2016 had a lot of great video game releases; too many to count, in fact. But, one release that stood out as a hidden gem was a curious indie title, The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human, by a relatively unknown team called YCJY. As it turned out, the ominously atmospheric looking underwater adventure was a brutally challenging boss rush with exploration elements; an exhilarating journey that presented preexisting video game concepts in YCJY’s own unique, new light. The game, their first big release, came after a string of projects the pair had collaborated on, including Keep Walking EP, the positive reception of which was instrumental in the creation of Aquatic Adventure, which involved a Kickstarter that reached its funding goal.
The Sweden-based YCJY is comprised of two friends, Christopher Andreasson (designer, programmer) and Josef Martinovsky (designer, artist), and I had the pleasure of hosting a conversation with both of them regarding Aquatic Adventure, their influences, and ongoing projects.
(This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity)
GS (GoombaStomp): To start off, what exactly was it that got you two started on or led up to The Aquatic Adventure?
CA (Christopher Andreasson): I think what one huge part of it was that we were both having…really nothing to do. We were living together and… neither of us had any jobs, and we had a lot of time together. And since Keep Walking went…better than expected, we just did it for fun, we just did it for fun, like a small thing. And we had some articles and stuff written about us, and we were thought: wow, it actually became something. So, I guess it is a combination of not having stuff to do and that reaction for something we made, and that was just a fun little game jam we decided to have together while we were studying…
JS (Josef Martinovsky): Yeah, it wasn’t even a game jam. We were just hanging out and wanted to make a game where someone was walking around, just in Christopher’s room. That was the whole thing, why and how it started to make [The Aquatic Adventure] but…that was just about how we started making games at all, like bigger games. I guess Aquatic Adventure was ’cause Christopher wanted to make an underwater game. And sort of a “Metroidvania“, and I thought that was fun as well, so we kinda went with that. I think the whole beginning part was trying to get the water to look nice and to like anything, to look like water at all-
CA: And from the start, we didn’t want to make like a huge, real game. We just started work on something and then it became bigger and grew and grew. Suddenly we had to start our own company and stuff so…
JS: It’s the classic thing, you know, when you make something, you just say, “oh it’s just gonna take a few months, this will be easy–we’ll make a small game and we’ll have like a boss or something. But then, oh wait, this will cool if we had this boss, and what if he had this boss, and what if we made it go around this way and the story is this”, etcetera etcetera. So, it eventually got to a whole game.
GS: The Aquatic Adventure obviously has a theme of a sunken Earth and mutated fish, and the last human coming back. What was it that inspired that? Was it something personal, with a personal meaning, or was it just an interesting backdrop for a game?
CA: I think it was Planet of the Apes.
JS: Yeah, I think Planet of the Apes was the main inspiration of the guy coming back to Earth and seeing like a changed Earth.
CA: We were talking about making a submarine game before that, but we had one night where we just watched Planet of the Apes, and then we decided it would be cool if we could apply the Planet of the Apes thing to this game. And when you have a post-apocalyptic setting, where the Earth is flooded, all the environmental stuff just comes with it. It was never an intention for us [for it to be about the environment].
JS: Yeah, it wasn’t from the start, but since it matters to us both, to all of us, we just decided we wanted to have kind of a, some kind of talk, say something, about the environment we were hearing about constantly on social media and on the internet and blogs and everything around us. Just, it seemed like at that time, especially it was a lot about the environment and what we’re doing [to it] and all that. So, we just decided to go with that.
GS: So, to take that theme and push it to the sci-fi level.
JS: Yeah, exactly
GS: It’s funny that you guys mention Planet of the Apes because I have in my notes in front of me that I was going to mention it. Since as someone who is a fan of even the bad Planet of the Apes sequels to the original, yeah, it made sense.
CA: It was lots of it, that we watched.
CA and JS: [Both laugh]
GS: How much of [Planet of the Apes] influence do you think it’s fair to say went into the end product?
CA: I think it’s just the premise of the game that’s Planet of the Apes inspired. We’re not huge fans of Planet of the Apes per say. It’s a great movie, but I wasn’t thinking of it when I was developing the game, more than the intro.
JS: The intro was kind of the main thing.
CA: And, also, we have this old sci-fi vibe theme and everything. More of it was Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea…that’s a bigger one. Obvious reference: we have a giant octopus. So, those kinds of old sci-fi books. Also, the title [The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human], a complaint is that it’s too long but, it’s on the lines of those of those books, like The Day the Earth Stood Still, and titles like that.
