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Review

Review: Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & the Secret Hideout

The Ate­lier series has been on the go for a long time, so it’s not real­ly sur­pri­sing that it would start to beco­me sta­le after so many year­ly releases. Ate­lier Ryza: Ever Darkness & the Secret Hide­out is, asi­de from a mouth­ful of a sub­tit­le, an attempt to shake things up. The­re are some wel­co­me chan­ges to the batt­le and alche­my sys­tems, but a lifeless world and lack of events ruin what could have been a return to form for the fran­chise. 

Ate­lier Ryza marks the start of what will likely be ano­t­her tri­lo­gy of games, fea­turing a new world and, natu­ral­ly, a new prot­ago­nist. Rei­sa­lin Stout, or Ryza to her fri­ends, longs to lea­ve her vil­la­ge and go on adven­tures, but it seems like her par­ents would rather have her help with the faim­ly farm ins­tead. After a spon­ta­ne­ous trip to the near­by main­land that goes wrong, she encoun­ters the tra­vel­ling alche­mist Empel and his com­pa­n­ion. Rea­li­sing the poten­ti­al alche­my has to ful­fil her dreams, she asks Empel to teach her ever­ything he knows, kick­star­ting a brand-new adven­ture for Ryza and her com­pa­n­ions. 

Unli­ke many of the PS3-era Ate­lier games, Ate­lier Ryza has a hea­vier focus on its main sto­ry. There’s still the usu­al sli­ce of life anti­cs here, but com­pa­red to the Arland tri­lo­gy this is a more direc­ted expe­ri­ence. Ryza is slow­ly taught new alche­my reci­pes and tech­ni­ques, which requi­re her to explo­re more of the main­land for mate­ri­als. As she learns more about alche­my, Ryza also dis­co­vers more about why Empel jour­neys throughout the world, along with the island’s histo­ry. Ate­lier Ryza is at its best when the sto­ry is moving along, let­ting you learn more about its cha­rac­ters and the are­as you explo­re. Howe­ver, the over­ar­ching nar­ra­ti­ve is mar­red by poor attempts at dra­ma and a lack of focus on the game’s side cha­rac­ters. 

Befo­re going into the story’s many pro­blems, it’s worth men­tio­ning that the small cast of main cha­rac­ters is actual­ly qui­te good. Ryza’s trnas­for­ma­ti­on from a rebel­lious teen into a ful­ly-fled­ged alche­mist is hand­led well, being the dri­ving force behind a lot of the sto­ry. Fur­ther­mo­re, her fri­ends also have their moments, from book­worm Tao’s aca­de­mic endea­vours to the war­ri­or-in-trai­ning Lent’s jour­ney to be free from his father’s shadow. Events that focus on the main cast are far and away the stron­gest aspect of the game’s nar­ra­ti­ve, as they form stron­ger bonds with each other. When it comes to fle­shing out the rest of the cast though, Ate­lier Ryza falls flat. The­re are only a hand­ful of cha­rac­ters out­si­de of the main 6, none of which are given enough time to beco­me inte­res­ting. One of the worst offen­ders for this comes in the form of Lent’s father, who appears in a small hand­ful of cuts­ce­nes. His abu­si­ve ten­den­ci­es towards his son are pret­ty much igno­red, lea­ving a bad tas­te in our mouths, and fur­ther high­lights just how litt­le time is spent on events other than the main sto­ry. 

The game’s sto­ry over­all gives off a fee­ling of being rus­hed, even during its best moments. The­re are far fewer side events com­pa­red to ear­lier Ate­lier games, and some chan­ces for cha­rac­ter deve­lop­ment are glos­sed over. The island Ryza has lived on for her ent­i­re life ends up see­ming com­ple­te­ly lifeless becau­se of this, sin­ce you’ll only be inter­ac­ting with a tiny amount of cha­rac­ters. It’s like the­re wasn’t a clear direc­tion on whe­re to take the sto­ry so the main sto­ry ends up being rus­hed, but the­re isn’t an abundance of extra events to make up for it. There’s poten­ti­al here for the world to beco­me more deve­lo­ped in future releases, but as a sin­gle game Ate­lier Ryza fails to tell an inte­res­ting sto­ry. 

Using alche­my to syn­the­si­se new items and equip­ment unsur­pri­sin­gly plays a big part in Ate­lier Ryza, and it’s one of two major chan­ges to the series. In many ways, syn­the­sis in this game is the easiest it’s been in a while, lacking a lot of the poor­ly exp­lai­ned or more obtu­se mecha­nics of other ent­ries. At its most basic, reci­pes for items are made up of mate­ri­al loops. The­se loops have requi­re­ments ran­ging from an exact item to some­thing less spe­ci­fic like a plant or paper. If you insert an item into a mate­ri­al loop that also matches its ele­ment, you can unlock new effec­ts for the item you’re syn­the­sising. It sounds some­what com­pli­ca­ted, espe­ci­al­ly with how it’s exp­lai­ned during tuto­ri­als, but this sys­tem is far more strai­ght­for­ward. It’s easy to judge what effec­ts you can gain when adding items to the mate­ri­al loops, and there’s even an opti­on to auto­ma­ti­cal­ly com­ple­te a syn­the­sis with high- or low-qua­li­ty items. The only real com­p­laint we have is that it’s almost too easy, lea­ding to syn­the­sis beco­m­ing a litt­le boring later on, though this is still more wel­co­me than an over­ly com­pli­ca­ted sys­tem that ends up being frus­tra­ting. 

