[REVIEW] Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & the Secret Hideout (Switch)

The slice of life JRPG with an even higher quality recipe.

When KOEI TECMO and GUST Studios first teased their plans for the next entry in Atelier series last year, it was seen as an exciting prospect to long-time fans. Promising to try to expand upon the games’ mechanics and with a larger scope for the world, GUST going ahead with the idea of refining and improving upon the classic formula not only paid off, but still feels like the Atelier fans have grown to love. With an improved lighting system to its graphics and a nicely weaved basket carrying new formulas to the series’ core mechanics, it’s clear that the design choices made here are better for the series in the even longer run. This is the 21st entry in the series, but don’t let that turn you away if you’re a newcomer. Much like Bandai Namco‘s “Tales Of” series, there are iterations that have their own unique title and sometimes even sequels to them. Atelier is no different. Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & the Secret Hideout is the first entry as its own sub-series (should there be another Ryza game to follow). With a host of new improvements and being a fresh new chapter, there’s no better time to hop in if you’re a newcomer.

The Atelier series is your familiar JRPG. What it holds differently are its approach and its core mechanics. There’s a very intimate slice-of-life nature to the games and it always focuses around alchemists and their alchemy. It’s just good vibes. Atelier Ryza is a little bolder in that its synthesis gameplay and battle systems have been revamped. Generally, you can run through the game normally and have a nice time, but new mechanics and features slowly get introduced over time. It’s not a slow game by any means, but by choosing to make it a slow burn and seeing all it has to offer by looking for it, you will maximize the experience.

Story

The game begins by introducing teenager Reisalin Stout (Ryza for short) who enjoys hanging out with dear friends Lent and Tao in her room chatting up stories and doing a basic hangout, but all seem to be bored with their life on the island of Kurken. Especially Ryza who enjoys bailing out of doing farm work for her parents at the last minute any time she can.

The very thought of leaving the island is forbidden as gloom has been the word for doing so, but the gang decides they need an adventure to see for themselves. Needing that excitement and self-discovery, they soon find out there’s not only more to be learned for the surrounding locations, but their home of Kurken Island itself.

Atelier Ryza is focused closely on select characters. Much of the interactions and story-related sequences happen with the main cast and as well as the supporting cast who are mainly found on Kurken Island. While there is a large emphasis on the greater world outside of Kurken Island and to explore it, the vast quests and people to interact with mostly happen in that region. Still, there is a threat and mystery in this world that needs to be solved.

Important story beats will always be triggered, although many optional side missions can be skipped. The slice of life vibes is poured into Kurken, however, and the NPC’s living there have numerous quests that continue their own individual storylines. Seeing them through to completion scratches that itch for those into that particular style one can normally obtain through watching anime if you’re a fan of that genre. Overall it’s quite jolly. Sometimes they are silly, oftentimes they are heartfelt or wholesome. Even for its shopkeepers where you can do your own shopping.

Breathtaking World

Atelier Ryza is the showcase for the new lighting system implemented for the series. The strength of the sun comes through in both warm and cool tones between dawn, day & dusk. Until it’s night and you can a starry sky for the eyes. How each region handles the lighting is beautiful. Realtime shadows get cast on every object and character in sight even from a distance. The way the shade from a spinning windmill will make its rounds on the environment goes a long way to set the tone and is “night and day” compared to previous games in the series.

The way time and actual day structures plays out is different throughout the series. In Atelier Ryza, there’s no real pressure. Each time you move into the a next section of a location, time advances by one hour. Certain enemies and characters will only appear during either day or night, but will never outright disappear and have you miss your chance to meet with them. Atelier Ryza has beautiful artstyle and when it comes to its world there’s plenty of detail. Each region offers its distinct flavor and the improved lighting system makes them worth seeing at each time of the day.

Exploration takes on a larger role this time. Thus, locations are larger. The emphasis on running around and discovering all the gathering points while different enemy types roam the lands makes it a joy to see. Sometimes areas can’t be accessed until you’ve the right item, but knowing so and making note of it makes it rewarding to come back to later. Points of interest are in each location. These are sites to just see, whether they are monuments or unique landscapes. Eventually, players are able to have a character from their party of their choosing to write a log entry for regions to give some flavor text once a region has all of its sites discovered. Better environments means more gathering. And this time around, different materials can be gained from the same gathering spot depending on which Gathering Tool is being used. Of course, it’s up to you to discover and synthesize these new tools. For instance, using an ax on the same tree will yield you bark rather than fruit if you used your staff.

