Review: Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness and the Secret Hideout (PS4)

Platforms:

  • PlayStation 4
  • Xbox One
  • Nintendo Switch

Platform/Hardware Used:

  • PSN Download
  • PS4 Pro
  • 4K TV

Extras:

  • DualShock 4 Required (1)
  • Move None
Title: Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness and the Secret Hideout
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PSN (9.78 GB)
Release Date: October 29, 2019
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Developer: Koei Tecmo
Original MSRP: $59.99 (US)
ESRB Rating: T
A code for the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Gameplay:
Atelier Ryza is a bit of a fresh start for the long-running series. Not only is it the start of a new sub-series with no relation to the past games, but it is also Gust’s attempt to make the series a bit more palatable to non-fans. While it is certainly recognizable as an Atelier game, it tries a lot of new things as well. While straddling the line between the old and the new can be tough, Ryza accomplishes it with aplomb and is a solid game both for those new to Atelier, and those who have been playing for a while.

As always, Atelier Ryza follows the titular Ryza, the daughter of farmers living on a large island in a lake. Not content with the island she lives on, Ryza dreams of traveling to the mainland and adventuring. When she finds a hidden port with a small rowboat, she enlists her friends to join her on a jaunt to the mainland where she meets a traveling merchant, his daughter, and an alchemist. Enthralled by alchemy, Ryza soon begins to study it to assist her in her adventuring goal.

Ryza soon finds resistance from her parents and the other people of her island on her alchemy studies, so she and her friends decide to build a secret hideout on the mainland where they can adventure, away from the disapproving townsfolk. However, her adventuring eventually leads her to discovering some dark secrets about the ruins scattered about in her world and giving her a quest to help solve some unique problems.

On the whole, I enjoyed the story in Ryza but it does start a little slow. The first few hours are mainly just Ryza and friends’ normal lives with a small bit of adventure as they start to leave the island. Even after Ryza starts truly adventuring, it’s not until a few hours after that when the main plot really starts to take shape. On one hand, I like that the game gives you an idea of the lives Ryza and her friends are trying to protect. But on the other hand, the slow start might be a turn-off to those not used to the laid-back approach Atelier games often take to plot. And even after the plot fully kicks into gear, there’s still some of that Atelier feeling to it in how blasé it is about some plot that would otherwise be bombastic in another JRPG.

In mirroring the story, the gameplay elements also take a while to kick in. There’s a bit of story and just running around on the island before you get your first battle and a bit more of that before Ryza (and the player) start to explore alchemy. Again, I fear that those not used to this slow build-up might be turned off by the first hour or two of Ryza, but the gameplay is fantastic once it starts to take center stage.

One of the biggest departures from previous Atelier games is the combat. No longer turn-based, which the series has used since I’ve been playing, Atelier Ryza adds in a real-time element to the battles. It’s still largely menu based, picking an item, special attack, or just doing basic attacks from list of choices, but things are all done as timers tick down. I’d liken it most to the active-time battle system seen in games like Final Fantasy VII. However, it’s a lot prettier and easier to use.

A nice choice was to start with a radial menu where each of the face buttons represents a different type of action: basic attack, special attack, item, or movement. From there, special attacks and items do involve looking through a menu, but the game keeps these menus sparse (more on that later). All in all, while the move to a real-time system does seem odd, it becomes second nature pretty quickly. The game isn’t too punishing time wise, at least on the normal difficulty I used, so even when you do have to take half a second to select an option, it usually won’t be make-or-break action. This could still be a sticky change for long time fans, but I think the combat is still overall accessible and making it active might be more enticing for gamers who don’t like getting bogged down by a ton of choices as in some turn-based games.

And the lack of choices, i.e. sparse menu items, is definitely a design decision here. Since everything is timed, you only control a single character during battle while the other two attack on their own, although you can switch between your party members at will. Characters also only have a few special attacks to pick from to stay with the plan of making combat simple. However, to up the amount of interaction, your two AI party members will request certain actions of you, such as to heal or deal magic damage, and will perform special moves if you fulfill their order.

