Review: Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & the Secret Hideout (Nintendo Switch)

17 mins read

Review by Matt S. 

I’ve got to say this upfront; Atelier Ryza is a truly delightful game and the developer, Gust, is clearly keen to find new ways to mature the series. It has achieved that, and that’s admirable. But it’s also the Atelier title that has come the closest so far to losing me. There are some points of contention that I have that are, on balance, not enough to dampen my enthusiasm for Ryza, but while I was easily able to push past them, I wouldn’t be honest if I said there weren’t parts of this game that I really wasn’t a fan of.

I’m going to start with the combat. For the first time in an Atelier title, Ryza offers a proper real-time combat system. That’s not to say it’s an action combat title, like Gust’s other property, Nights of Azure. Rather, Ryza’s combat system plays a bit like the old SNES and PlayStation One Final Fantasy ATB systems, in that each character has “turns” and then needs to wait a period of time after taking an action before they can take their next action. In the meantime, enemies keep attacking or using their special abilities periodically, regardless of what you’re doing.

The problem with Ryza’s combat is that it is too busy. Far too busy. The old Final Fantasy titles were run by simple menus, while Ryza has action points gauges, supports, and all kinds of other interlocking systems sitting over the top of the combat. It’s not fast or complex enough to become overwhelming – just – but I have to query the wisdom of this system. Atelier has always been about very laid back gameplay, and a sedate, traditional turn-based combat system has been a key part of that. I’ve got no issues with active combat systems in other games, but it’s a little disjointed in this particular title and series to have such a relaxed approach to storytelling, exploration, and other key gameplay systems, only to then challenge players with this kind of combat system.

With this being said, combat was never why I played an Atelier title, and I generally avoided it, as far as I was able to. You always needed to get into some scraps here and there for the materials that the enemies would drop, but otherwise combat always felt like something thrown in there just to cement Atelier as a JRPG. That much hasn’t changed with Ryza either, so while I wasn’t ever a big fan of the combat system, it faded into the background quickly enough that it didn’t bother me either.

The other element of Ryza which I’ve not been able to get on board with is Ryza herself. This is a series that has always been about connecting players to the characters, remember, and the order of my favourite Atelier titles is an exact parallel to the order of my favourite Atelier protagonists. So it’s a little disappointing that Ryza’s not up there. Like with the combat system, it’s not that Ryza is a poor character outside of context, because she’s great. It’s just that she’s such a departure for Atelier that she gives the entire game a tonal shift from what I love about Atelier. Previously, Atelier protagonists had a specific type; they were all frilly skirt-wearing girls, basically. Each Atelier protagonist would go through an extensive coming of age narrative arc as her game’s principle storytelling concern, but throughout each they remained incredibly feminine, girlish types. I liked that. It was refreshing. Unique across the range of “for-otaku”, fanservicey JRPGs, Atelier stood out as the only one that didn’t really indulge in an overt sexiness. They were pretty games, featuring very pretty people, and that was lovely.

You only need to search for “thicc” and “Ryza” together on social media to spot where she has driven a tonal shift within the series. People have not been able to get over her overly curved legs since the initial character reveal. I do wonder if this response has been a little bemusing to the developers at Gust, because when I interviewed them at TGS earlier this year, they were clear that the reason that they swapped the frilly skirt for shorts was out of a concern for Ryza’s modesty. Moreover, in Japan disproportionately large thighs aren’t quite the cultural obsession that western culture’s escalating average BMIs has defined as the new sexy. Regardless of intent, though, when you look at Ryza it is really hard to see the overt sex appeal as an accident.

Again, she’s a good character, don’t get me wrong. Her tomboyishness certainly makes her a bit tougher than some of the other Atelier leads that we’ve seen in years past, but when push comes to shove Ryza shows the same qualities as her peers – she’s a bit of a ditz at times, but is ultimately community-orientated, loyal to a fault, and resourceful in the face of adversary. Once I sat down to actually play Atelier Ryza my concerns about the character faded away quickly because I was able to enjoy her for what she was, rather than measure her against my expectations as an “Atelier protagonist”, and it’s not like there isn’t a skirt-girly character in the game for me, anyway. Klaudia might not be a leading lady (and this is the first time I’ve ever preferred a secondary character to the protagonist), but she’s certainly the type I like, and her classy black stockings that go with the dress is my ideal fanservicey aesthetic.

