ATELIER RYZA: EVER DARKNESS & THE SECRET HIDEOUT
By Mark "Demius" Bronneberg on January 15, 2021
Most gamers, especially fans of the JRPG genre, will know about or have played a game from the Atelier series. The first game in this RPG-series, which is developed by Gust, was released in 1997. Most of the Atelier games have been released on Sony consoles or (Nintendo) handhelds. The publishing duties for Atelier Ryza have been given to Koei Tecmo. Since the relationship between Koei and Nintendo has flourished these past years, Atelier Ryza also has an excellent Nintendo Switch port!
I decided to review Atelier Ryza, a game that was originally released in 2019, since I have been looking forward to the second game, which is releasing this month: Atelier Ryza 2: Lost Legends & the Secret Fairy. I have owned Atelier Ryza since its release back in November 2019, but never managed to complete it (hello darkness/backlog, my old friend). The previous Atelier games could never catch my interest because I hate 'time-mechanics' in RPGs. This means you have certain days/hours/time to spend on activities before the story progresses. As a completist in RPG-games this means making tough choices and not being able to do everything or relax. Once I heard they dropped this time mechanic for Atelier Ryza in favor for a more linear/ traditional feel and progression, my interest was immediately peaked. I just love collecting stuff in RPGs (am always overburdened in the Elder Scrolls games) and love the crafting mechanics incorporated in these games.
What is there not to love about an RPG which core mechanic is being an Alchemist and harvesting rare materials to craft awesome stuff?! And well. have you seen the main protagonist? Well, have you? Let's just say that a certain "rule" of the internet goes together really well with Ryza. Thicc thighs save lives! And that is the last time I will refer to my naughty side in this review, I promise to be the spitting image of divinity and chastity, I really do! You probably don't believe me, now do you.? Well I can't review this game without mentioning it, because Atelier Ryza is the game that really put the Atelier-series back on the map. And Ryza's excellent design is partly to thank for that popularity. And with design I don't mean just the esthetics, also the character itself has a carefree and positive attitude that many people have come to love. The funny part is that the art director said he didn't design Ryza to be that appealing. yeah right! But seriously, in a lot of interviews this question was raised and he always answers, with a serious face I might add, that he welcomes Ryza's 'popularity', but he had no intent whatsoever, to make her this voluptuous.
The story revolves around the carefree Reisalin Stout (Ryza) who lives in Kurken Island with her best friends Lent Marslink and Tao Mongarten. Lent is built like a brick house and of course the brawler in the party. Tao is a bookworm with broad knowledge of history and the island itself. Since being on a small island is quite boring for these youngsters they start exploring the island, saving the daughter of a traveling merchant and meeting the experienced alchemist Empel in the process. Empel starts to train Ryza in the ways of alchemy and the rest of the story is for you to explore. The story, like the game itself, has a really slow start. This means everything is explained well, but this also means it takes quite a few hours to really 'get started'. I played for more than 10 hours before I unlocked a decent map and fast travel system, so in those early hours I spent a lot of my time running around the map, which is by no means a chore (I mean, did you see Ryza run? Thank you physics-engine!). Damnit there go my promises to not mention her curves again in this review. Oh well, can't be helped, I suppose. On with the story at hand!
I thought getting the hang of the battle system of the game was quite hard. Probably because I favor turn based over real-time based combat systems. Luckily there are some nice Youtubers that can help you get started. I liked the 'Atelier Ryza Combat 101' video from the Youtuber 'Backlog Battle'. During a battle, you control three party members. On the left of your screen there is a turn wheel, which shows you the order in which your characters, or the enemies for that matter, have their turn. This is action based so you need to be quick inputting commands if you want to get most out of it. You can attack, use items or use spells. Attacking grants you more AP, this is used to cast spells (there is no MP bar and the action points are shared between team members). Items use CC, which can be replenished by activating an item (which renders it unusable until you go back to your base). Once you have enough AP you can raise your tactics level. Higher tactics levels mean you have more normal attacks per turn and your spells or abilities get better properties or more damage. Your team members will also give you orders during battle like 'use an item'. If you do this the corresponding team member will combo and release a special skill attack. What is good to know is that, if you hit an enemy on the world map with your harvesting tool or staff, you go into the battle with 10 AP from the start. Which means you can directly start firing spells or raise your tactics level to level 2. I found controlling the battle system more difficult than the actual enemies on normal difficulty, so there is a bit of a learning curve. But like I said before, watch a few YouTube videos to get a hang of it.
