Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & the Secret Hideout PS4 Review
It’s safe to say that no other genre in videogames will as many long-running niche IPs then the JRPG genre. While there are big name franchises like Final Fantasy that are recognized worldwide, there are still many lesser-known RPG series to have gotten nearly as many sequels thanks to a healthy fanbase and a considerably smaller budget. Case in point, the Atelier series has been around since 1997, spanning over twenty games across several gaming platforms (including portable), not unlike the aforementioned Final Fantasy franchise. Though most games feature separate characters and stories, virtually every Atelier game mixes two key ingredients for each RPG serving: Cute Girls and Alchemy. At a glance, the aesthetic of Atelier is as cookie cutter as it gets for pandering to the “Moe” side of Anime fandom (which, in roughly non-perverted terms, refers to “Cute Girls”, as stated before), often featuring an adorable (and marketable) female protagonist and a low-stakes story that is less a world-ending epic and more of a chill excuse to gather ingredients and craft up some new items and armaments for the party.
Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & the Secret Hideout is the latest title to feature the same trends as its predecessors, though with a noticeably fresher art style along with a considerably higher visual upgrade. The game centers around the titular Ryza, a young girl with a small clique of friends who yearn to escape the doldrums of their boring lives to explore outside their small village and have some adventures. While skipping out on her chores to knock out a few monsters at a nearby forest, Ryza and friends come across two mysterious individuals, Empel and Lila, who have come to the village to investigate an ancient secret that could throw the whole town upside down. In the meantime, Empel imparts some of his teachings regarding Alchemy, which is virtually unheard of in the village and has instantly piqued Ryza’s curiosity. After a few successful experiments, Ryza gets the crafting bug like so many Minecraft players and starts to scrounge up every flower, rock, fruit and monster carcass she comes across, while also using her budding skills to help out her friends and local townspeople.
As far as the narrative goes, don’t expect anything deeper beyond that initial premise. While the game is filled to the brim with dialog and interactions among Ryza and friends, as well as several reoccurring NPCs, none of them particularly stand out beyond a few personality tropes and character designs that should be instantly familiar to JRPG and Anime fans alike. Speaking of designs, Atelier Ryza is notable for slightly stepping outside the normally all-ages boundaries by depicting its latest heroine with a few….prominent features, particularly the backside. While the game’s creator claims to be surprised over the fan response over the character’s sex appeal, it’s hard for him to feign ignorance considering the game’s camera being practically nestled behind Ryza’s…well, behind. This is to say nothing of Lila, a ludicrously busty character that brings back memories of the Sorceress in Dragon’s Crown, particularly in regards to the question of how she’s even capable of standing up with the amount of weight she carries.
Despite the questionable designs, Atelier Ryza does remain a positive, lighthearted story that doesn’t reach the dramatically high stakes most other JRPGs are known for. The game’s charm can be infectious, proving the unoriginal characters to be potentially endearing. But the main draw of the game is the series staple Alchemy mechanic. Conceptually, it’s easy enough to understand: players gather ingredients from all the color-coded items out in the world and follow a recipe at home to create new items, often for battle purposes such as healing herbs, weapons, armor and bombs. In practice, however, there are a vast number of complex mechanics that drastically raises the crafting system of Atelier Ryza beyond mixing items together.
For every recipe, there is an ingredients tree filled with branching slots that require a certain item type and quantity in order to complete the recipe. Each slot usually requires a type of item and its corresponding element, such as plants that carry the Fire elemental or rocks that have Electric. Putting the right item type into a slot will open up the next path in the Alchemy tree, and once all the paths have been filled up, the item can be created. This is just the start, however: an item’s quality can be determined by the ingredients used, with some yielding a bigger Grade payout that can either result in a higher quality item or a brand new item entirely (which then gets saved as its own recipe). Items can also be reworked to become even more powerful and even include a selection of stat boosts (such as extra damage, or even just having a higher resell value). This is the barest minimum of explanation regarding the Alchemy system, as going into further detail would likely double the length of this review. Fortunately the game takes its time to help guide players into grasping these mechanics, and also includes a few automated features for those looking to just hurry up and craft some cherries to complete the newest side quest.
