Atelier Ryza 3: Alchemist of the End & the Secret Key PS5 Review
“Sex Sells” has been a long-disputed and longer-controversial statement that gets thrown around, at times dismissively, when it comes to advertising media. While most companies have greatly scaled back or revised the way sex appeal is used to drive up interest among the thirsty crowd of consumers in the world, our gentlemen of culture at Japan still has little qualms using their eye-catching Anime Waifus to sell as many copies as possible regardless of what genre of videogame they are selling, from volleyball to survival horror, or in this case an RPG that fuses turn-based battles and item crafting.
Generalizations aside, there is no doubt that Atelier Ryza, which is the latest installment in the very, very long-running Atelier series (as far back as the PS1, in fact) owes much of its success to the design and marketing of its titular character. While the developers behind Ryza series claim that they did not intend to use Ryza’s curvaceous attributes to sell their game, the frequent releases of statues, artwork, and even an upcoming Anime that all place extra emphasis on the character’s thighs seem to contradict the claims.
That’s not to dismiss the games themselves, which are greatly-produced adventures filled with lots of content, charming characters and a whole plethora of features that make each game bursting at the seams, much like the seams surrounding Ryza’s thi-yeah, sorry. Anyway, the cute character designs definitely played a factor in raising awareness of this niche series, but so has the latest renewed interest in JRPGs in the West, which is a good result regardless as the Atelier games make up a very cozy subset of RPGs where the emphasis on gathering and grinding is more out of a personal goal rather than a required one to progress in the story (though that still is a requirement, just less so).
Atelier Ryza 3: Alchemist of the End & The Secret Key is the third and reportedly final game in the Ryza trilogy, which is a rather bold move given the popularity of the character. Though the game does follow the events of the previous two, the ongoing narrative is not complex enough that it requires players to be deeply familiar with the previous adventures. The gist of the journey is that Ryza and her childhood friends have reached young adulthood, having grown stronger in both mind and body in their respective fields: the titular Ryza has honed her passion for alchemy, now an expert who has gained the trust of her local townspeople in fixing all problems both big and small, while her friends Lent, Tao and Claudia have made equal gains in their fields. While the quartet reminisce about their previous years and look toward the future with bittersweet anticipation, a mysterious event shakes up the small island town and fills Ryza with typical RPG-induced headaches involving magical portals and upcoming dangers. You know, the usual stuff every teenager in an RPG has to go through.
Like with the previous entries, the world-ending stakes aren’t really the focal point of the Ryza games, but rather the growth of the characters and their moment-to-moment interactions. Ryza 3 revels in bringing back past characters both major and minor in order to show how much they’ve changed and how their relationships with one another have deepened. Charming as that is, especially for fans who have stuck it out since the first game, it also runs into the all-too-common problem of repetitive quips and one-liners that plague many heavily-voiced RPGs, though it is especially egregious here considering how often players will be fast traveling to the same locations over and over. There are still plenty of new lines as the story and character roster progresses, but it is still an annoyance worth quibbling over.
Repetition is in fact the main gameplay element of the Ryza trilogy, as well as the Atelier series in general, as the primary mechanic first and foremost is gathering items for crafting. Many buttons will be mashed mercilessly as players run around every nook and cranny of every town, forest, island, dungeon and even the ocean itself to gather as many materials as Ryza’s limited bag will allow. When said bag becomes full, it’s a quick fast travel hop back to the HQ in order to mix up the ingredients to cook up all sorts of alchemy goodies. Besides essential combat items including weapons, armor, healing items and bombs, Ryza can also cook up additional tools to help collect new craftable items. These items are wielded directly, such as hammers, axes, and fishing rods, and even factor into what kind of material can be yielded from what structure (hitting a stone with an ax, for instance, will result in different collectible items vs hitting it with a hammer, and these tools can be quickly swapped at any time). There are also items that can be crafted to help with traversal, such as ropes for quick zip-lining across large gaps.