There are a lot of difficulties to choose from, I played on normal, choosing a higher difficulty raises experience and drop rate for items, but also the stats for enemies. There are boss battles and 'tougher special enemies' for you to find. These often drop nice loot. And loot is key in this game. All your characters can level up. Like in any RPG, there are numerous stats to be considered: Hit points (HP), attack, defense, speed, equip quality and dexterity. Dexterity is important since it decides what level items a character can equip. Ryza also has a crafting level; if she uses high quality materials to craft Lent a new armor, chances are he doesn't have enough dexterity to equip it. So pay attention to their stats. There are three roles (attacker, defender and supporter) that also effects your stats. These roles change depending the equipment a character has equipped.
You control Ryza in exploring the world. The game uses a nice 'third person' camera-view. There is also a picture mode, this is a nice mode to euhm. to take pictures of. euhm. the beautiful scenery! Everywhere you run there are trees, bushes, rocks and more 'harvest points' where you can harvest crafting materials. Each 'harvest point' gives out different loot if you use different gathering tools to farm them. Like your staff, a sickle or a hammer. You need to craft these tools. You can't craft all these tools from the start, you unlock more recipes once you progress the story or find new types of loot (crafting materials). This way they don't throw everything at you from the start, but you gradually grow your repertoire of being an alchemist. It is also rewarding to revisit areas once you have new harvesting tools.
Crafting means you have to select materials you gathered and fit them into recipes to get a certain item. Some recipes have a 'node' that says 'new recipe'. This means if you try to create it and reach the particular 'new recipe node' you will craft something entirely new. You than receive the recipe to craft it again. You can also unlock ways to re-make equipment you already have and giving them better properties by using better materials. Pay attention to these nodes, because the game doesn't hold your hand and exploring recipes and the world is part of its charm. You need to discover these things to be able to progress the story. I often found the quest log and mini-map confusing and lost track of what I was supposed to do, so pay attention at quest givers or when story cutscenes happen!
What amazed me the most about this game (besides Ryza's cuteness) are the graphics. The anime style fits the game perfectly and this is an amazing port on Nintendo Switch. I have not played the PlayStation version, from screens it seems to be a bit more detailed, but this only shows how remarkable the Switch port is. The world is full with charming backgrounds and the main character models are great. The NPC's in the world can feel a little boring and repetitive, especially the ones in towns that hand out side quests. The sounds and music in this game are good, nothing too special, to me this game shines in the visual esthetic department.
The game really opens up once you reach your own hideout/ atelier. Here you can craft to your hearts contents. You can also customize this hideout. Don't expect full on Dragon Quest Builders or Minecraft type of customization but it stills offers a lot of fun for people that like customization options in RPG's. I have not read into the story for the second installment in the Atelier Ryza mini-series and I don't know if you need to play the first game before starting it when it releases on January 26, 2021. But I did read there is a time skip of about 5 years between the games. Like any sequel, I believe it will be best to first complete the first game in order to enjoy the second one to the fullest. I also read that Atelier Ryza 2 keeps most things intact, but also introduces some new exploration and crafting mechanics to improve upon the game. There is also a lot of DLC available, most of these are esthetic upgrades or changes, including swimsuits.. (don't worry because if you like guys, pretty boy Lent also gets his own 'Muscle Volcano' swimsuit). There are also a few story additions that focus on giving the party members (Lent, Tao, Klaudia and Empel & Lila) some more backstory. I have not tried out the DLC content. Besides Ryza's 'summer costume', which came as a pre-order bonus.
After playing Atelier Ryza I am really looking forward to seeing how Ryza, Lent, Tao and Klaudia grow up. I really hope they keep Ryza's carefree attitude and sense of exploration from the first title. I highly recommend this game to RPG nuts like myself. Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & the Secret Hideout is a really fun JRPG with extensive crafting and customization mechanics, a challenging battle system in a gameworld that is positively brimming with charm!