Well, it finally happened. Two days ago, Atelier Ryza, the game that fans have been waiting for on baited breath these past few months, finally dropped. Many fans, both new and old, are already tearing into the game, and the reviews are beginning to steadily trickle in, and the general feedback for Ryza is overwhelmingly positive. The fact that Atelier Ryza is the newest entry in the long-running series and is following on from one of the more divisive trilogies within the Atelier franchise, that being the Mysterious games, puts Atelier Ryza in a prime position to help secure the Atelier games’ future. I have heard a few people debating as to whether or not Atelier Ryza might in fact be the best game in the Atelier series to date. However, I’ve also heard a few people state that this game might be a step in the wrong direction, given the amount of changes introduced. So then, this week on our trip down the Otaku Rabbit Hole, as part of my full review, let’s take a look at the good, the bad and everything in between with Atelier Ryza, and ask the question of whether this game is a truly worthy addition to the beloved Atelier franchise.
A few weeks back, I was lucky enough to receive a review copy of Atelier Ryza from Koei Tecmo for the Nintendo Switch, and if you haven’t had a chance to check it out already, two weeks ago I gave some first impressions on the opening hours of the game. Having now completed the story and dived head-first into the post-game, I will be retreading some of the points raised in the last article, while also delving deeper into how my first impressions stack up now, having finished the game. I must reiterate that there will be some major story and gameplay spoilers featured in this review, so if you plan on entering the wonderful world of Atelier Ryza without any preconceived notions or influences, then I highly recommend you click away now and enjoy this great game by your own terms. Without further ado, let’s jump right into it!
Atelier Ryza follows a group of three friends, Ryza, the village tomboy; Lent, the local hothead with a heart of gold and Tao, the bookworm, from the quiet village on Kurken Island. Having lived there all their lives, they yearn for a taste of adventure and a means to break free of the traditions that have bound them until now. One fateful day, on a trip to the mainland, Ryza and company run into Klaudia, the daughter of a travelling merchant, who’s found herself cornered by a powerful monster. Being the gallant group of wannabe heroes that they are, the Ryza dream team dive into battle, only to quickly become overwhelmed and are almost wiped out. However, when all seems lost, they are saved from the beast by the travelling alchemist Empel and his bodacious warrior companion Lila. From here, the gears are set in motion that propel the island kids on a grand adventure of growth and self discovery. Empel and Lila quickly grow close with the island trio, as Lila decides to mentor Lent to help him improve his abilities as a warrior, while Empel helps Ryza blossom into a master alchemist and Tao grow into a confident scholar. Klaudia also joins the team after a time, and, finally, the party is complete!
On a slight side-note for a moment, one thing that’s particularly nice this time around is the fact that the cast feel well rounded and as though they’re living their own lives, complete with their own set of ambitions, independent of Ryza and the story being told. Tao loves his books and has an insatiable appetite for knowledge, and Lent wants to grow strong, not only for himself, but to be able to protect the worlds of those he loves. On the whole, the characters and the story feel well executed, and it’s refreshing to see characters that don’t simply become “plus ones” for the adventure – they’re well rounded and remain somewhat independent throughout the adventure.
Getting back on topic, the story starts a little slower than many modern JRPGs, with Ryza learning alchemy slowly but surely following her chance encounter with Empel. Through difficult trials, such as facing down a rampaging Dragon and standing against her village’s small-minded witch hunt, Ryza and friends grow – not only by becoming strong, but by maturing into reliable individuals. There are many bittersweet and somewhat dark moments scattered throughout this game, some of which touching on difficult subjects, such as abuse and growing up, but these never cross the line or detract from the overall experience, instead bolstering it into a truly impactful and immersive one, dragging players through emotional ups and downs that will soon have you begging for more.
As is tradition in most JRPGs, the stakes of the story quickly escalate far beyond the child-like desire for adventure. It is revealed that Empel and Lila are on a quest across the land in order to seal gateways to another world, crafted by a long-lost kingdom of Klint. In the past, this kingdom trespassed into a parallel world and pillaged it of all its materials until it was barren and dying, all while prospering off of the pain and suffering inflicted upon this alternate world. As penance, a swarm of beasts known as the Philuscha, invaded, leaving nought but destruction in their wake – and now a gate has reopened near Ryza’s village, and the monsters are preparing once again to devour all in their path. It therefore falls to Ryza and her companions to face these creatures, seal the gate once more and save their island and the world at large from the looming threat through the power of alchemy and friendship.
