Hey guys! So, for this week we’re going to be taking a look at something quite special. In an age where Triple-A game companies and open-world games dominate the market, and games are becoming ever more action based, sometimes it’s nice to take a step away from the high octane action and smell the roses, take a deep breath and play something that’s a little more chill. Well, this is pretty much the niche that the game series Atelier, produced by Gust and published by Koei Tecmo, occupies. For many, this series may not immediately appeal to them, due to the fact that, for many years, the Atelier series has been synonymous with two main gameplay mechanics: the first being alchemy, and the second, and by far the most off-putting for many, a time management system which, if managed incorrectly, can result in a bad ending and game over. The most notorious of the Atelier games for their brutal time management systems are those belonging to the Arland trilogy: Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland, Atelier Totori: The Adventurer of Arland and Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland. I have to admit that the time mechanic found in these games really sullied my experience with the Arland trilogy, despite the standout alchemy and characters. Since the last Arland entry, eight years have passed and six new mainline games have been released that have refined the Atelier formula by dialling back the focus on time management while placing a greater emphasis on exploration and story.
With the most recent game in the Atelier franchise having just been released, Atelier Lulua: The Scion of Arland is a surprise return to the much beloved yet much feared land of Arland. The question then stands, how does Atelier Lulua compare against not only the contemporary titles, but also against the other entries in the Arland series? For this week’s review, Koei Tecmo were kind enough to provide me with a review code for the game on Nintendo Switch. With all of that out of the way, buckle up everyone for yet another trip down the Otaku Rabbit Hole, and let’s get into it!
The story of Atelier Lulua follows fledgling alchemist Elmerulia Frixell, known by all as Lulua, daughter of previous Arland title protagonist Rorolina (Rorona) Frixell, as she goes about her business in the small village of Arklys.
While retuning one day from a visit to the nearby ruins, a glowing book appears in the sky, which promptly proceeds to fall, knocking poor Lulua squarely on the head. Now, in case this book falling from the sky wasn’t a big enough give-away, the book is far from ordinary, as it is an alchemical tome, known as the Alchemyriddle. Strangely, to all but Lulua, this book appears totally blank. However, in times of need and great stress, the Alchemyriddle will glow and, as if by magic, hints and clues will appear in its pages that, when deciphered, will provide an alchemy recipe or piece of advice to help overcome whatever hardship Lulua and friends are currently facing.
The story holds a certain element of mystery surrounding the origin of the Alchemyriddle and whether its sender has any dark ulterior motives behind improving Lulua’s alchemy skills at an accelerated rate. To grow as an alchemist and unravel the mysteries that stand before her, Lulua and friends set out on a journey spanning the length and breadth of Arland, with more than a few guest appearances from characters and locations featured in the original Arland trilogy, ranging from Princess Meruru’s homestead of Arls, to the great Arland itself. Atelier Lulua has a fun and relaxed story that isn’t afraid to raise the stakes when necessary, combined with just enough mystery to keep you coming back for more, all while still maintaining that sense of relaxed yet heartfelt joy that’s become synonymous with the series over the years.
To answer the obvious question, similar to other games in the Atelier franchise, you do not need to have played any of the previous entries in the Arland series to play and enjoy Atelier Lulua to the fullest. However, if you have played through the original Arland trilogy, then this game will hold a lot of subtle nods and Easter eggs that will make you smile, as this game is a true love letter to Arland, and a great addition to the series.
So, it’s time to address the elephant in the room and answer the question: does Atelier Lulua carry forward the strict time management system seen in the original Arland trilogy? Well, while there is a time system in place here, where actions such as travelling, battling and exploring will consume time, unlike older entries, Atelier Lulua adopts the more modern approach where there are no timed objectives and, theoretically, you could take forever to achieve your goal. There are two time-sensitive, optional objectives that reoccur annually, but if you miss these, there’s no penalty to be found. Similarly, there’s no penalty for taking your time with the story or side quests, meaning this is easily one of the most accessible Atelier games for newcomers, and is by far the most accessible entry in the Arland series. Whether time management is a make or break for you, this game does dial it back in favour of a greater emphasis to exploration and story, having only a calendar and day/ night cycle as the barest remains of this once intimidating system. As such, if time management was what you came to this game expecting, then you’re likely to leave disappointed.
