Review: Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & the Secret Hideout

by

Developer: Koei Tecmo
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Platform: PS4, PC(Steam), Nintendo Switch
Price: $59,99 USD
Release Date: October 28th, 2019

The Atelier series is a staple of the jRPG genre, its games and characters recognizable to most fans of anime games, even in the West. What most people do not know, however, is that Atelier is one of the longest running series of video games of all time. The first game in the series was released for the Playstation 1 in ’97 and, since then, there have been 21 mainline games in the series and several more spin-offs. Earlier this year we made a review of the anniversary game of the series, Nelke & The Legendary Alchemists, which you can read here.

The Atelier games have survived four generations and the test of time due to its uniqueness: They are jRPGs with a huge focus on item crafting, and less focus on combat. The central theme of these games is Alchemy, a science that is able to turn certain material into other things. Weapons, armor, bombs, potions, and other gadgets are all obtained by crafting.

The biggest question potential new players for Atelier always have is: Do I need to play the previous games to understand this one? The answer is: No.

Atelier games are organized in series. Every series is its unique universe, with its own rules, characters, and themes. For each, there are 2 to 4 games set in that universe, after which the next game will be set in an entirely new universe. Atelier Ryza is the first game of a new series, meaning that you do not need any knowledge of previous games in order to play.

Story

As is the norm in Atelier games, the plot starts from a new protagonist becoming an Alchemist, learning new recipes and slowly becoming strong and influential enough to make an impact in their world. Ryza, the eponymous protagonist, is a regular teenage girl in her village. Tomboyish, known troublemaker, problem child. She’s the head of her gang of friends, Tao and Lent.

The town guard knows her face, and knows that she’s never up to good

Everything changes when the village receives the visit of four unexpected guests: A merchant from the capital, his daughter, Klaudia, and a mystery duo that has come to visit the ruins in the island, Lila and Empel. The three teens immediately become interested in the knowledge and experience brought by the two investigators. Lent begins to train his sword under Lila, Tao and Ryza become Empel’s pupils in ancient scripts and alchemy, respectively.

Ryza’s village is very closed off, its inhabitants often times are adverse to leaving the island. The journey begins because Ryza’s gang wants to go to the mainland and explore the larger world and, in the process, begin to unravel certain secrets of the world, in particular surrounding the downfall of the ancient Klint Kingdom.

The plot for the first half of the game involves Ryza and her gang’s thoughts on adventure, the outside world, what they yearn for, and their interests. It seems to go by quite slowly at times but never becomes a chore. You will regularly take extended breaks from the plot and subquests in order to lock yourself up in your Atelier to craft a new fancy bomb or a cool new weapon for your favorite character. You won’t even notice that you’ve begun unraveling certain key parts of the plot.

There’s always a weird romantic tension between these two

Speaking of the Atelier, the place itself seems to have a special significance in this game. Usually, the protagonist’s Atelier is a town shop that receives requests from townsfolk, largely resembling a business establishment. In Atelier Ryza, as is explicit by the name, the Atelier house is a Secret Hideout. Ryza builds the house in secrecy, in a forest clearing, in order to hide from the adults in the island. At that point in the game, they can only leave by sneaking out on a boat from an unused dock. Although Ryza does business with the townsfolk and receives requests, none of the adults know where her Atelier is.

Ryza has a rash opinion of adults

Another interesting thing to note is the perception of Alchemy in Ryza’s world. On all recent previous entries of Atelier, Alchemy is seem as a normal thing. In Ryza’s universe, the common folk seem largely ignorant of its existence, even going as far as calling it “strange sorcery” and being suspicious of Empel.

Beyond the second half of the game, the plot begins to take center stage. Adventures and fun still get mentioned but now, the stakes become larger and bigger secrets are unveiled. The group realizes that there is something that only they can do, and thus they set out to do it. It’s about around this point that it becomes clear that Ryza has surpassed Empel, and that you gain access to the REALLY SERIOUS ALCHEMY that lets you basically cheat and break the game, if you learned the systems right.

