An alchemist's work is never done – our three headstrong heroines from Arland know that better than anyone. Between mixing potions, creating armor, and killing off the most adorable enemies ever to grace the plains – Rorona, Totori, and Meruru are the pinnacle of child labor abuse. Thankfully, despite revolving around task-intensive gameplay, the Atelier series has always had a sneaky way of making its abundant demands entertaining. And with the three characters that made up the Arland tales of the Atelier series’ PS3 titles, namely 2010’s Atelier Rorona, 2011’s Atelier Totori, and this final game, there’s no shortage of tales to tell. Much like any job, when we're around people we like, it's more tolerable. And all was going well until Meruru entered the ring – she simply lacks the charm and appeal to drive us to work for her. But the third Arland title fails to create a strong impact; it's the dreaded title in a trilogy that leaves you wanting. Still, that's not to say you can't have some fun with it.
There was a lot of potential for developer Gust to take risks with Meruru's story and character development. After all, what separates Meruru from other protagonists in the series is that she's the princess of Arls Kingdom. And since the series has always been about its core female characters blossoming into adulthood, you would think adding in royalty would create an interesting premise… but unfortunately, it doesn't. The central conflict is Meruru proving to her father, the king, that she can be a successful alchemist. To do this, she must improve Arls Kingdom so it can merge with Arland, along with help from Totori, our previous oh-so-adorable alchemist in the series.
The issue is there's not really much at stake for Meruru. Unlike Totori's entry, which focused on her personal journey of looking for her mother, Meruru doesn't have a personal hook to drive the narrative. She wants to be an alchemist basically because she's a bored princess and she doesn't grow as a character, as previous protagonists have. Sure, it's honorable that she has such faith in building Arls, but without a true conflict of her own, there's not much to keep her story afloat.
Perhaps the subpar story wouldn't be such a big deal if the characters were strong, but Meruru's supporting cast is uninspired. They're not awful, as there are some interesting character relationships, such as brothers Lias and Rufus' strained connection, but the game needsed more of these interactions. Scenes will sporadically unlock based on your actions, but only a handful of these scenes are worthwhile and much of the dialogue feels like filler. A little more charm and a lot more effort with these scenes could have significantly improved the game's narrative. As it stands, this is probably the most disappointing entry for story and characters, and since this is the finale of the Arland arc – that's frustrating.
Like its predecessors, Meruru is still focused around time management. Want to synthesize? Travel to new locales? Rest your character for a health recharge? It'll cost you days and the game enforces a three (later five) year span to prove Meruru's got the alchemical chops to impress her dad. But don't have a panic attack over the time limit – the game is extremely lenient and doesn't punish you for a making mistakes.
Atelier Meruru doesn't really change Gust's standby gameplay formula - collect materials, fight turn-based battles, and fulfill villager requests - but it does try to shake things up by improving its development system. You'll travel the map and earn development points by completing goals, which can be as simple as clearing out all the enemies in a given field, or as complicated as creating defensive weaponry through alchemy. This is actually where the game captures a lot of its fun – as you complete certain goals, you'll then see its direct effect on the area. Suddenly, the land transforms from an open field to a thriving locale with majestic structures. Additionally, in vein of the expansion theme, Meruru can construct buildings which have bonus effects, like population increase or extra battle EXP. While the land development feature really was is engrossing, other gameplay systems just don't offer the same lure.
Let's start withFor starters, there’s the heavy focus on fetch quests – while you work on developing the land, the game provides you with the opportunity to embark on quests for extra money. These quests complement completing certain objectives, but they then lose their appeal as they repeat after initial completion. Now, there are character-specific quests, but those too are fetch quests that merely unlock a cutscene once you complete a set for a said character. If Meruru featured a few quests that weren't just about collecting doodads and defeating monsters, it'd take away the tedium.
Meruru is also rough around the edges in more than a few places. Particularly, at the start of the game, the audio mixing is particularly poor - so much so that you can barely hear the characters over the music. Granted, this only lasted for the few first hours of the game, but it's still unacceptable. Also, while although Gust isn't a dev house with a budget the size of Square Enix’sTriple-A development house, there needs to be more impressive environments to explore, especially since the game forces you to revisit a lot of its bland places for quests and development points. Voice acting is pretty solid for the most part - the voices match the characters well. Regrettably, the soundtrack is mostly unmemorable, especially with its recycled tracks from past games.
It's odd to say goodbye to a trilogy on an entry that's a bit of a step back. While some gameplay improvements up its engagement level, there are still many necessary enhancements that didn't happen. Add in a story and characters who fail to create an impact, and it's hard not to be disappointed in the finale of the Arland arc. If you have a soft spot for the Atelier series, you probably will enjoy Meruru quite a bit. But if the series hasn't impressed you yet, this entry surely won't change your mind.