What’s important to note with this game is that the story packs an emotional punch and is a true coming of age tale – warts and all. This is far removed from the saccharine-sweet stories players have come to expect from the Atelier series, but it works remarkably well in portraying the everyday reality of these characters and the world they inhabit. Atelier Ryza is a step in a new and interesting direction, and the slightly darker, almost bittersweet tone reflects this beautifully.
If there was one complaint I had about the story and its progression, it would be that, due to the greater focus on a grand, overarching narrative, the smaller and more intimate moments focusing on character development are heavily downplayed. This sadly comes at the expense of the individual characters and their relatives, with side characters feeling almost inconsequential because of how the game chooses to showcase the relationships between characters. This is by far one of the weakest aspects of Atelier Ryza, but it’s an easy blunder to forgive given the incredible narrative that we as players are treated to throughout the game as a whole.
The refreshed combat system, as I mentioned back in my first impressions, is a total re-haul of what came before. Players are presented with a semi-turn-based, active-time battle system, where characters must wait for their turn in order to act, but the clock is always counting. You cannot take your time to ponder the best course of action – you have to go with your gut and hope for the best, or face the dire consequences. To anyone familiar with the ATB system in Final Fantasy, this battle system will feel familiar, but it still has its own ingenious nuances that help to keep the combat feeling fresh, while steering long-time fans away from the potential frustration that often comes coupled with a change in direction.
Controlling Your Team
Unlike in previous entries, where all party members were controlled directly by the player, due to the nature of the new active-time battle system, it is now only possible to control a single party member at once. This doesn’t mean that players are stuck with a single controllable party member, like that seen in Final Fantasy XIII, as your actively controlled character can be switched at will. Personally, I relied on a party of Ryza, Klaudia and Lila, often switching between Ryza and Klaudia depending on whether I wanted to focus more on support or raw damage output. It takes a bit of getting used to, but when you get the hang of it, it is possible to control all characters at once by switching between them at will and feels so immensely satisfying when you finally get to grips with this new system.
Battle Gauges and Mechanisms
The game utilises a number of gauges in the battle UI that allow players familiar with the system to quickly turn the tides in battle and decimate any enemy that stands in their way. The most important of these is the action point (AP) meter, which acts as a shared MP pool for characters to draw from in order to execute special attacks. Additionally, in moments of need, players can expend 10 AP in order to take a quick action, regardless of whether it’s that character’s turn or not! These actions are immensely helpful in interrupting enemies’ powerful charge attacks, pushing for victory with a last burst of damage or healing/ buffing your party to help them endure an otherwise devastating onslaught.
As characters land physical attacks, the AP gauge will fill and, when full, can be expended to increase the Tactics level by one. The Tactics level can increase to a max level of 5 and confers a number of benefits to the active party, ranging from additional abilities from special attacks to increasing the number of basic attacks characters can execute each turn. More often than not, players will want to build and retain the Tactics level at all costs. However, there are a set of Ultimate attacks that can be launched by your party members that will reset the Tactics level to 1. This forces players to approach each battle differently and weigh up whether the additional damage from an Ultimate attack can help turn the tide of battle in their favour, encouraging a more strategic style of play.
Items and the Core Charge (CC) Gauge
What Atelier game would be complete without the use of some signature battle items. This time around, Atelier Ryza has attempted to circumvent the issues present in earlier games, where players would need to assess whether to use an excellent consumable now at the risk of using it all early and losing it for good. More recent entries have attempted to address this issue by having an NPC restock your items, but this often became costly and could leave you very light on coin. In Atelier Ryza, however, players are gifted with the Core Crystal. (And I’m sorry, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 fans – this one doesn’t produce weaponised anime girls!)
The Core Crystal is a unique method of allowing item usage in battle while also placing a reasonable and manageable limit on items. Each weapon has a set number of item slots available, and any usable item can be equipped to your party members, equal to the number of slots present in the weapon. When in battle, each item will consume CC, and when there’s not enough CC, the item cannot be used. Whenever the party sets out on a voyage of exploration, the CC will be set to 10, a pretty small total. Now, while this may seem as though item use will be heavily limited, worry not, as there is a way to refresh the CC gauge both in and out of battle. Players can choose to convert an equipped battle item into CC, thus refilling the gauge, BUT this will render the item unusable until the party returns home to the Atelier. This forces players to choose when to use items, rather than throwing them around without thought, and further emphasises the sense of tactical gameplay present in Atelier Ryza. I must admit that having a limit on item usage did become frustrating at times, especially in difficult boss battles, but it did force me to re-think my strategies and to equip items to both main and side party members to act as fodder for conversion. It’s a very clever way of approaching game balancing, as this mechanic prevents overpowered items from being abused, while still rewarding smart use of these items.
