Shining Brightly in the Darkness
I knew two primary things about Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & The Secret Hideout before going into it. The first was that GUST really seemed to be pushing this game more than usual, most likely due to their claims of having overhauled a significant amount of core gameplay aspects. The second was that GUST, by their own admission, placed a weirdly specific amount of Ryza’s thighs. And, given the fact that much of the Internet only seemed to care about the fact that Ryza’s torso looks like it was placed atop two Punis, I was worried that we were going to get something even more saccharine and fanservice-y than Atelier Lydie & Suelle (which is arguably the weakest modern-day Atelier title, in my opinion), with things like quality having been essentially thrown out the window. Sure, I’ll admit that I’m one of those people who desperately wish that the game would go back to the Atlier Iris/Mana Khemia days, but I know that they won’t due to a number of different reasons. And, really, I’m fine with that. Times change, and so do games. That’s why all I asked of Atelier Ryza–all I’ve been asking of the Atelier series for a while now–is to give me something that feels like it really stands out; a proverbial shining star, if you will. And it looks as though GUST has finally answered my wish, because, boy, does Atelier Ryza ever shine brightly.
Growing Up, Setting Out
Atelier Ryza starts off on the quaint and (mostly) humble Kurken Island, with Ryza and her two best friends, Lent and Tao, doing what they do best—hanging out, and wishing out loud that that they could be doing something that doesn’t involve them being stuck on Kurken Island. Normally, such a wish would go—as it had always gone in the past—unanswered. However, this time, fate had something else in store for them. And that “something” looked an awful lot like a rowboat they recently stumbled across and could use to sneak off to the mainland—which is exactly what they did. However, while sneaking off to go on an adventure would normally be a reward in and of itself, Ryza & co. just so happened to arrive on the mainland just in time to save a young girl named Klaudia from a group of monsters, and were then subsequently themselves all saved from even stronger monsters by a traveling alchemist, Empel, and his companion, Lila—thus setting off a chain of events which allow Ryza, Lent, Tao, and their newfound friend Klaudia, to set out on an adventure more wonderful (and, at times, terrifying) than they ever could have hoped for.
At first glance, it might not seem like there’s a lot going on with Atelier Ryza‘s story that helps it to stand out from its predecessors in any way. And, in a way, I suppose that you would be correct. Atelier Ryza, technically speaking, doesn’t do anything “new” with its story. I mean, this game literally feels like a super JRPG-ified version of a Western, 90s-era “coming-of-age” movie. But, if you ask me, it’s because it doesn’t go out of its way to be overly bizarre that it ends up being so darn charming. Inhumane JRPG superpowers aside, Ryza and her friends stand out because Atelier Ryza doesn’t try to force them to sand out by casting them in a bizarre narrative light. Their problems, for the most part, are very real problems—from the oppressiveness of small-town life, to standing up to bullies, to parental abuse (seriously, my heart goes out to Lent)—and the fact that GUST finally decided to dial down the tropey-ness on the characters’ personalities, especially with their lead protagonists, while not entirely abandoning the garnishings of JRPG personality archetypes that we know and love, creates a kind of narrative warmth that I haven’t felt from this series in a long time. I’m not sure what you have in store for the next Atelier game, GUST, but PLEASE don’t forget what you did during this game’s development, and the wonderful results that came about because of it (and also maybe start adding in English voice acting again… just sayin’).
Beyond Kurken Island
Let me start off this portion of the review by saying that this is the first time in a long time that an Atelier game has really felt like an honest-to-goodness RPG. What’s that? When was an Atelier game not an RPG? Well, never, technically. There’s just been something about the series lately that makes the actual “RPG” part of this JRPG part feel less like an end in and of itself, and more like a means to an end, with alchemy essentially dictating how everything will play out before you even head to an area. And, because of that, exploration becomes less about enjoying the scenery, and more about finding ingredients. And, sure, Atelier Ryza does that, too. Heck, because of the changes it’s made to the material gathering—allowing players to collect different materials from certain objects depending on what piece of exploration equipment they use on them—you could even say that a greater emphasis is placed on gathering. It doesn’t feel that way, though, and I think that’s because the layout of the game is slightly more “traditional”—even more so than Atelier Firis. Sure, your Atelier is still your home base, and you can still fast-travel all over the map, but the fact that Atelier Ryza makes it feel like you’re going on an actual adventure (rather than solely hunting for ingredients) is really nice.
Of course, as I’ve already said, the importance of the Atelier has not diminished. If anything, it’s become so important that the game’s title mentions it twice. Because of that, you can bet that it serves plenty of important functions. In the beginning, it essentially works as you’d expect it to, with players being able to synthesize items and not do much else, but things quickly open up for players as they progress. Atelier Ryza doesn’t hold back on introducing the player to new and fun gimmicks, some related to alchemy—such as the furnace, which lets you strengthen equipment—and some related to more novel ideas—such as treasure-hunting maps, and the ability to customize your Atelier like never before (and receive bonuses for it!). To be fair, I suppose that it wouldn’t be much of a “secret hideout” if it didn’t have a bunch of cool stuff in it, but the fact that GUST spared no expense in lavishing the player with goodies both new and old really breathes new life into an old (albeit extremely important) staple such as the player’s Atelier.
