These Atelier games used to be so rare, inaccessible and only in Japanese. And then one was released for the Western market, then another, and then another. Over time, the "little" club of fans of these games came together. In the past year, that is 2019, we got three new Atelier games. All were okay, standard, if I may say so; there was nothing new or groundbreaking added to the franchise other than Nelke and The Legendary Alchemist.
That title tried to deliver something completely different to the players. Practically, the dev team took this risk, but in the end, that risk paid off because the gaming world got a totally interesting title, a whole new take on the performance and developments in the game’s world. It is true that this was a classic spin-off, there wasn’t even "Atelier" in the name but it still belonged to that franchise.
With the fourth title this year (yes, the fourth Atelier title in 2019), Gust decided to take a little risk and finally announced the small evolution of this franchise. Already with their first announcement that they were working on Atelier Ryza, it was clear that the game was experiencing a kind of “overhaul”, a classic transformation of absolutely all systems in the game for the sake of bringing something new. Until Ryza, it felt like the whole franchise was stagnating, practically it’s been like that since 2015.
Even with the franchise stagnating, the games were good fun with solid cute stories. Mostly because they absolutely knew who they were targeting and what they needed, and that was practically just another new story.
Atelier Ryza starts off pretty innocently and casually. Ryza and two of her friends are trying to find a new adventure in their small town on an isolated island. The boring everyday life is really bothering her, and she wants to do something new and exciting. Their first idea is to leave the island, see the world on the land, what's going on there and how people live there. However, that’s not so easy because they need to find a ship or a boat. To do that, they need to go to the other end of the island. Then their adventure, or preparation for the adventure, begins.
As they wander about the nature that surrounds their small town, they come across a girl who is in trouble, and since they are looking for adventure, they try to save her. However, the opponent is stronger than it seemed. The third party becomes involved, and with their knowledge of alchemy, they kill the evil and bloodthirsty enemies they encountered there.
The distressed girl joins the group, and they soon realize that her father is one of the richest and most influential traders in their world. The group of fighters who helped them also showed them just how cool alchemy is. Of course, Ryza, as soon as she learns about this, falls in love with this mystical technique. On this occasion, she realizes that she doesn’t have to leave the island to find adventure, at least not yet, and she focuses on something fun, exciting and new that she wants to do now, which is alchemy.
As you can see, the story in Atelier Ryza is not focused on a great villain and saving the world or the universe from destruction, but it's rather a simpler and more relaxing story of friends and finding adventure. As time goes on, new interesting elements will appear in the story, but that easy, carefree start is exactly what I personally needed due to all the stressful games of late where you’re trying to change, save the world or the universe from total destruction.
Ryza, like the alchemists in the previous games, will once again have the whole day for her activities. This day planning quite resembles the "out of the game" activities, if I may call them so, from the last Fire Emblem Three Houses game. During the day, no matter how long it lasts, or better to say, how long you decide it lasts, Ryza can complete her daily errands and chores around the town she has to do while the rest of her time will be spent exploring the world around her as well as learning alchemy and sleeping. Yes, this is not one of those games where you can go on adventures 24/7 but you have to plan the day as well as your chores depending on your free time.
The best thing about all of this is that absolutely all activities, however irrelevant they may be for you or the story-building, or you just think so at the beginning, are very enjoyable to complete, fulfilling your playtime as well as Ryza's day. It gives you some meaning in the game and existence in that world. Well written characters contribute to this, both Ryza and her core team, as well as all the others you may meet in this wonderful world. Planning was also available in the past games, but that planning was much more strict and some activities were obligatory, while everything is more casual here. I believe this is because Ryza has a slightly more easy-going life than the others, and her mission is not of some colossal importance.
In addition to those parts of the game, the Battle System has been changed the most. Many players compare this change to the one the Final Fantasy franchise experienced with the change to an active combat system. This one here cannot be called a full active combat system, but it is simply more dynamic and fun than in the past games.
Each of the characters can still play their role in the fights, the one you assign to them, but in the game, you attack by pressing a button, or rather, you control the attack when your turn comes. You can just chill and let your teammates fight your opponent or participate and try to make a difference. In fights, you can change the position you are in to avoid the attacks of your opponent or maybe even run away from the fight.
There are action points in the game as well as the level of attack strength. Action points can be used for stronger attacks or special attacks, and if you save them, you can upgrade the level of attack that applies to all your teammates. This brings a new dimension to combat because it forces you to plan attacks and change tactics in relation to the enemy in front of you. It's up to you whether you want to end the fight by focusing on quick attacks, or maybe try to save action points to upgrade the level of attack of all characters, then finish your enemies in just a few moves.
Atelier Ryza is a simple game at the beginning, but as time passes, new elements will become involved in gameplay, such as alchemy, shortly after you start playing, which will force you to combine them in order to defeat your enemies. There will always be a catch, an enemy vulnerable to only one type of attack, and then that new combat dynamic will become really noticeable. Later, if you lack that combat planning, fights can end up deadly for your characters, so it's better to focus and get used to being flexible in combat right away.
Alchemy is a big part of this game too because of course, it all revolves around alchemists. Unlike in the past titles, both this year and in the past few years, alchemy is simplified, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a bad thing. Better to say, this is a change that is welcomed by absolutely all fans because you have the time to dedicate your attention to something other than thinking for about 30 minutes or more about the synthesis of materials you need to get the element for creating a particular potion or magic. It's all much simpler, straightforward and for good reason - to let you enjoy the rest of the game and this wonderful world more than in previous games.
Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness and the Secret Hideout is the first title in the past few years to bring about concrete, better changes to the franchise. Gust developers probably saw that the hyperproduction of Atelier games with minimal changes didn't work as well as they wanted, so they decided to roll up their sleeves and do something clever with Ryza, and they absolutely succeeded in doing so.
A wonderful world, perfectly created characters, an interesting and relaxing story and finally a great fighting system places this JRPG among the best JRPGs that have come out this year. I played the game on Nintendo Switch, and I give it 9/10.