Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness and the Secret Hideout

The Atelier series is one of those long-running JRPG series that you probably only know about if you’re a fairly devoted follower of such things (like yours truly). The basic premise is that you play an alchemist of some kind, who is attempting to build their Atelier while also dealing with some kind of traditional JRPG problem. They’re known for being more lighthearted affairs on the whole, with more bright, charming graphics and bright charming characters.

Atelier Ryze: Too Long Subtitle fits that description almost too well. The game is aggressively cheerful, and spends a great deal of its run time just following the titular Ryza and her various friends as they live their life on their peaceful island. For a good 7-10 hours of gameplay, the plot mostly jogs in place. Weirdly, this does work somewhat to the game’s advantage, as it firmly establishes the characters’ motivations, goals, and personalities, as well as providing a pretty good foundation for the town itself, which sort of becomes its own separate character.

And this game does characters marvelously. In point of fact, this may be one of the best character-focused stories I’ve seen in some time. Ryza and her two friends Lent and Tae come off like real teenagers. They’re rambunctious at the beginning, feeling trapped by their situation in their sort of isolated port town. Fourth good character and fellow teenager Klaudia comes to visit with her father, a traveling merchant who’s interested in the island’s fruit and wheat production. Klaudia becomes fast friends with the trio, particularly Ryza. The group heads out to the mainland, each wanting to develop their own goal:

Ryza originally just wants to be free of her home, particularly of the boring day to day farm life. Interestingly she’s the one who becomes the alchemist, and we see this start as something of a dream for her, and become something she’s deadly serious about. The girl grows from a flighty rebel to a dependable young woman who puts the needs of the town first, continually using her alchemy to help others (one of my main complaints is how her mother and some of the townsfolk react to Ryza’s alchemy. The girl is working her butt off doing stuff like making bait for fishermen and medicine for old ladies, but for some reason townsfolk still call her a troublemaker?).

Lent is the son of the town drunk. It turns out that said drunk used to be an impressive adventurer and is still one of the strongest people in town. Lent initially sets the goal of heading to this tower he can just make out on the mainland. To do that, he must grow stronger and become a better knight. This eventually evolves into his main goal: protecting others and being a knight errant.

Tao is arguably the least developed of the four teens. He’s a shy, withdrawn sort. He initially wants primarily to learn to read the books in his home’s library. That develops into a desire to learn more about an ancient kingdom, and to become more of a scholar.

Klaudia’s initial goal seems the lightest of the four: she wants to gather enough personal courage to play her flute in front of her father. For her, it’s all about personal development: she sees the other three as already having a great deal of internal strength, and she wishes to have that as well. Plus she wants to spend time with them, as she knows that she’s only going to be on the island for a limited time.

There is a larger plot that eventually gets uncovered. Ryza and Co run into alchemist Empel and his traveling bodyguard Lila. In addition to being mentors for the group, they’re also exploring the island because of particular ruins. Eventually it’s uncovered that there’s the almost standard ancient tech behind things, and it’s stirring monsters. It’s not the most original plot, but they set the stakes quite well for the game’s overall tone. Besides our heroes and a handful of pertinent NPCs, nobody quite knows that their world is potentially in trouble. The characters do this to protect the everyday lives of those around them, which comes off as incredibly noble.

I’m all about character driven stories, and this game does that almost flawlessly. The story does drag its feet taking off, and there are times when the characters talk just a bit too much about the situation. The whole pacing of the game actually feels like it’s purposefully set to slow, which can be somewhat frustrating. I went into it wanting to get lost in a well developed game after two misfired JRPGs, and it pretty well fulfilled that want for me.

I absolutely adored how they handled the character management menus

The graphics are aggressively cheerful and pretty. And that’s the word for it: pretty. Everyone looks cute, bordering on attractive, with some decent fanservice for all tastes, whether it be Ryza’s short shorts or Lent’s bared chest. These characters keep referring to themselves as teenagers, but they are clearly young adults developing into who they want to be (except Tao, who seems to be waiting on a late puberty). I’m not usually someone who’s big on graphics, but there’s no denying that Atelier Ryza is stunning.

My big issues with the game came more from the moment to moment gameplay. They made the decision to focus entirely on the one town as the primary location. You set up an Atelier base, which makes sense, but you never really leave the main town. Initially that base is even set up in Ryza’s home, which is on the outskirts of the farm. It feels confining, which may be a little purposeful, as the game actually does a brilliant job of tying the characters’ motivations and goals into player action.

