Atelier Meruru is the latest game in Gust Corporation’s long-running JRPG series to get an English localisation. Meruru is the final part of what’s referred to as the Arland trilogy, a set of three Atelier games made for the PlayStation 3, which are all set in the same land. Just like the other two games, Meruru is a deceptively cute adventure that hinges around the art of alchemy, which is used to combine materials in order to create pretty much anything. Looking at the game’s cover, abundance of bright colours, and in-game artwork, you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s a kids game. However, behind all the colour and cuteness, there’s a surprising amount of depth to this JRPG.
Not just anyone can perform alchemy though, as it’s a complex and delicate art, which requires years of practice to master. Those who manage to do so are famed for their ability, and are highly sought after by the government, as they can produce all sorts of useful items which would otherwise be difficult or impossible to obtain. Atelier Meruru focuses on the story of a young princess called Meruru. Her full name is actually Merurulince, but it’s so awkward that nobody calls her that, not even Meruru herself. She’s the princess of a tiny kingdom called Arls, the neighbour of the much larger Arland kingdom that was featured in the other PS3 games. The story revolves around the king’s desire to expand Arls into a major kingdom, increasing the amount of usable land, and making the population grow. Meruru would prefer to just have fun and learn alchemy though, so her father tells her that she can become an alchemist, but only if she can prove that she can also develop the kingdom in the process. Meruru takes up the task gladly, as a chance to prove herself, and the game’s flow is dedicated entirely to her job.
Out of the three PS3 Atelier games, Meruru has the widest selection of party members. There’s eight different party members to choose from, one-upping the six that were in the previous game, with an extra one that is only available in a New Game+ file. Three more recruitable party members have also been released as paid DLC. Unfortunately, there’s only two non-DLC party members who are entirely original, with the rest being characters recycled from the previous two games. That’s not to say that all of them have been playable before though, but it seems that Gust were more focused on giving established characters cameos than they were in giving Meruru a true cast of its own. Their established characters aren’t bad by any means, but it tends to leave the game feeling more like an excuse to bring together characters from the other two games in a new environment. The game revolves around Meruru’s desire to develop the Arls kingdom, but that often fades into the background due to all the lively interactions of the characters from Atelier Rorona and Atelier Totori.
Despite some weakness in its story, Atelier Meruru still manages to feature the best gameplay of the three Arland games. Like the other two, gameplay is broken up into three main elements: alchemy, gathering, and battles, all of which are equally important. Alchemy is performed inside Meruru’s workshop, and is entirely menu based. Every item you create in the game requires a recipe, and these are unlocked as you progress. Selecting a recipe from the alchemy menu will show you which ingredients it requires, and in what quantities. It also displays the item’s basic traits, which will vary depending on the quality of the ingedients you use. Many recipes can be modified a little, by selecting alternative ingredients, and it makes the process a lot more interactive. There’s a huge number of items on offer for you to create, and each one has its own uses, whether it be in battle or as an ingredient for an even more complex item. Once you’ve selected your ingredients from Meruru’s container, she’ll go ahead and synthesise the item (which can range from medicine, to a bomb, to steel), which consumes time.
Meruru, like the other PS3 Atelier games, is all about time management. Every action that Meruru performs takes time, whether she’s synthesising, gathering ingredients, or battling monsters. Meruru needs to physically leave the town and travel to various locations to gather items, and this is where most of your in-game time will pass. Travelling to each location takes a number of days, and once she’s there, you’ll find yourself running around an area and looking out for gathering spots. These are marked by colourful icons (which you can see in the above screenshot), and Meruru can interact with them in order to obtain ingredients, which she places in her basket. Her basket only has a limited amount of space in it though, so you’ll want to choose which ingredients you take, and which ones you leave behind carefully. Gathering spots are often guarded by monsters though, and they prowl around the game’s locations, looking for a fight.
Running into one of them will initiate a battle, and these are turn based affairs, where Meruru and the two party members of your choice will engage their enemy. The options here aren’t particularly complex, with your paty members able to execute either a standard attack, a skill, or simply guard. Meruru is the most important character though, since she can also use some of your synthesised items in battle, allowing her to use powerful healing or destructive creations. She’s also the only character who revive dead party members during battle, because of this. The game has a built in system for keeping her safe during battles, where you can order party members to shield her from attacks, just before she takes the hit, as long as they have enough of their assist gauge filled (it fills a little whenever they take damage). A little later on in the game, you gain the protagonists of Atelier Rorona and Totori as party members, so you have a little more freedom with item usage in battle. An interesting element is the turn order gauge displayed on the right hand side of the screen, which shows which character will move next, depending on their Speed stat. Some character skills allow you to delay an enemy’s turn, and looking at the gauge also helps you to predict enemy actions, so that you can react appropriately. Characters gain experience at the end of battle, sometimes levelling up and improve their stats. Enemies often drop ingredients after being defeated, some of which are rare. It’s a very smooth experience overall, and battles don’t overstay their welcome either, typically lasting only a minute or two.
Searching for rare materials, then carefully combining them to make powerful items, is a very rewarding experience. The fact that you actually get to see the effects that you put on your items through the alchemy process during battle is great, and makes you feel as though your time has been well spent. Using a high quality ingredient when creating a bomb, for example, will cause it to deal more damge to enemies. While the core of the gameplay is much the same as ever, Meruru introduces features that make the game more user friendly than its predecessor, such as markers that help you keep track of what enemies and materials you’re currently targeting. There’s also the new Development system, which ties in with the game’s story. Meruru is constantly given tasks during the game, such as helping to build a fortress by producing the stone blocks and materials required to construct it. Once you complete one of these tasks, you’re able to return to the location a little later, and watch as the area is transformed as a result of your work. It’s a really nice touch. Completing tasks also rewards you with Development Points, which you can use to build new structures of your choice, such a factories which will earn you money over time. There’s always something to do in Atelier Meruru, whether you’re synthesising items, gathering ingredients, battling monsters, completing requests for people, working on a new development task, or trying to create the perfect weapon.
Graphically, the game fares slightly better than Atelier Totori. The improvement is noticeable, but nothing too striking. The anime-inspired character models are a little more detailed, as are the environments that Meruru explores. Skill animations during battles are also a little fancier than what we’ve seen in the past, with some well-animated super attacks (one per character) also on display. The game’s audio is strong, with a fair bit of competent voice acting, and a great soundtrack. There’s a noticeable Spanish theme to the game’s soundtrack, and it works well, particularly with the game’s battle theme. If you’d like some control over the game’s music though, or just want to mix things up, there’s a DLC music pack (which will set you back a few dollars) that contains 200 songs from Gust’s previous games (many of which have never been released outside of Japan). You can set these songs to play in the background of any part of the game you wish, ranging from battles to Meruru’s workshop.
Overall, Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland is a strong entry into the Atelier series. There’s more to see and do than ever, and plenty of time to do it in, with the main story lasting at least 20 hours. If you want to see everything the game has to offer though, including the multiple endings and option bosses, then your playing time can easily triple. Despite having a weaker story than its predecessor, it’s an enjoyable journey into an interesting world, with varied gameplay that will keep RPG fans coming back for more.
Addictive JRPG gameplay | Great soundtrack | Lots to see and do
Story is weaker than Atelier Totori | Not enough new characters