GS: You can’t make a game like this without referencing Jules Verne.
JS: We tried to stay away from the whole steampunk Jules Verne thing. I don’t really like that and I don’t think Christopher likes it either. And so, a lot of the look wasn’t Planet of the Apes, it was more kinda the Star Wars, Judge Dredd stuff. Big building and harsh blocky slums…
GS: I have to ask, the Magnetic Fields’s song “All the Umbrellas in London” –was that a tongue-in-cheek reference, or was that something stuck in your head or…?
CA: I love The Magnetic Fields. It’s fun that you actually picked up that reference. I think Josef wrote like 90% of all the audio logs for the game. And we needed some more, and I think I added a few of them. I was listening to a lot of Magnetic Fields at that time. I think the author name is like Methin Serritt or something like that; it’s Stephin Merritt. I thought it would be a fun reference, and fun if anybody got it. But it fits, right?
JS: Yeah, it fits with the…
CA: And I also can’t remember it but I remember it fit well, like the theme.
JS: [quoting the song] “All the umbrellas in London couldn’t stop this rain”.
CA: It seems like it’s a nice reference, and a nice little, “here, we like this music”. And also, it incidentally fits the theme of the game.
GS: In Steam reviews, I have noticed some complaints regarding the difficulty of the game, though personally, I think the difficulty is fair. But, since there is that conversation, what is your take on all that?
JS: I think we’re both a little split on this one, cause I think maybe it’s a bit too hard. I think Christopher says it’s fine.
CA: I think it’s harder than we might have intended for the get-go but I mean, the people who like the game actually like that it’s hard. Then, obviously, there are gonna be people that don’t like that it’s hard.
JS: I think the whole thing came from the fact that we kinda made it seem a little bit, maybe, I’m not sure, made it seems like it’s a kinda serene experience. That has all these calm parts where you’re not actually fighting; there’s nothing really going on except listening to music, and traveling and exploring. I think some people came in with that expectation. And then from the first boss, you’re getting pounded to the ground and destroyed immediately.
CA: Yeah, yeah, that could definitely be…
JS: From there, they’re just like, “Oh, what the fuck is this”, “it’s so hard, it’s impossible, what do they expect?” But then, you get those people who kinda know it’s a game that is supposed to be difficult and it’s supposed to be a challenge throughout it. And then you have these moments of quiet, and get that, like, what’s is called….?
CA: Yeah, it’s hard to convey that.
[JS talking to CA]: What was that word? The difference…?
CA: The contrast?
JS: The contrast, there we go. When people get that contrast it makes more sense and say, “alright, cool”. And not just expecting quiet and not just expecting-
CA: It might be true, it might have been like… looked upon as more of an exploration-focused game. Which it is but it’s also very intense with bosses.
JS: Exactly. Yeah, it’s both. We wanted to do that. That was our, exactly what we were going for.
CA: And that was nothing we even questioned during development. We were just like, that’s just how the game will work. So yeah, I can understand that people get disappointed that it’s too hard but, it’s not for them.
GS: Well, you guys definitely have a niche covered considering that games like Super Meat Boy and the Souls series, they’re very popular. There are definitely people out there looking for a challenge.
CA: I think those people are the ones who enjoyed the game the most.
JS: Maybe it’s too slow for Super Meat Boy fans.
CA: We can kinda blame Dark Souls a little bit for the difficulty because a lot of the times were like, maybe this is too hard, but then, “Ah, but in Dark Souls they did this, so people are fine with it”. We played a lot of those games when we were [working on The Aquatic Adventure].
JS: It was Bloodborne and Dark Souls the whole time, so yeah.
GS: You mentioned the “Metroidvania” genre that the game is grouped in, and Destructoid called your game “Shadow of the Colossus of the sea”. Do you think those comparisons are fair, or do you see them as limiting?
JS: I think the Shadow of the Colossus one is fair, that’s kinda where we took the whole boss thing from.
CA: With it only being boss fights…that’s pretty much there that they got it from.
JS: We honestly hadn’t played Shadow of the Colossus when we made the game. We just knew it only had bosses so were like, “Oh wait, that’s kinda cool, let’s do that too”. And then the “Metroidvania” thing… we were kinda against it because we don’t really feel like it is a Metroidvania…
CA: Ah, it is Metroidvania but also all of the games that are 2D and have exploration, and a map, are automatically called Metroidvania. I mean, if that’s what defines the genre, then yeah, it’s a Metroidvania. But, I feel like Metroidvania is a genre that’s like “FPS”; that’s a genre based on what perspective you perceive the game in. I feel like the more important genre is, is it a horror FPS? Or is it action…. or multiplayer FPS? Those are the keywords that describe the game other than the perspective which it’s perceived in. I think Metroidvania is pretty much the same thing. It is pretty vague in describing what the game is. And also, people, when they see Metroidvania they want… like, a Metroid? or Castlevania?
