
Set several years after the first game, Atelier Totori features a new protagonist and a looser plot. Hoping to follow in the footsteps of her missing mother, Totori travels to Arland from her coastal village to become a registered adventurer. Although the terminology is different, Totori is also an alchemist, and you’ll be doing much the same as you did in Rorona. The story here is more vague and open-ended, and the world map is closer to that of a traditional JRPG, allowing for a greater sense of freedom and adventure compared to Atelier Rorona.
Following another time-skip, Atelier Meruru is the culmination of the series, following the young princess-turned-alchemist of a kingdom adjacent to Arland as she seeks to improve her nation’s standing. Story-wise, it can be a little vague outside of the save-the-kingdom threads, instead, feeling more like a slice-of-life story about the game’s characters, many of them having returned from the first two installments. As the final game in the trilogy, it does a competent job of bringing together stories and characters from three different installments.
Although each game can be very different to the others in the trilogy, they all revolve primarily around the alchemy system. Base ingredients, whether purchased from shops or gathered from field maps, are combined together to create something new. Each item has a required level to make it; you can attempt a synthesis at any time providing you have the recipe, but a large difference between the required level and your own alchemy level can lead to an explosive result, wasting days and items.
When creating items for story missions or requests from the townspeople, it’s tempting and usually viable to just throw together whatever works, paying little attention to the quality of the final result or the traits attached to it. It’s when you attempt to make items, especially equipment, for yourself that the alchemy system really shines. Each item you include in a synthesis can carry particular traits, such as a boost to a character’s attack stat, and it’s only through rigorous experimentation with these randomised qualities that you can make the game’s best equipment. There are dozens of these traits, including stat boosts, elemental effects and status ailments. If you really get into it, the potential is mind-boggling, and over the years I’ve made a few equipment sets that essentially make you immortal. It’s great fun, and the systems themselves are very clever in their design and implementation.
The story in each game tends to be fairly lighthearted and occasionally vague; most exposition is triggered through event scenes, triggered once you’ve reached a certain date and/or place, and character scenes, unlocked by raising your friendship with a particular character to a certain level. Aside from the main story, each game’s assembly of party members has their own backstory to learn, which can range from comedic to emotional. Some endings and events can be obscure and difficult to unlock, but for the most part, each storyline or character arc provides substantial clues as to how to find out what happens next.
In general, however, Atelier games never follow the same path as a typical save-the-world RPG. These are stories built mostly on humor and personal development, focusing instead on interpersonal relationships often built upon a variety of video game and anime tropes. This is especially true of Atelier Rorona, though the plots of Totori and, to a lesser extent, Meruru do get a little more grand and epic-feeling towards the end. For the most part, though, these aren’t the games to play if you’re looking for a globetrotting RPG adventure.
In every game, the party members themselves can be a bit of a mixed bag. Some will have recurring roles in your team throughout the series, whereas a small few are one-off characters, never to return. Fortunately, it tends to be the least interesting of the lot who only stick around for one game. Nevertheless, every character is well-written and easy to like, especially if you follow their personal stories. No matter the game, I found myself warming to the characters I’d sidelined once I decided to unlock some of their events. Some are better developed and more interesting than others, but each installment in the trilogy does a good job of providing likable characters for every player’s tastes.
As much as I’ve always loved the art style, these games weren’t particularly impressive to look at even when they debuted on the PS3 – Rorona especially. Fortunately, whilst the Plus versions of its sequels merely added new content, Atelier Rorona received an entire revamp in its design, bringing it more in-line with the level of detail seen in Atelier Meruru. Even so, environments are still fairly basic in their design, even by PS3 standards. It wouldn’t be fair to say they’ve aged badly – character artwork especially is gorgeous and tremendously detailed – but bringing these games to PS4, Switch and PC has only further emphasised the plainness of certain locales and map areas. Character animations are stiff and wooden, in cutscenes especially, and before the visual novel-style dialogue kicks in characters will often stare towards the screen with zero expression on the faces whatsoever.
Aside from certain inadequacies of the graphics, the Atelier series has always presented itself well, and even now the Arland trilogy is no exception. Music tracks range from upbeat, perky battle tracks to impressively melancholic arrangements. Atelier Meruru, in particular, deserves a mention for its soundtrack. There are some exquisitely scene-setting rock tracks later in the game, usually for big boss battles, that put some AAA game scores to shame. True to its anime stylings, the trilogy also utilizes J-Pop tracks for its opening and ending themes; your mileage with these may vary, but Rorona’s credits music is still stuck in my head some seven years after I first played it.
My biggest complaint with the Arland games, a glaring issue that was thankfully remedied somewhat in later Atelier titles, is the fanservice. Many of the female characters are in their mid-teens, but the games frequently portray them as sexy or have older characters make lewd or inappropriate comments towards them. Each game allows you to unlock new costumes for certain party members, and the vast majority of these are always swimsuits or lingerie-style accessories. The most unsettling example of this by far is in Atelier Totori where, upon accessing the costume menu for the first time, you’re greeted by detailed artwork of a sleepy-looking Totori, a 14-year-old girl, in a sexy pose and wearing nothing but a half-unbuttoned nightshirt. It’s gross, repulsive, and truly spoils what is otherwise a carefree and fun series of games. Coupled with crass gags like changing a character’s name from Esty Airhart to Esty Dee in the English version (“STD”, or Sexually Transmitted Disease), and it really does leave a foul impression.
As far as ports go, these so-called Deluxe versions of the Arland games are essentially the Vita’s Plus versions at a higher resolution. Little else has changed. Due to Rorona being partially remade to match Meruru, the second game in the series is by far the worst, lacking all the quality-of-life improvements made to the other games. The noticeable frame rate issues from Totori Plus are gone, thankfully, but there are now several instances of character artwork and event stills looking stretched and blurry, almost as if the Vita version’s images were crudely enlarged to fit a PS4 resolution. These are massive games, and it’s entirely likely I’ve missed something during my time with them, but they appear largely unchanged from the Vita ports. This is a shame, really, as Totori could have really done with some Meruru-style improvements to make this package worthy of the “Deluxe” branding.
The Atelier series is perhaps the most niche franchise I’ve ever seen, putting players in the role of adventurers whose main job is to gather materials and turn them into bigger, better items. Combat is plentiful, but randomized a secondary