Shop keepers are an important part of almost every RPG, but they very rarely get the attention that they deserve. They focus a bunch of effort into putting together a nice collection of weapons and potions, and do they even get a spot in the final cutscene? Were they even asked? In Atelier Rorona Plus: The Alchemist of Arland, you’re tasked with reviving a failing alchemy store, and you get to see just how much effort goes into making sure everybody else has the items that they need.
Rorona Frixell isn’t especially good at her job. She’s a lousy alchemist and is constantly teased by her master, who doesn’t really put much effort into actually getting customers through the door of the ancient, almost legendary Atelier — a shop that’s an important part of the local landscape. When the King decides that they’re not doing their jobs properly, he gives them three years to prove their worth, and Rorona is suddenly made owner. It’s all on her to turn things around.
Every three months you’ll be given a new set of tasks. You’ll need to mix up some special brew or make explosives or food — anything that’ll prove to the King exactly what alchemy is for. These are usually easy enough that you won’t have to stress over them — tasks that would have been difficult to actually misunderstand. Instead, the barrier between you and the next set of challenges is basically based around the need to experiment. But even if you make up one or two of the items and it all goes terribly pear shaped, you’ll probably get a pat on the head and be allowed to continue unpunished, just like if you were a banker.
Things get harder as you progress, but you get more than enough opportunity to do everything that you have to do. In fact, most of your three month cycle will be spent exploring, fighting, collecting, and experimenting — all activities that are required for the main quest, but they're also important in their own right. Days slip away as you do things like move between areas or start to mix ingredients, and so it’s as much about balancing which activities are available to you in a certain time frame as it is about how you do them.
Leaving town is a big deal for Rorona, who spends most of her time trying to get better at her craft. Unfortunately for her, it’s a necessary part of life as an alchemist, and collecting the right ingredients also won't be as simple as she’d like. There are enemies out there, and that’s before you factor in having to actually find the components she needs. Collecting stuff is as easy as interacting with an icon floating a few inches above a bush or rock, but ensuring you have quality ingredients and plenty of them is something else entirely. Expect to spend a long time moving from place to place, hoping to find the perfect source of some rare powder or exotic plant.
As hinted, sometimes you’ll get stopped by monsters, but don’t worry, look at them funny and they’ll run off crying. Fighting is fairly standard for a turn-based RPG, and even slightly simplistic if you’re used to something with plenty of strategic options. To add to this, the fights themselves are unbelievably easy, especially if you spend any time levelling and crafting equipment. Keep ahead of the game and you can almost finish off everything that you come across in less than two hits, right from the beginning of your adventure. Although it's lacking challenge, it never really feels like too much of a problem: the battle system suits its purpose, and it's often a fun distraction.
Atelier Rorona is all about crafting, though, and that’s where its focus lies. No other game has made standing over a hot stove so fun. There are dozens of things you can mix, from food to gunpowder, and there’s a good chance that you’ll have to work with everything at some point. Sometimes the things you make are ingredients for other recipes and other times you’ll wonder exactly how you made something just by popping a bit of metal and an old twig into a big vat of boiling water (like a cannon, for instance).
Imagination fuelled concoctions aside, the crafting system on offer is deep enough to keep you interested throughout the entirety of the release. While it largely consists of sifting through menus, the options on offer give you a lot of choice, and picking the right ones will result in better end products. Side missions offered will provide you with plenty of reasons to try out every recipe that you find, as well as to keep you improving the quality of your output, and will keep you wandering out into the wild to find rare ingredients over and over again. It’s completing these optional objectives that will encourage you forward, even when you’ve already completed your main quest.
Those aren’t the only distractions, though. On top of fully exploring every location — of which there are plenty to choose from – you’ll also be given extra quests from the castle. These optional missions are more like challenges, asking you to use a certain number of items in battle, collect a specific number of items, or build some odd compound in the Atelier. Completing all of them will net you additional items and bonus stats, not to mention vouchers that you can exchange for some of the game’s rarer items.
It’s this nice combination of simple tasks and plenty of side quests that make Atelier Rorona such a charming title. It helps that the characters are likeable and the world is rich in backstory, but it’s the pacing that really makes it so endearing, allowing you to explore at your heart’s content without ever pressuring you to do more than you want to. You’d be hard pressed to do absolutely everything – it’d be a real challenge to even try – but the option is there if you want to attempt it.
Atelier Rorona Plus is a remake of an earlier PlayStation 3 title, but it’s one that’s more than welcome. The visuals are vastly improved, with character models far nicer than they ever were before. For those worried about double dipping, there’s a whole array of new content, locations, characters, and options (not to mention over 30 endings), and a bunch of features returning from the two more recent titles in the trilogy, Atelier Totori and Atelier Meruru. It’s the perfect place for newbies to start, and the ultimate edition of the first game for veteran players.
Occasional framerate drops aside, there’s little to complain about when enjoying the release. If it annoys you that non-player characters and monsters take a quarter of a second longer to load than everything else, and it might just start getting on your nerves after 18 hours, but what an 18 hours it will otherwise be.
Atelier Rorona Plus: The Alchemist of Arland should be part of your collection if you’re an RPG fan. With its unique gameplay and likeable characters, it’s one of the most charming examples of the genre on Vita. And if you don’t have a Vita? If Atelier Rorona Plus has taught us anything, it's that you can probably mix one up out of an old piece of paper and a couple of pebbles.