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Review: Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & the Secret Hideout

25 Oct 2019

The Atelier series of JRPGs has been one that I’ve been trying to get into, but just haven’t really been able to. A long-running franchise that receives a new entry nearly every year, I’ve attempted to jump in multiple times, but the games have failed to hold my attention every time.

I tried out Atelier Rorona nearly a decade ago, Atelier Sophie a few years back, and a bit of Atelier Lulua earlier this year. Each time, I barely made it in a few hours before losing interest. To be fair, though, this is a franchise where storytelling and fighting usually takes a backseat to cute girls crafting items, and that’s where it loses me.

Seeing trailers for the newest entry in the series, Atelier Ryza, repiqued my interest in the franchise. From everything I was seeing, this entry was going to head in a different direction. While, yes, it was still going to be “cute girls doing alchemy,” it appeared that this new release would bring a bit more focus to storytelling and battling.

Thusly, I embarked on my fourth attempt to get into the Atelier franchise.

Developed by Koei Tecmo Games and Gust, and published by Koei Tecmo Games, Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & the Secret Hideout is set for release on October 29th, 2019, for PS4, Switch, and PC via Steam. The PC version was played for this review.

In Search of Something Greater

Atelier Ryza follows a young girl named Reisalin Stout, or Ryza for short, and her two friends Lent and Tao. Having spent her life on a rural farming island, Ryza is desperate for adventure. The game begins with her roping Lent and Tao into stealing a boat and rowing to the mainland, in search of something new.

Shortly into their little adventure, they are attacked by a monster, but are saved at the last moment by a wandering alchemist named Empel and his warrior partner, Lila. Empel and Lila are in the area exploring the ruins of a long-lost kingdom, and their stories and knowledge manage to enthrall our three main characters. Ryza in particular takes interest in Empel’s alchemy, deciding to pursue the craft for herself.

Right off the bat, I appreciate that Atelier Ryza wastes no time in introducing its world and its characters motivations. Past entries in the Atelier series I’ve experienced all meander during their intros, following their characters through their regular day-to-day lives. Ryza, it its first hour, establishes its world, the main characters’ motivations, and a firm goal for each of them.

It certainly helps that Ryza’s motivations are something that I can relate to a bit. The feeling that life is stagnant, wanting to get away from where you’ve spent most of your life, the desire to experience something new. As a kid who grew up in the hell known as suburbia, with aspirations of moving to a big city, I know these feelings well.

The plot remains at the forefront of the game as well, staying focused rather than falling aside for slice-of-life antics. While I was worried the game would slip into the same old Atelier I’ve come to know from previous entries once the alchemy system was introduced, the character interactions actually became more interesting after this point. The main characters’ families, as well as the other townsfolk, become uneasy and occasionally fearful that these kids are getting into this “weird alchemy thing,” causing a number of interesting conflicts to drive the plot forward.

Overall, Atelier Ryza did something that no other entry in the series has managed to do for me: keep me interested with its storytelling.

No Slowing Down

With that hurdle cleared, we reach the next wall I always encounter in this franchise: the core gameplay. The Atelier franchise falls under the umbrella of JRPGs, but has for the most part pushed its battle gameplay into the background in favor of featuring its item-crafting engines.

Let’s start with Ryza‘s alchemy engine first, as that is bound to be what interests returning players most. Much of the gameplay here revolves around Ryza learning to be an alchemist, so players will be spending a significant amount of time crafting items and weapons.

When performing alchemy, the “recipe” for each item you can create is presented as a node chart. Each node represents a certain kind of item needed for alchemy, with additional nodes opening up as you supply the required items.

Each node can also alter or buff the item you’re creating, should you provide the correct items. For example, a node in an armor recipe may ask for a piece of cloth. Using any item designated as “cloth” will fulfill the node and unlock connected nodes (provided the connected nodes don’t have special requirements of their own). Using a cloth with elemental properties specific to the node, though, may increase the quality of your final product, or add buffs such as increased defense or special traits.

While the system seems simple on the surface, it can quickly become much more complex the more you focus on creating the best items you can. Most recipes only allow you add a certain amount of items, so you have to plan out what path on the chart you want to take for the item you want to create. Some recipes can be changed into completely different recipes by using a certain node, as well. More twists and depth get added to the system as the game goes on, such as the ability to re-craft an item that you’ve already created, adding more items to fill out its recipe more.

