Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland is the 13th instalment of Gust’s storied Atelier series and the third part of the “Arland” trilogy. While at first glance the sheer amount of ground this series has covered makes for a high barrier of entry, skip this title based on intimidation and you'll miss a very enjoyable experience.
The game stars the titular Meruru, princess of the small kingdom of Arls. An apprentice alchemist studying under the previous game’s heroine, Totori, Meruru is given an ultimatum by her father: use her talents to expand the kingdom’s population and influence in three years or give up alchemy forever. While the premise initially seems to paint Meruru as a repressed victim, she’s anything but. Energetic, motivated and unflappable, she’s surrounded by people who care for her and will assist her in any way they can.
The main crux of the Atelier series has always been alchemy and item creation, and Meruru is no exception. You'll spend a lot of time gathering materials and heading back to Meruru and Totori’s workshop to see what exciting new items can be whipped up. Everything you rely on in an RPG – healing items, weapons, armour – must be synthesised by the player. There are no traditional item shops to be found; in-game merchants will only hawk more alchemy ingredients, but you'll feel proud when wielding a small arsenal that you’ve created yourself.
Once your team is equipped, it’s out into the world to complete quests and explore the kingdom of Arls. The world map is simply a series of zones to be selected and will expand as you progress through the story. Missions will typically have you synthesising items to be delivered to NPCs or clearing out all monsters in an area so the map can be expanded. Side quests can be taken at the local tavern and require a number of beasts to be slain or ingredients to be handed over.
The turn-based battle system is solid, if a bit old-fashioned. Thankfully there are no random battles as enemies can be avoided, making combat optional in most cases. Meruru herself is able to use items in battle while her companions employ the tried-and-true skill and MP methods. Similar to Final Fantasy X, there’s a meter on the top right of the screen to show when everyone’s next turn is, letting you strategically select targets in order to minimise damage to the party. While the battles are fast enough to never feel like a chore, they’re nothing to write home about.
That's not a condemnation of the battle system, however; turn-based battles have survived in the genre for so long because they work, and in Atelier Meruru it's no exception. Rather, the simplicity of the battles are a boon, as they never feel arduous or intrusive, allowing you to stay focused on the task at hand. Far too often JRPGs are bogged down with frequent and lengthy random battles that make getting to your destination a frustrating grind. The Atelier series has never been about combat, so while there's nothing particularly innovative about the battle system, it serves its purpose of being another set of challenges, taking nothing away from the emphasis on alchemy and time management.
The real key is time. When the king says Meruru only has three years, he means it: there's a calendar that's constantly counting down. Every action – performing alchemy, collecting ingredients, engaging in battle, traversing the world map and even resting back at the workshop – takes a certain amount of an in-game day. It evokes a similar feeling of urgency as Pikmin on GameCube, where you want to make sure you’re making the most of your time. You can spend as much time as you want out in the field as there’s no requirement to be back at home before a day ends like Harvest Moon, but dilly-dallying is still something to be avoided.
The game’s characters are very much standard shōjo anime archetypes: the determined Mary-Sue princess, the male butler who’s prettier than most women, the timid maid, the soldier with a chip on his shoulder — they’re all in here. While many players would be put off by rather one-dimensional characters, they are all surprisingly charming in their own ways; Meruru herself really shines as the headstrong princess who refuses to give up.
Despite lacking depth, the characters are still full of life. Their vibrant, colourful designs are littered with little touches like the way Meruru keeps her tiny crown perched dangerously askew on her pastel pink hair that make them very engaging. The English voice acting (Japanese is also available), while not superb, is quite enjoyable and does a noble job making the characters feel like real people.
What’s most refreshing about Atelier Meruru, believe it or not, is the story. So many RPGs are all about doom and gloom, end-of-the-world, back-against-the-wall stories; Meruru is just about a princess charged with expanding her kingdom, and the lighter tone makes the game much more relaxing to play. The emphasis on experimentation and exploration wouldn’t be nearly as fun and appealing with thousands of lives hanging in the balance.
While the game is a lot of fun to play, it’s also a joy for your ears and eyeballs to experience. The graphics feature light cel-shading coupled with sharp textures and a soft pastel colour palette, which make the game an absolute treat to look at. Forests are peppered with vibrant, exotic flowers and lush greenery that will have you setting down the controller for an opportunity just to take it all in. In motion, it’s like a gorgeous, playable anime that will definitely make you appreciate the power of your PS3.
What the graphics are to your eyes, the music is to your ears. Peppy and upbeat tunes rule the day here and meld perfectly with the rest of the world. Composer Kazuki Yanagawa masterfully puts light string and wind instruments to work in ways that bring out the beauty of the rest of the game.
The game requires a short install before play, so clear a little bit of hard drive space. You won’t mind, though, because the game loads almost as fast as a cartridge game in most cases. Most transitions happen in an instant and what load screens are encountered rarely top the four second mark. While in Arls, there is a fast travel option on offer to let you pop between several important locations, and with such short loads getting to where you want to go is never a chore.
There are several drawbacks, however, most notably the cut scenes. While many of them begin with scenes acted out in real time, they quickly transition into voice-acted still images with text boxes. While the images used are beautifully drawn and change with the direction of the conversation, it’s just a shame when the stunning 3D graphics are trapped right behind them.
They pop up with annoying frequency, as well. When heading to butler Rufus’ study to turn in a mission you’ll often get hit with dialogue lasting several minutes which, once concluded, has you back outside the castle, requiring you to travel to the study again. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the cut scenes, but when all you want to do is go to the workshop to save and you have to sit through another lengthy conversation they can definitely test your patience.
Atelier Meruru is a niche title. Those who love Japanese-style games or who get a kick out of playing with crafting systems will absolutely be in love the second the game boots up. There are a few minor faults, for sure, but if Atelier Meruru has what you’re looking for you’re going to have a hard time putting it down.