Atelier Ryza 3: Alchemist of the End & the Secret Key Review - Screenshot 1 of 7
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

Gust's long-running Atelier series has come on leaps and bounds over the past few years. Its various recent appearances on Switch in particular display a steely determination on the part of the Japanese developer to step up with its JRPG franchise and make a concerted effort to rub shoulders with the big guns. In Atelier Ryza 3: Alchemist of the End & the Secret Key, it feels like it's hit a new high, serving up the best Atelier adventure yet and a game that fans and newcomers to the series should find plenty to be delighted by.

For the most part, the Atelier series has switched out its main protagonist for each entry in this 27-year-old franchise. However, Ryza — whether due to popularity or as part of an overall plan — finds herself helming her third outing in a trilogy that's seen her grow from an innocent child stumbling into the world of magic to the well-renowned and sought-after alchemist we meet at the beginning of this final chapter. In affording Ryza time to grow and develop over such a long arc and allowing her friends to follow and grow alongside her, Gust has managed to imbue the narrative with an emotional depth not previously seen in the series, and they really do dig into this aspect here.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

There are plenty of surprises, returning characters and cameos for fans to revel in, lots of introspection and scenes where we see the little kids from Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness and the Secret Hideout directly compared to the young adults they've become, we're even treated to sepia shots of them together as they revisit locations from previous adventures. It's a nice touch and it makes for a game that fans will feel immediately at home with. The old team is back and they're ready for a new adventure — an adventure made all the more poignant because we know it'll be Ryza's last as the main protagonist.

Taking place just one year after the events of its predecessor, Lost Legends & the Secret Fairy, Atelier Ryza 3 kicks off with Ryza, Lent, Bos, Tao and the rest of the crew jumping back into action as a mysterious group of islands, the Kark Isles, appear out of the sea close to their home. Ryza has recently found herself compelled to craft a strange key whilst working at her atelier and it seems this key is related to a magical door at the centre of these islands. And so another summer of grand adventures, mysteries and friendships begins. There's another fine story here with the usual laid-back mix of elements that focuses on friendship, learning, discovery and personal growth as much as it does any threat emanating from the new islands our heroes set out to explore.

Atelier Ryza 3: Alchemist of the End & the Secret Key Review - Screenshot 3 of 7
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

We're not gonna spoil a second of the game's roughly 40-hour campaign, we'll leave it for you to discover its surprises in your own good time, but needless to say it's hands down the best Atelier story yet, and one that's backed up by a bevy of meaningful mechanical improvements that have been introduced to the core gameplay. The changes brought to Ryza 3 provide more thrilling exploration, deeper item creation, the best combat in the series to date and a world that's bigger and more diverse than anything else in the franchise. Not only has every aspect of the core gameplay loop been enhanced here, but Gust has also made it more approachable than ever, with auto-synthesis and all manner of helpful aids for players who'd rather take a bit of a backseat or don't want to get bogged down in item creation that can be mind-bogglingly deep if you go to town with it.

The biggest change this time out focuses on the game's titular secret key, which gives you a new gameplay mechanic revolving around key creation, letting you absorb powers and elements from enemies during battle as well as from your surroundings throughout the adventure. Once you've created keys you can deploy them in various ways; using them in battle gives you temporary bursts of attack power imbued with all manner of buffs, or short windows of time when you can forget about your AP gauge and just whale on opponents non-stop. You'll also deploy them to open up barriers across the landscape, get your hands on treasures and open up more avenues of experimentation, giving you more synthesis possibilities, higher item levels and a greater number of effects and buffs to add to the multitude of weapons, tools, armour and so on that you'll create and equip.

Atelier Ryza 3: Alchemist of the End & the Secret Key Review - Screenshot 4 of 7
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

Keys make for a particularly excellent addition from a collectible point of view too. Whilst fighting enemies you can choose to jump into a menu and create a key by leaching various traits out of your current foe, and these traits vary depending on who you're battling. This creates a desire to get out there and find rare baddies and bigger beasties who'll imbue your key collection with better buffs. You can also drain key energy from new locations at set intervals, which helps players get more involved on multiple levels. If you want the best key collection, you've got to get busy exploring to earn it.

In terms of the combat, those who don't want to learn all the intricacies of SP, CC, Action Orders and Order counts, can bypass much of the depth of the fighting. You can control just one character during scraps and leave the AI to deal with the rest of your party, switch between support and aggressive modes to quickly get what you need from teammates, easily escape from battles or pretty much avoid encounters altogether to focus on the series' signature collecting and creation if that's more your bag. Atelier games have always been fairly chilled experiences and Ryza's third outing manages to retain that vibe whilst also giving players who want combat and action far more to write home about.