A com­ple­te­ly new style of batt­ling is the other big shake-up in Ate­lier Ryza, opting to go for a real-time batt­le sys­tem over the usu­al turn-based sys­tems the series is known for. It’s not an action-RPG though, being clo­ser to the ATB sys­tem from older Final Fan­ta­sy games ins­tead. When it’s a character’s turn to act, you have a fami­li­ar set of actions that can be per­for­med. Regu­lar attacks do a small amount of dama­ge, but let you build action points. AP is main­ly used for skills, but it also has a few other func­tions. If you max out your AP, you can increa­se your tac­tics level in batt­le, impro­ving your attacks, skills and the max amount of AP that can be held. 

Along with HP, both your par­ty mem­bers and mons­ters you fight have a stun meter that decrea­ses as they take dama­ge, stun­ning them when ful­ly deple­ted. When at low health, enemies will often start char­ging up a hea­vy hit­ting attack which can only be stop­ped when they’re stun­ned. Throughout batt­les, par­ty mem­bers you’re not con­trol­ling will issue action orders, such as ‘attack with this ele­ment’ or ‘use an item’. Ful­fil­ling the­se orders will lead to tho­se par­ty mem­bers doing a fol­low-up attack, which makes stun­ning an ene­my far easier. By using 10 AP, you can also use quick actions to act even when it’s not your turn, lea­ding to fur­ther fol­low-up attacks from allies. 

Ate­lier Ryza’s batt­le sys­tem is enjoy­a­ble for the most part, making even regu­lar ene­my encoun­ters more inte­res­ting than mashing one but­ton. You con­stant­ly have to deci­de how to spend AP, split­ting it bet­ween increa­sing your tac­tics level, using skills and quick actions. Unfor­tu­n­a­te­ly, even with a radi­cal­ly dif­fe­rent batt­le sys­tem the game still has the same pro­blem as other modern games in the series: Items. With no time limits for objec­tives, craf­ting incredi­b­ly strong offen­si­ve items is easy to do ear­ly on. This is made wor­se by the simp­le craf­ting sys­tem, along with a few other ques­tion­ab­le addi­ti­ons, sin­ce it’s far easier to syn­the­si­ze items with the best effec­ts. 

The first chan­ge comes in the form of gems, a cur­ren­cy you gain by con­ver­ting exis­ting items and mate­ri­als. Gems allow you to keep adding to the mate­ri­al loops of an item even after you’ve syn­the­sis­ed it, igno­ring the usu­al item limit during nor­mal syn­the­sis. Using the­se, it’s not hard to max out most mate­ri­al loops of an item, boos­ting its effec­ts and deci­ma­ting the majo­ri­ty of enemies you face. What makes this even wor­se is the fact that items aren’t even con­su­med on use any more, ins­tead using up a sepa­ra­te resour­ce cal­led core char­ge. Each item has a CC cost which can be refil­led by con­ver­ting other items or retur­ning home. Con­ver­ting items doesn’t con­su­me them eit­her, mea­ning that you can just spam your stron­gest items, con­ver­ting unu­sed items to res­to­re CC when necessa­ry, and for­go any sort of stra­te­gy. You can crank up the dif­fi­cul­ty level to miti­ga­te this some­what, but it’s still a shame to see Ate­lier Ryza fail at impro­ving the series’ balan­cing pro­blems, some­thing which has beco­me wor­se ever sin­ce time limits were remo­ved. 

If it was just some pro­blems regar­ding game balan­ce and a poor main sto­ry, Ate­lier Ryza wouldn’t be so bad. Howe­ver, the rus­hed sto­ry actual­ly has a far big­ger effect on the other aspec­ts of the game. The world of Ate­lier Ryza feels so unin­te­res­ting thanks to the redu­ced amounts of events, with many of the villager’s back­sto­ries being rele­ga­ted to a few lines of dia­lo­gue during side-quests. Most NPCs also only have a coup­le of things to say during the ent­i­re game, giving you litt­le incen­ti­ve to talk to them and making it hard to real­ly care for the resi­dents of the island. A lot of this can also be attri­bu­t­ed to the game’s poor visu­als, from the bland envi­ron­ments to the stiff way cha­rac­ters are ani­ma­ted. The series has always had trou­ble kee­ping up with modern hard­ware, and Ate­lier Ryza’s doesn’t chan­ge this trend. 

It’s striking just how dif­fe­rent the rest of Ate­lier Ryza is com­pa­red to batt­les and syn­the­sis. Gathe­ring and explo­ra­ti­on is dull, even with the new focus on using dif­fe­rent gathe­ring tools. The­re are rare­ly secrets to find, and the same enemies are used repeated­ly. By the half­way point of the game when most of the optio­nal events dried up, it was dif­fi­cult to stay moti­va­ted after going back and forth bet­ween the same are­as, figh­t­ing the same enemies, for the sake of pro­gres­sing the sto­ry. 

Conclusion 

It’s hard not to feel disap­poin­ted with Ate­lier Ryza. In some ways it’s the best the series has been in a long time, but as a who­le we can’t igno­re just how lacking it feels. The island and its inha­bi­tants are most­ly soul­less, the dated visu­als only adding to this sen­ti­ment. Future Ate­lier games real­ly need more time to deve­lop, other­wi­se we’ll just end up with ano­t­her under­ba­ked release. 

 

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