What I mean by that is that as you’re playing, you want what the characters want. You want Ryza to become a better alchemist so you can access more gear. You want Lent to become stronger so you can fight more monsters. You want Klaudia to become stronger so you can hear her play more and she can be more active. Again, it’s great storytelling.

But I do wish that the moment to moment gameplay didn’t involve so much nearly aimless running around. You’ll run around the map as Ryza looking for people who need help, granting you the quests you need to level up. Then you run around looking for what they need. This involves using the fast travel system to hit one spot, find a person, talk to that person, using fast travel to hit to another spot (often the Atelier), fulfill the task, fast travel back to the person, and so on. It’s a lot of backtracking and repetition.

The exploration follows a similar pattern. you hit the mainland, but instead of being allowed to set out, you can only go so far into an area before you hit an invisible wall, with Ryza saying that they shouldn’t go farther. That contradicts what I want: I want to explore further, particularly to get more ingredients. It feels needlessly stifling and, again, repetitive. You’re continually revisiting these areas to get ingredients anyway, so it feels unnecessary.

I’ve sort of danced around it, but the game has that alchemy crafting system. This involves gathering a group of ingredients to fill in various recipe slots to make various items. It looks almost like the old FFX sphere grid, with various ingredient nodules connecting via different colored paths. The goal is to fill nodules to make a better item to connect to other nodules to complete or change the item. This becomes oddly thrilling, almost Pavlovian in its setup. You want to fill those nodules, make an excellent item, then experiment to get new items. Equipment, healing items, items you can use in combat, it all comes from the alchemy system.

I’ve seen some complain about how the crafting system is too simple. As someone who usually hates crafting systems and stays away from games that rely on them, I found it to be bordering on too complex. There are a lot of angles and nuances to it, and you can easily lose yourself poking around for hours in just making items (which, again, resonates beautifully with Ryza’s own goals). I did still find the constant ingredient gathering tedious, particularly as it fell into the same trap I find happening too often with systems like these: looking up where that one particular item is in a guide so you can go and get it.

I’m not sure who the battle system is for either. It’s this weird combination of turn based combat and action RPG. You only control one character at a time, while two others run automatically. (Why two and not four? Because most games are like that? I hate three person parties and I particularly hate it when it makes no sense like here. To top it off, I never found out how to make it so it wasn’t two melee characters and one caster, so some party members, like Tao, get sidelined because they literally won’t let you change them out). When it’s your turn, you have to input an action for your character using a different button, with one attached to regular attacks, one to skills, etc. Regular attacks build AP, which can be used for spells, or can be used to level up your “Tactics Level.” Higher tactics levels mean more damage and more regular attacks to charge specials quicker.

Each character only has a handful of attacks. At the end of the game, my characters still only had four regular attacks, two supers, and an ultimate. It definitely feels stripped down. And I’m not sure what’s up with this weird, hybrid combat. As a big fan of turn based RPGs and someone who’s not usually into action RPGs (I liked Xenoblade Chronicles and a few multiplayer games), it felt a little too rushed and repetitive for me. I can’t imagine action RPG fans are big on the weird waiting and the whole characters on either side. Again, it feels like a hybrid that’s going to disappoint both.

On top of that, it was ridiculously easy. I cranked up the difficulty and I still walked through almost every enemy in the game. Admittedly I almost always had the highest quality items on my characters, and I slid into a party setup that worked almost too well for me (Lent, Ryza, Klaudia, as seen above, usually with me controlling Ryza). But I didn’t struggle with anything until I got to the optional bosses at the end of the game. Even then, once I had leveled more to their level, I walked through them. Mix that with the weird system and the fact that you have to kill some enemies multiple times for ingredients, and battles almost felt like a chore.

That is why I’m not likely to play this game again. As much as I loved the story and how well they integrate the characters’ desires with the gameplay elements, I just could not take another run of the repetitive gameplay and janky battle system. On top of that, there’s only Japanese voice acting, and I found myself skipping a lot of it as I could always read faster than they could deliver their lines. There’s too much tedium and frustration built into the game, enough that it hinders the brilliant character work and the pretty well told story. The end result just falls a little short of what it could be.

Still a way better game than the last few I’ve reviewed though.

7 great character work, brilliant graphics, and a pretty good story that some of the more enthralling systems build into. However, needless repetition and an awkward battle system make it a game I’m likely to never pick up again

The title screens are also beautiful and change with your progress; again, the game gets these little details so, so right

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