The Downsides of Atelier Ryza’s Combat – Statutory Roadblocks and Ability Gatekeeping
Despite how great the combat is, there are a few minor annoyances that can detract from the otherwise excellent experience. Some enemies can act as damage sponges, and difficulty spikes are far more noticeable in Atelier Ryza compared to other, more recent entries in the series. Particularly noticeable was the leap in difficulty when facing the final boss – if you think you’re prepared for the final boss, think again. Go away, grind some more levels, synthesise the BEST items you possibly can with the most useful traits you can find and most definitely focus on making the best equipment you possibly can – you’ll need it!
These difficulty spikes often come out of nowhere and really feel as though the game is attempting to force players to get to grips with the intricacies of the alchemy system in order to overcome the obstacles that stand in front of them. This isn’t exactly a bad thing, but be aware as it might catch you off guard from time to time, and even if it takes a while, grinding out some solid equipment and items will better prepare you for the challenges of the post-game.
The second, and slightly more annoying issue is the fact that party members learn their passive abilities by performing a specific task a set number of times – all found in the quest menu. While this starts out as a great way of helping players get to grips with the intricacies of the party members, there are some major discrepancies in how easy it is for your characters to gain abilities. For example, many of Lila’s abilities require that she and another party member (e.g. Lent) be in the party when a certain enemy type is defeated, whereas many of Klaudia’s abilities are tied to undertaking and completing a large number of menial tasks, such as side quests or hunting treasure. This can force players to shift focus away from organic exploration and character growth, and instead focus on completing a statutory objective to maximise your favourite character’s usefulness – that’s certainly what I did in order to get the best mileage out of Klaudia. Once again, this isn’t a massive issue, but it can be a mild annoyance when you suddenly realise how great a difference there is between building two characters.
Exploration has always played an integral part in the Atelier games, and this is no different for Atelier Ryza. This game in particular boasts a truly breathtaking world filled to the brim with opportunities to explore, gather materials and grow, with many branching paths and opportunities to dive head-first into the world. The maps are massive, sprawling environments that constantly feed the player’s curiosity to explore and unravel every last mystery in the environment. This plays a particularly important role when combined with the new gathering tools and methods, where players can utilise a series of items like the sickle, hammer, boom staff and axe to gather different materials for synthesis from the same source. This might mean that when gathering from a tree, the staff will yield an Oil Tree Fruit, the sickle will gift Bark and the axe some Lumber. This provides incentive to revisit past environments with new gathering tools in an attempt to get the best materials and further feeds into the innate sense of immersion that permeates every aspect of Atelier Ryza.
No longer are players required to whack a tree with their staff and simply hope for the best. There’s a natural logic to the whole gathering experience, and it feels GREAT to tear into the world to explore the lush environments to their fullest, all while getting your hands on newer and better ingredients! As a small side note, getting to take a chunk out of your enemies with an axe or explosion to reduce enemy stats or HP is incredibly satisfying, and I made an active point of using either the axe or net to reduce enemy defence or speed respectively for every battle I could. That satisfying thud noise when you hit an enemy with the axe is a hilarious little addition too – it’s so visceral and never ceases to make me laugh out loud!
I will admit that I do have a small complaint about the exploration aspect of Atelier Ryza, but it is very minor in the grand scheme of things. Early game, there is NO fast travel mechanic that can easily be accessed by pressing a button on the controller like there was in previous games. Instead, Ryza is restricted to using a set of guideposts to travel between set points in her village, and it is such a clunky and unnecessary restriction. The issue is resolved when the Atelier eventually opens, but this took me a whopping 5 hours to unlock. The restrictive fast travel system really slowed the game’s momentum to a crawl at times and made exploration and advancing through sections of the game a chore. Again, this is eventually rectified, and I totally understand that this design choice was likely intentional, forcing players explore the village and drink in the ambience, but instead it only drove me to seek out the guideposts and work out the quickest way to get from A to B, and did slightly affect the overall experience.