Synthesis

Totally reworked and vastly improved is the synthesis. Synthesizing items is a staple for the series. It’s essentially the core ingredient to obtaining everything you need. Ryza knew nothing about alchemy from the get-go. It isn’t until a dangerous situation in the forest in the beginning of the game that she and her party were saved by an alchemist and being so amazed by the item that saved their hides she insists on being taught the basics. Turns out she’s a natural talent.

Syntheses takes on a new material tree. Not too daunting and visually more appealing, it should make newcomers be able to understand what they’re getting into by having this new take. Previously done through menus, the new material tree allows alchemists to see the exact materials and its quantity that are needed to synthesize a particular item. Each material and item crafted have a particular Quality and element (fire, wind, lightning, water) to them. While this is nothing new, the display makes it easier to understand.

The new tree also changes the process completely. Completely different attributes can be added to an item and even change the recipe to something completely new that isn’t what was originally meant to be synthesized. For the unaware, everything from weapons to armor to general items will be synthesized by Ryza in her cauldron. Every quintessential thing to get by will need to be synthesized. Alchemy means something in Atelier. Items have their own level and so does your alchemy. Items which can be created must match your Alchemy Level or lower.

Materials gathered are of different quality and their own traits. Knowing when and where to use materials with the proper effects and traits you wish to have is key and can make all the difference in both yields from gathering and in battle. Eventually, players will be able to synthesize in various types of ways, be it improving an item in your inventory that’s already been synthesized to duplicating items. Both of these require Gems, which can be acquired by reducing items in your stash to be converted to gems. The higher the level and quality of your item, the most gems needed/obtained.

Also new, players will also be able to create their own small worlds solely for the purpose of gathering materials. Worlds will be different depending on the items used for crafting these worlds. Here, players can gather a lot in a short amount of time as well as grind for EXP with the enemies inside them. They can only be accessed once unless you replenish the world with Gems or use materials to synthesize a new world. Each one has a unique 4-character password. If a password is known, players can access that unique world. These can also be shared among friends.

Battle System Improved?

Atelier is a long-running series holding those traditional mechanics of turn-based battles JRPG’s are generally known for. Atelier Ryza makes another big change and it’s with the battle system. Turn-based is not gone completely, but it’s now fused in realtime. This means you must always be active and pay attention. Players get their turn based on their speed stat. As time is always moving forward, enemies will get their turn even if you don’t make a move. However, with all the mechanics at play here, it’s the right direction for the series in my eyes. Not everything gets introduced immediately, though. As with other aspects of the game, certain features get revealed over time. Battles in the beginning may be a little hectic and difficult to grasp right away, but further in everything felt fast, fresh, and satisfying.

There is the one problem of it still being too hectic. Since enemies will still take action when their turn is up, it makes following stats and trying to access your skills or items in the heat of battle feel panicky. You may want to see if a certain element will be effective against an enemy from looking at your items or skills, but there’s a feeling of being rushed to do so. A thing to note is that no damage output ever gets lost in translation. Say you are performing a combo when focused on one enemy and they get defeated when other enemies remain, that combo chain or special attack will carry over to the next focused enemy automatically. So even if the AI is going at it, the damage done will carry over even in the middle of their animation. Optionally, characters may switch positions with others who are in critical danger if an enemy is facing in their direction.

Learning and taking advantage of the mechanics in realtime works well enough to be effective despite constantly having to make the calls. In a party of 3 for battles, players can swap between each character at any time. Both characters you’re not in direct control of will take their turns regardless. They will attack the enemies. Players must continuously gain AP during battle and raise their Tactics Level be the most effective. AP is spent on performing skills. AP is gained each time an enemy receives a hit or your use an item. This means if all 3 of you happened to attack at once, you’ve gained 3 AP on the spot. AP is tied to leveling up up your Tactics in battle. It’s the freedom of choice here that’s one appeal to this new battle system.

Raising your Tactics Level has major benefits. Instead of spending your AP on using a skill, you may want to build it up to raise your Tactics. Basically how it goes is Tactics Level 1 has a cap of 10 AP before it can be raised. Tactics Level 2 needs 20 AP in order to be raised again, so on and so forth. Tactics Level 5 is the maximum you can raise it. Certain skills also become more effective at particular Tactics Levels. Just as efficiently, normal attacks get better. Each level your Tactics is raised to adds another attack to your combo. So you can strike 4 times with one character at Tactics Level 4, for example. With 3 characters doing this at once, you can see where the number of attacks performed and chained into combos will rack up damage. Especially since attacks get stronger. Given you have at least 10 AP to burn, you can take an immediate action instead of waiting for your turn. Of course, you’ll need enough AP to perform skills as well.

