Review: Atelier Meruru Plus: The Apprentice of Arland

The Atelier series of RPGs has to be in contention for longest running RPG series still shrouded in relative obscurity. The series has seen ten different titles in North America since 2005, which is more than Zelda, Metroid and Assassin’s Creed in the same time span. And yet, if you mention the series to anyone outside the most hardcore of RPG buffs, you are met with blank stares and questions as to if you are sure you’re pronouncing it right. For the uninitiated, the Atelier series is a JRPG series with a strong focus on item crafting and a cutesy presentation. Atelier Meruru Plus: The Apprentice of Arland, originally released on the PS3 (without the nifty “plus” thrown in), is the third game in the Arland trilogy. The Vita remake includes new boss monsters, new scenes, and various extra goodies. While this sort of RPG will not appeal to everyone and this might be a bit of a weird jump in point for someone who hasn’t already been playing along, the story is mostly self-contained and the excellent crafting system makes this well worth checking out.

This time around you are in control of Meruru, princess of the Kingdom of Arls and annoying protagonist extraordinaire. While princess might sound like a pretty sweet gig, Arls has a population lower than that of most apartment buildings making her job kind of boring. They don’t even have a Starbucks and their national bird is the tumbleweed. Apparently, it isn’t particularly fun to be a sovereign of a nation where half of your subjects are family and the other half are cows and Meruru decides to go out and get herself another job as an alchemist’s apprentice. Unfortunately, as parents are totally lame and just don’t understand, Meruru’s father (the king of Arls) forbids his daughter from spending her days mixing stuff in pots as she needs to get back to the castle to shake hands and kiss babies. Devastated by the fact that her father has quashed her lifelong dream she has had for almost a full week, Meruru throws a fit and calls her father a poopyhead (literally — this isn’t meant to be a joke) and storms out. Luckily, cooler heads prevail and her father finds a way that she can use her alchemy for the good of the kingdom. Arls is in the process of being absorbed by the much larger country Arland but needs little things like roads and people to help woo the kingdom into some sexy late night conquering. Thus, if Meruru can help increase the population of Arls with her alchemy to a satisfactory point within three years time (with two bonus years tacked on if she can meet that goal), she can continue her training. If not, she must abandon it forever and become Princess Poopyhead.

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The story in the Atelier series has never been its strong suit, a tradition that Atelier Meruru Plus takes very seriously. The overarching plot is entirely forgettable, and really the whole thing just serves as a flimsy excuse to have such a strong focus on alchemy. Those looking for an epic storyline with intrigue and twists are going to be sorely disappointed, as this is more a tale of friendship and believing in yourself and not giving up on your dreams and dammit typing this out just gave me a cavity. The whole thing is so over the top cute and sweet that it feels like it was specifically designed for little kids. There just isn’t any sort of interesting driving factor behind the narrative, and you’re basically embarking on a quest to improve property values and make Arls a more appealing acquisition for Arland. The last game had the main character embarking on a quest to find her missing mother, and this is the tale of a bored princess looking for a new hobby.

It doesn’t help that most of the characters aren’t likable with a handful that are really freaking annoying. Meruru might grow on you over time, but even she spends too much of the game wavering between being obnoxious and generic. The last couple of games in the series were driven primarily by the relationships that formed between the characters over time and the personal growth of the main characters, but both of these things are sorely absent this time around. Various scenes are triggered as you progressed further in the game, but I found my mind wandering whenever these popped up because they all felt like mindless filler. Occasionally a scene might elicit a smile, but for the most part all the story does is get in the way of the much more entertaining alchemy system.

Fortunately, the game is saved by the addicting alchemy system that you can lose yourself in for hours. Alchemy and crafting have always been the main focus of the Atelier series, and after this long the system has been refined and polished to a point that it is dangerously habit forming. Anyone who has played any of the past games should become quite comfortable in this familiar setup as Atelier Meruru Plus doesn’t deviate far from the well established formula. You need to go out to various locations to fight monsters in straightforward turn based combat and harvest all the materials you can possibly carry. The crafting system here is surprisingly deep given the game’s less than complex presentation, and there is a lot of fun to be had hunting down rare ingredients to make that extra powerful piece of armor to help you finally get past that particularly tricky boss.

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The combat is simple but serviceable, and is essentially a classic version of turn based combat that RPG veterans all know and love. There really isn’t any sort of additional complexity, as characters can either attack, defend, or use a special move and then watch as the enemies do the same. Alchemists have a special item command that allows you to dig around in your item pouch and use something that you’ve synthesized (or found). This becomes particularly important later in the game when the game takes a turn for the difficult and powerful items are a must. More powerful items can be synthesized using higher quality items, and the amount of preparation required to clear the later dungeons and boss fights imparts a definite sense of satisfaction once completed. Something that has changed from the PS3 original is that the difficulty seems to have been nerfed a bit and at least mitigates the need for the endless grinding to get past some of the later bosses.

This game also has a ton of content and stuff to do, even if a lot of the stuff starts to feel the same after a while. It took me over 100 hours to get the true ending, and this is the kind of game that is easy to get lost in. There are a lot of sidequests to complete, which award you with extra money and popularity if you feel like taking them up. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of variety in these and almost all of them come down to killing x amount of monsters or gathering x number of items. The world building aspect is more interesting, and as you progress in the game you can build certain buildings that give your characters various passive bonuses or improve the standing of your kingdom. It is nice to watch a field get cleared out of grass to start yielding more useful items based off of your actions, and the kingdom grows and develops directly as a result of your actions and which quests you decide to take in which order.

The thing I liked the least however, was the weird fetish the game seems to have with dressing up a group of girls that clearly look underage. There is an assortment of tiny little outfits to dress up your characters and a dressing room extra you can use to change their clothes, and while I understand the fact that there is a fandom for stuff like this, it isn’t one I want to be anywhere near. This sort of stuff is entirely optional, but it still was creepy enough that I felt kind of weird playing it at times. Sure, you can ignore the fact that the deli you go to has a weird torture dungeon in the back, but I’d rather just find a new deli that doesn’t creep me out.

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Closing Comments:

If you’ve been playing along with the Arland trilogy so far, you have no reason to miss out on Atelier Meruru Plus. Despite the weaker story, the crafting and combat are just as good as they’ve ever been and the world building is addictive and enjoyable. However, this Vita remake doesn’t really remake enough to justify a purchase if you already own the PS3 original, and while the extras are nice, this is basically the same game but made portable. The saccharine story and an annoying case of characters might end up souring the experience even for RPG aficionados, but if you can get past the overly cutesy presentation, you will find a surprisingly deep crafting system that will challenge even the most seasoned of grinders. This is the kind of title that has niche written all over it in bold, flashing letters, but if this happens to be your flavor of niche, you’re in for quite the treat.
score3.5
 Platform: PS Vita

  • Gram

    I played one of these games on PS2 years back. I remember liking the crafting system a lot, but everything else wasn’t really up to par with other JRPGs. I’m guessing that’s why it hasn’t gained the same kind of visibility of other long-running series like Tales.