JS: Yeah, they want that Axiom Verge, a more classic take on it. As if, like, someway of re-doing the past, those kinda games. And doing it in the same way with a lot of upgrades and a lot of the same. Not backtracking and everything kinda connects to this…and you have to open these secrets and all that. So, we were kind of doing that but our goal wasn’t to make a Metroidvania for the fans of Metroidvania.
CA: It is a Metroidvania, you can’t argue with that.
JS: It is.
CA: But to answer your question, yeah, I think it can be a little limiting, in how the game is perceived. But we can’t…. I love Metroidvanias.
[JS talking to CA]: There’s… that’s kinda what you always say that Dark Souls is a Metroidvania.
CA: Yes, it’s like a 3D Metroidvania.
JS: And it’s so true, it is! It’s so cool that it actually works as that. As a different perspective, as well.
CA: But then, it’s the question, what is a Metroidvania?
JS: But it’s not called a Metroidvania, and that’s what you were saying.
CA: It’s only because [Metroidvania] is 2D.
GS: What was the most challenging aspect of putting out Aquatic, as indie devs?
JS: ….I would say it was pretty difficult doing the Kickstarter. That was a pain in the ass.
CA: Yeah, it was. It really was.
JS: It was. It was good that we did it, we needed it obviously, we used the money really well. I don’t think we would have gotten the same…if we didn’t have the money to use from the Kickstarter, which then led up to us being able to use it for a promotional…or a P.R. company. And since we used the P.R. company, it kind of took away or alleviated all that stress and…
CA: …. just focus on making the game.
JS: Yeah, exactly.
CA: The fact of being just two people, I think the hardest thing could be for me, as a programmer, it’s knowing that I can’t…I mean, if I can’t do this, it won’t happen. [laughs] I always have to adapt and I can’t really…lie or have someone code for me, I had to figure everything out. That can be hard, but it’s also very fun, I think. It would be even harder for me to work together with another programmer, I think. To cooperate. I prefer being like, alone in that sense…. does that make any sense?
GS: Yes, it does.
GS: You guys have a bunch of projects right now. I saw [on your itch.io page] SEASALT, Banana Boy, Keep Driving….do you guys see any of these projects reaching the same level as Aquatic Adventure, or are these just fun things you like working on?
JS: Well, SEASALT and Banana Boy, they’re just fun things. Some summer thing. I don’t know.
CA: Yeah, [Banana Boy] was for a game jam.
JS: Yeah, and we just wanted to put it up. Cause we wanted to figure out and just know how it works with Android and all that, and it was a kind of test for that. SEASALT, we just thought it was a fun game…and like we wanted to take it a little bit further. So, we’re just working on that now during the summer.
CA: That was also made in a game jam. So, the original game…. I think it was made in 24 hours.
JS: Yeah, 24 hours. So, we just thought, “Alright, this was good”. So, let’s keep working on that for a bit. But, Keep Driving is what we are aiming for. That’s our big thing.
CA: I think it’s gonna be…
JS: …much bigger….
CA: A much bigger of a project, for sure.
GS: Would you consider it a sequel to Keep Walking EP?
JS: It is like…a spiritual sequel to Keep Walking.
JS: It doesn’t… it’s not like a real sequel. Maybe it’s set in the same world. Probably not because they look different. But it’s, I don’t know, it’s the whole vibe of something that we’re more…we can relate to more.
CA: It feels like our- like we want that game more to be… it fits more with our vision of what games we want to make. Not that we want to throw away Aquatic Adventure. It was super fun and it’s very us. But, I feel like Keep Driving, at least for me, I can’t say for both of us, it seems more important in a way.
JS: Yeah, it definitely feels a lot more difficult to make, as well. So, it’s a much stronger like, a deeper process. In that sense, it will be a much bigger release, as well.
GS: As a parting question, would you say that developing Keep Driving is a lot more difficult because it’s something that you really want to do well?
JS: Yeah, yeah, definitely. I think Aquatic was definitely…we just kinda kept growing with it. And we were never questioning anything.