Battles are meant to have you feel the camaraderie. One major feature to making the most of your battles are Orders. There are two types: Action Orders and Extra Orders. Action Orders are standard requests your teammates will ask of you during battle. They will ask you to use an item or a skill for example. By doing so, they will unleash an effective special attack that’s not only more powerful than a standard attack, but can help chip down an enemy’s stun gauge more. These play their own animation and can add up a good amount of damage before the enemy takes their turn. Fulfilling both Action Orders at once is even better if you manage to do so. A nice thing to note is that, for example, if you decide to have Ryza perform a magic attack before any Action Orders are given and one party member requests you to use magic even in the middle of your magic attack before they even requested her to do so, the Order will still carry out.

Extra Orders are the most effective of the two and guarantee both party members to do extremely powerful attacks right after you. During battle, enemies will charge a special attack when their health is low enough. Using up 10 AP and taking an immediate action during their charge will have your teammates request an Extra Order highlighted in yellow. Successfully doing so gives you the opportunity to respond to an enemy’s charge and hopefully take them out or make them break before they are able to hit proceed with that attack. The most glorious special moves are Fatal Drives which you receive later in the game and can only be performed once during battle and when you’ve built up AP to Tactics Level 5. Using these gloriously cinematic maneuvers will also reset your Tactics Level back to 1 for the battle. Knowing whether to save up your AP for stronger combo chains, or to keep your Tactics Level relatively low but do moderate damage and rely on skills just depends and is up to the player.

Items can be equipped and use up a Core Charge. In and out of battles, items may be used at the cost of CC. The level of an item also depicts how much CC it will consume. Should CC run low, players may convert an equipped item to recharge CC completely. The item still remains in your inventory and is never lost, but the one stipulation is that item is disabled for use until you return to base again. Since numerous items may be equipped, this generally isn’t much of an issue. One tip is to convert items equipped by members not in your immediate party of 3 so the active members still have them all available for usage.

Atelier

For the first time, players will get their own Atelier to customize and use as their main base away from the main base. Certain feats will unlock the options to change both interior (wall, flooring, furniture, etc.) and exterior (wall, roofing, etc.). Certain milestones will also add new decor to the inside and outside. Aside from cosmetic, each design option chosen has certain benefits, such as higher chance for rare drops or shorter wait time for growing in your garden, given you have the knowledge of synthesizing your own seeds to grow your own gathering spot to be harvested.

Music and Fine Touches

Several composers from past Atelier series have provided their talent for Ryza and the works are fantastic. There’s a tune for each location that are fitting. There’s both day and night versions for each region that you’re in. Some tracks are of the caliber of other great RPG’s. The forest track feels like it’s straight from The Legend of Zelda. For each comedic, tense, heartfelt and other moments, there’s a track that feels totally appropriate for each. The orchestral compositions are of great strength and never feel like they wear their welcome.

While the presentation of Atelier games have always had their own style, Ryza does a fine job of making everything stand out, from its menus to its graphics. The way Ryza gracefully runs is a nice touch. Same with her jacket moving and raising accordingly with her position and speed. The main characters look great with their texture work on their clothing, be it creases and wrinkles or shimmering material. They all have their own personalities and quirks. The voice acting is also good, though it’s Japanese only.

The game runs great at a stable 30 frames per second without any slowdown in both forms of Nintendo Switch play. Aside from the PlayStation 4 version undoubtedly looking a little sharper, the game looks very pretty.

Summary
Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & the Secret Hideout not only turns a new leaf for the series, but is the perfect entry for newcomers as well. The revamped synthesis mechanics are just that much better. I personally feel that the new turn-based/realtime battle system is an improvement by being fast and feeling fresh, but may not be for all. It just takes a while to unlock all its best features. The cast of characters and the new visual upgrade really amplify the cozy slice-of-life nature the series is known for. The plot stays steady, but it's the slow burn of the main cast and people of Kurken Island that make it worth it if the slice-of-life genre is your jam. It's wholesome, jolly vibes all around.
The Stellar
  • Wonderful cast of characters
  • Series' traditional mechanics receive a nice upgrade.
  • JRPG that fills in that slice-of-life niche
  • Good voice cast and soundtrack.
  • Beautiful to look at.
The Lesser
  • Not too many highs or lows in the plot.
  • Some "invisible wall" last-gen stuff.
8.9
Pretty Good
Gameplay - 8.5
Visual - 9
Audio - 9
Value - 9

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