Atelier Ryza 3: Alchemist of the End & the Secret Key Review - Screenshot 5 of 7
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

Combat is the one aspect of this series that's seen the most consistent improvement over the course of the past few entries. It used to take a back seat to exploration and crafting, and it was an element of the game we've not always particularly enjoyed, but it's grown over Ryza's tenure into a properly engrossing affair, full of unlockable moves, fancy skills and a flow that keeps it engaging. Switching between characters freely, striking out with attacks when your AP gauge is charged, timing your defence to deflect and damage enemies and putting together flashy combos that allow you to pull out multiple specials before chaining a move to another character, there's certainly plenty to keep you busy during each and every face off here and the new key mechanic fits into the mix perfectly.

There's a steady drip-feed of new skills to deploy as you rank up the members of your party, plenty of new offensive items to deploy as Ryza's skill tree develops and you can spend an absolute ton of time exploring and creating, crafting more powerful bombs, better health items and stronger armour and weapons. Yep, the synthesis here is a bigger timesink than ever before but, as we mentioned, if you're not down with learning the intricacies of item crafting, you can let the game take over, sit back and let it whip you up high-value consumables while you get on with exploring the huge world.

Atelier Ryza 3: Alchemist of the End & the Secret Key Review - Screenshot 6 of 7
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

While that world isn't strictly a fully open one, it's another very positive step up for the series, giving players four large and varied regions to explore. Once you're in a region you can traverse the length and breadth without further loading screens, making for a more seamless experience as you go about gathering and collecting the endless array of ingredients and elements that Ryza can use to craft back at her atelier. As you explore, you'll find fast travel spots dotted all over the landscape that you can then jump between using the map — and you'll need to jump around a lot as you're summoned back and forth on various story-critical missions, as well as the many side quests that pop up as you roam the wilderness.

Mounts make a return too, giving you an array of fast and fun ways to get around — who doesn't love to ride on the back of a dolphin to cross bodies of water? There's more verticality, Ryza can swim, climb, slide and zipline through environments, lots of treasure chests hidden around to discover, a vast array of enemies to fight and plenty of magical locations to tick off your list of places visited. For a series that used to feel a little barebones, with worlds that were a far cry from the standard of most AAA JRPGs, this is the closest Atelier has come to matching the best in the genre. Atelier Ryza 3: Alchemist of the End & the Secret Key is still unmistakably a AA game, but there's much more to enjoy this time around, as a finer balance has been struck between exploration, combat and crafting.

Atelier Ryza 3: Alchemist of the End & the Secret Key Review - Screenshot 7 of 7
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

On a more negative note, there are a handful of issues that do drag the fun down in places. Firstly, potential players should note that there's no English dub again, so if you're not comfortable with subtitles then you're out of luck. Regarding subtitles, those that appear as characters chat in battle and whilst exploring are far too small to comfortably read and we could've done with the option to increase the size of these as we're missing a lot of flavour text as a result. We also had some issues with mission descriptions during our time with the game, sometimes finding it difficult to know exactly what we were required to do next. It's not a huge problem, but some further streamlining of how information is relayed to the player wouldn't go amiss.

On the performance side of things, while Atelier Ryza 3 looks great and plays very nicely in both docked and handheld modes, there are some occasions where you'll notice the odd stutter here and there as you bound through environments, and we occasionally had to wait for a few moments during item creation as the game caught up to what we were doing. Overall things run well here, but there are a few niggles that hopefully we'll see ironed out.

Apart from these small issues, Gust has served up what is undoubtedly the best Atelier entry yet. Atelier Ryza 3 is a sprawling adventure full of fun exploration, old friends, new faces, flexible and fast-paced combat, a huge game world and item synthesis that's more addictive than ever before. There's a fantastic gameplay loop in the trifecta of exploring, crafting and battling, which gives players plenty to engage with at any given moment. If you're a long-term fan you're going to love how the final part of this story plays out and, whilst we would advise new players to spend time with the first and second Ryza games to maximise enjoyment, the game does a good job of getting you up to speed on past events if you want to jump straight into the mix.

Conclusion

Atelier Ryza 3: Alchemist of the End & the Secret Key ends Ryza's three-game run on a high note, serving up a heady mix of exploration, crafting and combat that benefits greatly from a narrative arc that's had time to develop and grow. The new key mechanics add more depth to combat, synthesis and exploration, the world is more seamless and diverse than ever before and the whole thing comes together to form a satisfying end for this hugely popular protagonist. We did have some issues with small text, no English dub and a little fussiness in how information is relayed, but overall this is Gust's finest adventure to date and a JRPG experience that long-term fans and newcomers alike will find plenty to delight in.