That’s the place they were told never to go

Keep in mind, we only get a very small glimpse of this world and its past through the eyes and events in Atelier Ryza. The next few Atelier games will be set in this same world and that is when we’ll be able to really delve into its secrets. Nonetheless, I believe that the scope and events that took place in this first game were interesting enough to build a foundation on, even if the plot itself is stretched thin by the character build-up and universe introduction.

Gameplay

Previous mainline Atelier games had turn-based combat. Ryza’s game is a breakaway in this aspect, adopting a real time combat system instead.

Map movement follows the norm of modern jRPGs, with free movement over a 3D space. Enemies are visible, will attack if you approach them from front, combat initiates on contact. Attacking the enemies on the field with a weapon will begin combat with an advantage.

I love this kind of scenery

On the left, an icon belonging to each character indicates turn order. Upon reaching the bottom, the character can make a move. The speed your icon moves depends on the SPEED stat, and the delay depends on the last action you took. You can freely control any character at any time, the other characters will act independently. You must have 3 characters in combat but all characters will receive EXP.

Normal attacks fill up the AP gauge. Once at max, you may consume all of it in order to increase Tactics Level. A higher Tactics levels lets your normal attacks hit more times and causes skills and items to gain additional effects. The real challenge starts when enemy monsters begin to unleash special attacks, which hurt all party members and will wipe out your party if you let them land. The real genius of this battle system that, rather than spamming your strongest attacks all the time, you basically want to save up your AP in order to counter-attack monsters, not allowing them the chance to use their power attacks.

Boss Battle – PS4 Slim footage with the black corners cut out.

The combat was interesting but the real appeal of this game, or any Atelier game for that matter, is the Alchemy system.

Your first recipe.

Alchemy begins with selecting the recipe you’re going to start with. Every recipe is made up of several connected nodes, which have to be cleared before you can proceed to the next node. The nodes are cleared or filled by adding items, one or several, into them. Effects are unlocked by clearing their specific nodes, and the criteria used is the Elemental Value of an item.

There is far more that you must watch for, though. There’s a limited number of items you can put in a recipe, the quality of the final product depends on the quality of the materials that are put into the cauldron, powerful traits can be added and powered up, which are randomly given when you collect items in the field. Trait slots must also be unlocked too, or else they won’t work.

New recipes are unlocked by filling up special nodes in already learned recipes, or purchasing/obtaining a book. Below is an example of this. A Reaper’s Scythe can morph into a different tool if you fill a specific node.

Recipe Morph

There are countless ways to improve your Alchemy. Planting overpowered seeds into even more overpowered materials, turning materials into items and back into materials, stacking Quality until you have 999 Quality materials, and more. Perhaps the most advanced technique you can do is morph recipes into more recipes, over and over until you have a final item that has stats much better than what you could possibly get if you had simply made the item outright. The possibilities are endless.

The crux of this game, and any Atelier game really, is the Alchemy. If you do not enjoy it, you will not enjoy this game. However, if you do enjoy it, you’re going to have a blast with any Atelier game, guaranteed.

Around the time I got to 80%~90% of the game, I retreated back into the Atelier and decided that it was time to go retarded on the alchemy. As a result, I spent 10 hours working on the best synthesis materials that I could make. And no, those weren’t even full retarded materials, just the best that I could make at that point in time. I could probably have put another 10 hours in trying to make 999 Quality materials with full traits if I wanted but it was pointless because every enemy in the game was already melting before my bombs. I was even playing on Hard, too.

There is much more to synthesis than just this. Duplication, refining, gem reducing, and even a World-Creating Bottle feature that played similar to Chalice dungeons from Bloodborne, complete with password sharing and levels.

