I recently read that the creators of Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness and the Secret Hideout were more than a little surprised that fans found the main character, a teenager named Ryza, to be “sexy.” According to the developers, they simply didn’t see her in that light. I have difficulty believing this statement, given how much time and effort the folks behind the latest Atelier game put into Ryza’s never-ending jiggle. I’ve spent a lot of time defending the Atelier series over the years, but this time, I have to agree that it often feels like some kind of weird exploitation movie, one that just happens to look exceptionally cute and colorful. I’m sure that statement will rub some people the wrong way, but Ryza’s definitely harder to defend than previous entries in this long-running series. What’s more, it’s really not that fun.
The Atelier stories have never appealed to me in terms of story; I mostly enjoyed the alchemy-based gameplay and the turn-based combat, as shallow as both could often feel at times. Ever Darkness and the Secret Hideout, unfortunately, distills the story down to the absolute basics — and not in a refreshing kind of way. In a nutshell, Reisalin Stout (aka “Ryza”), along with her pals Lent and Tao, set off on an adventure, because hey — why not? So, off they go into the woods, where they rescue a young girl from bad guys, meet an alchemist, and soon stumble off into even more layers of forgettable adventure. Sure, the game attempts to grapple with some heavy themes — bullying comes into play very early on — but it’s hard to take anything seriously when Atelier Ryza comes across as so unapologetically garish.
I hate to harp on the character designs, but watching a teenage girl jiggle with every movement seems wrong on a number of different levels. Sure, there’s always been this sort of element in the Atelier series — and other JRPGs for that matter, some to an even greater extent. But the way the camera lingers on Ryza, from the cutscenes to the way her bulbous posterior threatens to burst from her short-shorts while she’s running — makes for a presentation that almost flies in the face of some of the game’s meatier aspects. I applaud GUST for tackling something like alcoholism in this type of game, but it seems like an afterthought when you view it from a much wider angle.
I’m sure I’ll catch hell from Atelier fans for the way I’m describing the central character and her physical traits. In fact, some might even boldly proclaim that I spent too much time staring at underage anime behind than playing the game. Thing is, Atelier Ryza isn’t much of an adventure. Ever Darkness and the Secret Hideout often feels like a glorified game of fetch mixed with some lightweight alchemical tomfoolery mixed in because, you know, it’s an Atelier game. In short, you receive a quest, make some stuff, and return it to the quest giver while smacking around colorful enemies using one of the most irritating real-time turn-based combat systems I’ve played in a while. When you can’t wait to escape the combat so you can read a few reams of lukewarm dialogue, you know you’re in for a slog. And that’s what Ryza felt like — a genuine slog, one that’s set in an amazingly colorful world that ultimately feels devoid of any life or anima. NPCs feel dead inside, and most of them act as hollow window dressing in a locale that desperately needs a shot of energy that doesn’t feel recycled.
Even doing things like fishing and catching bugs didn’t feel as enjoyable as some of the activities in other Atelier games. Does this say more about my own burnout with the franchise than the game’s quality as a product? That’s difficult to say. After all, we’ve had a few Atelier-based games arrive this year, and if you’re a fan of the series, you’ve probably played through them all. My hope was that Ryza would try new things, and the game does sport a few more bells and whistles — as well as sharper graphics — than previous installments. That said, when stripped down to its core, this doesn’t feel like anything new or inventive. Even when I felt my whole body cringe while playing the other entries, I always did so with a sense of fun. Atelier Ryza, unfortunately, never balanced the cringe factor with entertainment.
All of that said, I do feel a little guilty for dragging this game through the proverbial mud, as I did find myself sinking gleefully into the game’s alchemy system. Although it’s a very basic system on the surface, you can actually spend a lot of time crafting very high-quality versions of the recipes you collect. Again, it’s not too different from other Atelier games, though it does take that ever-growing foundation and add a few more elements to make it stand apart from the others. But here’s the thing: In other Atelier titles, when I grew tired of using the alchemy system, I could find something goofy in the story to keep me entertained. Or, I could spend some time engaging in some basic combat. Sadly, neither the story nor the fights prevented me from mixing up a big ol’ batch of S-grade boredom.
I guess one question remains: Should you spend your hard-earned gold coins on Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness and the Secret Hideout? I honestly don’t have an answer. It’s not remotely as satisfying as Atelier Lulua: The Scion of Arland, a game that I reviewed earlier this year and thoroughly enjoyed. It all comes down to presentation and story, I think. Ryza feels like a massive step backward, both in terms of gameplay and story. Although GUST attempted to inject some real-world themes into this tale, the plot and the characters never sunk their hooks into me. Is this burnout? Are there simply too many other top-notch JRPGs on the market right now? Has GUST finally sexualized their protagonist to the point where I can’t see past the jiggles? Again, I can’t say for sure. All I know is that I couldn’t wait to move on.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A review copy was provided to us by Koei Tecmo Games.
Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness and the Secret Hideout feels like a massive step backward, both in terms of gameplay and story. Although GUST attempted to inject some real-world themes into this tale, it's unfortunately just more of the same.