One of the most important gameplay additions this time around is that of the Alchemyriddle. Many recipes, material-gathering locations and even story progression markers are hidden within the pages of this unassuming book. To unlock all of these features, you need only do one thing: for each riddle, two hints are provided, and to unravel the riddle at hand, you need only achieve the two objectives noted in the hints. This results in the Alchemyriddle revealing its keywords that enable players to decipher the riddles, providing access to a new recipe or location for the player. This mechanic is woven incredibly well into both the story and is a well implemented gameplay mechanic, thanks to its role as a narrative instrument, keeping players driven to unlock as many riddles as possible in between the key story objectives.
The Alchemyriddle also provides a set of side riddles, called Secondary Pages, in each chapter, being classified as either basic or advanced, where to unlock the advanced riddles, players must first complete all basic riddles of a given chapter. These Secondary Pages provide the most tantalising of carrots as an incentive to keep you moving forward, as all basic riddles for each and every chapter are available to see, and potentially unlock, from the very beginning of the game – teasing you with what you will eventually get access to, but for now remains only slightly out of reach. More than once I found myself saying, “I’ll just finish one more riddle and then I’ll stop”, which pays testament to the addictive enjoyment on offer here thanks to the Alchemyriddle.
Most of these Secondary Pages will unlock naturally as you explore, gather ingredients, battle enemies and synthesise. I managed to decipher every available riddle – both basic and advanced – by the time I reached the final boss, thanks to a little extra grinding on my part. This is something I’d highly recommend as it makes the final boss a lot more approachable, but more on that later.
A nice feature of the Alchemyriddle is how, when a story or advanced riddle is revealed, if you have already met the requirements noted in a hint through general gameplay (such as synthesising a specific attack item), the game will remember this, and not force you to repeat the objective and waste materials unnecessarily. While this is nothing particularly ground-breaking, it is a good quality-of-life feature that’s so often missing from modern JRPG’s.
Finally, if you’ve completed each and every riddle during your playthrough, just like I did, and have tackled the final boss, I’d imagine that you’d begin to worry that the game is effectively over and has little more to offer. Well, that’s far from the truth as in Atelier Lulua; there is a decent chunk of post-game content where even more riddles are unlocked after finishing the main story, meaning that there’s even more for players to explore and fall in love here.
While the battle system of Atelier games has seldom been the defining the focus, this time around, Atelier Lulua refines some of the concepts explored in earlier entries, while still maintaining the relaxed, yet on occasion high-octane, turn-based battles synonymous with the Atelier series. As usual, the combat system starts out weak, with a small party and limited combat options available. However, within the first hour or two, you quickly gain access to some incredible abilities and skills that make battles a far more enjoyable experience, and your party begins to flesh out far quicker than some of the more recent Atelier entries (I’m looking at you Lydie and Suelle).
Here, the battle party is divided into three front-row attackers, and two back-row support characters. While the role of attackers is rather self-explanatory, where characters can attack, defend, use items (if they’re an alchemist) or use skills, the back-row support characters have a set of character-specific support abilities that will trigger when specific criteria are met – for example, Rorona has two skills that can trigger when the front row party are attacked by enemies, one AoE attack and one support skill. As a result, it’s worth experimenting with different character loadouts to find what works best for you. I, for example, had Rorona and Piana as my support characters for most of the game, and honestly, Piana is a great damage dealer while Rorona, in particular, carried my team through some of the tougher areas of the game where I found myself somewhat under levelled, so in short they’re both pretty great and I would highly recommend!
Two excellent additions to combat this time are the Interrupt system and the Primal Art system. Primal Arts are abilities that will trigger at the start of battle depending on the character loadout in your front row, where certain character combinations will trigger buffs, extended buff durations and much more. Interrupt moves, on the other hand, are an exclusive ability held by alchemists. If you have an alchemist in your battle party, be that front or back row, you can equip each one with an item you have synthesised using alchemy. During battle, a gauge will slowly fill, allowing the alchemists to disrupt the flow of battle and take an additional turn, using the item in the process. While normally used items can quickly become overused and spent, these Interrupt items are an infinite resource, replenishing after each battle and even allowing for additional uses after the use count has been reached, only at the cost of a more slowly filling gauge. Chaining attacks, support skills, battle skills and multiple interrupt moves in a row is easily one of the most satisfying aspects of Atelier Lulua’s combat and will easily tear through most enemies that stand in your way.