CA: It was surprisingly easy with all the decisions in The Aquatic Adventure. Because we knew what we wanted to do from the start. And we had something playable very early. Then we can just like, we add another boss, and we add another boss, and we add another environment.
JS: I don’t think we were trying to push the limits of games or anything like that. We were just kinda like, we wanted to make a fun game, and that was it. While with our new one [Keep Driving] we were trying in some way to make something different. Which is a lot more difficult.
CA: We have changed major design things so many times throughout this game. Huge parts of the game were just scraped.
JS: Like, months of work, “no, this sucks”.
CA: Realizing that, well, this isn’t fun, and then having to throw it away. Which I think is healthy for a game but uh, it’s not healthy for our wallets.
CA and JS: [both laugh]
The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human is currently available on Steam at a special price during 2017’s summer sale. You can keep up with and find out more about YCJY’s projects via their Twitter account, itch.io page and official website. The game’s soundtrack was composed by Karl Flodin, and can be streamed via Bandcamp.
As a personal side-note, I would like to thank Josef and Christopher for taking the time to have this conversation with me over Skype, despite the massive time difference that divides us.
PAX South Hands On: ‘Streets of Rage 4’ Balances Legacy and Innovation
Streets of Rage 4 embodies the original series’ elegant, action-packed design and revives it for a new generation
From the moment I began my demo with Streets of Rage 4 at PAX South, it felt like coming home. It might have been more than two decades since the first three games in the Streets of Rage series perfected the beat ‘em up formula on the Sega Genesis, but courtesy of developers Lizardcube, DotEmu, and Guard Crush, this legendary series is back and in good hands. This brand new entry aims to recapture all the style and balance of the originals, while introducing innovations of its own. If my demo is any indication, the game is set to achieve that.
Streets of Rage 4 uses the same elegant level design that set the original trilogy apart back on the Genesis. The gameplay is simple: keep walking to the right, taking out every enemy in front of you with all the jabs, kicks, jumps, and special moves at your disposal. If anything, the controls feel better than ever before, with an added level of precision and fluidity that simply wasn’t possible on older hardware.
That’s not to mention the new move sets. Beat ’em ups might not be the most complex genre around, but Streets of Rage 4 adds the perfect level of depth to the combat. It has the same simple jabs and kicks found in the original games, but spiced up with the potential for new combos and even a handful of extravagant new special moves. With new and old fighting mechanics, this new entry features plenty of room to experiment with combat but never loses the simple, arcade-like charm of the originals.
Streets of Rage 4 revives the series’ rage-filled and action-packed style for the twenty-first century
The demo included series staple characters like Axel and Blaze, yet I opted to play as an all-new character: Cherry Hunter, a guitar-wielding fighter whose move set felt very distinct from classic characters. Her movement is speedy, certainly faster than Axel but slower than Blaze, and her guitar provided for some unique melee moves. Like the new mechanics, her addition to the character roster helps shake up the Streets of Rage formula just enough, while maintaining the core beat ’em up simplicity that made the series special in the first place.
Streets of Rage 4 might innovate in a few areas, but one thing that’s clearly remained true to form is the difficulty. It boasts of the same old school difficulty that characterized the original games. The classic and brand new enemies are just as ruthless as ever, mercilessly crowding in around you and can easily overwhelm you if you’re not careful. However, just like the originals, the fighting feels so satisfying that it’s easy to keep coming back for more action.
Amid all these changes and additions, perhaps the most obvious (and controversial) change is the visual style. While the original series used detailed pixel art, Streets of Rage 4 instead boasts of an extremely detailed handcrafted art style, in which every frame of character animation is painstakingly drawn by hand and environments are colorful and painterly. Thousands of frames of animation go into each character, and the effort certainly shows, making every punch, kick, and other acts of violence a breathtaking sight to behold.
Streets of Rage 4 reimagines this classic series for a new generation, reintroducing the best of the beat ’em up genre for players of all backgrounds and experiences.
Some fans have complained that the game loses the series’ spirit without pixel art, but DotEmu marketing director Arnaud De Sousa insisted to me that this simply isn’t the case. Pixel art wasn’t an artistic choice back then – it was a matter of necessity. If the developers could have designed the game to look exactly as they wanted, regardless of technical limitations, then it likely would have looked just like the luscious hand-drawn visuals of the current Streets of Rage 4.
That’s not to mention that, as De Sousa emphasized, the Streets of Rage games are defined by looking different from one another. The third game looks different from the second, which looked different from the first – and now this new entry has twenty years of change to catch up on. Thus, it only makes sense for this new entry to adopt a radically new graphical style after all this time.
