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Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Review: Atelier Ryza 2: Lost Legends & the Secret Fairy (Sony PlayStation 4)


Review by Matt S. 

Koei Tecmo and its JRPG specialist developer, Gust, had a lot to prove with Atelier Ryza 2. This is the first time that any single protagonist in the Atelier series has been given a direct sequel, and doing so was going to necessitate that Gust take a different approach to the storytelling and characterisation. It's easy to understand why they would want to do that, because the first Ryza was a runaway success, but there was still some big creative risks that they needed to take to make Ryza 2 work. The good news is that the team has delivered, and Ryza 2 is a delight on every level.


Just about every Atelier title previously was a coming of age story. You would take on the role of a young girl as she was studying the alchemy trade, while also learning about her place in her community and the broader world. This structure was played for all it was worth, with the awkwardness of youth providing humour, the way the world opened up paralleling the girl's growing confidence in herself and her abilites, and the friend groups that circled around her and assisted her adventures all going through their own discovery stories. By the end of each Atelier story you had the sense that the girl - now woman - was comfortable with her role in the world and set for life.

That brings us to Atelier Ryza 2. There's no need to go through that growth arc; Ryza and her existing friends are already at the other end of that. So what's the solution for building a narrative with this group of characters? For Gust's writers, it was to find a new unfamiliar to expose Ryza to. She's no longer an innocent girl chafing at her stifling routine in helping her parents with their farm on a tiny, isolated island community. Now she's in the big city, and discovering all those wonders for the first time - from the shock at how expensive rent is ("you could rent every building back at home for the cost of this!" she exclaims, apparently not realising what CBD living is like), to her first pickpocketing experience (it's always fun when that happens). Ryza is a confident, successful adventurer, and yet the shift to the big city story has allowed Gust to leave us with a sense that she can still be overwhelmed, and that she still has many new experiences and wonders ahead of her.


Further fuelling this theme are the dungeons. A big part of Atelier Ryza 2 is focused on delving into the ruins of antiquity and learning about the history of the world. The mystery is further componded when, early on, Ryza is given a stone, which turns out to be an egg from which an adorable little winged monster pops out. This critter seems to have some kind of relationship to these ruins, but at first we (and Ryza) have no idea what that might be. Meanwhile, to help her explore, Ryza also has a new bag of tricks that gives her ability to swim, whip, climb and dash a strong Indiana Jones (or even Tomb Raider) vibe. Where most Atelier games only provide players with spaces filled with resources to collect and enemies to fight, Atelier Ryza 2 shows some actual level design, and it's a refreshing addition to the overall formula.

Plenty of old friends from the previous Atelier Ryza show up again, and there's a couple of new faces to keep the roster interesting. Ryza 2 does assume that you've played the previous one, and it would help in understanding the various characters and characterisation if you've already gone on an adventure with them. Though the narrative itself is largely self-contained, a big part of the appeal of the Atelier games is in knowing those characters. Then again, I would assume that anyone that would be interested in playing this game would have played its predecessor.

In most other ways Atelier Ryza 2 tracks along with what its predecessor achieved, tweaking things at the edges to refine them, but resisting making any major changes. The combat system remains vaguely turn-based, but characters take their turns to a timer that is both highly dynamic and snappy. Success is still heavily weighted towards having the characters working together in a group (the right special attacks at the right times will trigger bonus attacks from other party members), and, of course, having a good range of alchemy bombs and salves to blow up enemies and keep your party healthy, respectively. The presentation, meanwhile, is gorgeous even on PlayStation 4 (I've yet to test what the game looks like on PS5). The world has an expansive scope to it, and in combat camera angles are tight and close to promote an energetic explosion of movement and colour with attacks. I'm still not happy with the thicc pandering, because the game cannot stop shoving Ryza's backside and boobs in your face and I do find that this character design is at odds with the rest of the Atelier series (note: I love fan service, I just don't think the Ryza design is the right version of it for this series) but that's a minor issue. The character models are all drawn and animated beautifully, and the costuming shows some of Gust's finest designs.


The real question we need to be asking ourselves is whether this sequel maintains the spirt and values of the Atelier series. Atelier has always been equivalent of the finest of comfort food. Sure there's the occasional hint of darker themes, but overall, from end to end, across the narrative, characterisation, aesthetics and design, these games have preferenced being wholesome and in good spirit; they're stories about friendship and community, with talented girls at the centre of it, solving problems for their towns through the use of alchemy. Ryza 2 does indeed hold to this tradition. Though there's a great emphasis on exploration and dungeon delving, once back at home you'll still be helping people out with their little challenges in life, alchemising all kinds of weird things, and experiencing those charming, often deeply funny little side stories.

The one thing I didn't love with Atelier Ryza is the dissonance between the character's story, and the gameplay, particularly in the early stages. I don't have any idea how this could have been done differently, but Ryza starts out at a modest level 5, and knows no alchemy. Ryza, at the end of the first game, was a powerful warrior with a massive book of alchemy recipes at her disposal. The sequel gives you a throwaway line to try to explain this (something to the effect of "this is a new cauldron so I'm going to have to relearn everything!"), but it's not sufficient. I understand that for practical reasons Gust couldn't give players dozens of skills and alchemy recipes at their disposal from the opening chapter, but when the narrative otherwise works so hard to present a mature and empowered Ryza, the gameplay systems that start out treating her as a novice are jarring. 

The actual alchemy systems, however, are excellent. Atelier has, over the years, struggled to present alchemy systems that allow players to refine high quality items without being overly complex and unwieldy. The first Atelier Ryza got it very right, and the sequel has refined it further. After just a couple of practice runs, you'll be carefully mixing ingredients to get the optimal effect with great confidence, and you'll start finding fun ways to experiment with a very flexible system. You'll be spending a lot of time doing this too, so it's just as well that you've got so much to play around with here.


Gust's experiment with giving a beloved character a direct sequel has paid off. Anyone who enjoyed the first Atelier Ryza - and many place it right at the top of their series favourites for a reason - will love the subtle improvements that Gust has brought on board, without messing with the qualities that made the original so enjoyable. It has also been nice to play an Atelier that isn't also a coming of age story, and while Ryza isn't my favourite character in the series, the two-game arc that Gust has given her has given us one of the finest female heroes across all JRPGs. Atelier is really pushing into the upper echelons of JRPGs now, and I'm quite confident that the next game in the series will continue to build on the brilliant achievement of Ryza and its sequel (can we go back to more traditional Atelier protagonists with the next one though, please, Gust?). 



- Matt S. 
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb


Review: Atelier Ryza 2: Lost Legends & the Secret Fairy (Sony PlayStation 4)
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