If Atelier Ryza‘s offers of a great story and grand adventure weren’t enough to draw you in (which they should be), then maybe its new take on alchemy will do the trick. We all know by now that every Atelier trilogy (or duology) comes with a new take on alchemy. And the last few? Well, they were pretty interesting, and actually kind of fun, but man did they take a long time. Fortunately, Ryza once again saves the day, thanks to its new “Material Loop” system. Sporting an approach that is both refreshingly, and drastically, more simplified than those of its recent predecessors, synthesis in this game revolves around filling in nodes on panels (or “Loops”) by throwing in the proper items. While plenty of syntheses still require specific kinds of items before the item can be created, Ryza seems to approach things in a less strict manner, allowing players to substitute items based on their elemental value—a decision which makes synthesis more flexible and hassle-free overall. However, while this refined synthesis method is all well and good, Atelier Ryza adds in a new mechanic that I—and I’m assuming many others—have been dreaming about for a long time; Rebuilding. Have you ever tried to make an item with all of the proper traits and effects, only to realize that you’re just short of hitting your goal? Well, that worry is now a thing of the past. By engaging in Rebuilding, players can now go back to previously created items in order to strengthen them further. Yes, I’m serious, and, yes, it’s every alchemist’s dream-come-true.
But, hey, that’s not all. Atelier Ryza doesn’t just shake up synthesis, it throws in fun new ways to collect materials as well. Not only can you now use a variety of tools to obtain different kinds of materials from the same gathering points, but you can now create gathering points. Well, okay, they’re not so much gathering points as they are miniature player-created dungeons through the “Gathering Synthesis” mechanic. All you need to do do is toss a few items together, and, presto, you’ve got a new place to gather from—complete with its own item sets and materials. Of course, there’s a little more nuance to it than that—creating the perfect field takes some work—but it’s an easy enough process to jump into and plenty of fun to mess around with. Maybe I jumped the gun on saying that Rebuilding was every alchemist’s dream, because I don’t think that dungeon-building has ever been a thing before. No matter how you slice it (or mix it, maybe?), though, there is a lot going on with alchemy in Atelier Ryza, and, subsequently, a lot to love about it.
Fighting for Real (Time)
Atelier Ryza is all about change, so what better way to wrap up this review than by talking about what is arguably the biggest change in this game: its combat! Throughout the entirety of its life, the Atelier series has always been about turn-based combat. It’s what we grew up with, and it’s what we all know. And, it’s also gone! No, no, it’s not actually real-time. But it has switched to using an ATB system. This, of course, means that combat is much more dynamic than it used to be. are constantly moving. Because everything is moving, players need to constantly be on their toes, ensuring that their foes don’t get the best of them. Of course, players have a few new tools at their disposal to make the most of this change, the most noticeable of which being the AP system. Having done away with MP entirely, skills now use AP, which automatically builds up as players attack enemies, allowing the use of skills. However, AP can also be used to build up the party’s Tactics Level—a semi-permanent buff that increases max AP, powers up skills, and lets players pull off consecutive attacks per turn.
Coupled with the ATB, AP-based battle system is the fact that you can only control one party member at a time, and, I’ll be honest with you, this does take some getting used to. Despite the fact that you can freely switch between party members at will, never being able to properly control your entire party at once really forces you to think about how when and how to use each character. Even with the addition of Action Orders—mechanics that ask players to use specific attacks mid-battle, but reward them with party member cut-in attacks—and Quick Actions—which allow players to spend 10 AP to immediately act (and gain further bonuses by completing Extra Orders)—battles can be tough. You can’t just ignore these new mechanics if you want to come out on top—especially not during boss battles—and Atelier Ryza‘s combat does take some getting used to. However, once the newness of it all finally sinks in, it shouldn’t take long to realize that Atelier Ryza once again offers a superior (and especially thrilling) product in this domain as well.
Blinded by Beauty
I’ve spent enough time talking about this game as a reviewer, so I’m going to take a minute to talk about this game as a fan. I’ve been hooked on the Atelier series ever since I randomly picked up a copy of Atelier Iris in a local game store when it first came out because I thought it looked cool. I’ve seen the series rise, and, sadly, I’ve seen the series fall. But, as much as I don’t like making declarations like this, I think that Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & The Secret Hideout is the start of this series becoming something fantastic once again. You did a great job, GUST. This game is really, really good. And, while I don’t know what the rest of this saga will look like (or if there will even be one), I can finally say that I’ve gotten to the point where I’ll no longer be nervous whenever I hear about a new Atelier title. For myself, and for every other Atelier fan out there, please keep this momentum going. We believe in you!
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, PC; Publisher: KOEI TECMO Games, Co. Ltd.; Developer: GUST Co. Ltd.; Players: 1; Released: October 28, 2019; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & The Secret Hideout given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.