"Accelerated battles and comprehensive crafting somewhat make up for a diluted narrative in this streamlined JRPG. "
Every summer, the Cochranville Carnival would roll through Southern Chester County in Pennsylvania, outside the local community center. Even though the Ferris wheel was usually broken, it was a cherished event that brought together everyone in town. Being dairy farmers, my family usually scooped the ice cream. Yes, it was as obnoxiously Americana as you might imagine. Exchanging glances with the daughter of the local hairdresser was only powder on the proverbial funnel cake. And, one cake was never enough to share. The only result of shoving greasy, hot sugar dough in your mouth is to keep going. And I would keep going, until I threw up in front of the hairdresser's daughter, who was also the first girl who danced with me in middle school.
The funnel cake always wins. It's not bad, but it's not quite good, either. Atelier Ryza 2: Lost Legends & the Secret Fairy is an anomaly of an experience that left me criticizing its choices, yet I can't deny how endearingly tasty it is. This game is your cat who gives you headaches all day but also melts your soul with snuggle fluff; it's that shitty carnival food that you dream about all year round. The game stars Resalin "Ryza" Stout, an altruistic adventurer and alchemist, set out to simply make the world a better place with her friends. In light of the recent global climate, her incessant can-do attitude and cheerfulness is amiably contagious.
Admittedly, this is my first entry in the Atelier series. I know, right?! This long-running JRPG series has delivered over twenty games since the PlayStation-era, many of them to great acclaim in Japan. Atelier almost feels like a cousin to Fire Emblem, minus the popularity boom from Smash Bros. Like Fire Emblem: Three Houses, the latest "Secret" series of Atelier games goes to some length to modernize its systems and attempts to create more accessibility for new players, such as myself. Many games out of Japan have faced this dilemma with recent entries; Monster Hunter and Pokemon have likewise made concessions to adapt to new players, though oftentimes it's not enough to escape old-fashioned game design. The same is true for Atelier Ryza 2.
In Fire Emblem, it was the horrific menu systems that stunted me. They spanned multiple hubs, and one needed to constantly switch between individual characters' inventories, of which there are legion. A fan of the series later revealed to me, "Oh, they've always been that way." I wonder then: why? What keeps the broken aspects of these games ceremoniously upheld after all these years? In this fashion, Atelier Ryza 2 still feels like a game made in 1997. Exploratory areas are designated by a path, walls, monsters, and materials to harvest. Even dungeons barely escape ultimately bland, repetitive layouts. In all seriousness, Minecraft has more variety. Though, as a result, load times are simply incredible. Loading any areas on a PS4 Pro rarely takes longer than 2-3 seconds, a welcome fact in a game that will have you constantly running back and forth between areas to grind or craft materials.
The dungeons themselves offer layers of interactivity, starting you off with a number of specific bounties that often complete themselves through general exploration. Once completed, "memory fragments," or clues, appear throughout each layer of the dungeon, starting a scavenger hunt that finds you seeking the memories of explorers past. Once you have the memories, you're tasked with using them to complete fragmented scrolls and reveal the ancient story behind the ruins. In games like Dark Souls and Destiny, this sort of exploratory world-building works well, mostly because the lore is sprinkled lightly and only offers additional depth to what is openly shown to the player in-game. Here, the dungeon lore was compelling enough that it made me want to know more about the world, but I was tasked with finding the collectibles in such huge bursts that it ultimately blended into the myriad of other systems you're attempting to juggle while playing the game.
The "alchemy" of Atelier is its driving hook, and I will give the game credit for gating mechanics and crafting methods behind story progression; there was always a new feature that got me wanting to tinker, mitigating any creeping plateau that came with the grind. Ryza's titular atelier is the urn with which you create anything. Materials in the game are imbued with one of four elements: ice, electricity, fire, and wind. As you explore the world, you are constantly harvesting via sickle, ax, and magical fairy staff. You pick up hordes of resources which you will then use to craft weapons, bombs, armor, healing items, and even a sapling that turns into a giant tree bridge. Each item has a recipe that requires basic materials to level up. Specific materials unlock key perks, stat bonuses, and even new recipes. This is where the elements come to play. Higher quality items of a specific element will count more, requiring you to use less while crafting and opening up more opportunities for upgrades.
An auto-craft feature makes it easy to brute force these mechanics, but once I understood the puzzles of alchemy, I found myself having more fun perfecting my creations for ultimate battle devastation and a maximum harvest. Thankfully, I never felt forced into utilizing these mechanics. I could either have a standard, somewhat tedious JRPG battle, or craft overpowered items that put me over the edge. I was already dominating engagements when auto-crafting, but the lure of even more damage became hard to ignore. Traits can be passed through items as they're used in crafting, echoing the fine-tuning of IV Pokemon breeding. The entire system is the complicated result of a crafting-based series spanning decades. There are mechanics that I will likely never touch, but I appreciate the gall to include them for any mad lad who wants to potentially delete the final boss in fifteen seconds.