I honestly can’t begin to describe how much I came to enjoy Atelier Ryza‘s new alchemy system. It is fresh and inventive, drawing inspiration from all the best aspects of the alchemy systems of old to form a new breed of synthesis that feels the closest Gust has EVER come to capturing the magic of alchemy in game.
The new alchemy system allows you to not only craft items from recipes, but by adding an additional material at set points, players can now craft brand new recipes simply by using a previously known recipe as a base to springboard from. This is always a fantastic and exciting feeling that just never get’s old. I would often find myself starting a synthesis only to end up unlocking something brand new and unexpected – I knew what new delight I would be able to synthesise next, and that was such a fun thing to experience. Whenever an item couldn’t be synthesised, more often than not, one of the ingredients was an item that I hadn’t synthesised yet, and so I would find myself falling down rabbit hole after rabbit hole in search of new and improved alchemy recipes, and I would often end up with way more recipes and items than I’d ever thought could possibly be in this game.
As another plus, items could be improved again and again, enabling players to strengthen their synthesised bombs or medicines far beyond their normal restraints, all while increasing the item’s level as you do so. The drawback with this, however, is the fact that, to wield these strengthened items, the player’s alchemy level must be equal to or greater than the level of the newly strengthened item, or else the item would become unusable, forcing players to weigh up the benefit of improving an item against the risk of being unable to use it.
Other Alchemy Treats
The alchemy system is also far more rich and in depth than mere synthesis or strengthening alone, growing piece by piece as the game advances. At set intervals in the story, Ryza and Empel would stumble across ancient alchemy items that, when taken back to the workshop, would enable Ryza to perform a new form of alchemy. These variations are generally different forms of alchemy present in earlier games in the series, be that duplication, or enhancing weapons. The unique addition this time around, however, is the Travel Bottle synthesis. Here, players can synthesise an entire world within the bottle, allowing the party to explore, gather a specific set of materials and battle specific enemies. This is remarkably important if you’re in dire need of a specific rare synthesis material, as it really cuts the frustration from gathering, making it an invaluable tool in Atelier Ryza‘s toolbox.
Performance and Visuals
When it comes to performance, the only thing I can say is that Atelier Ryza runs as smooth as silk on the Nintendo Switch. There are no visible graphical issues in either docked or handheld mode – something that’s a pretty major feather in Atelier Ryza‘s cap. The frame rate was consistent and never seemed to dip, even in areas where there was a lot of action going on at once, which was a very nice plus.
The UI is clean and crisp, with the main menu in game possessing an easily navigable yet charming childhood aesthetic. As the game advances, the main image on the menu changes accordingly, and it feels as though you’re planning an adventure with your friends – it’s such a small detail that makes a big impact, and I’m very impressed by the sheer attention to detail on display in this game.
From a visual perspective there’s only one thing to say. This game is absolutely STUNNING. The lighting and graphical overhaul in Atelier Ryza is absolutely magnificent, and plays into the game’s entire aesthetic beautifully. It’s possible to encounter fairytale fantasy woodlands one minute and crystal encrusted caves the next, and thanks to the incredible lighting coupled with the intricate visual design, the whole experience feels cohesive and believable.
There were occasional moments where the game suffered from jagged edges on character models in cutscenes, and light bloom can become a little distracting at times, but neither issue were particularly distracting and neither impacted the experience in any significant way. A slight issue I noticed was during in-game nights, when in the heat of battle, some of the character models could gain an almost plastic-like quality, which was a little jarring, but it was nowhere near being a dealbreaker. This game is by far the most beautiful game I’ve played this year on the Nintendo Switch and it’s definitely a promising step in the right direction for the Atelier series moving forward!
I must admit that, overall, Atelier Ryza‘s sound design blew me away. Starting with the, quite frankly, breath-taking OST, there’s no denying that this game has a killer soundtrack. The soundtrack revolves around a series of woodwind and string instruments and helps weave an interconnected yet effortless soundtrack that conjures a feeling of child-like wonder. From the engaging and exciting battle theme “Grain Rain, Wheat Wind”, where the flute conjures images of Klaudia performing mid battle, to the relaxing, yet emotionally charged “Rainbow Summer”, which bookends the adventure stunningly, you’ll be hard pushed to find any glaring issues with this soundtrack. Atelier Ryza is an excellent example of a modern coming of age story, and the soundtrack helps to mirror and further emphasise this sentiment beautifully. The workshop theme, one of the tracks you’ll be hearing a lot during the course of your adventure, is the best example I can give of a resoundingly positive track that works magnificently within the overall narrative by conveying a sense of adventure and wonder that builds as the track progresses, and is an absolute diamond an already stellar soundtrack.