Such traversal tools are quite valuable, as Ryza 3’s world is the biggest yet; aside from retreading old ground, there are a whole set of new islands to explore, each filled with all sorts of hidden locations and paths, which of course lead to valuable treasures and even sidequests. There are also random time-limited quests in which the gang must collect a certain amount of items or deal with a marked threat…while optional, it’s worth the few minutes it takes to complete these challenges for the bonuses they provide. More and more JRPGs are creating settings almost as big and content-filled as big budget RPG juggernauts like Skyrim or The Witcher 3 (and just like Skyrim, a lot of seemingly blocked-off paths can be traversed with enough skillful “Skyrim Jumping” through mountainous paths).
Let’s not forget that there’s a combat system to talk about as well. Similar to the previous games, Ryza 3’s combat falls somewhere closer to the classic ATB system of older Final Fantasy games, with a bit of stringing combos together ala the Tales of franchise; both players and enemies must wait for their time bar to fill up in order to take an action, whether it’s attacking, defending or using items. Each action has their own set of systems to take note of, such as how stringing action attacks along with skills can result in more damaging combos, or how fulfilling a specific action request from party members will bring out a deadly follow-up attack. There’s also precision blocking which can greatly negate enemy damage, or that the number of items that can be used in one turn is determined by how many points are accumulated in battle. Then there is the key system, which is a whole new can of worms that involve creating magical keys in battle that can be stored and then utilized to create various buffs…
If any of that sounds daunting, rest assured that Ryza’s combat is much simpler than it sounds, though that does bring up another issue that is a common complaint in many JRPGs: tutorial bloat. Ryza 3 does its best to drip feed its mechanics bit by bit, but the breakneck pacing followed by the walls of text that explains each new gameplay term can feel overwhelming, though every tutorial can be referenced at any point, so grasping it all at once is not a real requirement. The alchemy system, which is a whole other gameplay system in itself that is filled with just as much if not more tutorials as the battle system, thankfully also has a handy shortcut feature where all the required ingredients for an item can be auto-filled with the push of a button (even handier, players can choose to use up their highest quality ingredients in order to create the highest quality item available to them).
But a lot of this confusion could have been circumvented if Ryza 3 had a few more streamlined features added. Many of the UI elements lack the same polish and easy-to-navigate options that tend to be standard in most modern RPGs; the fact that the party’s HP isn’t displayed on the first screen is an example of the clunky menu arrangement, not to mention other options that should have their own dedicated slots such as healing items, or how the map screen is a cluttered mess where it isn’t always apparent which island has the latest tracked quest until you zoom into each section. Even the main HQ where alchemy creation and manual saving isn’t marked on the map, which could prove especially frustrating for anyone who takes an extended break only to forget where they were supposed to go when resuming. Then there is the crafting catalog itself, which also lacks a lot of helpful streamlining features, like pinning recipes in order to be notified when all the requisite ingredients have been collected. In fact, alchemy-created items won’t even give a description on what they do until after the item has been created, which is especially frustrating for min/max players who won’t be able to decide what recipe to unlock next in the skill tree.
A lot of these complaints may not sound like a big deal for long-time RPG fans, but the fact that a lot of these frustrations have been improved and streamlined in more modern entries makes Atelier Ryza 3’s mechanics feel a lot more dated then they needed to be. For a more casual audience, these complaints may not register at all: once more, the primary source of dopamine is the collecting of items and the crafting of higher quality trinkets, regardless of how useful they may actually be, especially with the battle system being simpler than the game makes it seem, not to mention the breakneck speed in how quickly battles are won and levels go up. And of course, there is the charming cast of characters and the storybook setting they inhabit, where everything carries a feeling of whimsy and coziness no matter how dangerous some monsters may seem or how revealing some of Ryza’s optional outfits may be (again, totally not on purpose, if developer Gust is to be believed).
It will be interesting to see what will happen to the Atelier series going forward, now that Ryza’s chapter comes to an end after this entry. The increased presentation and improvements following the first two titles really demonstrated how the trilogy resonated with its audience. Hopefully more care can be put into better streamlining the mechanics and UI elements, as this series just needs a few more polished ingredients to produce a truly high grade experience. In the meantime, this flawed trilogy of games is still worth the appraisal for both old and new school fans of RPGs, or any enthusiast of watching the numbers go up.