Streets of Rage 4 reimagines this classic series for a new generation, reintroducing the best of the beat ’em up genre for players of all backgrounds and experiences. The difference between De Sousa and myself is perfect evidence of that. He grew up playing the games in the 90s, whereas I wasn’t even born when the original trilogy became such a phenomenon and only played them years later in subsequent re-releases. Yet here we were, standing in the middle of a crowded convention and gushing about decades-old games. We might have had extremely different experiences with the series, but that didn’t stop us from appreciating the joys of stylish beat ’em up action.
“A good game is a good game,” De Sousa told me, “no matter how old.” That’s the attitude that Streets of Rage 4 exemplifies. It revives the series’ rage-filled and action-packed design for the twenty-first century. And with a release on all modern platforms, more players than ever will be able to rediscover the simple pleasure of wielding your bare knuckles against thugs of all types. Between the new art style and the solid gameplay, Streets of Rage 4 is looking like an incredibly welcome return for this iconic franchise.
An In-Depth Analysis of Fifa’s Career Mode
It’s a well-known fact that career mode on Fifa has been a long-neglected element of the best selling sports games series of all time. But for soccer fans who want to pretend to be a football manager, but also want to personally play the game, Fifa is currently the main option.
The problem is: for a 60 dollar game, almost nothing about Fifa career mode works properly.
Two of the most game-breaking bugs in Fifa career mode are so bad that it fundamentally makes the game unplayable for those who want to feel any sort of immersion.
The first is a bug that makes it so that top teams will sign many more players for a position than they could possibly need.
For example, Bayern might end up signing 6 or 7 great center backs, and then only play three or four of them, while what they really need to sign might be a winger or a fullback.
This leads into the second huge issue: even when a team like Bayern HAS 6 or 7 great center-backs, they will STILL often choose to start second or third-string center backs! This often leads to top teams languishing at 12th or 13th in the tables by the end of the season, which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.
Everything about this image is wrong. Everything. The top three teams in this table shouldn’t finish higher than 7th more than once every ten seasons between them, and teams that should finish first and second aren’t even in the top eight. 64 points near the end of the season for first place is also a very low number.
There’s been plenty of other issues as well. Even on the highest difficulties, AI on both defense and ESPECIALLY offense ranges from poor to horrible, with the AI on offense rarely actually running at the defense (making defending boring and unrewarding), leaving players like Messi or Hazard to not even try to use their incredible dribbling ability and speed and instead pass away the ball as soon as they get it.
Instead, the most common way the AI scores are by performing a janky, unrealistic and clearly scripted pinball, with impossibly precise passes between 4 or 5 players before the ball ends up in the back of the net.
Another major problem with the game (though some might call it simply a feature in presenting a more arcade-like, less realistic take on soccer) is your ability (if you’re a big club) to buy multiple huge players and bring them to your club easily in your first season, making the game an absolute cakewalk.
After years of incompetence and the ignoring of career mode’s many issues, however, EA finally faced serious backlash with the release of Fifa 20–the most broken iteration in the series yet.
For a while, #fixcareermode was trending on twitter, and reviews blasted Fifa for its litany of issues, like players going on precipitous declines in stats right when they reach the age of 30.
Yet these bugs were treated by some in the media as a first time thing, issues that had only appeared in the latest iteration. They weren’t.
As one Reddit user noted to Eurogamer: “In the last few years, every FIFA game released has had bugs that ruin the immersion. Teams not starting their strongest lineups and unrealistic tables have been an issue not just for FIFA 20 but earlier editions. Our cries for patches and change have fallen on deaf ears. The community has been grossly neglected.”
The linked article by the Independent above wasn’t accurate in other ways, either. It claims that only simulated matches suffered from the bug of teams not playing their best players, and other articles have claimed that this bug only occurs when a big team plays against a small team.
But neither of these claims is accurate.
You could play against a top team like Barcelona, and you could also be a top team like Real Madrid, and Barcelona would still consistently field third or fourth-string players over the likes of Messi against your team.
This wasn’t an occasional thing, either. At least three or four top players were benched for players 20 or more points below them every game. Every. Single. Game.
I haven’t even mentioned the commentary in Fifa, which is so buggy and so immersion-breaking in its disconnection from reality that its more immersive to just turn it off entirely.
What is so infuriating is that that many of the bugs seem like fairly minor fixes (commentary issues aside), something that seems like it would take no more than a few hours of rooting around in the code to figure out whatever misplaced number value was causing the issue.
