Living Up To The Legacy
JRPGs can be a tricky thing for the casual gamer with a passing interest in them. More often than not, they expect the player to make a large time and effort commitment with varying degrees of narrative coherency. Not only that, certain character performances and designs might make the game in question better suited for solitary play depending on their own comfort level. However, these barriers to entry have been noticed and simplified by developers that focus more on a streamlined experience and mix up the genre in unique ways (looking at you, Undertale).
There are situations where a developer in question is not quite indie, but not quite the kind of studio that could sink a boatload of money into a AAA game. Gust’s long-running Atelier franchise definitely fits the bill here, as most of their entries usually end up as modestly-budgeted JRPGs that have gained enough of a following to keep cranking out entries to the fans that they’ve amassed over the years.
Published by Koei Tecmo, Atelier Lulua is considered to be part of the Arland series of games, which started with Atelier Rorona back in 2010. There is a return of a character introduced in the first Arland game, but she’s not the focus here. Instead, the protagonist is her teenage daughter, who is a novice in alchemy. The latest entry of the series was released on May 21, 2019 on PS4/PC (Steam)/Switch at a price point of $59.99. The Steam version was played for this review.
Light and Airy
Elmerulia Frixell, better known to those close to her as Lulua, is hard at work under the apprenticeship of the alchemist Piana honing her own skills to meet those of her mother Rorona. Kind-hearted and a little mischievous, Lulua resides in the town of Arklys and takes her alchemy studies rather seriously as a result. While out adventuring, she encounters a book (that amusingly falls on her head) that only she can read. Coupled with a desire to meet her mother in Arland early on, Lulua sets out of Arklys to decipher the book known as the Alchemyriddle while also amassing a colorful cast of characters along the way.
While there is an overarching plot to Lulua, many aspects of the game are peppered with accenting cutscenes that act as more of slice of life to help flesh out the game’s atmosphere. More often that not, they do fall into tropes and Japanese cultural nods not unlike scenes usually found in most popular anime and manga. Despite how tropey it can get, it usually comes off as entertaining and cute.
Part of me usually likes to keep major plot details and related things as spoiler free as possible to preserve the joy of watching a plot unfold. While a lot of the plot and supporting content here is something that has been done before in other works across the media spectrum, Lulua knows what it wants to accomplish and executes it decently enough. Sometimes I wish that a game series with cute anime girls would work against the common tropes, but alas. It’s entertaining nonetheless.
I Know That’s Mixin’ Love
I’ve played a fair share of JRPGs in my time, and I have a bead on the typical formula. That’s not saying that I’m against playing anything in the more traditional sense, so long as it’s executed in a way where the gameplay is straightforward enough to be enjoyable. That being said, Lulua is most definitely a more traditional JRPG in terms of gameplay, as well as upholding elements of the franchise that fans have come to know and love.
One thing that Lulua does that helps set it apart from the rest of the franchise is how it mixes things up compared to other entries. Namely the complete omission of a deadline based system, which honestly is a welcome addition for those who just want to run around the simplistic world map, obtain items for synthesis, and straight up grind. Sure, there’s a day/night cycle and the game likes to remind you that time passes. But honestly, it just seems to exist purely for tradition.
Alchemy has always been one of the core elements of these games, and obviously this entry doesn’t stray away from that. While you’re out in the non-town portions, you’ll be able to obtain (and occasionally buy in town) items that can be used later in synthesis. Occasionally you’ll obtain items to craft through battle, but traversing around the field usually yields results.
You’ll be able to review your spoils upon return to your horse-drawn-bigger-on-the-inside-atelier to craft later, though you do have a limit to what you can carry in your basket before you have to empty it. Lulua is also able to expand her alchemy scope by learning recipes from books she obtains throughout the game. There are certain items that need to be crafted first to use them in the field, but obtaining most materials is relatively straightforward.