The other way things were made more sparse is in the item slot. Most Atelier games allow you to bring dozens of items into a battle with you, and the combat often centers around those items. In Ryza, each party member can only have up to four items and these items all draw from a collective pool of points when used. This pool is very small, meaning you can’t go using items in every single battle. Even though you regain points by temporarily breaking down one of your items, they feel a lot more like silver bullets to use only in certain situations. While I can see why this choice was made, it does mean items don’t feel quite as pivotal as in past Atelier games.

To make up for it, Ryza‘s combat now centers a lot around a tactics mechanic. Things you do in battle will gain you AP, which, when you get to a cap, can be traded in to gain a tactics level. Higher tactics levels mean you get multiple hits with your basic attacks and some skills and items are stronger. However, AP is also used for skills and for the other big mechanic: quick action. Quick actions pause the battle briefly so you can assess the battle and let you do actions out-of-turn as a way to respond to whatever the monsters are doing.

The push and pull of saving up AP to increase the tactics level versus using it on skills and quick actions feels like the backbone of the combat. Sometimes you use up your AP pool to level up tactics and then are left scrambling, hoping to regain enough AP for a quick action when the monster starts charging their ultimate attack. It’s a cool way that all the systems interact and it makes for fun and engaging combat system that, as the system aptly names itself after, leads to the feeling of being tactical rather than just mindlessly mashing attacks.

The alchemy in Atelier Ryza also puts a new spin on the series’ signature mechanic. While we’ve seen some variation in how the games do alchemy, synthesizing in Ryza is some how both easier to understand and more engaging. And, unlike some of the other games, you can actually do a lot with it even at the start of the game. Sure, you slowly unlock things like item duplication later in the game, but compared to a system like the one in Atelier Lulua, this one feels pretty open from the start.

When you jump into synthesizing an item, you’ll be greeted by a grid of connected circles (called ‘loops’), not entirely unlike the sphere grid in Final Fantasy X. Each loop represents an item to add to the recipe and a benefit you gain from that item. As you add items to that loop to unlock that benefit (based on the elemental level of the item used), you will unlock nearby loops in the grid. As most of the recipes branch off, you can choose which benefits you want to try to add by going different ways in the recipe, or you can add multiple items to a single loop to level up that benefit if the recipe allows.

In the early game you’re (slightly) limited by the number of items you can add to a recipe; this means making choices about what benefits you want from said recipe. As the game progresses, you’ll be able to add more items your recipes, letting you unlock more benefits. And, in one of the best new mechanics, eventually you can even unlock the ability to do item rebuilds, taking something you already made and adding more items to it.

Item rebuilds help solve one of my common misgivings with Atelier games: the level of indecision. Atelier Escha&Logy, for example, gave you a lot of choices during item synthesis and because of that I would often hem and haw over how to best make the item, going back and forth on which items to add and which abilities I wanted to unlock. It was still a fun system, but it could be occasionally frustrating when you couldn’t make an item just quite perfect. In Ryza, since you can jump back in and improve the item later, I would sometimes just toss in the minimum number of ingredients knowing I could always go back and add more. I still love both types, but I think this one could reduce the analysis paralysis that some players feel when confronted with as open ended alchemy as the Atelier series provides.

Returning to the ability to choose which loops to add items to, some recipes even include loops that will morph the resulting item into a completely new one. This is the main way you gain new recipes, as once you make an item this way, you unlock the item’s normal recipe. And this is a system I absolutely love, as it really nails the feeling of being an alchemist who is learning as they go. It just seems more like the natural way Ryza would discover how to make new things, and by extension helps you feel like you’re learning right alongside her.

The only downside is that I did get stuck once or twice when trying to find a specific recipe for a quest. The game does tell you ahead of time what new item the old recipe will morph into, but if you suddenly need Item X which comes from morphing the recipe for Item Y, which itself comes from morphing the recipe for Item Z, you’ll only see the Z to Y connection. You won’t know that you need Y to get to X. But, if you’re the type of player who likes to explore and are willing to try out different things, you’ll eventually find that Y->X connection.