Additionally, I can’t begrudge Gust for looking for new audiences and trying different things. Ryza’s been a massive commercial hit for a series that many worried was becoming over-saturated and almost burned out. This is the third Atelier this year alone, and that’s an absurd rate of development. That Ryza has been such a commercial hit is surely because, with the character of Ryza, Gust has done something different and it has resonated. I suspect we’ll see more of her type down the track now, and on that basis anything that gets more people into Atelier is a good thing in my book. Finally, given that Atelier Lulua released just a couple of months ago, and Lulua is most certainly my kind of girl, I’m not feeling hard done by by any means here.

So, aside from those two minor non-gripes, everything about Atelier Ryza is a delight, and Gust has been creative and pushed boundaries in ways that I am completely on board with. The storytelling is exceptional, for a start. The Atelier series has always been known for being wholesome. There’s no sense that events are being driven by an almighty antagonist or apocalypse for the heroes to prevent, and instead the main characters spend most of their time going through that coming of age process and learning their place in the world by participating in their communities, completing little jobs and just generally being helpful.

Ryza hasn’t lost sight of that, but it does try and do a little more with the characters. Each of the party members has a darker side – they’re bullied, their father is an abusive drunk, or a wealthy and overprotective sort. Ryza’s own mother is stiflingly strict, and wants for nothing more than to have Ryza slaving away in the family farm fields day after day, causing Ryza to have a rebellious edge. For each of the characters in the party, part of their coming of age is learning how to avoid the mistakes of the previous generation, while also discovering their passions in life and chasing them with single-minded determination. As a result, the narrative curve for each character is compelling and more nuanced. You’re really encouraged to sympathise with the characters on a far deeper level. It’s not to say that Atelier Ryza has lost the series sense of lighthearted fun and adventure, but rather that the cast is simply written more deeply.

The alchemy system is also revamped for Atelier Ryza, and this one works really well. Gust keep experimenting with all kinds of systems, but this is perhaps the most clean and elegant one we’ve seen yet. For every object that you want to create, you need to combine a series of base materials, much like a recipe, and the same basic principle that all Atelier titles have run on. This time around, however, you’re presented with a grid, and by providing the right materials to the nodes on that grid, you can “level up” the eventual item. Additionally, completing nodes on the grid unlocks more nodes, and if you are able to work deeply enough into the grid it’s possible to unlock more advanced items. On the other hand, you only get to drop in a certain number of elements per synthesis attempt, encouraging you to be on the constant lookout for higher quality materials (as they fill nodes quickly), and opportunities to level up your alchemy skill (so you can do more with every attempt).

The best thing about this system is how flexible it is. In most previous Atelier titles you’d be limited to using very specific set of items when “cooking” any recipe. But here you’ve got a number of different directions that you can take with the nodes, allowing you to really stretch whatever resources you’re picking up… and encouraging you to pick up a wider range of materials, too, because you’re never quite sure when they’ll come in handy.

The world Ryza and her friends explore is also so much more interesting this time around. It’s big, for a start, with so many points of interest to discover, and treasure hunting across the world does impart a great sense of adventure. Additionally, there are all kinds of places to crawl and shimmy, with Ryza’s improved animation set giving her the mobility to give you a great sense of discovery as you explore. Ryza can create an expansive range of items, from fishing lines to sickles, to collect different kinds of resources from the same objects. Finally, this is a really good looking game, and a lot of effort has gone into the smaller details to really give the game a “next generation for Atelier” feel.

Brought together it’s not surprising that Atelier Ryza has sold so well in Japan and found a new audience – and it’s not just because of the girl. This is a streamlined and accessible take on a series that had become quite unwelcoming to newcomers. The systems and combat system are instantly familiar, the structure to the world is something modern JRPG fans will find familiar, and the effort is there to bring the presentation up to a mid-tier standard. It’s no Final Fantasy, but it’s more than sufficient for a broad cross-section of the audience. There’s still plenty in there for Atelier veterans to appreciate and enjoy, but Atelier Ryza isn’t attached to any previous games in the series, and Gust has used that as a chance for a series refresh very effectively.

More than anything else, I look for my Atelier games to be relaxing and make me smile. I have a couple of small and superficial issues with Atelier Ryza, but they’re unimportant in the grand scheme of things. What is important is that I came away from this game very happy. It’s a joy to play, the overall experience is video game comfort food, and I don’t think I’ll ever get bored with the way Gust approaches the alchemy systems with the same sense of experimental creativity as the alchemy in the game itself. I didn’t think it would be possible, but Gust really has managed to craft three completely different Atelier games through 2018 – one for the traditionalists, one pushing new ground, and one purely for the fans – and all three have, in their own way, been of the astoundingly high quality and spirit that has made Atelier my favourite JRPG franchise for quite a few years now.

– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld

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