After sitting out a few years of Atelier games, Atelier Ryza (Ryza) caught my attention because of a few key improvements Gust made. Yet their yearly development cycle rears it head again in amusing and disappointing manners.

Gameplay

Atelier games posses many moving pieces (that usually get thrown out and replaced after every game and/or series) but the core has always been a focus on crafting, completing tasks/checklists, and a heaping dose of CGDCT/slice of life.

Gust are known for their yearly dev cycles/releases and this causes a lot of the fine-tuning to happen during sequels. That means barely any quality assurance, iteration, and post-launch patches as in most games. One of the problems this has caused is Gust not knowing what to do pacing-wise after they got rid of the time limits in Atelier Shallie.

This issue shows up in Ryza in that there’s a day and night system with some rarely witnessed weather effects, no time limit and/or rush, but the game doesn’t use this to their advantage. Instead at times it feels like there should be more to the main plot and more postgame content than there is.

Granted I’m glad that the main plot isn’t stretched out with unneeded filler, but you’d expect that without the time limit they’d try more interesting things. The plot even has an excuse to have a partial time limit system but it doesn’t use it.

At least the alchemy and quest systems (the latter which has been improved dramatically from old Ateliers) do make sense with this lack of a time limit. Items can be taken to absurd quality levels through recipe morphing, rebuilding, and enhancements in the case of equipment.

With its recipe morphing, rebuilding, and enhancement for equipment, the lack of a time limit is used well as players are expected to experiment and get the best materials needed for ultra efficient builds. In the standard easy/normal/hard difficulties this minmaxing isn’t needed but having the ability to do so is fantastic.

Speaking of recipe morphing, I love that you learn new recipes through already existing ones that you then go into another path/node and add the required items in it to transform it into another. It’s a great change as the whole point of alchemy is to turn items into other items. There are recipe books that players buy, receive as rewards/through plot progression, and find inside chests but most recipes are discovered through recipe morphing.

This is further backed up by “worlds in a bottle” that you can create (places that spawn with specific materials and monsters) and seed farming, allowing for specialized items from the materials gathered in these. Although this minmaxing isn’t as complex as old games it works very well.

The amusing problem is that, besides difficulty modes that unlock after beating the game and ones that will come as an update, you don’t need that much knowledge of the alchemy systems to do well. Being fair to Ryza, this has always been a problem of the Atelier games I’ve played as there are OP items and effects/traits that allow players to faceroll the main content of these other games.

Additionally, there’s no real postgame to speak of that requires that much dabbling in the systems. The systems are nice, I found them really engaging (the alchemy is probably my favorite in the series), but most times I didn’t need to put much effort. Hell, I only worked on my equipment after I realized I was almost by the endgame. I wish the postgame had more unique encounters that made me prepare for them in more specific ways. Stuff like fights against bosses that forced me to counter their buffing and/or debuffing, DPS races through alchemy, endurance match-ups, and more.

The quest system actually develops the side characters through unvoiced cutscenes. It’s a massive change from the quest system of old, where most of the quests were filler and I never felt like I got to know any of the side characters through them. It also continues the tradition of making the Atelier games feel like shop sims, as you’re expected to make items with specific effects, traits, and quality for them.

Additionally there’s party quests that are mostly mmo styled side objectives (do/kill x of y) but the caveat being that they unlock skills. I personally love these as they serve as a sort of tutorial to newly unlocked active abilities that reward you. It reminds me of the Lightning Returns rpg systems, in that quests also rewarded you with stat bumps thus making the questing more satisfying than usual.

After Ryza introduces each element of their systems and “opens them up” the game hits stride but getting there can get a little tiring.

For example, the combat system turns into a really satisfying and simple active system with a lot of interesting and worthwhile choices to make but at the start it’s very restricting. The alchemy (crafting) system introduces elements slowly for newcomers, which is good considering how terrible old Atelier games were with tutorials, but veterans can get bored from the waiting until everything’s unlocked.

It’s one of the series’ main problems, its sometimes annoyingly slow pace in gameplay and story.

Discovering new places is fun because of the materials you find and the sense of exploration, but the plot can sometimes drag its feet at the most inopportune of times. The best advice I can give is to progress the story as much as possible and then pass the time exploring, doing quests, fighting enemies, and making items. This is when Atelier shines, when you’re able to do things at a constant clip. Ultimately though, one reaches a point where story progress has to be made and the pace drops again as the story isn’t that interesting and you just want to get back to the game’s core gameplay loop.

But when you’re exploring new places, fighting new monsters, and then returning home to play around with the new materials the game clicks. At times Ryza felt like Metroid and Subnautica, games that require you to find/craft items in order to backtrack and reach new places. If Atelier is going down this path, adding an extra focus on exploration, then the future is bright. I just hope they deal with the pacing.

The lack of iteration and quality assurance does affect certain places as all the systems aren’t as developed as they could be. There’s a sense of missed opportunities or instances where iteration would have gotten through a few “not-quite-there” aspects to all the systems in play.

There are also translation errors that only confuse players. Word of advice, when the game’s order system tells you to “heal your hp/boost your stats” it actually means “heal/boost me”.

