NIS America's PlayStation 3 game Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland is the third title in the Arland story arc of developer Gust's long-standing Atelier series (it's the 13th overall installment). The first two games in the arc were fun and full of cheery goodness. Does the third and final chapter continue the tradition? In a word, yes -- though it is definitely the weakest of the three games.
Much like the previous two games, the player takes control of a young female looking to make a name for herself as an alchemist (somebody who carefully creates something from two or more seemingly unreleated items) -- a skill that is quite rare in the kingdom of Arland. In this third tale, however, the aspiring alchemist is already well known amongst the people of her area. She is, you see, a princess and the next in line for the throne (a fact that her father, the king, apparently ignores as he allows his 15 year old daughter to face various perils throughout this game).
Where the previous two games had some sort of internal struggle (ie: searching for Totori's lost mother in Atelier Totori: The Adventurer of Arland), Atelier Meruru seemingly has none. Sure, the underlying goal of the game is for the princess to use her developing alchemist skills to help develop her fledgling kingdom into a land one could be proud to rule, there is little motivation beyond that. Seemingly as if Gust knew this might be an issue, there are a couple of sub plots such as the dangerous and constantly relocating Ent forest and the threat of a dragon in some nearby ruins, to help spice things up a bit. Truthfully, they do help by serving as a challenging and exciting distraction from kingdom building and errand running, but do nothing for the storyline overall.
Many of the characters from the previous two games in the Arland arc appear within Meruru, with a great number of them actually being playable. Those who have already fallen in love with this charming series should find themselves smiling ear-to-ear as they can once again include Totori, Rorona, Mimi, and others in an adventure or two. There are also, of course, a number of new characters -- all of whom fit in nicely with the series' established flavor and tone. For those who will be making Meruru their first-ever Atelier game, there is a fairly short video that can be accessed through the game's menus that will give them a basic understanding of the events that unfolded in the previous two titles. Paying attention and not skipping through the vis-novel styled storyline sequences also helps (no matter how much you might want to).
The gameplay found within Meruru is strikingly similar to that found within Atelier Totori and Atelier Rorona with three distinct parts making up the whole. Alchemy works more-or-less the same as it does in the previous titles and many of them items that are able to be synthesized are done in Meruru just as they were in Totori and Rorona. This sort of continuity is great and, while it doesn't add anything groundbreaking to this latest title, it does help to emphasize the fact that Atelier Rorona, Totori, and Meruru aren't three separate games at all; rather, they are three titles making up one overarching game trilogy.
Much like alchemy, adventuring gameplay is akin to what's been established in the previous two titles. Players navigate the kingdom of Arls via a point-to-point map (though there doesn't seem to be any sort of random encounters between destinations this time) with each environment consisting of only one area -- save for key areas such as the dragon's ruins. Players, however, shouldn't explore at a whim -- a desire that is hard to quell -- as each area takes a certain number of days to reach and the game has a number of hard deadlines that must be met in order to keep playing. Battles, which look only to occur in these areas, are turn-based and work just like they do in the past games as well. Each character has his/her own skills (though all have basic fight/flee commands) and certain attacks made by Meruru in combat can be combined with those of her two active companions to give the player certain advantages in battle. Furthermore, should a character be on his/her deathbed and the situation just right, he/she can unleash a mega attack capable of dealing a formidable amount of damage to opposing creatures -- something that comes in quite handy during the game's few challenging boss fights.
Atelier Meruru adds one key component to its gameplay that isn't found in the previous two: popularity. As a member of Arls' ruling family, Meruru must make sure she has the support of her people to assist her in the development of the kingdom. Should her popularity drop to low (say, from too much exploration and not enough quest completion) her alchemy privileges are taken from her and the game ends. While the popularity mechanic doesn't add anything too drastic to the game, it is something that the player needs to keep an eye on as an early game over (for any reason) is still something best avoided.
Visually, Meruru continues the lighthearted presentation of the two former titles. The game opens with a great J-pop style theme song and anime intro movie that sets the tone for how the game will present itself. The in-game visuals are clean and, while they pale in comparison to blockbusters like Uncharted 3, are pleasant on the eyes. Audio-wise, the game has a good amount of voice-over work that is utlilzed off-and-on within the game. Overall, the English dub isn't half bad. Players do have the option to play with the Japanese voice track if they chose, however. A final point to make with Atelier Meruru's presentation is that its soundtrack is strikingly similar to the previous titles. In fact, many of the same tracks used within Meruru are also used in the previous two titles. Some may scoff at this as copping out by re-using songs, but consistency in background audio from game to game helps further the fact that the three games are so closely tied in with one another to tell three parts of the same story.
Enjoyable and cheery, Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland proves itself to be a suitable ending to the Arland story arc for Gust's Atelier series. The game itself can be a bit of a ho-hum affair from time to time, but it also provides an incredibly addictive play thanks to its pleasant presentation and an attitude that can be best described as childlike fun. And though the game is a bit girly overall, there should be plenty of proud male gamers out there that will find that Meruru might be their guilty gaming pleasure.
Final Game Guys grade: B
(NIS America provided a copy of this game for review.)