Japanese Role Playing games are nowhere near as popular in the west as they were in the ’90s, but that doesn’t mean there are any less of them being made. The big franchises, like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, are really the only JRPGs that achieve any sort of mainstream recognition in the west, but there are still plenty of smaller niche games being released, like the Atelier series from developer GUST. Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland is the latest entry in the series, and the final installment of the current generation “Arland Trilogy”, which includes Atelier Rorona and Atelier Totori. I hadn’t played any games in the series prior to playing Atelier Meruru, but even so I was able to have a pretty good time with the game.
Most role playing games, Japanese or otherwise, tend to focus heavily on story and character development, and while there is a story in Atelier Meruru, it is by no means the driving force of the game; the plot is paper thin. The game stars Princess Merurulince, Meruru for short, on her journey to become a full blown alchemist and help develop her small hometown Arls into a major metropolis. Instead of being driven forward by the plot, you are given gameplay centric goals with a time sensitive element to keep you moving through the game. Other than some set up very early in the game, the story takes a back seat to the gameplay and character interactions. While the actual plot doesn’t really develop much throughout the course of the game, there is a lot of dialogue, most of it serving no purpose other than to develop the characters.
I enjoy games with a heavy emphasis on characters, and I really did give the game a fair chance to win me over, but I quickly found myself not caring for any of the characters. The writing, for one, is just not very compelling, whether it’s the fault of the original writers or the localization I can’t really say. I’m sure some people will enjoy the character stuff, but I found the dialogue to be extremely annoying, and after many hours of giving it the chance to win me over I eventually found myself skipping most of it. It also doesn’t help that it always feels like conversations are getting in the way of the gameplay. The way the game is structured, you are constantly going back and forth between the town and the outlying areas with a task at hand. Because you are free to do things at your leisure, there is no set time or place for dialogue to occur, so the game prompts conversations pretty much whenever you come back to town. When all you want to do is go buy some items or turn in a quest, the constant interruptions for uninteresting dialogue can get really frustrating.
As I said, the game isn’t really driven by the story, instead using game mechanics to keep things moving forward. Early in the game you are given a long term goal of developing Arls into a major city in 5 years time. You are also given shorter term goals such as development and population milestones at yearly intervals. With these goals in mind, you are given relative freedom to develop how you like by completing various quests and tasks. This creates an easily identifiable game loop that doesn’t really change much over the course of the 25-30 hours you’ll spend playing the game. You first accept all the quests and development tasks that are available to you, go out exploring into the world to complete them, and then return to town and cash them all in for money and development points. When viewed from an outside point of few, it sounds very monotonous, but because you always have lots of simple and easily attainable short term goals, the compulsion to keep playing is strong.
When you leave town to go out and explore, you are first limited to the surrounding areas of Arls, but more areas open up as the game progresses. Even so, the game doesn’t have a whole lot of unique areas to explore, so you’ll be revisiting the same areas quite often throughout the game. The areas themselves leave something to be desired as well. Areas are very small, usually with only a handful of enemies or NPCs each. Further into the game you come across larger areas and even some that could be classified as dungeons, but I didn’t encounter the first complex dungeon until the 15 hour mark.
The crux of the game is development, which is how you grow your population and expand your city. Completed quests will net you money and “popularity” (which increases the rate at which your population increases), while development tasks grant you development points, which are used to build the city. You spend development points on buildings, which each grant their own special bonuses in addition to increasing the overall level of your city and raising your population. The game gives you milestones for development and population to reach at specific intervals, but I never had a problem reaching them. This focus on town building is unique, and gives the game a very different feel from most “save the world” type role playing games.
As I said, the game gives you a lot of freedom with how you want to tackle various tasks and quests, but the main limiting factor is the time passage mechanics. Everything you do takes time, and you can easily find yourself blowing a week a more with poor time management. The crafting system (which I’ll get to a little later) is particularly rough on time, with some potions or items taking multiple days to synthesize. Because all your long term goals are time sensitive, the passage of time is always at the front of your mind, and it can add a bit of frustration to the back and forth nature of the game. Things can especially frustrating when you make a two week journey to edge of the game world, only to find that you need something from town to go any further, meaning you need to make another two week journey to town, get what you need, and then another two week journey to get back. It’s instances such as this that really make the time mechanics seem frustrating.
Unless you make the absolute most of your in-game time, you will undoubtedly reach the end of the 5 year limit before you see all the content in the game. When the credits rolled for me, though I had met all the long term goals, I still had many active quests and even some areas I had yet to explore, which was disappointing. I felt like someone had come in and taken the controller from me and said “you can’t play anymore”. I’d like to have seen all the game has to offer, but I saw the credits, I finished the game. I’m not about to play for another 25 hours just get back to that point in the game. I understand that the design is rewarding you for making the best use of your time, but I don’t see how anyone other than veterans of the series will be able see all the content in the game on their first playthrough, and that’s just an unfortunate element of the game’s design.