Time for Friends, With Friends

Atelier has become my comfort game throughout the pandemic. The series is equal parts charming and challenging, and though some of its titles definitely show their age, any die-hard JRPG fan could love it. So far, I’ve played 12 of the 22 core games in the loose chronology, and it’s the adorable characters, as well as an emphasis on exploration and crafting, that keep me coming back for more.

When I started out, specifically with Atelier Sophie, a few years ago, it just wasn’t my speed. Back then I preferred my JRPGs to be about big baddies and becoming powerful — Atelier is significantly more chill than the games I was used to playing. Its intentionally slow plod was too slow for me. Now that my real life has significantly slowed down, I find a lot of comfort and safety in its quiet, consistent pace. Approaching it from the angle of exploration over combat is what finally made it click for me.

Until Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness and the Secret Hideout, the series had never focused on defeating big baddies, but instead on taking your time, creating new items, extremely minute details and beautiful art. Ryza 2: Lost Legends and the Secret Fairy places an even more considerable emphasis on combat and challenging opponents — as well as balancing out the ticky details and exploration that I’ve come to love from the series.

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With it comes an abundance of new customization options, city development, and relationships. The new reputation system with citizens of Ashra-am Baird, the central city of Atelier Ryza, is as enticing as it is rewarding. It gives more depth to doing requests outside of earning money and materials. Ryza’s adorable “puni” friend returns with new transformations and even a leveling system, making interactions with it more rewarding as well. Many small, optional quicks increase immersion with Ryza’s perspective, and add all the more reason to fall head over heels for her.

The world feels more alive than ever, staying true to its premise of a city’s hustle and bustle, as well as Ryza’s place within it as an islander. There are more NPCs than ever before while the city streets, wide-open wilderness, plus twists and turns at every location just beg for exploration. It’s the kind of game I want to see every inch of just to take in and appreciate how far the series has come, even compared to its most recent predecessor.

Exploration is now highlighted by new actions. These feel heavily inspired by some of my favorite action-adventure games, like Tomb Raider and The Legend of Zelda, without trying too hard to just be them. Climbing, swimming, and scaling ledges are also totally new to the series as a whole. It’s obnoxious how much joy I’ve gotten out of the new inclusions, even if the animation is a bit awkward. However, many of these  moments sexualize Ryza to an almost uncomfortable degree. Her sexualization is made very apparent throughout the game between poses, animations, and interactions.

The majority of Atelier protagonists begin their trilogies around the age of 15 to 17, and generally occur within a five-year span. By the end of that trilogy, the first protagonist will be around 25 years old. Ryza 2 takes place three years after the first, making her, at the very youngest in this game, 18. I’m awkwardly grateful for that.

Ryza 2 excels at building upon the foundation it created in the first Atelier Ryza, and the series as a whole. It takes the action-oriented combat system  from the first Ryza and turns it up several notches. When executed and timed correctly, it’s exhilarating, fun, and precisely as magical as I expect from the series. The characters work incredibly well in unison, too. It takes some time to get used to the new system’s pacing, but it’s worth learning and pushing to its limits.

With that said, the combat pacing is one of the most physically inaccessible installments in the entire series. I myself have hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. Within the last few years, I’ve lost significant ability in my hands (ironic, given that I play and write about games for a living), which is why I prefer turn-based combat in JRPGs — something Atelier always had until Ryza. Turn-based combat allows me to take things at my pace on any given day, good or bad.

Ryza 2‘s action-based system is button-mashy, requires responsiveness I don’t always have anymore, and has complex, multi-input commands. This makes playing this combat system significantly painful. And with this installment relying much more heavily on combat than previous titles, I’m finding myself in a lot more pain than usual. There are ways around it, but for those with similar conditions as my own — limited mobility or responsiveness — this part of the game will likely be more frustrating than exciting and fun. Whereas past games allowed me to go at my own pace. However, with that in mind, it now has better visual and auditory accessibility, with indicators for where enemy attacks are coming from.

The other aspect of the combat I’m not particularly fond of is how it takes the emphasis off using items for the first half of the game. Part of the Atelier magic is its crafting. It’s a series about alchemy and the bizarre ways items behave in battle. In one of the games, a crafted item can drop a giant bunny head, among other things, from the sky.

This new battle system focuses so much on brute force that it takes away the magic of those items, limiting them to difficult boss battles early on as it takes so much time to build up enough points to use them in the first place. I often find myself defeating enemies entirely before I build up enough energy to even use my items as part of the “item rush” command.

It also seems to eliminate supporting class characters. Both Tao and Claudia, two returning characters, have different combat classes, weapons, and abilities than they did in the original game. While this makes sense, it’s also new to the series, as most return characters usually have the same weapon type and/or abilities. Both of these characters, which were support types in the first game, are now focused on dealing damage  — like all the other characters. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but with the de-emphasis on items and actual emphasis on offensive skills, it makes healing items feel like  an interruption to the pace of battle, rather than an active part of it.

Abilities and recipes are unlocked differently as well, and in a lot of ways, this change makes much more sense. Ryza 2 is the first time an Atelier protagonist has had a second starring game as the protagonist. This time around, Ryza doesn’t always get recipes from reading books; they’re on a skill tree. It makes sense because she already has a lot of knowledge from being an alchemist for a number of years already. The skill tree makes it feel more like Ryza is recalling that knowledge, rather than relearning it. The addition of previews on gathering materials is also nice, and highlights Ryza’s ability to identify materials she already knows. Both of these are thoughtful touches I wouldn’t have considered immediately as a way to amplify Ryza’s intelligence and expertise.

The game’s dungeon system puts that knowhow to good use —requiring and encouraging a lot more exploration than previous titles. Each ruin has a set of clues that to discover before it can be cleared. Those clues have to be put together to discover the truth of what happened in that particular location. The puzzles these amount to are relatively simple  in the best possible way. They’re approachable and not a significant barrier to entry for the series. They remind me a lot of Atelier Lulua, in that a “diary” of sorts must be completed to continue the game’s story. The stories these puzzles tell are also fascinating (should you take the time to read them).

Ryza 2 also does a decent job of balancing these new features with loads of daily, slice of life content. It feels like Ryza’s adventures with her friends aren’t just this one-off thing that consumes her every waking moment. She has a life with meaningful, deep, and loving friendships. Much of the main characters’ development was done in the first title, leaving Ryza 2 to focus on side characters. Tao is significantly more tolerable, while Boz is secretly a nice guy, and Patty, a new face, goes on to grow a spine.

At times the character events get a bit in the way of spending time in the city, but each interaction between Ryza and company is genuinely fun to experience, and fleshes out her love for her friends, as well as the growth each of them experienced over the years.

Finally, the game introduces a significant amount of concrete romance, which is also new to the series. Atelier has been notorious for crumb trail hints of love between its characters, both hetero-normative and queer, like Rorona and Sterk,  or Lulua and Refle in the Arland games. Romance doesn’t wholly consume this story either, but it does make my giddy little teenage melodrama heart go doki doki.

Ryza 2 is an exciting new step for the series. Meanwhile, its predecessor remains one of the best introductory games. To gain everything you can from Ryza 2, you need to start from the first game, as a lot of the context and nuance in the sequel is lost without that story and its twists. For the first time, it feels like the series is made for this generation of gaming hardware and not one behind. In doing so, it hasn’t lost an ounce of its quirky JRPG charm, profoundly constructive character development of young, feminine characters, or its dedication to executing its crafting system in new and inventive ways.