Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland is, (if the title didn’t give it away), a Japanese RPG. Developed by Gust and published by NIS America, it is the thirteenth title in the Atelier series, focused heavily on the gathering of materials and synthesis of new items. Everything in the game: story progression, quests, earning money, even the combat to some extent, revolves around this concept. When a game adheres to one idea so strictly, there is a danger that some of its other mechanics may feel insubstantial, but Atelier Meruru marries its focus on synthesis to the traditional aspects of JRPGs quite successfully in most areas.
Like many games within the genre, the story of Atelier Meruru is, on the surface, quite simple. Meruru, the princess of the Kingdom of Arls, is unhappy with her life as a princess. Tired of etiquette lessons and history classes, Meruru sets out looking to add some excitement to her life. She enters the workshop of newly arrived alchemist (and protagonist of the previous Atelier game), Totori, and decides that she, too, wants to learn alchemy. Her father is unhappy with her decision, but eventually decides to allow her to continue, provided she use her new alchemy skills to help develop Arls in preparation for its imminent mergence with the Republic of Arland.
From here, the game becomes what is essentially a series of fetch quests. The world map opens up, allowing you to choose which location you want to travel to. Every location is a self-contained area where you will find materials to gather, monsters to fight, and, usually, a person (or people) who you will have to deliver something to at some point. That short list – gathering, fighting and delivering – is actually pretty much the extent of the quests you’ll come across. Of those three, only fighting and delivering directly aid in developing the kingdom. Gathering is part of a side mission system that earns you money and popularity, which you need to continue development. If it reaches zero, the population will demand a halt to the project, and it will result in a game over.
The thing is, while that sounds like extremely shallow gameplay, it just works. Gathering and synthesising aren’t difficult, but getting enough materials to synthesise what you need will take time, and your play time quickly skyrockets, even though in reality, you’ve been doing very little. The crafting mechanic is totally geared for gratification: every item you craft adds experience to your alchemy level, which progresses separately from your battle level. Levelling your alchemy skills increases your chances of successfully completing tougher recipes, and will also unlock new ones. Materials you collect are graded on their quality, and as you progress enough through the game to unlock items with ‘B,’ ‘A,’ and ‘S’ quality levels, synthesising recipes with a ‘C’ grade is no longer enough. It’s like levelling a character the first time you play World of Warcraft: the progression becomes the single most important thing in the game.
That said, there are some slight problems with the synthesis system. The first is that, while recipes will tell you what materials you need to synthesise them, they don’t tell you where you might find these materials. On the world map, you can see what items can be gathered in areas you’ve explored, but there’s no way to see what can be gathered in areas you’ve not yet explored, so you don’t always know where to find that ingredient you need. There’s also no way to find out if an item that you need is an enemy drop. Once you collect enemy drops, they appear in your journal, and some tell you where they come from, but if there’s an item you’re looking for, and it’s not one you can simply gather, there’s no way to figure out what monster it drops from, or where you can find said monster.
For example, later in the game, you can synthesise better equipment for your party members, providing you have the right kinds of ore. I never managed to make any new weapons, because one specific type of ore I needed required a dragon tusk to synthesise it, and the game was tight-lipped on where I would find said tusk. I did have a quest to kill a dragon, but because I never completed it (an aspect I’ll touch on more in a bit), I don’t know if that was the dragon that would drop the tusk I needed or not. I’d already killed a different, tuskless dragon, so there was no reason to suspect that this dragon would absolutely drop what I needed.
The synthesis system also just throws every recipe you learn into a big list that displays when you activate your alchemy cauldron. As you progress through the game, and learn more and more recipes, this makes it extremely arduous to find the one you want sometimes. You can choose to look at recipies that fall under a specific category, (‘Heal,’ ‘Development,’ ‘Synthesis,’ and so on), but I never found a way to tell which item falls under which category, so in a lot of cases, using the ‘All’ list and scrolling down is the easiest solution. There are ways to change how the list is sorted, but the ‘A-Z’ sorting option did not make the list alphabetical, and I wasn’t sure how to discern the other options, so, again, it became a case of choosing the ‘All’ list and scrolling until I found the recipe I wanted. I would have liked the option to be able to view only the recipes that start with a specific letter, or even the ability to type in the name of the recipe I was looking for, anything that would have streamlined that process a little bit.
In comparison, Atelier Meruru’s other big gameplay mechanic, the combat system, is actually quite streamlined. It’s your standard turn-based affair, (although without random battles, thankfully), but requiring a bit more strategy. Alchemists are the only characters that can use items. Other characters have MP based attack skills that deal damage, buff party members, and debuff enemies, but they can’t use healing salves or nectars (which revive unconscious characters), so they’re reliant on alchemy to keep them alive. This means that you have to pay close attention to the turn order to ensure that your alchemists will survive a potential attack.
Atelier Meruru uses a battle system much like the one featured in Final Fantasy X. There’s a list down the left side of the screen that tells you the turn order, and depending on the skills used, that order may change. It also features an assist system. Performing actions in battle fills the assist gauges of your other party members (Meruru herself doesn’t have one). When these gauges are full, you have one of two options: you can either use the gauge when an enemy uses an attack that targets Meruru to ensure that another character takes the damage instead, or you can use it when Meruru uses an item to attack, allowing your other characters to do extra damage without using a turn. In tough battles, being fully aware of turn order, assist gauges and using items effectively is the key to success, making it impossible to progress by just mashing the ‘attack’ command.