I actually found myself enjoying this alchemy system, planning out the ideal paths to take to create the best items with the ingredients I had on hand. I often would look forward to jumping back into the crafting engine after exploring a new area and collecting new items, just to see how these ingredients would affect my recipes.

Now, the battle system. Atelier Ryza is a major shake-up to Atelier’s normally turn-based fighting, instead opting for something much more active. You only control one member of your three-person party at a time, with the other two handled by AI. Your party members, as well as the enemy, will actively act as their turns come up, without pausing to wait for you to input your own commands.

When it is your turn, you get four commands: attack, change position, use magic, or use an item. Most of these revolve around a couple of point pools on screen that are shared amongst your entire party: AP for attacks and magic, and “Core Charges” for items.

AP is built up as you attack, and is spent to use magic and special attacks. If you bank 10 AP, you can spend it to increase your “Tactics Level,” powering up some of your skills, allowing your characters to attack multiple times per turn, and increasing the number of AP you can bank by ten. You can also spend 10 AP to immediately make it your turn again, although this only allows you to use magic or items.

As for items, using an item spends Core Charges. Rather than having to carry multiple of each item you want to use, you simply equip an item to a character, and they can use it repeatedly so long as you have enough Core Charges left. These Charges can be replenished either by going home and resting, or sacrificing an item to refill the pool, locking out use of said item until you go home and rest.

Between all of these little moving parts, the battle system of Atelier Ryza feels both fast-paced and strategic. Having to decide how to best use your AP and Core Charges becomes a key part of every battle. You can switch between the character you’re controlling at the touch of a button if you want to give them specific commands. You can also have a party member unleash a special attack if you follow a command they ask for mid battle (e.g. “Use an item” or “Do fire damage”).

Again, Atelier Ryza manages to break my thoughts on the Atelier series. The battle system here is engaging, and it feels like a lot of thought went into it. Sure, I was thrown for a loop when I found out I could only control one character at a time, but the ability to switch characters did help to mitigate any worries I had. The fights are brisk as well, with trash mobs often going down in seconds if you have your strategy right.

They Save Lives

Ryza has gone for the one-two punch on me with an enjoyable story and an interesting battle system. With its presentation, it manages to get a third strike in as well.

In general, the visual presentation of Atelier Ryza is extremely attractive. While the Atelier series does have a strong following, there is a reputation amongst some that it can often look a bit rough, mostly due to the connotations of being a yearly franchise. While, yes, we’re not looking at the pinnacle of JRPG graphics here, what we do have is pleasing to the eye.

The character models are distinctly designed and animate well, from the main party to various NPCs. Enemy design is a bit more iffy, often relying on pallet swaps even just a couple hours into the game. Environments are surprisingly detailed, especially with the shading and shadow work put to use here.

As for graphics options on the PC version, unfortunately, they are lacking. The only options are windowed/fullscreen and resolution. My setup maxes out at 1440p, so I can’t say for sure if 4K or super-wide are supported here. There’s no detailed settings here, nor anything as simple as a general quality setting or even V-Sync.

To address the elephant that’s been following news on this game: yes, Atelier Ryza is a bit more fanservicey in its character designs than past Atelier games. Ryza’s design…well, let’s just say that her last name, “Stout,” is an apt description. Lila’s design looks like she stapled bowling balls to her chest. A lot of interest in this entry to the franchise seems to have been driven by these designs, but I can at least say there’s much more to the game than just the thick thighs and bouncing breasts.

Doing a 180

As someone who’s long figured that the Atelier franchise just isn’t for me, Atelier Ryza comes as a huge surprise. It seemed like Gust had been resting on its laurals for so long, pumping out these feel-good low-stakes cute girl games year after year that just didn’t interest me. Ryza, though, shows that they’re willing to change things up and do something new.

If anything, it feels like Ryza may be Gust’s attempt to step out of the niche they’ve carved for themselves. This game feels like one that the general JRPG fandom could get into, rather than just the subset interested in zoning out and crafting items.

That’s not to say series fans will be disappointed with this release either. The characters are endearing, and the alchemy system here is fun to mess around with.

Is Ryza enough to get me to go back to earlier games in the series? No, probably not. But if it represents the direction the series is going in the future, you can count me in as a fan from this point.

~ Final Score: 9/10 ~

Review copy provided by Koei Tecmo Games for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.