By Laura . April 30, 2012 . 5:00pm
Merurulince Rede Arls is the princess of the tiny nation of Arls, a very small country with barely a thousand people. She loves alchemy to bits, but unfortunately, teaching her is somewhere near the bottom of the kingdom’s priority list. Luckily for her, though, one of the people invited to Arls to help develop the nation is master alchemist, Totori, and Meruru now spends her days sneaking out of the castle to take alchemy lessons from her. What she lacks in talent she makes up for in pure enthusiasm.
This brings her father, the King, and her caretaker and butler, Rufus, much exasperation, and eventually they reach a compromise. If she can use her alchemy for the good of the country (which she was planning on doing anyway) and can raise the population of the nation up to 30,000 by the third year, then she can continue on with her alchemy. Otherwise, then she will have to take up other studies and give up her dream to be an alchemist.
Helping her along the way is a slew of characters old and new to the Arland series. Returning characters include Sterkenberg, the stoic knight; Gino, Totori’s childhood friend; and, of course, Rorona and Totori. In fact, the number of returning characters completely dwarfs the number of new characters introduced in Atelier Meruru, so fans of the Arland series will be very happy. It’s very likely they’ll see their favorite character return.
Things start off slow-yet-hectic at first. There are so many things to do and so many things to make, and yet it seems like all of that has little impact on the population count. However, once the game gains momentum, the initial objective gets easier and easier and you can find yourself enjoying other aspects of the game without having to keep an eye on immigration.
This was a wonderful discovery for me because Atelier Meruru has the habit of making me feel like the White Rabbit. Look at the time! Look at the time! “There’s this quest, and then I have to collect those items, and forge that thing … Oh, and don’t forget to defeat that monster while I’m in the area! Oh no, more time’s passed! I have to remember to check the stores and buy the restocked items, and then there are the new quests to take care of!”
I don’t believe I’ve ever had so much fun micro-managing what, up close, seems like simply bite-sized, household chores. One after another, though, I found myself spending hours on this game without even noticing. (Ironic, because I’m so careful with time in the game.)
First things first. This is an Atelier game, so of course there’s alchemy. Step one, collect raw materials from maps, monsters, and stores. Once you have the right items, you can make any item you want, so long as Meruru’s learned the recipe. Alchemy is as easy as selecting what you want to make from a menu and clicking “Choose this” a few times. There are only two important factors to keep an eye on.
The first is MP. Meruru has quite a bit of MP, and synthesizing items doesn’t consume much, but once she runs out, the chances of her successfully creating something plummets. It’s always better to take a few days’ rest rather than gamble on her success. Resting is also the only way to recover your HP, since her HP stays low once you return to the kingdom.
The second is item traits and quality. Many recipes only specify what they want vaguely – “something liquid” or “something combustible.” However, different items have different properties, and of course, the rarer the better. If you’re only planning on giving the items away, then the traits serve little purpose. However, if you’re actually making bombs or healing salves that you’ll use during better, having a trait that will increase its effect or increase its number of uses can be extremely helpful. This is also especially important when making weapons and armor.
As you can see, there’s quite a bit to alchemy, despite how easy it is. The wonder of Atelier Meruru is that you can finish everything without paying attention to details of the game; however, if you do take the time to look at the traits and quality, then you can see another layer to the game.
Actually creating the item is the easy part, though. Before you do this, Meruru has to go adventure in the big world around her and find ingredients first. From the world map, you can choose to go to several places that are unlocked as you complete more quests. The areas are very small—and when I say small, I mean very, very small. I recall a few maps where Meruru could run across the entire field in 10 steps, if unhindered.
Each area has its own raw materials, so sometimes you may find yourself hopping from place to place to get something. In addition, battles are another way to collect raw materials. Enemies appear onscreen and it’s always up to you whether you want to fight them or avoid them. However, battles take up very little in-game time, so there’s no real penalty for choosing to fight.
Fights are turn-based, with turn order appearing on a bar to the right of the screen. Meruru can take up to two party members with her, and each person you can choose has their own specialties. For example, Meruru’s bodyguard, Lias, has area-damaging attacks (regular attacks, not skills) that are very handy for finishing a battle quickly. Gino has slightly lower attack, but the fact that he recovers some HP at the start of his turn automatically makes a hard character to take down.
