[8 December 2011]
Despite its role in my life as a means to evening out, to resetting the synapses in my brain, it is rare that a game has ever forced me into a state of zen relaxation. Sometimes I find the zen in music and puzzle games, but they require a constant attention—not to mention practice—that belies any sort of relaxation that might be gained from them. RPGs can be slow paced, but the stakes tend to be so high as to inspire interest and activity. Sims are so dynamic as to inspire constant monitoring of infinite variables, while long term strategy sessions require such meticulous management as to be very near stressful.
Atelier Totori: The Adventurer of Arland offers relaxation. It is an RPG with a pastoral bent, whose application of devices, such as a time limit and a search for a long-lost parent, do little to break the humble, almost passive approach to plot movement and traditional JRPG gameplay.
Much of this has to do with the sneaking suspicion that, despite the game’s subtitle, Atelier Totori really has very little to do with adventuring. Really, this is a game about relationships and not in the “dating sim” sort of way. It’s like the JRPG version of, say, Gilmore Girls, where the focus isn’t so much on the macro of the major plot points, but on the micro of the characters’ interactions with each other. The player plays as Totori, a girl apparently in her early teens, who lives with her sister Ceci, who basically takes care of her, and her father, who more or less exists. The girls have friends who come and go and are known and well liked in their little town. Also, Totori is an alchemist—which basically means she can throw a bunch of stuff in a pot and make new stuff, which is the primary means of equipping your party in this game—and her status as such gives her an in to start training to be an adventurer, by which means she wants to search for her long-lost mother.
So yes, obviously, there is a plot, and there is this undercurrent of danger throughout but at no point does it explode into a story in which Totori is, say, the world’s last hope, or even all that unusual in the world that she inhabits. One gets the sense that her story is one of many in Arland, and the idea that we get to focus on that story is more happenstance than necessity. The jobs she takes are largely mundane, mostly little more than fetch quests that often serve to clue the player in to appealing ingredient combinations or new places to explore. She is rarely seen as more than a young girl by both her unfailingly supportive companions and the NPCs that surround her. She is good natured and almost devoid of angst, save for her nagging suspicion that her mother is out there, waiting to be found.
It is an RPG almost to a fault, in which a player feels as though the role of Totori is merely a role, rather than the role that will make all the difference in the world.
It is not just the story that offers such a sense of passivity, as the visuals play into the mood as well. Characters’ wardrobes are long and flowing, the color palette a veritable spectrum of muted pastel, all washed out greens and blues and purples, while the environment sometimes seems utterly devoid of sharp corners, even in the hub town’s architecture. Enemies are less frightening than they are cute (though taking them lightly tends to offer a quick Game Over), and battles with those enemies are executed smoothly and almost pleasantly. For all of this, it is lovely to look at—at no point, really, is there anything unappealing about it.
I am a late-night gamer. The kids’ bedtime is daddy’s free time and that’s when I can truly pay attention to what is going on in a game. The first three times that I played Atelier Totori, I fell asleep, controller in hand, as I played. By the third time this happened, it was difficult to attribute this to my own constant exhaustion, so it was tempting to say that Atelier Totori was merely boring me to death (or sleep). A few extended (daytime) play sessions later, however, it became clear that it wasn’t boredom so much as peace and relaxation that was causing my earlier-than-anticipated repose. Whether exploring new territory, experimenting with ingredients, or just having another conversation with the townsfolk, Atelier Totori invites the player to inhabit a world with the same mundane qualities as our own. The character has purpose, sure, but the means of achieving her goals are not all that different than the ways that we might go about them: hard work, good conversation, and perseverance. That she can mix together chain mail in a giant pot seems incidental.
All of that being said, as relaxing as Atelier Totori is to some, it will certainly be just as grating and off putting to others, largely for its too-ready willingness to conform to the worst of the genre’s trappings. Its teenage protagonists are given voices that make them sound much younger than the game tries to tell you that they are, an issue made even worse by switching the voices to Japanese, where they sound uniformly prepubescent. This, while giving those same characters anatomical features that make them (or, parts of them) look much older than they are. The writing (or, perhaps, the translation) is often awkward, and conversations sometimes don’t feel like conversations—they feel like actors reading lines, which is sometimes deadly for a game so focused on character interplay. This is also a game that’s JRPG and proud, a game in which meticulous item crafting and turn-based combat are the only ways to progress. There is little room for innovation, though the process has been streamlined a bit since previous series entry Atelier Rorona. A non-fan of the genre, and particularly the stereotypically-Japanese-in-every-way take on the genre, will find Atelier Totori too precious, not to mention utterly tedious.
Still, NIS America has built its business not on catering to the masses, but on pleasing the niche. There is little reason to think Atelier Totori won’t do exactly that, while inspiring in that niche fanbase the sorts of feelings usually reserved for backrubs and steambaths.