Friday, October 26, 2012

It really is about the journey.

There are times where you sit down to play a game and you're seeking an epic experience.  You're drawn in by a plot that deals with saving the world, overthrowing an evil government, righting the wrongs of an oppressive tyrant, or even shattering a few religious beliefs.  We easily see that with David's posts about Xenogears and Suikoden III.

Well, Atelier Totori is certainly not one of those gamesIt's a tale about a small-town girl who, wishing to discover her mother's whereabouts, ends up learning alchemy, becoming an adventurer, and meeting a few interesting people along the way.  The world isn't saved (perhaps a small village at most), no government is overthrown, and no one's belief system is shattered.  In contrast to many RPGs out there, it's a small-scale affair.

And yet despite this, it's one of the most engrossing games I've played in a long time.

 I've delayed posting about this game despite finishing it awhile ago.  Every time I sit down to try to write about it I find that it's a struggle to explain what it is that made the game so good for me.  Sure, I could sit down and gush about the graphics, as it's certainly one of those PS3 games that looks gorgeous:

I could also go on, as I usually do, about how the compositions of Ken Nakagawa of Ar Tonelico fame easily immerse the player:

Or I could go on about the whole list of improvements the game has over its predecessor, Atelier Rorona, which, while a good game, had its flaws.

But the more I think about that, the more I realize that you can find any of that in another review, and my particular take on it wouldn't be anything fascinating.  Instead, I'll focus on the elements that compelled me to continue playing:  The alchemy, the characters, and seeing a story through to completion.

Arts and Crafts


Atelier games have been, at the core, about crafting.  While some of the games in the Atelier Iris series decouple crafting as a necessary component of the story, and spin-offs like Mana Khemia decouple reasonable loading times as a necessary component of the gameplay, the Arland series returns the game back to its roots.  At the core of it, both Totori and Rorona are about the using alchemy to help people out.

While the crafting system isn't perfect (you spend in-game time, which is a precious commodity, to do it), it's easy enough to do and figure out that you shouldn't need an FAQ to master it unless you're trying to create an ultimate-tier item or simply want to save time figuring out where to find a particular ingredient:  Compared to certain other games, the crafting component's certainly less of a pain:

The crafting in Star Ocean 3 makes more sense than the plot, at least.

 What did this mean for me?  If I only had a limited time to play the game, or was simply too exhausted mentally to invest much, I could boot up the game, go gather a few ingredients and create a few items for my own use, to sell, or to use in quests on a later date.  It was a nice way of feeling like I'd accomplished something without stressing too much.

A Likable Cast

Another central component to the series are the characters, much like any RPG.  I won't waste your time giving a summary of every character, but I will say that the cast of Atelier Totori is a likable one:  It strikes the right combination of new entries to the series with a number of returning characters and cameos from the previous game.

See, here's the thing, though:  Unlike some other games, Totori doesn't necessarily bludgeon you over the head or force the character development:  Beyond the main character and her immediate family, it's actually easy to miss out on the stories of other characters if you're not careful:  While the game gives you an introduction and some background on the cast as they become available to your party, any further development is based on which party members you decide to take out on adventures with you over the course of the game.

If you're one of those obsessive people who ends up wanting to level everyone, you might see a lot of development for each character.  If you're like me and go for a combination of familiarity and wanting to steamroll every monster in the game, well, you're going to see a lot of development for Melvia and Sterk:

Because really, who DOESN'T want to one-shot everything?

Normally, this is one of those things that would paralyze me in a game as I'm the type that wants to get everything done in one playthrough, but as I was simply just enjoying the ride, this became less important:  Each character had an interesting enough story that the snippets I got made me less stressed about getting it all right in one playthrough.

A Cast Reunited 


Direct sequels are always tricky, especially when the torch is passed to another set of characters.  Sometimes, in the process of improving many aspects about gameplay, a direct sequel may leave you with a cast of generally unlikable characters, or likable character who grossly pale in comparison to the previous cast:

Or downright strange characters that pale by comparison

Yet Atelier Totori somehow manages to get it right.  You have your characters from the previous members who still join the main party, while other characters who were central to the story before are still prominent, but in the background.  Rorona, the titular character from the previous games is the teacher of Totori in the second game, while Sterk, the dour-faced knight in the first game reprises his role as the ever-suffering mentor of new adventurers.  Characters like Iksel, while not a part of the playable cast (unless you snag the DLC), still play a role and provide a link to the first game.

The nice part of this is that a sense of continuity is created and answers the question of what happened to the characters in the previous game:  You find out a lot about what happened to the previous cast, either through direct interactions, or through conversations that take place:  It's always nice to see how some characters have stayed the same, and how others have grown:

Except for Cordelia.  She's still short.

Closing Thoughts


When I posted about Atelier Rorona this past Christmas, I noted that with some games, it's more about the journey than the end goal, which is something that's all too easy for backloggers to forget with our massive piles of games.  Atelier Totori is one of those games that reminded me that sometimes, you don't need an epic quest or grand storyline to make a great game:  Its one of those games where it really is about the character interaction.  While it doesn't do everything perfectly, the sum of its parts is enough to make a game that I found easy enough to pick up no matter how tired I was for the day.

Right now, it's sitting in my pile of 'finished, but will play again' games.  Admittedly, whether I get back around to it in the next decade is questionable.

In any case, until next time, keep playing:  But don't lose sight of the fact that we are playing these things for enjoyment.

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