There are so many characters in this game that seem extremely fun to play with, personality-wise and gameplay-wise. If only Meruru could call upon more than two of them at a time…
Interestingly, only the alchemist characters can use items; as such, they are simultaneously the big guns and the healers. Because of this, it is very important to protect them, especially Meruru, so the other characters can actually guard Meruru from enemy attacks. Party-damaging attack? No problem! Meruru will be protected from all harm by the other two characters. In addition, Meruru initiate combo attacks that hit for extra damage.
Both of these actions require a gauge that fills up as you inflict and cause damage, so some strategy is involved in battles. Overall, though, the fights are fun and, if it’s a boss battle, challenging. The game encourages you to fight on your own terms, too, since it provides you with a Flee command that almost always works.
Choosing your fights is especially important in a few areas of the game. I’ve said that most places are extremely small; however, there are some multi-screen dungeons that hark back to older RPGs. These places are enormous, crawling with powerful monsters, and filled with rare items; and at the end, there is almost always a boss waiting.
This isn’t to say you’re not rewarded for defeating every enemy you see, though. Oftentimes, Rufus will actually assign you a Development Quest (quests that move the “story” forward) that involves clearing out the area. Development Quests not only provide a boost in the population and open new areas to explore. They also give you Development Points, which you can then use to build facilities—the primary way to get people to come to your kingdom.
In addition to development quests, there are also optional quests you can accept at the Tavern. This is your primary income, since battling actually gets you little to no money. These quests invariably involve “get me this item” or “defeat X of this monster,” but usually the requirement is so simple you can find yourself racking up a few thousand within three minutes (real-world time). Completing quests also increases Meruru’s popularity, which increases the number of people who come in automatically every year just because they’ve heard about the wonderful, altruistic princess.
I’ve mentioned time again and again up to this point. I believe that time is one of the most important factors in Atelier Meruru. Everything takes up time – from synthesizing items to traveling on the world map to gathering items. About the only action that doesn’t is traveling within your own kingdom.
In a game that actually runs on a time limit (three years, initially), this can be rather daunting. This means that, unlike most games, you can’t go out and grind —or, the Atelier equivalent, run around collecting materials and synthesizing—to your heart’s content because time will pass. If too much time passes without Meruru actually accomplishing anything, her popularity drops. Before you know it, her time limit’s up and the game’s over.
All right, so it’s not quite that scary. As I eased into the game, the flow of time became more natural. At first, it was really hard for me to watch four days go by traveling to an area, another four exploring the area, and yet another four as I made my way back to the Kingdom. Later, as I accepted more quests, I managed them so that I can spend ten days traveling to one area, complete a whole slew of quests, and then make it back. The time restraint isn’t meant to be ‘restricting,’ but rather a means to make you be more efficient in your adventuring.
Everything in Atelier Meruru goes at your pace—the battles, the synthesis, even the progression of the story. In fact, I found the game amazing for its complete lack of structure. There are no real story points. Instead, as Meruru travels through her Kingdom from one area to the next, you’ll sometimes come across character development scenes between her and another character. Development Points are about as close to an actual “plot” as the game gets. Atelier Meruru certainly manages to achieve the perfect balance between freedom and efficiency. Perhaps this is another aspect of Meruru’s training as a princess?
Food for Thought:
1. The art is amazing. The style in Atelier Meruru is such that it seems like a manga came to life. The 3D doesn’t clash with the 2D-esque designs, and all of it is so sharp and clear. Occasionally, the game will also have a scene drawn out, visual novel style.
2. Every three months, Filly (from Atelier Totori) will post up a bulletin of Meruru’s progress. It’s actually very helpful since it tells you the Kingdom’s current population and Meruru’s popularity; however, its main attraction are its articles, which change depending on your actions. One time, when I was hunting Puni (a type of monster) for some raw material, an article came up proclaiming Meruru the bully of all Puni.
3. There are 10 different endings in the game. I’m not very clear about how to get them, but one thing’s for sure. This game’s not lacking replay value. Plus, Meruru’s charming and there’s so many interesting characters to play around with.
4. Who else returns from the other Arland series of games? From Rorona, there’s Rorona, Astrid and her two Homs, Sterkenberg, Gio, Esty, Hagel, and Pamela. From Totori, there’s Totori, Mimi, Gino, Filly, and Peter. Phew.
5. The game features an extremely heavy emphasis on the characters. Dialogue will change depending on who you take out of the kingdom with you. Sometimes, you’ll view small snippits of (voiced) dialogue between the characters while out journeying. As you walk from the Workshop to the Castle Gate, you may be stopped by another character for some conversation.