Believe it or not, Atelier Meruru is almost too subtle.
Subtlety might actually be the last thing you think of when you fire up Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland. The first thing that hits you once the requisite developer/publisher splash screens finish appearing is an explosion of pastels accompanied by a song that is two parts J-Pop and one part Queen. It is hilariously in your face with its happy vibes and its upbeat tempo, and the sticky-sweetness of every inch of the screen, every note emanating from your speakers is enough to induce a stomachache.
In fact, the presentation’s reliance on bubbly happiness and eye-burning pinks, purples, and blues is something that sticks throughout the game. Meruru herself is a teenage princess, frustrated at her lot in life and dreaming of a world beyond her own. Previous protagonists Totori and Rorona are here as well, the former in the capacity of mentor-alchemist to Meruru (though her absent-mindedness from the previous game remains an issue), and the latter as a precocious six-year-old transformed into such by an errant eternal youth spell, which nobody seems to find all that troubling. The boys in the game are caricatures — the well-meaning but bumbling father, the put-together but self-serving assistant, the handsome but tortured rugged type looking for constant acceptance from his brother — and they serve mostly as props for the girls.
That the first instinct is to call them “boys” and “girls” actually is probably no accident. Even Meruru’s father is drawn in a way that makes him look no older than, oh, 23 or so.
No, there is no subtlety in the presentation. Where the subtlety of Atelier Meruru lies is in the storytelling, a trait common to all of the current gen Atelier games thus far. These are quiet, humble little games, games in which the player is convinced that life would go on with or without the actions of whichever protagonist is at the center. Atelier games hinge on changing the world of the title character, rather than the world around her. That this is done via the trappings of a typical JRPG is all but incidental. It’s just as easy to imagine Atelier Meruru as a point-and-click adventure or a puzzle game or an action title. The Atelier fan has come to expect a JRPG, however, so that’s what they get.
By concentrating on the world of the title character and treating the fate of the (world/universe/cosmos) as incidental, these games place a lot of pressure on the protagonist. This is where Atelier Meruru faces its steepest challenge, as evidenced by some of the mainstream reviews that have been particularly critical of the game. Meruru is a brat of a princess, spoiled by a life of having everything done for her, wanting everything that she doesn’t have. She is shrill. She is disrespectful. She calls her father a poopyhead. It’s difficult to imagine anyone wanting to step into the role of Princess Meruru for ten minutes, much less 40 hours.
Still, the motivation offered here is clear: make her better. Make yourself better. Find a way to turn this spoiled specimen of a princess into a positive force for not just herself, but for the society around her. It’s a mission that her dad sends her on under the guise of relenting to her alchemist dreams, one that she thankfully throws herself into wholeheartedly thanks to the allure of those same dreams.
Now, it seems too much to ask that Meruru’s fundamental personality actually change over the course of a game like this. The in-your-face extrovert that she portrays never stops being pushy and, truth be told, a little annoying. Even so, there is a shift in her. As she is allowed to continue her studies in alchemy while using the skills that she picks up to better her kingdom, she begins (as does the player) to see the benefit of acting in a way that benefits those other than herself. She sees the way that people around her react to her, she sees the smiles of her subjects, and she likes the feeling. What her father (and the aforementioned assistant) have done here is force a shift in her thinking and have done it in such a way that she is entirely responsible for. It’s a surprisingly skillful move from those who had lost the power, one that still empowers the “hero” of the story, selfish as she seems at the outset.
It’s this transformation that actually lends what emotional resonance Atelier Meruru does have to the story. The resulting attachment of the player to Meruru here is important and necessary, too, because the game itself offers little in the way of innovation or variety. It is, for better and for worse, a JRPG, with all the trappings that the genre has come to imply. There are no “random” battles, but there are repeated ones. And while there is very little in the way of overt grinding (especially given the time limit placed on the player in the early going), the entire first few acts feel a little bit like an elaborate grind. You, as Meruru, do task after task, collecting more materials to throw into a pot and create items, killing monster after monster to keep the locals and your friends happy.
The goal is ostensibly to increase the population and notoriety of the kingdom, but the supplemental goal is, of course, to strengthen Meruru herself, steeling herself for the endgame. It can be extremely repetitive at times, and the player isn’t given much room or time to explore. To be sure, those who have given up on the genre won’t find anything here to bring them back, and Meruru’s attitude problem in the early going can be enough of a turn off that even those not conditioned to despise the genre may well be disappointed.
It’s a shame, because there is a depth in the storytelling here (and, to a lesser extent, in the gameplay) that isn’t clear until the 10, 15, maybe even 20-hour mark. In fact, it’s never really “clear” when it happens. The player just realizes that after spending much of the game eye-rolling at the endless fetch quests and the nails-on-a-chalkboard quality of Meruru’s voice that she has somehow become easier to root for. Somehow, we grow to care about her and her kingdom, and that realization propels us through the second half of the game. This, it does despite dialogue that never seems to stop, despite awful fan-service-type moments where the childish characters hint toward all-too-adult fantasies, despite enemies that include carrot wielding bunnies.
Maybe the JRPG is emblematic of ”what’s wrong with video games”, maybe the modern JRPG does succeed in spite of, rather than because of, the things that make the genre so easily recognizable. Still, it’s good to play them every so often and have fun doing it. The bright colors and light mood, combined with a well constructed (if often clumsily executed) story arc make Atelier Meruru feel like fun, even as you’re doing the same thing over and over. It’s an escape, rather than an experience. It’s not and will never be considered a classic, but it’s perfect popcorn entertainment for a very specific audience.