The Atelier series is a long-running Japanese role-playing franchise that features a progression system tied to the gathering and synthesis of materials. Atelier Totori: The Adventurer of Arland Plus is a PlayStation Vita port of the 2011 (2010 in Japan) PS3 title of the same name. Developed by Gust and published by Tecmo Koei, it marks the series’ first entry on the Vita, and was released over here in North America with very little fanfare.
If you remember, when I reviewed Atelier Meruru last year, I found it to be overall a fairly enjoyable JRPG, with the gratifying synthesis system overshadowing the rather lacklustre story and characters. Atelier Totori, unfortunately, has the same pitfalls that plagued Meruru, but again, there’s something about the gratifying nature of the synthesis system that stops them from completely interfering with the overall enjoyable nature of the game.
As this is a remake of Atelier Totori, the story takes place several years prior to Atelier Meruru, and deals with the alchemical burgeoning of Meruru’s teacher, Totooria Helmold. The resident of Alanya, a small fishing village in the Arland Republic, Totori has already received training from her teacher Rorona when we first meet her, and is now attempting to hone her skills to become a successful alchemist. Her greatest desire is to become as prolific an alchemist as Rorona, and gain her adventuring license, so that she may set out to find the truth of what happened to her mother, an adventurer who fell out of contact some years earlier and is believed dead by the other residents of Alanya.
Totori’s desire to become an adventurer reflects extremely well in gameplay. In Arland, adventurers are licensed explorers who travel from place to place, fulfilling contracts from the Adventurer Guild. When the game begins, you only have access to a small number of areas, but once you acquire your adventurer’s license, more become unlocked. I quite liked the idea that Totori’s desire to become an adventurer is inextricably linked to the exploration, because it gives you an idea of how the characters who aren’t adventurers live: they’re contained in one town, unable to explore the world around them due to apathy (most don’t seem too worried that they’re never going to leave the town they’re in) or inability.
There’s also a direct connection to Totori’s desire to become an adventurer, and your own progression through the game, at least at first. Adventurer licenses are ranked, and it’s only after reaching a certain rank that Totori will be allowed to continue adventuring. Points toward your license rank are achieved through alchemy, combat and exploration, so it’s quite easy to progress through license levels without putting much effort into it, at least initially. You can also pick up requests from either the tavern in Alanya or the Guild in Arland. These require you to either deliver a certain amount of an item, or kill a specific number of a particular monster, and usually have a deadline. Travelling to different areas of the world map to kill the monsters or collect the ingredients needed to fill these requests is what you’ll spend the bulk of your playtime doing, so in the early stages, your license rank jumps pretty quickly.
However, when the connection between adventuring and progression dissipates, this is where the game begins to fall apart. Just like Atelier Meruru, Totori is based around a calendar. Every action you perform outside of a settlement: travelling to a new area, gathering items or killing monsters, they all take a certain amount of time. Just as most of the requests are on a deadline, so too is Totori’s progress: she constantly needs to reach a certain point in order to continue adventuring. When first given your license, you’re told that you have two years to get to the Diamond rank. If you fail to reach that point, you’ll get a game over. The problem with this is that while the gameplay is based around this timing system, the story progression is not tied to the exploration you’ll be doing in order to raise your rank. It means that you have to be constantly returning to either settlement, using up precious time, in order to trigger scenes that progress the story. In fact, it’s completely possible to finish the game without actually learning what happened to Totori’s mother, completely undermining the entire motivation behind the game’s story.
This disparity between story and gameplay is not in itself a deal-breaker, however. As annoying as it is, if the characters were likable, traversing to town regularly to check up on them would be endurable. It’s problematic, then, that the characters are incredibly one-note. Each has a single character trait that is the entire basis for their character. Totori, for example, lacks any confidence in her own abilities, so she is constantly doubting herself, stammering, apologizing, and being extremely passive. Ceci, Totori’s sister, is the quintessential elder sibling figure, so she’s constantly berating Totori in that weird loving-but-not-loving way that older siblings have. There’s no significant arc, here. None of the characters are interesting to be around because none of them go anywhere. Even after she successfully becomes an adventurer, Totori still doesn’t have all that much faith in herself. In a genre driven by character interactions, shallow characters can be the death knell for a game.
Yet there’s something about Atelier Totori that just makes it incredibly hard to dislike. The presentation, for one thing, is amazing. The art style is incredibly colourful, and transitions to the Vita screen beautifully. Some of the music is quite catchy as well, though an equal amount of it is just plain forgettable. Mostly, though, it comes down to the synthesis system. There’s just something almost cathartic about collecting materials and mixing them together to create something else. MMOs have proven that ingredient gathering can be oddly endearing in its own way, and Atelier Totori showcases this perfectly.
The strength of the synthesis system, coupled with the combat, is what saved Atelier Meruru for me, but unfortunately, Atelier Totori isn’t quite as lucky. While the combat is still fun, I didn’t find that there was as much of a link between it and the synthesis in this installment Alchemists are the only party characters who can use items in battle, so in theory, they should provide an invaluable support role, being able to heal party members when it’s necessary, and launch an assault on the enemy when it isn’t. However, I found combat in Atelier Totori to be incredibly easy, so much so that I frequently didn’t have any healing or damaging items in my inventory: it was just easier to constantly attack the enemy.
This isn’t suggesting that combat isn’t fun: I still had a good time completing requests and searching for the bigger monsters to gain points for my adventurer’s license. But without the challenge, it wore on me a lot quicker than it did in the previous installment which is a shame, because that’s one of the few things this game had going for it. The art, as mentioned, is pleasant, and the synthesis has its charms, but the story and characters aren’t compelling enough to follow them to the game’s conclusion, a fact made all the worse by the game’s sub-par voice acting.
It’s also not going to be worth your time if you’ve already played the game. As this is the ‘Plus’ version, you might be expecting some extra content, but aside from a few new weapons and costumes, the only additions that I know of are a few characters that were available as DLC on the PS3 version. There’s also no use of the Vita’s touch mechanics, save for the ability to use your finger to scroll around the world map, but that’s not really a knock against the game: I’d rather the touch controls be non-existent rather than shoehorned in.
I can’t rate Atelier Totori as favourably as Atelier Meruru. The art is still good, and the synthesis is still weirdly enjoyable, but the simplistic combat and the uninteresting story and characters means that it’s really all for nothing. It’s not a ‘bad’ game, by any stretch, but unless you’re really hurting for a new JRPG on the Vita, there are better ways to spend your time and money. If you’ve already spent your time and money on the PlayStation 3 version of Atelier Totori: The Adventurer of Arland, then there’s absolutely nothing new here that justifies buying it again, unless you’re dying for it on your handheld.
Here’s The Rundown:
+ Synthesis is strangely satisfying
+ Art-style is extremely appealing
+ Combat starts off fairly enjoyable…
– …but it’s simplicity means it gets boring quite quickly.
– The disparity between story and gameplay means you can finish the game without knowing the story
– The poor characterization offers no incentive for figuring out just what that story is.
5 and 5.5 are mediocre. These aren’t necessarily bad games, they just don’t do anything that is worth caring about and not worth the time of most people.
Atelier Totori: The Adventurer of Arland Plus was developed by Gust and published by Tecmo Koei. It was released in North America on March 19th, 2013 for the PlayStation Vita via the PlayStation Store at the digital price of $39.99. A download code was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review.