Returning from previous entries, the Super Attacks are tied to an AP gauge that fills steadily as you battle. When full, you can expend the entire gauge for a final, no-holds-barred attack designed to help turn the tide of battle. While these are admittedly flashy and over-the-top spectacles, these attacks are nowhere near as powerful as the game leads you to believe, often dealing less damage than a single skill combined with a support skill chain would yield, only with the added benefit of inflicting certain debuffs on your enemies.
While the combat is far from the most complex and challenging I’ve ever encountered in a JRPG, this game isn’t without its moments of difficulty, with some areas being able to completely decimate your party if you’re unprepared. This was most notable with the final boss. In this encounter, the game offers a frankly insane difficulty spike. The previous boss you encountered not long before sat respectably within the level 70 range. The final boss, however, stood at an intimidating level 100, far above my poor party of level 80 characters. Luckily for me, my completionist tendencies had led me to grind out the Alchemyriddle, allowing me to synthesise some of the most powerful attack and healing items and craft some powerful armour and weapons just before the final fight. Even then, this behemoth provided a huge struggle. Now, I know this may seem like I’m being pretty negative, but this encounter was honestly insanely fun. Using powerful items and abilities in combinations I had previously never considered in the face of almost insurmountable odds was fantastic, providing probably my favourite encounter in the game, being tough but fair – and was a fine way to close the book on Atelier Lulua’s main story.
How could anyone review an Atelier game without talking about the alchemy system? As always, alchemy makes a welcome return in Atelier Lulua, where it combines many of the best aspects of the alchemy systems seen in earlier games, adding in some new features of its own for good measure. This game refines many of the best aspects of the Arland trilogy’s synthesis system, while simultaneously fusing it with the element systems seen in the Mysterious trilogy. However, the fusion of these elements has resulted in the system becoming simplified and refined, making it even more accessible and addictive than ever before. The ability to transfer traits between the gathered materials and final product returns here and can result in some truly overpowered abilities that can really help curb the difficulty, or ignore it entirely.
The new addition to the alchemy system in this entry is Awakened Alchemy. This system allows a guaranteed ability to be transferred to your crafted item, depending on the materials chosen for its synthesis. These abilities are heavily dependent on the material used and the type of item being synthesised, with a healing item generally receiving a totally different ability to that received by a bomb-type item. Combining this system with the aforementioned trait transfer really helps feed into the addictive gameplay loop of gathering, exploring and synthesising that Atelier does so well, further increasing that drive to make the best items you possibly can.
However, when you make these fantastic items, you’re not going to want to use them up and lose them forever, which can lead to moments where you resist the temptation to use your newly crafted bomb or healing salve. Well, worry not as there’s no need to despair. Later in the game, an NPC will provide you with the ability to give him an item, which he will then stock in his shop for you to buy back indefinitely. Later still into the game, this NPC will also provide you with the ability to restock your equipped items (at a cost), meaning you can use your painstakingly crafted items to your hearts content, so long as you leave at least one use, and regain them when you return to town – as long as you have the money, that is.
In any Atelier game, you generally sign up for alchemy, exploration, gathering and synthesis. However, an aspect that’s so often overlooked is the character development on offer here. These games boast some impressive character rosters, filled to the brim with lovable and adorable personalities, each with their own set of unique characteristics and quirks to make them all-the-more adorable. As you travel from location to location, little skits and cutscenes will play out, which can range all the way from hilarious to heartbreaking, and play a huge role in shaping the world and its characters.
Additionally, for long-time fans of the Arland games, this provides the perfect opportunity to learn more about what happened to your favourite characters from the earlier entries. While these moments are technically optional, I would recommend playing them through as they provide additional gameplay moments, and are essential to unlocking the true ending, as well as the multiple character-specific endings. This will, however, require some serious investment, and many of the quests linked to characters can be repetitive fetch quests with minimal guidance as to what they want, which can get frustrating very quickly.
