The person that recommended the Atelier series to me made such good points that I bought the two PS3 trilogies on impulse before actually trying the games out. Looking back, it was a terrifying idea to own six games I could, just by playing one of them, find out I disliked. I’m glad, then, that Atelier Rorona proved to be such a fascinating experience.
Atelier is a series of turn-based RPGs that revolve around alchemy. In general, its protagonists are alchemists who are given some task to perform in a limited amount of in-game time, and it’s your job as the player to manage their use of that time so that they are successful.
This is a very long running series, dating back to the PS1, and since I started it in 2018, if I were to play every single game, well, it would likely take a decade for me to catch up. Fortunately, the series is split in trilogies, each of which begins a new story with a new setting and characters, so it’s pretty easy to jump into.
Atelier Rorona came out on the PS3 in 2009 and was the series’ first foray into full 3D, beginning a new trilogy that came to be called The Arland Trilogy. The game was later rereleased as Rorona Plus, which brings mechanical improvements and an expanded story to the original game, and Rorona DX, which is a remastered version of Plus for newer platforms and is the recommended version nowadays.
Atelier Rorona puts you in the role of Rorolina Frixell, or, how people usually call her, Rorona. Rorona is an apprentice at the alchemy workshop in the Kingdom of Arland, however, her days working there might be numbered: the palace has decided to shut down the workshop unless it can be proved, over the three years that follow, that its existence is beneficial to the kingdom. Her master having bailed out, Rorona takes up the challenge of meeting the palace’s demands, a task that will require the fledgling alchemist to rapidly improve her skills.
Already, you can see the game subverting some of the expectations you might have coming into an RPG. There is no huge central conflict here, at least not in the sense that you’d usually expect a JRPG to have. You know, ominous prophecies, a looming evil, a powerful villain threatening to destroy the planet… Instead, Rorona’s mission is one of self-improvement, fulfilling a rather bureaucratic ordeal to prove her capabilities as an alchemist. Stabbing people with swords, or walking into someone’s house armed to the teeth won’t help her achieve that.
It’s a narrative that's ultimately peaceful. There are no boss fights in the story and the antagonist, if you can call him that, is merely a bureaucrat who never confronts you directly. There isn’t even anything remotely like a final confrontation to wrap up the game: once the three years run their course, the story ends, and Rorona’s story gets a conclusion that corresponds to your performance over the course of the game.
The person who sold me on the Atelier series described it as “feminine”, and I think that’s sort of fitting. If there’s one thing I despise, it’s the male power fantasy that so often appears in Japanese media, where the protagonist, male, often unremarkable, becomes an extraordinary hero and gets rewarded with fame and one-dimensional women. It’s something I try my best to avoid when picking which games to play.
But Atelier doesn’t simply evade these tropes, it runs straight in the opposite direction. It’s protagonists are almost always female, there are no “chosen one” plots or heroes of legend, and its plots forgo the emphasis on fighting in favor of being about building something up, be that a business, a reputation, knowledge, relationships with other people…
Going back to Atelier Rorona, it’s only appropriate that, in a story that doesn’t need a hero, our protagonist is not hero material. Rorona is clumsy, shy, largely inexperienced and oblivious to many things that happen around her. Because of her nature, she gets into all sorts of unexpected (and hilarious) situations with people.
Befriending the supporting characters is part of the joy of playing the game. Each of them is quirky in their own way and has their own backstory to be uncovered, and it’s here that Rorona shines as a protagonist: she’s a gentle and caring soul that will do whatever is in her power to help others, someone who’s impossible not to like. It’s worth taking the time to get closer to everyone, in fact, the game’s multiple endings are affected not only by your performance as an alchemist, but also, the relationships you build.
Over the three years you play through, the game will have you fulfilling twelve requests by the kingdom, each of which has a deadline set approximately three months after starting it. In general, you’re tasked with providing the castle with a certain kind of item, either by crafting or by gathering. It sounds simple, maybe too easy, but the game has enough depth that those three years spent in Arland are sure to be hectic.
For starters, the time management is surprisingly severe. Every item you craft, as well as every gathering area you visit, takes at least one day of your time, and the further you go into the story, the higher the amount of days required. This forces you to make many saves and carefully plan your moves.
Then there’s the power creep, and how the game manages character growth and progression. Managing time is not simply about completing the palace’s demands, but also, keeping your equipment updated so you don’t fall behind the enemies you face while travelling. Note that I say “equipment”: while there are character levels in the game, they’re largely irrelevant compared to the power items net you, and even then, the game’s time requirements actively discourage grinding exp.
The dynamic that results from this design choice of focusing on items is very interesting: if you were to plot the difficulty over time of the average JRPG in a graph, it would probably look like an ascending slope. In Atelier Rorona, since new items are less frequent but provide significant boosts, the curve would look like a series of steps: you’re faced with a seemingly unsurmountable challenge and have to work your way into creating a new, powerful item, with which you proceed to steamroll everything until your arsenal becomes obsolete and you need to find something new to create.
I’ve never seen anything quite like this. Over and over again, the game gives you something that makes you completely overpowered, like nothing in the game will be able to stop you, and then follows it up with making you utterly miserable and helpless, forcing you back to the drawing board to find some new asset and restart the cycle.
While those hurdles are mostly found in combat, the crafting system itself isn’t free of twists, even if it remains more or less the same the whole game. Just look at your relationship with money in the game: at first, it is a scarce resource that allows you to buy materials from shops. Soon, those materials fall behind the ones you can gather, so your gold piles up. Then the wholesale mechanic becomes available, boom, you need lots of dosh again. Item traits become more relevant as they overpower items with raw quality, so money is useless again since it can’t buy traits, but then later you need piles of cash to create endgame weapons and armor… you get the idea.
The way such a simple game is constantly twisting and turning is insane, and I have to applaud the designers’ deviousness. As a player, though, I have to admit, the gameplay’s frantic pace does get frustrating sometimes. I actually felt like dropping the game when I got stuck at one point, and even though I eventually figured it out, it took looking at tons of guides online.
Looking at the game as a whole, I’m certain it could do with being more generous, both by giving the player more materials, and by lowering the time requirements for certain activities. It would certainly make for a less stressful experience.
Also, as much as the game doesn’t have the strict schedule something like Persona does, you’ll have to spend some time reading guides for another reason: there’s a lot of essential knowledge about the crafting system only found in Youtube and GameFAQs’s forums, courtesy of folks like MrSalaries, Solarys and others. You have to read through their posts to be successful in the latter half of the game, and I can only hope those boards never go down, lest we lose all that information.
With all that said, if I was able to withstand Persona’s mercilessness before, I can definitely handle doing some research on mechanics to finish a game, and I’m looking forward to playing the rest of the series. Especially after playing the extra story segment that comes at the end of the Plus version of Atelier Rorona. It’s called Overtime, and in it, you get to meet Totori and Meruru, the protagonists of the next two games. It's a fascinating way to set up the sequels.
What can I say? It may have been a rough journey, but Rorona made me completely fall in love with the Atelier series. It’s a fantastic twist on the JRPG genre that I never knew I wanted, which may be why it flew under my radar for so long. It's a game, and a series, I wholeheartedly recommend.