Now, for every good thing I’ve mentioned about Atelier Ryza‘s soundtrack and overall sound design, there is one aspect of the game’s overall sound that left me somewhat confused, and that was the strange decision to remove full voice acting from the game. In previous entries, the Atelier series has often been fully voice acted – a decision that inevitably helps the final presentation. However, on this occasion, Gust decided to step away from tradition, instead choosing only to voice the key story moments. As such, other, less essential moments are left with only subtitles or minimal voice acting. This is far from make or break, and if you’re playing through Atelier Ryza, it’s highly unlikely that it will ruin your experience. HOWEVER, it must be said that in certain scenes where the cast was involved in something particularly humorous or emotional, the lack of voice acting heavily affected the overall impact of those moments. Again, I need to reiterate that this is a relatively minimal issue, but I did find myself disappointed by this decision, and I hope that the full voice acting makes a welcome return in future titles.
As an added bonus this time around, once you cross the finish line and merge victorious after facing off against that challenging final boss, Atelier Ryza‘s world opens up further, with a surprising amount of additional bonus content in the post-game. You are given the option to reload your save and then choose whether or not to dive back into your current save file to access new post-game bosses and to mop up anything you missed on your initial playthrough, or start a New Game+, where your items and weapons will carry over, providing an early-game boost to your party. Another nice addition is the fact that a gallery becomes available once you finish the main story, allowing players to view their favourite character CGs from throughout their playthrough and listen to the excellent OST on demand. The biggest treat, however, is the inclusion of voice actor commentaries/ insights. The main voice cast returns alongside many of the non-playable cast and, through short and sweet speeches, provides fascinating insight into their time and experiences while working on Atelier Ryza. These are so sweet and are SUCH a treat to listen to. You can see the love these voice actors have for their work and the characters they played.
There’s an undeniable passion present in every single aspect of Atelier Ryza, from the soundtrack to the expert re-imagining of the battle and alchemy systems, and these mini commentaries help reinforce that sentiment beautifully. The game was a passion project for all who worked on her, and, as the newest entry in a long running series, helped breathe life back into the series. I’m so glad to see that this passion translated magnificently from development to the final product, by drawing in the biggest audience and best sales figures for the series to date.
Atelier Ryza is undeniably among the finest Atelier titles ever released and is a worthy addition to this long-running franchise. However, due to the many changes made in this game to the traditional Atelier formula, there may be some fans who find the new direction a little hard to face, possibly even pushing some dedicated players away. Despite this, I truly feel as though the story and theming of Atelier Ryza feeds into the change of direction beautifully, shaking away the stagnancy of tradition, while still remaining faithful to what made the series great. Atelier Ryza is a coming-of-age story where characters are preparing for the adventure that will be their life ahead. The themes of growing up and moving on work well with the changes implemented in this title, and I must applaud Gust for this, as the choice to merge thematic changes with mechanistic ones feel organic and are expertly implemented.
Despite a few minor issues with the game here and there, Atelier Ryza still presents a frankly sensational new entry in the series and is a great place for newcomers to jump into this beloved franchise. This game has what I feel to be the best iteration of the alchemy system, thanks to its easy-to-learn but difficult-to-master mechanics, and it’s engagingly addictive, yet deeply layered combat system is a phenomenal addition to the series, helping breathe new life into what came before with its ability to continuously draw players back time and again. Given the tremendous experience provided by Atelier Ryza, I have very high hopes for what’s to come from the “Secret” series, and for the Atelier franchise as a whole moving forward. With all of that considered, I award Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness and the Secret Hideout a respectably solid:
4.5/ 5 Carrots!!
With all that being said, thanks again for joining me on this week’s trip down the Otaku Rabbit Hole, and I hope you’ve enjoyed your time here. If you did, that’s amazing, and please consider sharing. If you didn’t, then please get in touch and let me know why. I would love to hear your thoughts! Thank you all once again and, until next time, keep it weeby everyone!