"It's Like Eating 20 Sticks of Strawberry Pocky"
Japanese video games have gotten a bad rap in the past few years for being stuck in clichés with little appeal beyond the island nation's shores. This is especially true for Japanese RPGs, once the international emperor of the game industry, but now reduced to an increasingly inaccessible niche. Many JRPG developers have responded to these accusations by producing more innovative titles, and they have gotten all but the most narrow-minded and xenophobic game critics to take notice. Others sank deeper into their familiar tropes and have given us games that play exactly like the stereotypical conception of a Japanese game. Atelier Meruru is unfortunately such a game, alienating all but the most devoted JRPG fans with its flowery, flowery glory.
The sixteenth in the Atelier series (or eleventh, depending on if you're counting the releases that never made it to America), Atelier Meruru stars the eponymous Princess Meruru, a hideously saccharine avatar of every princess trope. Gratingly upbeat, "endearingly" clumsy, and decked out in pink down to the roots of her hair, Meruru dreams of becoming an alchemist, and using her talents to expand her tiny kingdom's borders. Her father initially disapproves (as is expected for all kings in these stories, to keep their royal daughters in a gilded cage), but he quickly changes his mind and encourages her to expand their kingdom... within three years at least. If Meruru fails to usher in a new era of prosperity by then, she'll be banned from alchemy forever. Of course, this apparent deadline doesn't give the gameplay any urgency, because Atelier Meruru is not the kind of game with any sense of importance.
For the most part, Meruru's alchemic skills are reduced to the kinds of chores the townsfolk should be able to do themselves. There's an interesting craftmaking system with a surprisingly easy interface, but when you use it for such scintillating tasks as trimming grass or feeding pies to soldiers, it's hard to become excited. Helping out the locals with their errands is sometimes mixed up with real-time combat situations, but those are so bland and formulaic that they almost feel like an afterthought. Atelier Meruru is a slow, easy game, and its appeal depends on how deeply you can get into the motions of managing a kingdom and clearing it of weeds.
In this way, Atelier Meruru is like an Animal Crossing RPG. However, Animal Crossing doesn't bother with the pretense of a story, and it allows the player more freedom with how they manage (or don't manage) their little town. Meruru, on the other hand, tries to make us sympathize with its lead, and it catastrophically fails. Meruru is a grating and annoying character without any meaningful internal drives, wrapped in a package that mixes overbearing cuteness with that uniquely Japanese sexualization of the childish, resulting in teenaged protagonists who dress like the poor little girls on Toddlers in Tiaras. If you can withstand the presentation, you might find Atelier Meruru a charming time-waster with a relaxing pace. However, for those outside that sub-cultural bubble, it's highly unlikely that Meruru will instill any feelings beyond insulin shock.
GameDynamo's Score for Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland (PS3)
Neil Kapit is a freelance writer, cartoonist, and "La Li Lu Le Lo" agent based in Los Angeles. His work can be seen on www.therubynation.com.
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