Exploration and gathering is another large part of the game, connecting the loop between combat and alchemy. Ryza’s thirst for adventure takes the form of being able to run around large areas filled with monsters to fight and materials to gather. For the Atelier series, Ryza features some rather large gathering areas. They’re fairly well populated too, especially with one of the new gathering methods for the game, where the tool used to gather changes what you collect. Use an axe on a log and you’ll get wood, but use your bug net and you’ll collect the bugs living in that log. Gaining new or better gathering tools makes you want to return to old areas and try to see what you were missing before.

That said, as noted earlier, the game really limits where you can go sometimes. The first couple of hours are limited to only the island and a couple other areas. Then you’ll suddenly get several more before again being limited to those for a while until the next burst of several areas. I do really like the design of Ryza‘s areas though. Many Atelier games have areas that feel like just small disconnected areas linked only by the game’s map. But in Ryza, you can run from area to area and they all feel connected. There’s still a map to warp to areas (obtained a few hours into the game), but the world still feels like a cohesive whole. Even the game’s only town actually feels like a town, thanks to the interconnected and larger maps. It actually felt to me like it was a lived-in area, rather than a single street in a city that’s large in description only.

Visuals:
Knowing the areas are larger than in past games, one might expect Ryza to take a hit in graphics, but surprisingly it doesn’t. Obviously this is still a mid-budget JRPG so it’s not going to blow anyone away, but the overall look is very good. Light changes as time of day changes and the characters and environments all mesh well while being easy on the eyes. The simple cel-shaded look works well, especially in battle with some of the cool-looking ultimate attacks.

There are some areas that still have issues though. Animations can occasionally be a little stilted and awkward (for example, in cutscenes when characters just kinda rotate in place or go from stopped to full walking speed instantly). If you look too closely, there’s also some pop-in of more detailed shadows as you move around the areas. These are pretty minor though, and compared to some of the pop-in or stilted animations I’ve seen in other mid-tier JRPGs, these are not too egregious.

Audio:
To get this out of the way, Atelier Ryza has once again opted to not have dual audio. There are only Japanese voices in the game, with no English option for the audio. While disappointing that there aren’t more options, the Japanese voices are good for the most part. Like many similar games, some of the side conversations are not fully voiced. This isn’t a deal breaker but it can pull me out of the game when I’m just reading and not listening to the characters actually talk.

The music is generally pretty good, with some catchy tunes as you play. Some of the music for areas I was in commonly, such as Ryza’s room in the early part and the Atelier later on, could start to feel repetitive. Not to a huge degree though, and with the alchemy not requiring that I sit and puzzle everything out for long periods, I didn’t get too annoyed. The one audio thing that did annoy me though was some of the monster noises. Several monsters had somewhat grating noises when they were hit, and as you fight a lot of repeated monsters (with different color schemes), those noises get old quickly.

Online/Multiplayer:
This game is single player only with no online component.

Conclusion:
Overall Atelier Ryza is great. The alchemy might now be one of my favorites in the series. The only thing it loses is the combining of traits, but the recipe morphing and item rebuilding make it more engaging and add to the feel of being an alchemist. Combat being real time is obviously a big change, and for the most part I think it works. Adding in the tactics mechanic and the ways you can manipulate your turns through the quick action helps bridge the gap from the old turn-based systems to this new one.

That I love the Atelier series is no secret, but it’s a series I sometimes have trouble recommending due to how the games don’t really appeal to all JRPG players, let alone all gamers. But I feel like Atelier Ryza is a big step towards making the game welcoming to a wider audience. And while that might mean moving away from what a fan like me loves, somehow Ryza manages to engage me just as much if not more than some past entries. While I still think the Atelier series isn’t for everyone, I will now feel a lot more comfortable recommending Atelier Ryza to players who show an interest in the series. It’s a great jumping on point as well as a worthy continuation of this beloved franchise.

Score:

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

Written by Andy Richardson

Andy Richardson

A longtime PlayStation fan who enjoys JRPGs and rhythm games when he’s not tweeting about his parrot.

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