Speaking of which, the game is rife with constant side quests given by the local villagers, which can include such mundane tasks like creating bait to catch a fish, or making an ointment to cure an old woman’s joints. Of course, any RPG fan knows that these quests always yield rewards, but this concept of “collect things to make a new thing” also apply to the main story. Despite shirking her duties in her family’s farm, Ryza ends up becoming the ultimate alchemical gofer for every person in the village too dumb to fix a water leak or too lazy to buy groceries. Good thing the collecting process is quick and satisfying, especially when using tools to gather up the right kinds of materials: by default, Ryza can use her staff to whack the fruit out of a tree, but using an ax instead would yield lumber, while a scythe is required to gather up plants and wheat. Once all the tools become available, it’s all a matter of using the right equipment to get the desired crafting materials. Eventually a fast travel method will also let players instantly zip across town as well as nearby dungeons.
And yes, there is a battle system here: engaging with enemies does the usual transition to another screen in which party members each take a turn in battle. Players can perform standard attacks, which don’t do much in the way of damage but are instrumental in building up AP, which is used to perform a character’s more powerful skill set. The turns for both players and enemies also occur in real-time, meaning that taking too long to choose an ability could result in the monsters getting some extra deadly hits in. Fortunately, AP can be expended to jump to a character’s turn and freeze time in place until they’ve made their selection. In addition to spells and sword techniques, characters can also equip bombs, healing herbs and other useful items created from Alchemy. Furthermore, the items can be used multiple times without the need to restock them, though instead they operate on “Core Charges” that eventually run out until the group rests back at home (there’s also the ability to “convert” an item to recharge the Core during battle, though this still does not delete the item entirely). In battle, players control one party member at a time while the other two are on auto-pilot, but periodically the other party members will request a specific action in battle (such as using an item or casting a particular spell). Should the player adhere to their request, they will perform a linking attack that will deal extra damage against the enemy. There are also battle-related objectives that take up a separate list, which typically include things like having Ryza use items ten times in battle or having her buff sword buddy Lent perform the same sword action multiple times. Filling these requests will reward players with additional skills and passive bonuses that will strengthen the party further.
Visually, Atelier Ryza is nearly as gorgeous as a Triple-A RPG title, boasting vibrant colors and fluid animations (including, of course, bouncing breasts and booties). The music is pleasant, albeit repetitive, while the game features tons of voiced dialogue both in cutscenes and in battle. The downside is that the audio is exclusively in Japanese, which means most of the battle quips will go untranslated (Ryza’s constantly cheery quips when gathering items might also end up annoying), while the translation goes for a more localized approach that means characters occasionally end up talking long after players have read the subtitles. A minor quibble in comparison to the game’s more egregious faults: while the game wisely drip-feeds all of the complex battle and crafting mechanics little by little so that players can grasp them at a steady pace, the game still takes its sweet time to surrender all its toys. Though the game doesn’t keep track of playtime, it will likely take over a dozen hours or more before most of the game’s features are unlocked, including things that would have been handy to have hours in advance such as fast travel. Furthermore, the main story has a habit of not directly telling players what to do next in order to advance the plot, instead requiring them to read the quest log every time just to get the mundane instructions to go talk to a certain character or (for no reason whatsoever) rest in Ryza’s house for an approximate number of days. Again, these are small nitpicks, and the extended tutorial comes with the JRPG territory, but considering how fast-paced the battle and gathering portions of the game are, it does become a recurring irritation to engage in short bursts of gameplay only to have to watch a dozen more cutscenes followed by returning home over and over.
Though it may require a bit of patience to get to the sweet stuff, Atelier Ryza is a wholesome and addicting experience that RPG fans will gleefully gulp down, even if they’ve never dabbled with the Atelier franchise before. Thanks to the strong visuals and countless gameplay features, now is the best time to jump in on this niche series, which may end up becoming much more recognizable thanks to this latest solid entry.