People often forget just how extensive Gust's Atelier Japanese RPG series has been: 13 installments since 1997, not including a batch of spinoffs (seven to be exact) released as of 2001. Compare this to something like genre darling Final Fantasy and the quantitative imbalance is admissibly clear. Yet even as a lesser known asset, especially in America, Atelier holds a special place in the hearts of its devotees, and in particular the last decade has yielded a number of more than decent chapters in the canon. Perhaps most notable in terms of wholesale quality progression is the Arland trilogy that began with the relatively run-of-the-mill Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland in 2010, continued favorably with the slightly better Atelier Totori: The Adventurer of Arland in 2011, now concludes with Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland, a game that takes into account plenty of the mistakes made by its two precursors and works well to competently amend them. Gust, similar to fellow niche JRPG developer Nippon Ichi (whose U.S. affiliate imports these titles to the States), realizes that outright fan service typically carries the brawniest weight above everything else when it comes to scrutiny from connoisseurs, and Meruru has the often difficult task of concluding the arcs of memorable characters in ways that won't send hordes of J-geeks to the message boards to rage and rant their evenings away. Thankfully, it mostly succeeds, with much more fine-tuned writing, battle sequences, NPC interactions, and visuals that, while not outstanding, are without a doubt the strongest the franchise has yet to offer.
As the end-all-be-all culmination of a narrative that's spanned three separate adventures, Meruru's storyline structure comes off as quite tame and inconsequential. This isn't a drastic change for the universe that's been presented in Arland, as the prequels have always maintained a lightly comedic, supa kawaii air about them; despite a relatively short (for a JRPG) general playthrough time of roughly 20 hours, the pace is slow without being sluggish. The stakes are never dramatically high, and Meruru eventually thrives because of it. The fate of the world isn't hanging in the balance or anything of that nature, thus guiding Meruru to her ultimate destiny is the video-game equivalent of solving intermediate crossword puzzles while sunbathing. In comparison to the heroines of the last two episodes, Rorona and Totori, both of whom were largely well received, Meruru takes a bit more getting used to in terms of her personality. Gust imparts an askew variation on the tsundere type, making Meruru almost abrasive in her combination of tomboyish, stubborn antics and candy-coated cuteness. After a few hours into her tale, though, her cheeky idiosyncrasies grow into something more than just a cardboard-cutout anime stereotype.
The science of alchemy is constantly at the center of the Atelier games, yet Meruru's quest puts a bit of a spin on the standard operating procedure. As the Princess of Arls, a kingdom within Arland, Meruru becomes captivated by the alchemist activities she witnesses inside the lab of her idol Totori. Ultimately Meruru's father seeks to pull Meruru away from her un-ladylike fixation for the alchemic arts in part to ask her assistance in unifying Arls with the greater lands outside of its borders. Meruru essentially throws a fit, and is promptly tasked with learning the ins and outs of alchemy while using it as a prospective tool to build Arls into a more prosperous commonwealth, all the while earning the approval of her overseers and subjects. The flow of Meruru's chronicle is subdued, while never chugging along in a boredom-inducing manner. Mainline intercommunications with the colorful supporting cast is zingy and character-building; NIS America works wonders with localization (albeit a so-so English voice track), providing ample developmental incentive to uncover the many side quests, optional plot points, and multiple endings Meruru contains. A drawback, though, is just how touchy the triggering of certain special events can be. As per usual with Gust, hand-holding is out of the question, leading to innumerable gaps in between central-story advancement and opportunities to positively veer off course and accomplish some extracurricular goals, most of which result in a better understanding of Arland's diverse populace.
So just how does one use alchemy to vastly improve a kingdom? Meruru gives the player a primary three-year in-game period (which propels at the rate you navigate through required areas) to master the item crafting and combat systems. Once this has been achieved, two additional years are allotted for cultivating Arls into a civilizing mecca of sorts. The alchemy system is more or less unchanged from that of Totori, with a simple MP-as-currency-based blueprint that allows for hundreds of beneficial enhancements. Fused items are composed from loot collected in the field as well as recipes encountered throughout the journey. Long-term usage of items is commonplace RPG fare, from stat-boosting applications to fulfilling requests from various Arls denizens. The layout is uncomplicated and works just fine, though be it how important alchemy is to the game's inclusive perseverance, Gust could have added new modes or other bells and whistles to increase any sweeping replay value. In terms of altercations, the turn-based throwdowns return from Rorona and Totori, but Meruru imparts a single layer of complexity to its duels that manages breathe new life into the otherwise garden-variety setup. Party members, once the proper gauge is filled, can execute secondary attacks that lead to formidable chains, decimating foes in blasts of rainbow-hued, cel-shaded sparkle. Items are also paramount to winning later boss battles; knowing the particulars of each synthesis calls for practice sessions and a keen sense of pre-fight planning.
Meruru's downsides are mostly in the audio department. The soundtrack is unmemorable and the voice acting occasionally borders on annoying. Given the large amount of music (most of which is reused from Rorona and Totori) and dialogue in the game, these faults are arduous to overlook at any given moment, yet in the grand scheme of things they're less of a chronic burden.
Meruru definitely shouldn't be anyone's first taste of the Atelier series, yet it stands as an admirable denouement to the motley Arland trilogy. Like a punchy medley of Harvest Moon and Dark Cloud, Meruru's most rewarding facet is watching its environment enrich and enliven as you propagate it. With graphics that are already a pleasure to take in, the embellishment of Arls at your own hands creates a backdrop that, over time, truly comes to feel like a homestead worth savoring.