Japanese RPGs aren’t exactly on the top of the world at the moment. The genre that once dominated Sony consoles has fallen to fatigue and the splendor of western experiences with branching narratives, but while turn-based adventures may not be flying off the shelves like they used to, studios like NIS America are still bringing the unique heat from the Land of the Rising Sun.
The Gust developed Arland series is an NIS staple at this point, even if you haven’t heard of any of the three titles. They’re all turn-based, quest-heavy RPGs that closely follow the formula established what now feels like so many years ago, and while I hesitate to recommend Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland to a crowd of gamers influenced, and perhaps even spoiled by modern RPGs, there’s enough quality content in this third entry to the franchise that should be experienced. Fans may not find many new, interesting ingredients in the Arland recipe, but those who still find themselves clinging to their Final Fantasy and The Legend of Dragoon memories should take notice of Gust’s efforts.
The Apprentice of Arland is all about improving the kingdom of Arls, whether it be through simple questing or heavy alchemy. As the land’s princess, Meruru finds a sensational interest in the art of alchemy and its ability to help build the small kingdom into a prosperous nation. With the assistance of her teacher Totori, the protagonist from the last game, Meruru devotes herself to not only improving the Arls Kingdom, but proving to her father that she has the talent and dedication to become a true alchemist.
Though at times novel and amusing, the narrative elements of Meruru’s quest never prove compelling enough to garner attention. A slew of characters, some new and others returning from the previous two titles, allow for short, comical moments to appreciate, but the individual storylines feel too inconsequential to care for. The core motivation for the princess also lacks punch, as character conflict and growth almost feel absent from the adventure. The charm we’ve come to expect from western franchises like Disgaea never find a way into this particular escapade, but the amount of exposition and filler backstory sadly stay intact. I found myself repeatedly thumbing through both main and side-story content after the first dozen hours of gameplay; avoiding the aggressively uninspired story to return to the most compelling aspect of the experience – the gameplay.
Where simplicity and a lack of consequence hurt the narrative of The Apprentice of Arland, it’s the straightforward yet satisfying nature of the in-game activities that make the mechanics such a success. Like the other two games in the series, everything relies on a three-year cycle. The king wants his kingdom to reach a specific population by the time three years has passed, so it’s up to the player to decide how that time is spent. Gathering materials, synthesizing, completing quests for cash and larger, developmental assignments all help move both the calendar and the kingdom closer to where they need to be. Some tasks are more trivial than others, but the beauty of the system is that every completed undertaking feels like a significant accomplishment. You can spend an hour traveling the map and gathering materials, or maybe use that same time to participate in the turn-based battles to beef up your characters. Each session feels meaningful, and since the game is very lenient, wasting time doesn’t sink your expedition.
Watching Arls develop adds a physical reward to the already supremely satisfying psychological sense of accomplishment. Development points earned from the core quests and some smaller goals can be plugged into kingdom-altering structures. Libraries, training facilities and marketplaces boost both the appearance of the environment and the progress of your party, and the time it takes to gather the points is worth the developmental outcome. You’ll see quick results in the many areas you spend time in, and while the Arland series doesn’t blow you away with its cel-shaded, anime-style presentation, it’s still exciting to see new formations prettying up your world. Pure character development is enough to draw enthusiast to many turn-based RPGs, but The Apprentice of Arland manages to pack a handful of systems into the adventure worth upgrading and sinking time into.
If you’ve played either The Alchemist of Arland or The Adventurer of Arland, the formula really shouldn’t be much of surprise here. While the development of the kingdom is unique to Meruru’s quest, the combat, tone, synthesizing and graphics are almost identical to the past two titles. You’ll still combine regular attacks, special abilities and synthesized items in battle to conquer foes, as well as gather a boat-load of materials necessary for successful alchemy. It’s a mix of mechanics that truly works, and the few additions do make for a more full-bodied experience, but the minute steps forward make this particular project feel like a slightly lazy effort. It’s essentially a re-skinned interpretation of Gust’s original concept, and it sure would have been nice to see the team spread its wings a bit more in all areas.
What’s left is a mechanically sound game with a narrative that continually stands in the way. It’s difficult to not get lost in using gathered materials to create items and exploring the substantial map in hopes to build a better kingdom, but lackluster dialogue continually finds a way to impede your enjoyment. If you haven’t had a chance to dive into this franchise and are in need of a well-made JRPG on modern consoles, Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland should satisfy all of your strange, turn-based needs. It’s a rewarding experience, but too similar to Gust’s past outings to suggest to fans.
Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland was developed by Gust and published by NIS America. A Playstation 3 copy was provided by the publisher for the purposes of review.