I found this game after my last Rune Factory experience came to a close and I was looking for something with a similar crafting element. This game does, indeed, have a great crafting system. It has little else, either in terms of character or story, but oh God that crafting system. I don’t think I’d actually recommend this game, but I do intend to continue the series, because if they ever get the story/character thing figured out, something magical will happen.
Incidentally, it’s pronounced “a-tell-yay.” French word for an apprentice’s workshop.
So let’s start out by talking sexism.
This game came out in 2004, which, while not necessarily the nadir of video-game sexism, was certainly still part of that period where no one in the industry was thinking about their female audience. And indeed, this game is a wonderful (awful?) example of what, to me, is the most insidious kind of media sexism out there.
There’s something blackly comforting, I think, about a work so hateful it doesn’t bother to hide its disdain for women, but like many (and like many men), Atelier Iris is the kind of sexism that men perform but not out of any active hate. The game is willing to have a 50/50 split bewteen male and female party members, as long as we acknowledge that marriage is the greatest thing a woman can aspire to. It’s not so overtly hateful as to sexualize young girls, but once you hit 16 all bets are off. It knows that women don’t like to be catcalled, but thinks they should lighten up because it’s really a compliment. There can be smart women, but they must be in competition with each other, and usually hate each other, because bitches, so crazy. It’s that kind of sexism, and for me it was just on the edge of being annoying enough that it made me want to stop playing. I finished the game so obviously it never got awfully bad, but it wasn’t good at any point, really.
The best thing that I can say about the game was that there were lots of women, doing all kinds of things, everywhere. Just about all of the important NPCs were female, including the dead Great Hero Alchemist who drives the story. Further, the “helpful” NPCs tend to be female– the titular Iris, the protagonist’s grandmother, the ghost who aids you, the witch who watches over you– while the bad guys are male– the Big Bad and the army captain who’s your rival through most of the game. In fact, the Evil Army Captain’s plotline, as much as he has one, involves his sister, also a warrior, coming in to take things over from him now that he’s turned evil, which is good enough to be a trope inversion, and which I appreciated.
The Atelier games are long-running in Japan, but Iris– the seventh one, I believe– was the first to be brought West. The Ateliers of the title are always female, and at least one of the protagonists is as well. That coupled with the abundance of women and almost-magical-girl look of the costuming would make you think that the games are aimed at women and young girls, but I doubt this is the case. For starters, it hits basically every harem trope out there, with all of the major female characters all but throwing themselves at the protagonist and literally fighting over him, and no game aimed at girls would ever include everybody’s favorite jRPG stock character, Guy Who Hits on Every Female Character for the Lulz (the “Brock”).
Anyway, let’s look at the three female party members for a second. First is the ever-popular magic catgirl, who is 13 years old, and mercifully is dressed as such:
I think she’s adorable, frankly. I really like the look from just an aesthetic perspective. Also, apparently she’s a cat-girl in the most literal sense, as a witch took a cat in and then metamorphosed her into a humanoid, but also never told her this was what happened. This is mentioned in passing, but kind of weirded me out. Like, does the cat get any say in this? Can you do this with any animal? What if she wanted to be turned back? Why would you randomly do this in the first place? Was it an experiment?
Lita here is the co-protagonist of the game, and as we can see, a resident of no-pants land. As I said, age 16 is apparently the cutoff where sexualization becomes a-okay, as that’s Lita’s stated age. The thing that kills me is that this would be an adorable costume with some black tights or something. And, okay, she’s the melee fighter so there’s no planet on which it’s reasonable, but at least it wouldn’t be so ridiculous as a travel outfit.
Marietta’s costume looks badass at first, but what you can’t see here (or in her conversation sprite) is that her back is entirely bare.
It’s like they knew it was ridiculous for her to be the general of a freaking army and not be in battle gear, but at the same time, she’s a woman, right, so she can’t actually wear real clothes, and this was the “compromise.” Which is also what’s shown in the promotional art, of course.
The other thing that’s odd, as you can see in the above image, is that the male and female outfits have a completely different aesthetic. The three guys and the three women look like they’re from separate games. I honestly almost wonder if they had different artists do each, because they work internally– the women go together, and the men go together– but look so out of place in the same image.
So yeah, “sexism clusterfuck” would be a good descriptor for this game. I also feel the need to stress that when I said “the game thinks marriage is the thing women should aspire to” above, I was being super literal. There’s a cutscene where the NPC who’s dream is to open up a confectionary bakeshop is asked what her lifelong goal is, and she literally answers “to get married” and then asks you to make her a wedding cake. I am not kidding.
So the game itself.
There’s not really much to say, honestly. The characters were terrible. They were flat, uninteresting cardboard cutouts with no motivation or personality beyond their designated stock-character lines, to the point that I honestly don’t even know what Brock’s purpose in the story was. Two hours into the game I couldn’t remember why he’d joined the party. That was a problem often, actually, I just could not keep the characters straight. No one made any kind of impression on me at all. (The single exception to this was Veola, who was an awesome character and I loved her… but she was a shopkeeper NPC. The best character in this game was literally a shopkeeper NPC. Think about that.)
