It’s been close to ten years since the Arland trilogy of Gust’s Atelier franchise concluded. Comprising Atelier Rorona, Atelier Totori, and Atelier Meruru, the games told loosely connected tales set within the medieval-esque kingdom-turned-republic of Arland. The series has moved on and evolved a great deal since then, producing two subsequent and unrelated trilogies, but now Atelier Lulua: The Scion of Arland is taking us back to visit those old and familiar friends and places.
The Atelier series rarely adheres to the tropes and archetypes you might expect from a JRPG. The usual end-of-the-world crises are present, with a few exceptions, but they’re mostly the backdrop against which a more personal, character-focused story is explored. The Dusk trilogy especially was about a dying landscape and a waning civilisation rising to struggle against the tide of inevitability, and it was a stark departure from the whimsical Arland trilogy that preceded it.
The Arland games, though, started off from mostly unremarkable beginnings: an alchemy workshop on the brink of closure, a young girl yearning for adventure and a backwater kingdom in danger of fading into obscurity. Atelier Lulua is much the same: its protagonist sets off on adventure almost entirely on a whim, her impetus simply that she wants to help her mother with something she could have easily done herself. Of course, things rarely remain simple for long.
Story-wise, Atelier Lulua flounders more than its predecessors. Whereas Rorona, Totori and Meruru all had clear goals of their own, Lulua herself tends to venture around aimlessly, often accomplishing tasks for no other reason than to be a better alchemist. The narrative starts off strongly, with Lulua encountering an inexplicably handy alchemy book that only she can read, but instances of major development and excitement can be few and far between. There’s also a local orphan girl who always seems to know things she shouldn’t, but no one ever questions it.
The aforementioned book of alchemy is the primary means by which the story progresses. Dubbed the “Alchemyriddle” by Lulua, deciphering its clues pushes the alchemist further along in her adventure. The book also contains lesser, optional challenges, which can be completed (or not) with no impact on the story. However, their rewards tend to include unlocking new abilities, recipes, and locations to visit, so they’re not quite as optional as the game makes them seem.
One way in which Atelier Lulua: The Scion of Arland does surpass the rest of its saga is in its roster of party members. Atelier games tend to feature a lot of recruitable characters, usually six or more, and there’s always a weak link or two. Atelier Lulua isn’t necessarily an exception in that regard, but it does have an excellent mixture of new and returning characters, the latter of which are some of the Arland trilogy’s most loved party members. The new characters all range from good to excellent; my favorite was Piana, who first debuted in Atelier Totori and is now an experienced alchemist herself.
There’s a lot of nostalgia at work here, and not just from seeing old characters some ten or more years on from the last game. The starting area of Arklys, a village built as a home for those who investigate the local ruins, is entirely new, but the majority of the map features locations from the original trilogy. As much as I love them, the Arland games aren’t the most graphically detailed, so it was a real treat to revisit all of these locations and see just how much better they looked.
It goes without saying that Atelier Lulua: The Scion of Arland looks a great deal more impressive than its predecessors, and the gulf between it and the other Arland games is vast. Gathering locations are no longer bland, uninteresting expanses with a few glowing item points scattered across them; from fields and lakes to mountains and caverns, everywhere is rich in detail and signs of life and history, for once giving a real sense of the vast nation that is Arland. As always, Gust have put together an incredible soundtrack for the game, with an impressive range of songs and instrumental background pieces.
That said, these are still Atelier games, which have always been fairly far from big budget titles. A lot of old quirks and issues still remain, even with all the other improvements to the visuals. Character designs, as always, are clearly the result of careful, detailed work, with the vibrant Arland style returning to give everyone, even secondary characters, a look that stands out. Even so, characters’ faces are still rigid, emotionless slates, with little detail or animation. Their wide-eyed, vacant stares are as off-putting in conversations and cutscenes as ever. The old trademark Atelier walking and running animations return, with characters somehow managing to move with both great rigidity and a bemusingly floaty gait at the same time.
One place the visuals really do shine, away from vacant stares and robotic walking, is in combat. Atelier Lulua: The Scion of Arland features a turn-based battle system with three characters forming your front-line team. You can also have another two in reserve, who can be switched with your main team mid-combat or remain in the back to execute handy assist attacks under certain conditions. There’s plenty of depth to the system, and I was always able to find many ways to tackle the threats in each area.
Certain characters have link abilities that trigger when they’re on the front row with specific teammates, and these can give you a clear advantage over your enemies. Additionally, while the Assist/Cover system from the old Arland games doesn’t make a return, your alchemists can use Interrupt attacks. The gauge for these charges as friends and foes alike take turns, and activating them allows the character to use whichever Interrupt item they have equipped, regardless of where they are in the turn order.
For the most part and typical of an Atelier game, fighting enemies is a fairly secondary pursuit. Your main reason for venturing into dangerous areas is to gather materials for synthesis. Of course, you can also get some of these from fallen foes, and strong opponents usually yield better goods. Either way, it’s this accumulation of resources that forms the backbone of the Atelier experience. Keeping yourself well-stocked is essential because the bulk of what you’ll be doing is synthesizing.
The synthesis system in Atelier Lulua: The Scion of Arland is impressively straightforward and accessible, especially compared to some of the less recent entries in the franchise. To their credit, the alchemy gameplay has always been incredibly well-designed, full of nuances, intricacy and potential to create some truly overpowered equipment for yourself. What always let this side of the gameplay down were the tutorials, and the same issue is present even now. Many things that should go without saying, or which could be explained with a few sentences, are instead discussed at great length, with hints and tips that are so verbose and oddly worded that they often just confuse the issue. Typos and an occasionally wonky localization don’t help matters.
For the most part, the tutorials can be ignored; you can always use them for reference later if you’ve forgotten something. Atelier games are better played in a learn-by-doing sort of way, and synthesizing has never been easier. The core functions are the same: alchemy items have requirements in the form of ingredients and levels, and more flexible parts of the ingredient list allow you to mix things up for different results. Juggling the quality of your ingredients and their traits, which can be applied to the finished product to improve or adjust its power and functionality, is an essential skill when it comes to making the best items.
If there was ever a problem with the alchemy gameplay in the older Atelier games, it was that it could often require things to be just so in order to get the right result. Atelier Lulua relaxes things a little, leaving all the necessary info and requirements out in the open, while also providing you with items and abilities to give the final product of a synthesis a push in just the right direction. Getting ingredients with the right traits and quality is still down to luck, but the process has lost the frustrating hurdles that marred it ten years ago.
Although the game features a time system, the old deadlines that guided the story of the Arland trilogy are long gone. Days still pass as you traverse the world map and toil away at your alchemy cauldron, but the date seems to affect little more than cycling through available delivery or hunting requests and triggering events with characters. In typical Atelier fashion, there are going to be times where you’ll have to sit through cutscene after cutscene with friends no matter where you go, but these seem fewer in number and more interesting than they were in the past.
Atelier games are curious experiences. Even the Dusk series, so focused on an environmental dystopia, was lighthearted and comical at times. Atelier Lulua: The Scion of Arland takes the effortless charm, as well as the focus on family and friends, that made the original trilogy so fun and runs wild with them. It stumbles at times, but as a whole this is the Atelier series at the very top of its game. Vibrant, compelling and boasting an alchemy system more addictive than ever, this is an incredible entry for the franchise and an excellent RPG in its own right.