Atelier Meruru is the third and final instalment of The Alchemist of Arland series, a franchise which is fairly popular back in Japan, but not as well known on these shores. After enjoying the game's predecessors, Atelier Rorona and Atelier Totori, I was eager to snap up the trilogy's finale - even if it meant handing in my man card. Fun as the games may be it's hard to come across as macho when you spend your weekends playing as a pink haired girl who utilises her alchemic talents to conjure up homemade pies. Describing the game to friends has raised a few eyebrows and failed to convince anyone to give it a go which is a shame. Their loss I say, because the series proves that the Japanese RPG genre is not quite as dead as some reviewers would like to make out.
Merurulince Rede Arls (known to her friends as Meruru) is the star of the show. The impulsive princess has recently met Totori (the heroine from the last game) who has introduced her to the wonderful world of alchemy. Meruru loves nothing more than spending her days at the alchemy workshop, learning how to craft items by synthesising materials together. Her father, the king, would rather that his daughter attend to her royal duties, but is eventually convinced to nurture Meruru's latest hobby. He gives the princess a three year deadline to use her alchemy skills to develop their rural backwater kingdom into a thriving nation. As the player it is up to you to guide the crown wearing teen towards reaching her allocated goal.
As you would expect this latest Atelier game plays much like the ones that preceded it. You'll spend a good amount of time in town interacting with Meruru's friends and crafting items using alchemy. When you decide to venture forth and exit the safety of your home you'll be presented with a board game style map which allows you to travel around the nearby regions. Exploring an area involves harvesting materials such as berries and ore from the land whilst fending off hostile monsters. In order to succeed and avoid the bad ending you'll have to schedule your time appropriately. The clock is ticking whenever you travel between zones, pick up items or enter a fight drawing you nearer to the three year ultimatum set by the king.
Every now and then citizens will mail requests for aid to the alchemy workshop. These tasks vary from vanquishing some foul beast that is terrorising the land to delivering the goods you transmute to a specified location. Each time you accomplish a goal you'll be rewarded with development points which can be spent by speaking to Meruru's stern butler. Trading away the points will begin construction of various buildings which increases your kingdom's population and endows you with certain bonuses. Developing the marketplace for example will result in a richer selection of goods at the store whilst building military structures increases the amount of experience you earn from battle.
In addition to mail from the townsfolk, additional missions can be picked up by visiting the tavern and speaking to shy (yet secretly pervy) guild receptionist who is based there. Completing work for the guild is your main source of income and in addition to increasing your coffers it also raises the popularity of your kingdom. Being popular is always nice, especially as the increased fame will attract more immigrants which bolsters your population (well until the Conservatives get in power and start to scare off all the foreigners.)
As mentioned previously some of the quests you undertake will require battling against the local wildlife, spirits and even axe wielding lizard men. Combat is a turn based affair much like most JRPG titles during the early Playstation days/16 bit era. Your three man party comprises of Meruru along with two other characters of your choice. When you start off you'll be stuck with Keina the maid and Lias the town guard, but as the story progresses more characters become recruitable including the always serious Sterk and Esty the sword wielding lass who is sensitive about her age. The combat system is fairly simplistic so spamming attack is normally sufficient to win, although against bosses you may have to resort to consuming magic points to perform special attacks or getting the alchemists in the group to lend a hand by using items from your inventory.
Whether this is the best Atelier game in the series will ultimately boil down to which title has your favourite story or characters. Strictly from a gameplay point of view I would however have to say that this was the most enjoyable of the three. Mechanically speaking they have refined things which each iteration so Meruru benefits from having the best interface. At a glance for example you can easily tell if you have sufficient ingredients to craft an item. This all means that you spend more time doing fun stuff like completing quests and less hours navigating menus to perform tedious actions such as transferring items from your basket to the workshop container.
Visually Meruru employs the colourful hand drawn like art style we saw in Totori. Although the character designs are anime influenced, like they were originally in Rorona, the environments and character models have a more realistic look to them. The soundtrack is decent and allows you to switch things on the fly. If you don't care for the music playing in a particular zone it's possible to change the tune to a piece from one of the Atelier games which is a nice touch. Overall the voice acting is good although I once again find myself pulling my hair out (what little is left) on the decision to only voice certain cut scenes and force you to read text boxes in others. It's a penny pinching move by NIS America when localising games which I wish they would address.
If you enjoyed either of the previous Atelier games I can highly recommend this one as it's more of the same but done better. A good portion of the cast from Rorona and Totori make an appearance in this third game which will go down well with fans of the series. That's not to say that new players will find themselves lost as they do a good job of introducing the characters you meet, instantly giving you a feel for their personality and back story. If you are not acquainted with Atelier lore you even have the option of selecting a prologue clip from the main menu which recaps the story of the last two games.
This may be a niche game which will only attract a cult following, but I enjoyed it. Whilst playing it the hours can fly by as you get into the "one more go" zone which makes you play a bit more to unlock a new town facility or alchemy recipe. The item crafting may not be particularly exciting, but I never found myself getting bored as alchemy sessions regularly get broken up by funny cut scenes. For your money you get a story that runs for about thirty to forty hours in addition to some replay value. There's a new game plus feature that allows you to retain your equipment on your next play through, which is a big help for anyone trying view all the endings on offer.
All in all this is a great conclusion to the series so fingers crossed that we see more Atelier games during the next console generation. Now that I am done with the princess role playing I better go and clock in some hours on Duke Nukem to earn my man card back.