Aesthetics

Visually the games have never gone for boatloads of polygons but they have always been colorful. Ryza’s main progress in this area has been level design. For the first time in years I can remember what places looked like. Past games have always been very drab, cursorily connected hubs that felt like something you’d find in an early 00s mobile game.

Ryza’s maps are sizable but not overly so, they’re also packed with a lot of nice visual storytelling moments and decent scenery. Newbies to the series will probably not be capable of appreciating the changes, but everyone else will find it hard to not go “holy shit this is pretty AND well thought out”. I remember the days of copypasted dungeons and depressingly bland wilderness levels.

Character models are fine but where they stand out is in their design. A lot of anime/Japanese games tend to have some laughably generic character models that seem ripped out of the most milquetoast of milquetoast anime (COUGH DIGIMON CYBER SLEUTH COUGH). In contrast, Ryza’s characters have enough going on that they’re memorable but not too busy (unlike some Square Enix characters).

The only character model I dislike is Lila, whose breasts and hips are comically oversized. In the key art she looks fine, but the 3D model looks terrible.

There’s no explanation, and I’m glad that there isn’t, but everyone else looks normal. They look like people, characters whose designs tell you a lot about their personality and place of provenance. Then there’s Lila with her monstrous measurements.

And as a disclaimer, no I’m not outraged. I like the human body as much as the next person, I can deal with a little fanservice if it’s fitting and not overblown (see this post for a more in-depth look into what I think about fanservice). It’s not a big blemish on the game and it’s something I mostly ignored, but it is there. Whoever designed her could still have made her really busty and hip-y without going into extremes. It comes off as laughable and stupid, not attractive or cool.

The overall visual package isn’t much to write about. It’s pretty, decently put together, but not a polygon bonanza. Atelier are games in the “AA” genre (like the stuff published by Devolver, Focus Home Interactive, and such) in most aspects. There are a lot of great ideas but it’s not as polished as games with a bigger budget. In a way, Atelier games approach Eurojank levels with their sometimes questionable localization, odd quirks out of a lack of QA, instances of less than smooth animations, and so on.

Pacific Jank, if you will. Think of low budget games like the “Earth Defence Force” games that are there servicing a niche market. I love that these types of games exist as otherwise we wouldn’t get titles such as Atelier because the big companies won’t make them. Alternatively they’d be made, miss the point, and be soulless husks only pushed to make them money.

I can’t really say much about the voice acting, not speaking Japanese myself, but I thought it was fine. None of the deliveries felt off. At worst some sound like archetypal characters, but that’s about it.

Musically it’s another story.

The Atelier games have always had a ton of folk instruments and elements to their music but they never fully committed. Ryza does, and the soundtrack is fantastic because of it.

While the old games had bangers for soundtracks, they were also very hit and miss. For every great folky tune or solid rock song there were multiple tunes full of cheesy electric guitars, questionable flute solos backed by Japanese hard rock/metal, and overall forgettable tracks.

Instead Ryza’s score is made up of orchestral music that sounds “Atelier”, with all the folky instruments and approaches, but in a more earnest manner.

Pensive wind heavy pieces, jazzy beats, adventurous trumpets, uplifting strings, and more. It was a choice that could have backfired and drained all the charm of the old games (even if those had pieces that were very questionable), but they didn’t. Instead they embraced the folky and adventurous musical heart that was always in the games.

Writing

Atelier games have never been about writing, and anybody coming into any of them should be aware of this. They’re practically interactive slice of life animes with intriguing crafting systems and that’s the best way to approach the series.

At times the SOL elements are its best parts, other times they drag the momentum to a standstill. It doesn’t help that Ryza tackles slightly more darker/serious themes but either blueballs the player or ruins it.

Key example, there’s a case of domestic abuse in the game. At first it seems like it’s going to be explored in a multifaceted manner but then it solves itself in the most frustrating anime of ways. Contrived, mildly offensive, and poorly written.

There are also a few characters who either never have an arc (and their personalities are awful and stupid) and some that have the most undeserved of arcs that are pulled off badly. Atelier Ryza isn’t the first Atelier game to feature problems like these but it stood out more to me as it seemed like the series was finally going to place a little more thought into it.

Nope.

Themes of feudalism, the effects of warfare on the environment, insularism, witchhunting, and others are in the game but they’re barely developed. Blueballs doesn’t begin to describe it really. The world building isn’t the best either (another repeated problem in the Atelier series) but getting too deep into this would mean spoilers.

At least the themes of friendship, individuality, branching out from family but still loving your homeland, and others are done decently well.

Conclusion

In sum, Atelier Ryza is a Japanese AA game that sometimes hits Pacific Jank levels, but it deserves to be played by anyone who has an interest in crafting mechanics in games. All of this in spite of Koei Tecmo’s awful dlc practices.

There are moments of brilliance, the game is a diamond in the rough that’s almost there and I hope Gust exists for long enough to finally get wherever “there” is. Until that happens, Atelier Ryza is a good game and an excellent starting point for new players to the series.