Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland Post-Game Thoughts

If you’re the kind of person who is into gender stereotyping, this game is for girls.

If you think what I just said is irrelevant and dumb, and are interested in playing a quality JRPG without regard for the cute outfits and pastel colors on the characters, here’s a chance to learn about Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland.

Like the Tales series, the Atelier series had a slow introduction to the West, starting with a bunch of its early titles never leaving the shores of Japan.

The series first broke into Western markets in 2004 with Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana for the Playstation 2. The first game in the series, Atelier Marie: The Alchemist of Salburg, came out in 1997 for the original Playstation.

Atelier Iris is actually the sixth game in the series, not including the 15 spinoffs and mobile games, of which only one – Atelier Annie: Alchemists of Sera Island, for the Nintendo DS, ever made it stateside.

The games were niche titles then and continue to be now, so it’s to the credit of both tiny developer Gust and a small-but-dedicated fanbase in the West that these games keep making it stateside. In fact, every game in the series since Atelier Iris (all 10) has come out in the States.

Atelier Meruru is the finale to the “Arland” trilogy, centering around the same central cast of characters in the remote kingdom of Arland. I played Atelier Rorona and Atelier Totori before this, so this is more going to be a discussion of the trilogy as a whole, which is fitting, since one of the most impressive things about Meruru is how it has grown and iterated upon itself throughout the trilogy.

The Atelier games, as a whole, center around alchemy. The main protagonist is the owner of an alchemy workshop (or “atelier,” as it were), and you play through the game exploring new lands and discovering new materials to use in her alchemy. Those new materials are required for new alchemy recipes which unlock more new areas, which contain more new materials, and so forth. Some materials are limited to certain areas, and some materials can only be obtained by defeating certain enemies.

The games are pretty evenly split between the “adventuring (battling/gathering materials)” and “alchemy (creating items/interacting with NPCs)” sections, so neither section drags you down. Actually, the game is built to give the opposite feeling; most of the games in the Atelier series are based around the passage of time.

This is not a day/night cycle, but rather a passage of days and years. You are given goals to accomplish, and generally a deadline of sorts. Travelling on the world map takes time. Fighting battles takes time. Gathering ingredients takes time. Creating things with alchemy takes time. This time is usually measured in days.

So regardless of what you’re doing, the game is delivering you to the ending at basically the same pace. The ending you get is dependent on how much you get done in the time you’re given.

This can be stressful and irritating at times (nothing is worse than being short in your alchemy recipe by one item that will take you 15 in-game days to gather), but the game’s design works well around it. Because you have limitations on how many materials you can gather, and how much time you can spend out, preparing for a trip out of town actually feels like a big deal. Just leaving on a whim is a terrible idea.

You won’t generally find any immediately usable materials in the field, so if you want healing or attack items, you have to make sure you bring them with you. But if you bring too many or don’t use them, you take up valuable inventory space, which means you have less space to bring materials back with you. Try to go without food or healing items, and your party quickly fatigues, incurring a massive stat penalty. Go without attack items, and you risk dragging battles on for additional turns, which increases the amount of time the battle costs you. Everything works in balance.

Meruru sports easily the most solid mechanics in the trilogy in this respect, especially in the battle system. The original Atelier Rorona sported what I like to call the “omnibar.” Each character had an HP bar, and nothing else. Taking damage from enemies cost HP, using special skills cost HP, and performing alchemy cost HP. This necessarily means the characters with healing skills also used HP to use those skills. You can see where this may have broken things.

Fast forward to Meruru, and we now have three status bars:  HP for taking damage, MP for Meruru’s alchemy and everyone else’s battle skills, and LP.

It’s probably best to think of LP as a “fatigue meter.” For most of the game, travelling and fighting both steadily drain the LP bar. When the LP bar is full, characters receive stat buffs in every area (you can see this in the screenshot above). As it gets closer to empty, those become persistent debuffs. The only way to fix the debuffs is to either feed the party member an item with LP recovery properties or simply return to town.

