Atelier Ryza 2: Lost Legends & The Secret Fairy is a JRPG sequel that's unapologetically anime. I'm talking about the sickly sweet variety, where a rush of wind blows through some cherry blossoms, a schoolgirl twirls to face the camera, and the power of friendship will always prevail. And in the beginning, I found it difficult to cut through its cloying positivity.
But learn to accept AR2, or at least, Neo-swerve out the way of its sunshine and fanservice, and a surprisingly complex JRPG shoots to the fore. So complex, in fact, that I still don't truly understand how its turn-based combat or crafting works, but I want to play more anyway. I have this urge to dig deeper and I can't stop myself.
I wouldn't say AR2's plot has anything to do with what's hooked me in, though. Set three years after the events of the first game, you play as Reisalin Stout (aka Ryza), an alchemist who lives on the idyllic Kurken Isle. She wants to improve her alchemy skills, and decides the best place to do so is the mainland's capital city Ashra-am Baird.
One sparkly thing leads to another, and soon Ryza's hugging old pals and reminiscing and planning new adventures. There's Tao, the intelligent one, Patty, the one who wields a sword twice her size, and Klaudia, the quiet archer. More mates join the crew later, including my personal favourite Clifford, the romantic cowboy. Turns out the gang's hungry to explore the ruins around the capital, just like the good old days! Meanwhile I, having never played the first game, feel like an amnesiac at a school reunion.
AR2 is, for lack of a better term, well anime. Even for an anime fan myself, it did get a bit much sometimes. Ryza and her mates tick the trope boxes, with thoughts and actions that are all rather predictable. Occasionally, I just wanted to shake anything other than a pre-packaged reply out of them. Don't get me started on the fanservice either, as the game (surfing a wave of memes about thicc thighs) employed plenty of dubious camera angles.
After a bit of chummy exploring, Ryza and co. are joined by a melon-sized, squeaky creature called Fi. This little fella is the key to [waves arms vaguely] some stuff, or something. Henceforth, you and the gang dungeon-crawl to figure out why this flying, mouse-yeti is so important. What this amounts to, though, is a lot of skimming text about how a big monster is shifting pieces behind the scenes of each particular dungeon, but never actually feeling under threat.
For those who've played the first AR, I'm sure the renewed camaraderie will keep you interested no matter what. But for newbies like me, the mystery surrounding Fi didn't compel me enough on its own to push forwards. I needed a big main antagonist to chase, or to run away from, or even just to cackle at me.
But now cut to Ryza's cauldron smashing through the door. Against all odds, this large pot was what kept me coming back for more. It lets you transform ingredients you've gathered out in the world - like sardines, ore, and plants - into increasingly powerful items: anything from some healing beans, to a new staff. All of this is presented via a dizzyingly complex crafting menu, and a skill-tree so vast I genuinely get lost in it sometimes.
At first, I was daunted by it all, but I quickly realised that there is no wrong way to make stuff in AR2. I like the fact it caters both for those who can tinker with its finest details, and those of us - me - happy just to make a bracelet out of some mushrooms and an ingot. There's huge depth here for people who're well-versed in alchemy and like toying with stat percentages, but it doesn't punish you for giving it your best shot, even if you have no idea what you're really doing.
This extends to AR2's combat as well. Much like Pokémon or Dragon Quest, you start a fight by running into a monster that's minding its own business. This warps you to a bespoke arena, and the turn-based battling begins.
Unlike some JRPGs, the action in AR2 doesn't pause indefinitely between turns. It takes place in real time, which means you must pay attention to when you can attack, and when the enemy can get a hit in. A sliding meter gives you a heads up on this front, but I'd rather you don't question me on the 8,000 other bars and numbers that rise and flash and jingle at me.
Despite my lack of understanding, I really do enjoy the flow of combat in AR2. I think that's because encounters feel like mini-management-sims. Each attack feeds a number or bar, and you tap into them to perform powerful moves with wicked animations. I found fulfilling these quotas immensely satisfying, as before you know it, you've strung together a sequence of special moves out of nowhere.
I know that someone who gets AR2's combat intricacies would roll their eyes at my measly combat prowess, but it felt like the game planted a friendly hand on my shoulder, as if to say, "Hey, shush, it's okay. I know you don't know what you're doing, but here, have a flashy move." There's one I really like where Patty sets her blade alight and unsheathes it in one fluid motion, hurling a spinning fire bomb at the enemy.
The exciting combat helps offset the occasional monotony of the dungeon-crawling in AR2, which is pretty standard fare. Mainly, you will run down corridors towards quest markers, fight monsters. Occasionally you crack open a chest or climb up some vines. No Zelda-esque puzzles, I'm afraid. You do get a little boss fight as a treat, sometimes. They're not awful, but I'm unconvinced Ryza and the crew find them as exciting as they let on.
Although, the dungeons do look quite nice. You've got crumbled fortresses with moss-covered bells, and sunken cities teeming with plant life. Elsewhere the capital with its varied districts, and the forests that surround it, are all attractive. They're not going to take your breath away, but the game's filled with downright cozy places to potter about.
But really these are added bonuses on my journey, a nice dab of WD-40 to facilitate a world of machinery I've made to boost Ryza's yield. If you're able to push past all the self-conscious cuteness, AR2's focus on crafting may just pull you in. I mean, look at me: I am on a relentless pursuit for better gear and I don't even know what I'm doing. Imagine if I did.