I’m going to give the worldbuilding of this game the benefit of the doubt: as I said, it’s like the seventh in the series, but the first one in English, so it’s completely possible some of the stuff I didn’t get, like what exactly it meant to be an alchemist or how/why you become one, is stuff the audience in Japan would have known implicitly.
This doesn’t, however, change that I have no idea what the protagonist, Klein’s, motivations are. Okay, so he’s an alchemist in a world where they’re rare. What does that mean? What does he do? What was he doing before the game started? What will he do after? No clue.
The plot makes sense in the most bare-bones way possible, in that the events follow logically from one to the next in a “go see X who will give you a quest and then tell you to go see Y who will give you a quest and tell you to go see Z…” kind of way, but there’s no depth to any of the events beyond that. We know literally nothing about the antagonist ever, and even his “for the evilulz” pseudo-motivation isn’t clear until late in the game. I was like 75% done when I finally had to accept that his reason for opposing the protagonists was Just Because and I wasn’t going to get anything else. It’s never clear how what you’re doing ties into the world at large aside from a nebulous “saving it” kind of way, or even what the world at large is.
Like, so there’s some bad nomenclature where mana, lowercase, is what it usually is, energy and MP and whatnot, but Mana, uppercase, are a species that can channel this energy (and also somehow they’re different from fairies even though the sprites are the same, because ???). Do you have any idea how confusing this is?? And so like, alchemy in this universe is when a Mana and a human work together to mold the environment’s energy into objects which, okay, sure. But then super, super late in the game, you find out that human alchemists in the past basically enslaved Mana and used them to accidentally the whole world which, what??? Having a story with the main conflict being the power imbalance in the human-Mana partnership would be totally valid, but just suddenly bringing up that, “oh yeah, in the past Mana genocide so don’t do that” when the game is almost over and then the final boss is the genocided Mana when that wasn’t even a thing five minutes ago and what is even happening. Except that by all appearances Mana choose who to partner with, except that also the Mana we meet’s criteria literally consist of “you found me, you must rock,” which kind of makes the evil genocide outcome obvious, actually, but the fact is the game never engages its own supposed plot, so it’s hard to even know the stakes. Indeed, it seems like the only people who even know anything bad is supposedly happening are your party members.
One tangible issue with the discrete-events-that-loosely-lead-into-each-other plotting is that you never get any sense of scale. Apparently we’re on a continent without a central government because the land mass broke off and became impossible to govern leading to the rise of independant city-states. But that’s something I learned from the Wiki, not anywhere in the game itself. So in practice I’m just travelling from town to town on Mystery Landmass trying to do… something… without any concept of what’s going on in the world at large.
The unfortunate result is that this kind of shipshod plotting gives the game room to do these random BAM reveals where the next plot event bears no relevance to anything you’ve ever seen before because it’s given so little framework that anything it says is perfectly valid as far as you the player are aware. This is a game about Things That Happen on Magic Backdrop 3352C, and naturally those Things steadily escalate until genocided fairy-people are going to be unleashed to destroy the world, because why the fuck not.
And I mean, I feel like my plot discussion here is a little disjointed, but the whole damned game was disjointed and it’s hard to stick a pin in the problems and you end up kind of meandering around just talking about it.
The crafting system omg.
It’s just amazing. There are hundreds of items each with discrete effects and they’re virtually never hard to find– the ones that appear, say, once in dungeons can almost always be found in shops for high prices so they’re still attainable– and the game is very good about giving you exactly what you need to complete recipes (eg, if there’s only two Dragon Teeth in the game, only one recipe will need one) so it’s totally doable to create one of everything and it knows this because you get unlockable goodies for filling out your item catalogue.
Getting creative with the ingredients you use may yield completely new items in the same vein as the original recipe, and there’s a ridiculous amount of combinations. Best of all, completing combinations often unlocks cutscenes with the shopkeepers who gave you the recipes, and as I said, the shopkeepers were the only not-shitty characters.
The whole thing was a packrat’s heaven. I loved the crafting system. Loved everything about it. Literally spent most of my 30 or so hours (incidentally, that’s completion time– not a massively long game) just running around completing recipes and finding new items.
In fact, between this and the battles, which were fun enough and decently challenging, especially in the late game, the gameplay here wasn’t bad at all. It’ just a shame everything else was a wreck.
I actually enjoyed the gameplay enough that I’m going to check out the next game in the series under the supposition that the devs will become better writers with time, not worse.
So, yeah… come for the gotta-catch-em-all, stay for literally nothing else. But I stayed, so either my obsessive need to collect things is getting worse at a quicker pace than I think, or there’s genuinely something really creative at the core of this. We’ll see what happens in the next game, I suppose.