Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland is a role-playing game that places an addictive crafting system at its forefront, letting you create numerous items and customizable gear. The series' first foray into 3D entices you to explore, with cel-shaded characters and vivid environments that draw you in with a painted aesthetic. Unfortunately, an overbearing time limit mars the adventure, keeping you so focused on deadlines that you struggle to play as you'd like.
You're cast as Rorona, a young alchemy apprentice working in the small kingdom of Arland. Because of your master's extreme unpopularity, the king has decided to close your workshop unless you can improve its reputation by crafting for the kingdom. You befriend multiple oddball characters to adventure with, including a bard who attempts to charm you and a cook who battles with a giant frying pan. The story is fairly predictable and sometimes weird, with various characters making perverted jokes at Rorona's expense. However, it's also sweet at points, spanning longtime friendships and budding romances in character side stories.
A satisfying crafting system lies at the heart of gameplay. The game is segmented into 12 crafting assignments, with each spanning 90 days. Though most assignments ask you to make basic items, they remain challenging because your submissions are graded, which encourages you to create better goods. The crafting system is easy to use, incorporating an ingredient-ranking system that determines an item's quality. The higher an item's quality, the more likely you are to unlock its effect, which you trigger by using the item. There are numerous effects, including special abilities and stat boosters. For example, you can greatly increase a healing salve's recovery ability or a bomb's destructive power. Each ingredient also carries a trait, which is a label like "stinky" or "aromatic." Opposite traits cancel each other out, but fusing items with the same trait bolsters the end product's effect. It takes skill to craft powerful items by managing traits, and the process becomes addictive as you push to make higher-quality goods.
The game includes a wealth of items to make, including food, tools, and bombs. Alchemy books unlock additional recipes, and it's fun to search for rare texts. Despite the sheer volume of items, you're usually stuck crafting the same objects to pass your assignment. This is due to the strict deadline, which is severely limiting. The looming deadline often prevents you from exploring, because everything--from synthesizing a pie to walking between maps--costs days. You can easily miss the deadline if you explore too often, but adventuring too little might leave you underpowered for the next area, which is frustrating. This time factor has an impact on side quests, too, because it reduces the number of jobs you can do while still leaving enough time to craft for your assignment or explore.
Exploration is mundane, but at least it gets you out of the workshop so you can gather ingredients. The game includes nine areas, each segmented into a variety of maps. Each map lists the items it contains and marks all gathering points, so it's easy to get what you're looking for. Unfortunately, you won't find much interactivity or challenge in exploration; puzzles typically involve little more than using bombs to clear a path. A few maps implement multiple pathways, but they quickly lead to dead ends, so exploration is still overly linear. The most annoying aspect is your inability to synthesize on the field, which forces you to return to the workshop when you run out of item space. You might also encounter a few bugs, such as a cabbage race conducted on a black screen that won't let you move.
A basic customization system lets you make distinctive gear. Your goal is to synthesize quality items for equipment, which you bring to a blacksmith to forge for you. For example, you can create a unique piece of armor by crafting cloth with good traits, such as "demon repel" or "inflict poison," which pass on to the resulting armor through forging. Using items with rare traits also unlocks hidden abilities, thus making your personalized gear even more unique. Although it's fun to design your own gear, pushover enemies render it largely unnecessary.
Atelier Rorona's no-frills turn-based combat gets repetitive fast, in part because you repeatedly face off against palette-swapped foes that share similar attacks. A handful of skills and an elemental gauge provide a minimal amount of depth. Using a basic elemental skill raises the gauge, enabling you to trigger advanced skills that correspond to the active element. These advanced skills are powerful but moot, because most enemies die before you raise the gauge. The support system is more useful, letting you trigger extra attacks after your allies have received damage, which speeds up combat.
A cute, cel-shaded character design highlights the game's unique style. Models move fluidly and don adorable outfits, and they use flashy spells to spruce up combat. Character portraits and environmental texturing appear painted, providing a fantastical look that is matched by quirky Celtic music. Slow guitar solos and boisterous battle tunes add to the cheery atmosphere, and make the prospect of exploration more tantalizing. Most voice-overs aren't too melodramatic, but you'll probably want to turn them off to avoid Rorona's whining.
The main storyline is 15 hours long, which is brief for the genre. Character side quests and multiple endings encourage repeat play-throughs, but endings are limited to a handful of artwork stills, which is disheartening. A new-game-plus option retains your money and item encyclopedia, but it complicates replayability by removing everything else--including gear and recipes. You also lose your adventure levels, which forces you to trudge through the same monsters on the same basic maps before you can proceed to advanced areas.
Pleasant music accentuates Atelier Rorona's addictive alchemy system, but exploration and combat feel overlooked. A harsh time limit overshadows everything, preventing you from playing how you want because you're constantly stifled by the clock. Though Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland is a charming adventure, its stark simplicity and annoying deadlines narrow its appeal.