Atelier Ryza, the twenty-first entry in Gust’s long-running Atelier series, tells the story of Reisalin Stout, a young girl living on the quiet island of Kurken who desperately dreams of escaping on far-flung adventures alongside her childhood friends Tao and Lent. Ryza lives on a farm with her stern, overbearing parents who try at every opportunity to stymie her dreams, preferring that she stay at home and live a quiet, simple and safe life. The other members of the group have similarly troubled existences, bookworm Tao suffers constantly at the hands of relentless local bullies while Lent has all manner of problems dealing with his abusive alcoholic father. All three wish desperately to leave their worries behind and make something more of themselves and when they happen upon Empel and Lila, a pair of mysterious alchemists investigating some local ruins, they get the opportunity they’ve been waiting for.

Atelier Ryza’s setup is pretty standard fare for the series but Gust has executed it sublimely well here, infusing the intimate story and young cast with a strong narrative backbone, giving players a reason to really care about what happens with this trio of headstrong young adventurers. The glacially slow pace of the early hours of the game and the almost laborious way in which it goes about introducing its core alchemy gameplay – letting us experience every step in Ryza’s journey from clueless wannabe to master of her craft – really helps make a connection with the game’s central characters. It gives the interactions you have with the various islanders and, eventually, the protagonists of the piece, a sense of weight and meaning that's often lost in JRPGs that try to launch you quickly into all manner of epic drama.

Anyone who’s played previous entries in the series knows these are games that are primarily about the alchemy, with a deep central gameplay loop of gathering endless materials and synthesising them in your atelier, and in this regard Gust has introduced a fresh new system here which seeks to strike a balance between the complex and involving processes the series is known for and something that’s a little easier and streamlined for newcomers to settle into.

Item synthesis now takes place across a colourful, interconnected web of elemental nodes to which your gathered materials can be added in order to create a seemingly endless array of weapons, armour, potions and powerups. It’s still a beautifully deep system – to allay the fears of long-time fans – and there’s still a ton of information onscreen to get lost in at any one time, but it’s all easier to navigate and the feedback loop of pulsating colours and level upgrade notifications as branching nodes connect and open up new alchemical possibilities is massively satisfying. Colour-coded nodes with elemental symbols keep you on the straight and narrow as to what ingredients fit best where, and you can really go down a rabbit hole in trying to use your highest-rated or rarest materials to create the best pieces of equipment or weapons you can, as well as experimenting to discover all manner of cool and unexpected new gear.

If you don’t have time to throw yourself in at the deep end of the alchemy side of things, you can also now simply gather up ingredients out in the field during your adventures, bring them back and click the R button to have the game automatically conjure up the best gear it can to save you getting bogged down or stuck if you’re finding things confusing. It’s a flexible system and it lets those who wish to focus on other aspects of Ryza’s adventures skip over the deeper aspects of alchemy. In doing so you’ll never make exciting discoveries or feel in complete control in quite the same way you would do by sinking proper time into the alchemy system manually, but it’s great to have the option should you wish to – and it’s something that surely opens these games up to a whole new audience.

Alongside the jazzed-up alchemy is an overhauled battle system that sees the rather simplistic, old-school combat of older titles in the series – a facet of the games which has always played second fiddle to the magic – jettisoned in favour of a slick new turn-based affair that sees a real-time element introduced; battles play out at a frenetic pace with your team members and enemies taking turns to strike without any pause in proceedings. You take control of Ryza during these engagements by default, but are free to switch to Tao and Lent at any time in order to maximise the use of special attacks and string together combinations of skills to take your enemies down.

Attacks earn your team AP which can be spent to fire off your various special moves or exchanged in order to raise the tactics level of your entire strike force and allow you to go on the offensive more often. Healing items, bombs and other potions and gear that you've cooked up back at your atelier, instead of being lumped around in great volumes, are now fitted to core crystals in your party’s equipment menu and deployed during battle using core charges. When you run out of charges you can break down an item in your inventory to regain a few on-the-fly and that item will then be restored next time you return to your atelier.

It’s a slick system, with plenty of depth and it gives you lots of options as to how you want to load out each character, even before you’re introduced to specific role assignments later down the road. It also feeds right back into the alchemy system, making the discovery of new offensive items and stronger healing potions endlessly addictive and more exciting than its perhaps ever been in the series, as it now loops into combat that actually feels worth caring about. Indeed, the new combat system here puts this element of the game on much more of an even keel with the alchemy than it has been in the past, and it gives the entire experience a real lift as a result.

In terms of the story, as we mentioned, Atelier Ryza takes its time getting started and you’ll spend the first eight-to-ten hours getting to grips with alchemy and combat and making short forays off your home island to nearby areas of the mainland. It was somewhere around the five-hour mark before we even encountered our first dungeon. This is no surprise for the series, however; this isn’t a game about rushing you through early stages in order to ship you off to face some world-threatening evil. It’s a much more personal, small-scale narrative about coming-of-age and learning to face the things we fear in our own way, outgrowing adversity as much as defeating it on the battlefield, and it’s something that’s handled here perhaps better than in any other game in the series.

There are still problems here and there; side missions, in particular, can be tedious affairs – simple fetch quests and busywork that involve a lot of coming-and-going and retreading old ground. This is helped somewhat by a fast travel system that makes getting around the map quickly a cinch, but it's the one part of the game that sticks out as feeling like it still needs some work. We should also mention at this point that there's no English dub included in the game; it's not something that bothered us personally but it's worth noting if you're not particularly fond of dealing with subtitles.

With regards to the Switch port, this new Atelier adventure looks superb, with an entirely new graphics engine deployed by Gust that performs superbly on Nintendo's machine and is pretty much on a par with other console versions – give or take a little bit of shadow detail here and there. We had zero framerate issues in our playthrough and it’s a delight to play in both portable and docked modes. Atelier Ryza’s world isn't a new-fangled open one – more a series of old-school interconnected maps – but it’s beautifully well-realised and features some stunning location and enemy design – although we have to say some more enemy variety wouldn’t have gone amiss as you do spend much of your time fighting the same handful of evil types.

Much has also been made online of Ryza’s character model in the run-up to release but what fan-servicey decisions have been made regarding how she looks are more than made up for by her feisty and independent attitude. She's a strong character who always get the last word in a conversation, even when addressing adults or those more powerful than herself; she rarely takes no for an answer. Much more than a silly girl in a frilly dress, Ryza is a stoic and heroic female heroine in comparison to many who have come before her in this series’ long history.

Conclusion

Atelier Ryza lifts the series to new heights with a reinvigorated, newcomer-friendly alchemy system and an excellent combat overhaul. The new graphics engine looks glorious and runs beautifully on Nintendo’s console, the story is thoughtfully paced and heartfelt and the traditionally slow early hours do a fantastic job of detailing Ryza’s journey from complete beginner to master alchemist. Gust has done a brilliant job of taking this long-running franchise and making it appeal to the mainstream more than ever here and, if you’ve ever been tempted to give the world of Atelier a try, this is a perfect jumping-on point.