When I played Rorona and Totori, success in the game came by finding the exploitable area of the game’s mechanics. In Rorona, it was infinite free healing with the “omnibar.” In Totori, it was easy to abuse gradual healing while traveling on the world map. Meruru takes care of both exploits, and forces you to play the game as (presumably) intended, and it’s a far better game for it – though fighting isn’t what the series is really about.

Having said that, this isn’t a perfect game by any stretch. Game flow tends to get completely shut down when returning from a long gathering trip, because the passage of time has triggered five or six cutscenes which activate whether you want them to or not. The cutscenes aren’t bad by any means, but when you’re trying to get something done and you’ve been turned back from turning in a quest for the third time because going to the castle triggered a cutscene, it makes you really want to skip that cutscene before you forget what you’re doing.

This is especially true when the content of the cutscene is irrelevant, like two grown men arguing for 5 minutes over whether which color of pigeon is the most majestic this actually happens I am not making this up.

Don’t get me wrong, the game and its characters are certainly charming, especially the protagonist, Meruru herself. Her energetic and slightly tomboyish personality is easy to like, and her supporting cast (which includes her alchemy teacher, Totori, who was the previous game’s protagonist; as well as a age-reversed version of Rorona, who taught Totori) is diverse and likable enough, though many of them fail to hit more than a single personality trope.

But the pacing of the overall story is very weak, with character development (to use the term loosely) cutscenes appearing in bunches when you’re trying to complete a task. And the game’s story in general is barely there. To summarize, Meruru performs alchemy as part of an initiative to develop her tiny border kingdom into a booming metropolis. She takes on tasks from residents and builds new facilities to grow the town.

That’s actually not really a summary. That’s basically the whole story.

The game’s only consistent antagonist for the first 95% of the game is simply the passage of time. Meruru only has three years to prove to her father (the King of Arls) she can be a successful alchemist, then two more to develop her kingdom before it is absorbed peacefully by neighboring Arland.

If those goals are met, then there is a new antagonist introduced. It is a dragon, which threatens to burst forth from a nearby volcano (whose lands you’ve cultivated by this point) and basically destroy everything you’ve built up to that point.

That’s it. It’s just a dragon. A random one, never even alluded to before, that is introduced abruptly and defeated almost as abruptly. It does, however, trigger an alchemy “training montage” in which all three of the alchemists from the trilogy join forces to devise a plan for an ice bomb capable of freezing the volcano. So that’s pretty cool.

But overall, it sounds dumb, and it is dumb, and I forgive the whole sequence because YO LOOK AT THIS DRAGON.

THIS DRAGON IS CALLED AIRSHATTER THAT IS THE BEST. This dragon is called Airshatter because its primary attack is to heat the air around the party to such a degree that it explodes.

This sort of symbolizes my relationship with all of these games: the good and the bad mingle together sort of pleasantly. There are aspects of Meruru that are very effective and fun, like alchemy, gathering, and some battles. Then there are parts that don’t work as well, but are forgivable for one reason or another.

The story is barely there and the pacing has no settings between “nothing happening” and “cutscene triggers every two steps,” but some fun character subplots and a clear overall goal keep you moving forward in the game.

The battle system is simple, but satisfyingly deeper than in previous series entries, and it eventually develops a depth that intersects well with the alchemy portion of the game.

The “ending” sequence feels forced and out of nowhere, but that dragon is super cool so whatever.

Again, it isn’t a perfect game, and I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone in the same way I would recommend a game like Shovel Knight. But if you can get behind the idea of helping a tomboy princess develop a kingdom through alchemy while occasionally fighting some surprisingly tone-shifting monsters for 30-40 hours, give Atelier Meruru and the rest of the Arland trilogy a shot. They’re mechanically solid, refreshingly different from your standard ” ragtag adventurers save the world” JRPG fare, and each game improves on the previous one.

And if you’re way deep in there on the anime side, never fear: the game is fully voiced and features dual-audio options, which is why I now know the Japanese word for alchemy.

I’m sure that’ll come up a bunch in my everyday life.