Having seen the Atelier games recommended online for years and years, it wasn’t until the summer of 2016 that I played my first game from the series, Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book. Having been intimidated by the breadth of the long-running franchise, never being sure where I should start, Atelier Sophie ended up being the perfect entry point into the cutesy JRPGs, and it remains a favourite of mine as I played more and more of them each year. From the memorable, relateable protagonist to the laid-back story and relaxing atmosphere, it was an experience that I had yet to find undone by any other entry in the series.
Now that I’ve played Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & the Secret Hideout, I know that lightning can, in fact, strike the same spot twice. This is the best Atelier game I’ve played since Atelier Sophie.
It all starts with the protagonist and their backstory. For me, the main thing that made the games after Atelier Sophie feel less impactful was how they simply thrust you into a world of alchemy with little build-up or fanfare. Sure, Sophie started out as an alchemist, but she was an inexperienced one. Seeing her slowly discover the true limits of her abilities and the wider world of alchemy was a wonderful coming-of-age story. In the sequels that followed, it felt like your protagonists were master alchemists first and well-rounded characters second. Having already found their footing in the world of alchemy, it was hard to truly connect with them or understand their emotions.
Atelier Ryza does something different that, despite being a small change in theory, makes the entire story so much more engaging and magical. Reisalin Stout, our plucky and energetic protagonist who simply goes by the nickname Ryza, has never heard of alchemy in her life. When you start the game, Ryza is simply a teenage girl living in Rasenboden Village, a small town in the center of a rustic, quiet island named Kurken.
She and her childhood friends Lent and Tao have grown up frustrated by the slow and unchanging pace of life on the island, and desperately crave some kind of change to their low-key, carefree lives. Lent is a tall burly teen who dreams of being a legendary fighter, while Tao is a shy bookworm intent on achieving academic excellence. Ryza, meanwhile, simply wants adventure. She wants something new and exciting to happen, and when she discovers an abandoned boat by the coast near her home, she drags her friends along with her to sail off the island and make her own adventure.
Their nautical quest is short-lived, though. After encountering some tough monsters and trying their best to defend the daughter of a traveling merchant from harm, the pack of teens ends up needing to be rescued by a mysterious pair of silver-haired adventurers. The woman, Lila, is a fearless warrior who ends up taking Lent under her wing. Empel, meanwhile, is a wise man who not only decides to help Tao learn a long-lost academic language, but also introduces Ryza to the mysterious world of alchemy. The word “alchemy” isn’t even uttered in Atelier Ryza until you’re more than an hour into the game, and I loved it. I loved seeing Ryza naturally discover her love for alchemy, and fall into it as she learns to apply her yearning for excitement toward a promising life as an alchemist. The Atelier games have always felt like quaint and charming coming of age stories, but Atelier Ryza is truly the only time I’ve ever felt like I truly got to see what makes these characters actually want to dedicate so much time and effort into the world of alchemy.
Atelier Ryza is also full of gameplay changes that make the entire experience a massive breath of fresh air. Before you begin learning about alchemy, Ryza and her friends explore the nearby Fairy Forest and engage in a healthy amount of combat. Previous Atelier games relied on a charming yet simple turn-based combat system that was never my highest priority. In Atelier Ryza, though, I couldn’t get enough of it. Combat takes the form of a fast-paced, real-time engagement similar to the style of older Final Fantasy games. Your characters still have to wait their turn and select abilities from menus, but the sliding timer on the left of the screen never stops moving, meaning you need to act as soon as you’re able to.
You only actively control one character at a time while the others are operated by AI, but you can quickly swap control to another character on the fly to synchronise abilities as you please. With Action Points, Tactics Gauges and mid-combat action requests from your team-mates, combat in Atelier Ryza is fast and frenetic, but also one of the most unique JRPG battle systems I’ve experienced in years. For players who felt like Atelier always lacked in terms of engaging battles, Atelier Ryza is here to swiftly change your mind.
There are other changes and improvements here that serve to further enhance the experience. Item synthesis uses a new system of branching recipe routes, where you plug items of various elements into nodes in order to develop and customise recipes. It swaps the strategic satisfaction of colour-block organisation from previous games with the similarly satisfying and zen-like approach of slowly unfurling and expanding simple recipes into something more advanced and customisable. Still, it lacks a bit of the same depth I was used to from synthesis in previous games.
When you aren’t alchemizing, you’ll be exploring various towns and dungeons that look and run flawlessly on the Nintendo Switch. Framerate never stutters, load times are quick and the graphical fidelity is on par with every other version of the game.