Deciphering Mysterious Things
While this is nice and robust, the aforementioned Alchemyriddle is where you’ll be focusing your attention in terms of progression. From a plot perspective, it has a tendency to pop up with what Lulua needs at the most convenient times. Though in terms of gameplay, the player is tasked with deciphering things in the book as they come up. Working on the main pages will help you progress through the vague hints that are given, but you’ll also have an easier time progressing by completing the tasks given to you in the secondary pages. Each goal is separated by chapter, though putting in the legwork to complete these goals seem to be the most engaging part of the game.
Engaging in battle is not ridiculously complicated either. Honestly, it’s about as traditional as you can get save for their own twist on the formula. You can directly engage in enemies by swinging at them in the field, though there doesn’t seem to be any sort of penalty for getting blindsided.
You’ll encounter a comfortable turn-based formula here that gives you a turn order bar that more JRPGs seem to be using these days. Once you gain enough party members, you’ll be able to choose three characters to engage in direct combat and two for support. Certain special moves will let the secondary characters also attack, helping up your damage, but you can also use what’s known as an “interrupt” to help compound the carnage even more. Admittedly, it feels like an afterthought, but it does come in handy when you just want to get seriously aggressive on powerful foes.
Having a decent selection of characters to choose from does help with strategy, and sometimes their Primal Arts (stat buffs with certain characters) and field effects give you an incentive to experiment with certain party members to see what works best. I will say that it’s nice to have in the heat of things, but it’s nice to see something that helps complement the main combat in the way it does.
Most of the Atelier games that I’ve played (which sadly are few) as of late tend to move towards a soft graphical style with the anime aesthetics that fans have come to expect from the series. Obviously, Lulua doesn’t stray from this art style in the slightest. However, the soft touch of the style is aesthetically pleasing, nicely detailed, and quite pleasant to lay eyes upon.
PC gamers will be happy to know that (as usual) this is the technically superior version of the game. The framerate stays at a relatively consistent 60 FPS (which might be possible on some older builds out there), animations are nice and fluid, and look quite nice on most modern gaming monitors. While the PS4 and Switch versions are subject to less capable hardware, the mobile nature of the latter not being able to maintain the performance of the PC version is expected here.
One thing to note here is that voice work is dubbed exclusively in Japanese with English subtitles provided in localization. While some may find this as a reason to hesitate, I couldn’t come to that conclusion. The voice work from this team is pretty solid. Sure, you’ll get some hammy anime performances and reactions from them here and there depending on the cutscene. But more often than not it doesn’t get to the point where plot-related dialogue is something that you want to skip. Some may get a little annoyed with repeated lines in the heat of battle, but it’s easy to tune out.
Music here is nothing extraordinary, but it fits the bill for the fantasy aesthetic the franchise is known for. For the most part, it does its best to match the various settings throughout. However, I tend to notice that it seems to want to keep a somewhat positive tone. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, though it can be off-putting for those who are used to game soundtracks with a little more oomph. Regardless, it does a fine job.
Making Momma Proud
I feel like every time I find myself tripping into an Atelier game, the combination of cutesy aesthetics, solid crafting, decent turn-based battles, and so on helps me gain a better perspective on why its fanbase is as dedicated as it is. This franchise as a whole definitely occupies a very specific niche, but it’s a very dedicated one.
Thankfully, one of the things about Lulua is that you could pick this up today with no prior knowledge of the other Arland games and have a fun time doing it. Perhaps I may be a bit hard on how it can be on the traditional side, but I found this entry to be a really accessible one. It does hold your hand to a point, but it’s hard to resist an enjoyable cast of characters in its cutesy setting.
I think that longtime fans will enjoy this one, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this could also serve as a starting point for newcomers as well. Atelier games are remarkably consistent in quality. Even though Lulua may not blow the doors off in a number of ways, it’s a nice little game that knows how to show you a good time.
Review copy provided by Koei Tecmo for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.