The visual presentation of Atelier Lulua is quite astounding. The environments in this game are a treat for the eyes, with diverse vistas ranging from enchanted forests to futuristic, mechanised dungeons. The attention to detail in some of these environments is also quite extraordinary, with small details such as clouds moving through the sky and casting moving shadows on the ground as they pass by, adding a sense of reality to the fantastical land of Arland. Character designs are quite beautiful as well, even if some NPCs suffer from Same-Face Syndrome. While on the whole, I didn’t encounter any major graphical issues, in certain character skits and cutscenes, due to the camera zoom in these scenes, some of the low-resolution textures did stand out a bit more, but this didn’t translate to the rest of the game.
When it comes to the user interface, Atelier Lulua has a clean and relatively intuitive system. The battle system interface is easy to get along with and never seems to get in the way of the action happening on screen, while still providing all the necessary information, whereas the main menu and Alchemyriddle hold that feeling of filling in a scrap book, with colour images seemingly held in place with tape appearing as you decipher its pages – a sweet little touch. This game also makes a welcome return to the classic Atelier-style world map with a cartoonish pop-up-book style presentation that’s very easy on the eyes, which is far improved from the list system seen in Atelier Lydie and Suelle.
Comparing Atelier Lulua once again to the most recent mainline entry, Atelier Lydie and Suelle, there’s a vast improvement in the overall sense of design. The use of shading on character models and the environment softens the world considerably, and a more pastel-centred colour palette helps immensely with grounding the characters into the world when compared to the Lydie and Suelle’s bright and often excessive colour scheme. On the whole, small tweaks to the final presentation result in Atleier Lulua delivering a far more polished experience here, and is considerably less jarring for the player as a result.
I played through this game both docked and in handheld modes and, while there were some minor visual downgrades to be seen in handheld mode, these were nowhere near as dramatic as other Switch titles I’ve played, such as Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and Caligula Effect Overdose, so Atelier Lulua is a title that can be enjoyed to the fullest both at home or on the go.
The sound design for Atelier Lulua is certainly one that’s full of highs and lows. The voice acting is Japanese only, with English subtitles, and while the voice actors do a fantastic job, the earlier entries in the Arland series have a full English-speaking voice cast, so while the Japanese vocal performances were phenomenal, it is a little disappointing to not have the option this time around. The subtitles are also incredibly well done, with no major typos or grammatical errors noted during my initial playthrough that affected my experience in any way.
The OST, however, is probably one of the weaker aspects of this game. The soundtrack is average, with the majority of tracks sitting comfortably in the decent category, providing some nice, if forgettable, ambient music. There are some standout tracks, with “Cygnus” and “Astral Blader” being absolute bops! However, it is the main battle theme, “Axis”, that I have most issue with, as it lacks that beat and excitement needed to really get your blood pumping. I actually found myself muting the TV when I would enter a battle towards the end of the game, as “Axis” was really beginning to irritate me, which is a real shame. While this is a very personal take on the OST, I feel as though this is the main area where Atelier Lulua dropped the ball, although I’m sure many others will disagree with me and absolutely love this OST. Many players of the previous Arland entries will also note some remixed tracks on offer here, one of which being the above-mentioned track “Astral Blader”, providing a fresh take on the track originally found in Atelier Meruru. The inclusion of these tracks provides subtle, yet well meaning, nods to older fans and further reinforces that sense of nostalgia that permeates every inch of Atelier Lulua.
It is inarguable that Atelier Lulua’s greatest strength lies in its distinctly gentle brand of nostalgia, thanks in no small part to its inclusion as the fourth entry in the beloved Arland series of Atelier titles. Where this game truly excels, however, is drawing on the polish, finesse and expertise built up during the production of six mainline titles over the eight-year interim between the original release of the third entry in the Arland series, Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland, and Atelier Lulua: The Scion of Arland. Gust have taken this polish and applied it to almost every nook and cranny of this game, and in doing so have made something that stands not only as a proud addition to the Arland series, but also as one of the finest entries in the Atelier franchise to date. This entry provides one of the most accessible points for newcomers to the series and may just catapult them straight into this bizarrely fantastical world of exploration, alchemy and friendship. For long-time fans of the Atelier franchise, fans of traditional turn based JRPG’s or anyone in the market for a truly relaxing gameplay experience, this title is a must play.
With all that said, I award Atelier Lulua: The Scion of Arland…
With that, we’ve reached the end of yet another trip down the Otaku Rabbit Hole. Join me again next week for more otaku goodness and, until next time, keep it weeby everyone!