One cool feature that I liked was linked to item collecting. That was, the items that can be collected depend on which tool you used to gather them. For example, using the scythe on a tree would give your tree bark, while using the axe gave lumber and the staff gave fruit. Using a bug net on bushes yields insects, using the scythe gives plants and the staff yields berries. Because of this, once you gained access to new tools, you could backtrack to areas you’ve already been to and collect new items that you could not access before. Mind you, we’re talking about light amounts of backtracking, not Super Metroid levels of going back and hitting everything.

Graphics

Atelier games, traditionally, are not graphically impressive. The last several installments have all been further limited by the fact that they had to run on Playstation Vita. Although the PSVita is not a terrible piece of hardware, it was definitely holding back the games in terms of graphics. As the PS Vita became more and more irrelevant, those portable ports became increasingly lazy, as is evidenced by the last game of the Mysterious series, Lydie & Suelle.

A previous Atelier game. From top to bottom: PSVita, Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4

With Atelier Ryza, Koei Tecmo likely intended to give the series a much-needed graphical upgrade. Any comparison between previous Atelier titles and Ryza’s game will make it obvious how far this jump has been.

Music

While music isn’t the strongest suits of Atelier games, they usually manage to be competent enough to look forward to. Regrettably, the musical score is perhaps the weakest part of the whole. There are few tracks, they are short, and none of them are inspired or stand out. It becomes particularly annoying in your Atelier because, as I previously mentioned, it is normal for the player to spend hours inside, cooking up new recipes. The same repetitive music playing and looping gets boring, really fast, and it wouldn’t surprise me if many players just muted the game during these parts.

The voice acting is what you’d expect from an anime game. There are quite a few male characters in the game(even though one of them is voiced by a woman), which is a bit unusual but not really unwelcome. All of the seiyuus involved have recorded messages in the bonus content, where they talk about their experience in making the game.

All the main cutscenes are fully voiced. However, none of the dialogue from side quests are. It’s not like there’s a lot of them, I don’t see why they wouldn’t just completely voice the entire game. That struck as lacking.

In my previous review of Nelke & The Legendary Alchemists, I noted how it had profoundly bothered me that the seiyuu comments were left completely untranslated. It seems like Koei Tecmo remembered to translate them this time.

Downsides

Despite the intricate attention given to the Alchemy systems and sub-systems, the beautiful environments and colorful cast of characters, Atelier games are very much budget games. As much as they’re fun and different from one another, they very much feel and look very cheap to make. They have to be, because historically they are not big sellers. The average Atelier game sells between 50k~250k lifetime copies in Japan, which is not a whole lot. Ryza is already the best selling Atelier game on release with over 150k in the first couple weeks.

If you’re someone who can’t help but be bothered by cut corners, enemy recolors and overall cheap-looking assets and map design, it’s quite likely that you’ll have a hard time looking away from these issues in Atelier Ryza.

Furthermore, there is nearly no post-game content. All there is to do are two bosses, being that one is a secret inside a World Bottle. I couldn’t help but be disappointed by this.

Overall

With Atelier Ryza, Koei Tecmo likely intended to bring the Atelier series to a all-new audience. The graphical upgrade, the active battle system and the unexpected amount attention that the game gathered from fan artists seem to have boosted the series to a whole new level of popularity. It’s not a perfect game but it was definitely a worthwhile, fresh experience. It’s the type of game that you can just sink your teeth into and enjoy for several days. Hopefully, the sequels will live up to Ryza’s hype and new standards.

As usual, I’ve taken far too many screenshots of this game and I don’t feel like letting it go to waste, so here’s a pointlessly huge gallery of them. And my Platinum trophy, just for bragging rights.

Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & the Secret Hideout

Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & the Secret Hideout

9.2

Pros

  • Good entry for new players
  • Beautiful graphics
  • Real time battle system
  • Alchemy is fun
  • Thick thighs save lives

Cons

  • Budget looking
  • Post-game was lacking