JRPGs become more predictable as they age. The mechanics are still sound, the stories still good, and the general concept still appreciated in a world where open-world everything is becoming the norm. Think of it as perpetual familiarity. We now what’s going to happen. Gust’s Atelier chronicles can fall within the bounds of predictable, but the series’ focus on individuals sets it apart.
It isn’t that the Atelier games come right out and proclaim to be more about the people involved than the missions or quests. Rather, this additional element comes through as a person plays. It may seem, initially, to be about a specific goal. Make a workshop relevant. Reach certain ruins. Find a missing sibling. However, there’s always more to it than that, and the most recent Arland and Dusk trilogies prove it’s more about the people players interact with throughout the games than doing what you’re supposed to.
You see it right away with the workshop requests. While many of the Atelier games have you completing assignments for government agencies or royalty, ordinary people can ask for your aid as well. People in your party, your friends, call upon you for important items. You see people in your community who need help. This connects you to them in a way few other JRPGs manage. The only one I can think of that comes close is Xenoblade Chronicles, and there are so many people there that meaningful connections are rarely made.
In every one of the PS3 and Vita Atelier installments, the heroines find themselves completing requests for allies. This improves the relationship, sometimes leading to special events. Do enough, and an ending might be unlocked with one of these characters. Or, if character endings aren’t available, you could be rewarded with a better-than-True-Ending epilogue.
Atelier Meruru is perhaps the best example of this. There are ten endings total. The most notable and difficult to acquire is “Miss Popular.” You only get it if you’ve already beaten the game once, then manage to max out friendship levels with every important character in the subsequent playthrough. That means making sure you’ve passed 80 points with Totori, Rorona, Lias, Keina, Sterk, Gino, Mimi and Esty, and passing 50 points with Rufus, Hanna and Gio. If you haven’t played the game, I’ll make it easier to understand. Those are all people who matter in Meruru’s life, and the game requires you to make a difference in all of their lives for what you can consider the real True Ending.
It’s comforting, in a way all JRPGs are, but in an unexpected way. The Atelier has its own settings in which its mired. The fact that they are so different, and exist outside the bounds of what is expected, is what makes them feel fresh where other JRPGs can stagnate. Sure, you’re always fusing concoctions to earn money, make friends and reach some desirable end goal. But the fact that the people are always different and final result changes creates installments that always seem a little more special than the standard “hero saves the world” story.
Because you aren’t always saving the world. That isn’t realistic, and Gust understands that. In the Dusk trilogy, contributions are being made to make immediate areas a little more livable, but it isn’t as though there’s some big bad preventing stability and security. It’s general global deterioration. Most installments are about making little impacts on a smaller scale. Keeping one town’s shop open. Finding a lost mother. Preparing tiny kingdom for its incorporation into Arland. Helping a trapped sister. Exploring ruins. Restoring an oasis town. Becoming an alchemist. They’re all tasks where smaller ties to a community lead to a happy resolution.
The Atelier series is as susceptible to tropes as any other game. It absolutely plays into stereotypes. It’s the focus on building bonds and helping at home that sets each installment apart and makes them feel different than other JRPGs. The more intimate focus is comforting, and people tired of more traditional games should give a title like Atelier Totori or Shallie a chance. If it sounds like something you’d enjoy, you can always find all of the games on Amazon.