Sunday, December 25, 2011

Not so metal Alchemist

I have a love-hate relationship with games developed by Gust.

I hate that often, there's an annoying glitch, bug, or just poor quality control which, in the best case, serves as a minor annoyance, and in other cases, is absolutely gamebreaking: And not the type that works in your favor.  Yet, many times, there are things that I love about them which allow me to overlook these flaws:  They're (usually) aesthetically pleasing (if not in terms of sprites, than the lush background).  They have a number of interesting gameplay mechanics going for them.  Perhaps most importantly, however, they usually end up being the sort of games that you can sit down, veg out to, and play casually through -- at least in an initial playthrough, as long as you're not trying to be a super completionist.

Enter Atelier Rorona.  Like a few other Gust games in the past, this game suffers from random freezing, which can destroy hours of progress if you haven't been diligent in saving.  On the flipside, it is one of the most gorgeous games produced on the PS3.  For me, however, the beauty of Atelier Rorona wasn't in pure aesthetics, but it's relative simplicity:  Something much needed at a time of year when things get hectic for me at work.

A Delayed Acquisition

How I acquired this game is a funny story.  Originally, when it was first released, I happened to chance upon it at one of Gamestop's ever-frequent (though they'll try to convince you that they're not that frequent) Buy 2, Get 1 free used game sales.  In a previous piece, I lamented how there were very few PS3 exclusives that justified my purchase of the system:  Something that, to this day, I, as well as others, I'm sure, still struggle with, as we hope for the release of some game that makes us happy to own this iteration of Sony's console:

Not that we're pointing any fingers.

So when I came across this game, I was somewhat relieved, yet still not fully convinced that I wanted to purchase the game (even used, it was still $45 bucks).  Fortunately, someone made that decision easy for me:  The guy who snatched up the game after I had put it back while I debated a bit too long on my decision.

Pretty sure it was this guy.
It was for the best, as by the time I finally got around to purchasing it, it had dropped to $26 or so.  Patience is a virtue after all.  But enough of my acquisition story:  You're probably curious about the game itself.

Fully Inept Alchemists

Atelier Rorona puts you in the role of the titular character, Rorona:  An alchemist apprenticed to the skilled, but lazy Astrid.  Well, "apprenticed" is a nice way of putting it.  Rorona's basically an indentured servant to Astrid, who, years ago, saved her parents from a terminal illness with the powers of alchemy:

See boys, you're supposed to do it BEFORE she dies.
Rorona's parents, however, were either too poor to afford treatment, or Astrid's alchemy fell under "alternative practices" that their HMO didn't cover.  As repayment, they agreed to sign away their daughter to Astrid until their debt has paid off.  Honestly, I'm left questioning just how poor Rorona's parents really are.  Throughout the game, they're frequently going on vacation, and when they return, they're unloading gifts (often rare alchemy supplies) onto Rorona.  Sounds to me like they just wanted to get rid of the kid.

In any case, at the beginning of the game, a few things happen (in no particular order):  For one, since Astrid is a lazy bum who's done no real service to the kingdom, her alchemy workshop is under the threat of being closed down if they don't meet certain production criteria.  Secondly, rather than being phased by this, Astrid instead decides to give ownership of it to Rorona, making it her student's problem instead.

We already know the answer to this.
You know, I'm starting to realize a trend of passing the buck going on here..

You'd think this would be a cinch, since her teacher is an alchemic prodigy, but there's just one, tiny, problem:  Astrid has taught Rorona virtually nothing about alchemy, and the extent of her apprenticeship has been enduring teasing and veiled innuendos from her master.  You'd also think that it'd be easier for Rorona to simply let the shop fail, be free of Astrid's tyranny and live a normal life.  But that, too, presents a problem:  For one, we wouldn't have a game.  But more importantly (and in the context of the plot), losing the shop wouldn't erase Rorona's debt.  In fact, it'd force her and her parents into the poor house.  Thus, Rorona has little choice but to succeed with her limited knowledge and next to no support from her mentor.

It's going to be a long road for Rorona.

An Easy Ride

Remember what I said about interesting gameplay mechanics?  Atelier Rorona has a number of them going for it, between field exploration, battle, and friendship meters (with both townsfolk and party members), but all of these lead back to the game's central point:  Item creation through alchemy.  To be frank, this isn't a game someone plays for the engrossing combat system:  It's relatively simple and unimpressive visually.  In all honesty, however, this came as something of a relief to me.  Rather than having to focus on continually grinding my characters (though you may have to do that to a small extent later, depending on what you want to do), I was free to focus on creating a variety of different items, and exploring a variety of different areas.

Well, to an extent, anyway.

While the crux of this game is alchemy, your creations are a means to a greater end:  Keeping Rorona's shop open.  The game spans three years, with Rorona being given close to 3 months for each request the kingdom has of her.  While these requests are often simple and can be accomplished fairly quickly, the clock is always ticking:  Traveling out of town requires a certain number of days.  Traveling between maps in each dungeon takes a few days.  Massive synthesis projects can take a number of days.

Thus, while the game gives you somewhere in the neighborhood of 85 (roughly) days to finish each projects, once you've factored in exploration, material creation, and such, you're shaving at least 15 days off each task.  While I never felt like I was extremely pressed for time to finish a storyline related project, I did feel like, at times, I never had as much time to explore or synthesize as many items as I would have liked.

One of the most fun parts of the game.
But therein lies the beauty of Gust / NIS games:  They're simple enough (in most cases) that, if you just want to sit down and play the game through to complete the story, you can.  If you're one of those completionists that has to see everything a game has to offer, well, Rorona has no shortage of that:  There are numerous endings, various events, multiple (time-sensitive) events, and overall enough to keep the meticulous gamer busy.  In the case of this game, was I one of those gamers?  Well. . .

Concluding thoughts

I mentioned earlier that part of the beauty surrounding Gust / NIS games are that they're the sort of games that are easy to sit down and play casually without too much thought.  I don't take credit for them, however:  Rather, they came up in a conversation once between me and the Enabler when I was griping about the Disgaea series.  While it's true that the hyper-completionist in me who wants to get his money's worth out of a game will try to uncover every single thing it has to offer, taking this mindset, at least in terms of these games can make them a lot more enjoyable.

So in the end, I didn't explore every single nook that Atelier Rorona had to offer.  In fact, I didn't even finish the game.  Mind you, it's not because it was a bad game.  For the bit that I played (I made it roughly halfway through), I had a good time.  Besides, the more I write for this blog (and the more conversations I have with David), I'm realizing that not every single game has to be "finished fully" before it's removed from the backlog.  Sometimes, it's just so awful of a game that you don't want to continue.  Other times, you reach a point of satisfaction that you're content with your progress, knowing that maybe you'll come back to it someday, but for all intents and purposes, it's done.

In my case?  While I did try my best to rush through it in the time I had, ultimately, giving it as a gift to the person who bestowed those words of wisdom upon me took precedence.

Merry Christmas.

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