The battles themselves are "ATB-esque," providing a simple, yet engaging version of the familiar trope. Unless you're in an item screen, there is no pausing, as the action meter constantly fills and refreshes for player and enemy, regardless of action. Attack, gain a skill point. Use a skill, gain a "core item" point, and build the tech meter. A higher tech meter means more tech points to spend and faster access to skills. Every battle starts slow, then builds exponentially until you have an immense arsenal of destruction to immediately lay waste to your enemies. Though it doesn't require big brains, battling is fast and satisfying; the ever-filling meter forces the player to stay engaged, otherwise the enemy might gain a quick advantage. Timing your guard use to match the arrival of an incoming attack will boost your defense, though I wish there was a better indication of who the enemy was going to attack so I could time more efficiently. Core items can be assigned via each character's Core Drive, which, like everything else in this game, can be upgraded. Using items in battles also costs an equivalent number of points, and like skills those points are earned over time as you progress through the battle.
Atelier Ryza 2 offers the player an extremely wide array of systems from the outset. At first, it may seem overwhelming, but it never felt like I had to master each system in order to progress and that allowed me to proceed at my own pace. It became most interesting for me when coming to these systems on a whim, and while it was frustrating to be extremely lost at times, it was also weirdly refreshing to be in an environment with so many different things to possibly figure out. Tutorials are a formality, at best. First and foremost, this game is designed for the fans who already know a thing or two.
Even though this is my first Atelier, I can tell that features have been included to expedite the "game" aspect, much like how Pokemon introduced EXP-SHARE as an optional item before including it as a mandatory mechanic. I like that I can fast travel to any area, especially when load times are virtually non-existent. As long as you have the resources being asked for, daily quests can be completed immediately upon acquisition. Characters level up with you outside of the party. After an early dungeon, you're given a mount that lets you run past any enemy. Harvesting tools are easily upgraded, allowing you to gather hordes of materials in minutes. At a certain point, I wondered what the game would look like if developers spent time creating something entirely new, rather than dressing up dated mechanics for the modern era, arguably neutering what little gameplay exists.
Atelier Ryza 2's story is a jarring departure from typical JRPGS, in that there is very little to it, though it's clear this is intentional. Pivotal characters often appear out of convenience as if in a vaudevillian puppet show. Ryza, of course, is the inspiring, well-wishing protagonist. She's given an apartment in the city in exchange for a few bombs and the "promise" to do side-quests. You better complete them or you will be scolded. Characters from the first game show up with no apparent motivations beyond... being there? I'm genuinely not sure. New characters are inherently more interesting, if only because they are given a sense of purpose beyond knowing Ryza. If a fluffy fairy bunny hatched from a random egg, wouldn't you be its best friend? The game rarely cares if you are confused. One NPC says she wants to share pudding with the world, then runs off with her pet goat. This was one of my favorite moments.
I found this inherent irreverence to be somewhat refreshing. It made me yearn for a Laid Back Camp RPG, but even so, I wish it leaned harder in that direction. Oddly, there's no social system akin to Fire Emblem: Three Houses or Persona. When darting about the city, character cutscenes are triggered at the game's whim, and there's little you can do to avoid them. Usually, you're given a small scene, with a brief bit of dialogue. Sometimes, it amounts to noticing that someone is busy. Literally, that's it. Other times, it's telling someone they should keep up the good work. You might want to fast travel home, only to trigger a cutscene that leaves you in another area, forcing you to fast travel again, triggering yet another cutscene. While I appreciate the happenstance of skipping through town and coming across friends, it contrasts with the exponentially speedier pace of harvesting and battling, especially when I'm on a crafting spree and I do not want to be interrupted about pudding.
Characters themselves are beautifully detailed, ready for battle in the most delightfully impractical ways one could imagine, more than making up for the stale environments. Each character's personality shines through striking and colorful outfits that stand out in glorious HD. Compared to The Last of Us Part II, my favorite game of 2020, which caused controversy for its social messaging and blunt depiction of trauma, Atelier Ryza 2 is all about making our waifus look wet in the rain, and deriving suspicious camera angles when Ryza crouches through a crawlspace. I can't deny its aesthetic charms, which somehow feel less squirmy in a world of such profound innocence.
Atelier Ryza 2 has me of two minds. There are times when I see behind the curtain a bumbling hodge-podge of a game barely holding itself together, and other times when I am totally wrapped up in the whimsical nonchalance of these merry adventurers. I might've rated this game higher if I played it on Switch a little bit at a time over the period of a few months. It's perhaps cliche, but this is truly the perfect Switch game. It's something of a joyful, understated palate cleanser in an industry where so many games and studios are fighting for recognition, either making sweeping social statements or attempting to be the next viral trend. Like Fire Emblem: Three Houses, this is the perfect game to play for thirty minutes before bed. There may be little "umami" to gel this experience, but depending on what mood you're in, different components--whether it be meticulous crafting sessions or moseying around for quaint character beats--offer the right kind of grind to burn the hours away.
Atelier isn't going anywhere. Atelier doesn't have to justify its existence, because there's barely a reason for it to exist in the first place and it's lasted decades. Who am I to even rate the game? Fans of the series know what it is. They're here for the funnel cake, and the funnel cake always wins.
Freelance review by Stephen Hershey (January 26, 2021)
Stephen writes and edits in Los Angeles, and loves streaming Destiny 2 on Twitch. He remembers the NES "Back to the Future" games being really confusing.
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