The fact that these major issues have existed for at least no less than SIX years (Fifa 14 was the first game I played) indicates definitively how little EA cares about its products, and how little the designers care about actual football or delivering an enjoyable experience out of Ultimate Team.
Of course, Ultimate Team alone in 2017 accounted for almost a third of all of EA’s revenue from sports titles, so it’s somewhat understandable why Ea focuses most of its attention on that element of Fifa.
But with the amount of effort put into the new “futsal” mode in Fifa 2020, or the three campaign-like “Journey” modes from Fifa 17 to Fifa 19, one wonders why the developers couldn’t have spent just a little more effort to fix a mode that was in many ways fundamentally broken.
Fifa HAVE made certain changes to career mode over this period, so it’s not like they’ve ignored it entirely. But the changes made to career mode in the six years I’ve played it have all either made the game much worse, slightly worse or had no great effect.
The major changes over this period have included:
A slightly updated youth system, which has suffered from its own serious bugs over the years, such as youth prospects never gaining stats in sprint speed or acceleration so that you end up getting stuck with players with 50 to 70 speed for eternity; a widely disliked training system for players that is utterly broken and unfair, allowing you to train players to abilities well beyond what is even vaguely realistic within a matter of a year or two; a new display screen for your team; the removal of form; the slight modification of morale; adding the ability to talk with your players; and, last but not least, transfer cut scenes which are the most incredibly pointless wastes of time in any sports game, both for the player and for the developers–at least they’re skippable. There is the ability to customize your manager–perhaps the most positive change made in this six-year period. But that’s still stunningly sad given that you will very rarely actually see your manager at all.
None of these modifications, you may have noticed, go any way towards fixing the fundamental issues with the game, issues which have been pointed out to EA year after year.
It’s fair to say that one of the main reasons that FIFA got away with what it did for so long was not thanks to the players, but the media.
Year after year, reviews for FIFA received solid scores (hovering around the low to mid 80’s), whereas user reviews were usually much lower. It was only this year that media reviews seriously pointed out issues with the career mode.
The fact that FIFA received so much better reviews from reviewers as compared to players is easily explained away by the fact that the former usually play the game for comparatively shorter times, and therefore tends to miss a lot of the details.
In response to the recent outrage which had finally reached a degree of publicity that EA could no longer ignore, EA finally patched some of FIFA’s issues, like the problem of teams not fielding their strongest lineups at least semi-frequently. This was a huge step towards making career mode not fundamentally broken, but whether or not the other most glaring issue of teams like Juventus signing 9 80+rated strikers (yes, that happened in my game once) has been solved remains to be seen. Given that I mostly gave up on the series after Fifa 19 continued the same problems of its predecessors, I don’t think it’ll be me that finds out.
- Evan Lindeman
‘Atelier Ryza’ Warms the Heart No Matter the Season
Atelier Ryza excels at creating a sense of warmth and familiarity, and could be just what you need during the winter months.
The Atelier series is something of a unicorn in the JRPG genre. It isn’t known for its world-ending calamities or continent-spanning journeys; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. The small-town feel and more intimate storytelling of Atelier games has made them some of the most consistently cozy experiences in gaming, and Ryza is no exception. No matter if it’s this winter or next, here’s why Atelier Ryza is the perfect type of RPG to warm your heart this winter.
Like a Warm Blanket
Unlike protagonists from other entries in the franchise, Reisalin Stout (or Ryza for short) has never stepped foot in an atelier or even heard of alchemy at the start of her game. Instead, she’s just a fun-loving and mischevious girl from the country who spends her days in search of adventure with her childhood pals Lent and Tao. It’s this thrill-seeking that eventually leads the trio to meet a mysterious wandering alchemist and learn the tricks of the trade.
The entirety of Atelier Ryza takes place during summer, and it’s clear that the visual design team at Gust had a field day with this theme. In-game mornings are brought to life through warm reds, yellows, and oranges, while the bright summer sun beams down incessantly in the afternoon and gives way to cool evenings flooded by shades of blue and the soft glow of lanterns. Ryza’s visual prowess is perhaps most noticeable in the lighting on its character models, which are often given a warm glow dependent on the time of day.
The cozy sensibilities of the countryside can be felt elsewhere as well. The farm Ryza’s family lives on aside, the majority of environments are lush with all manner of plant life, dirt roads, and rustic architecture. Menus feature lovely wooden and papercraft finishes that simulate notepads or photos on a desk. Townspeople will even stop Ryza to remark on how much she’s grown and ask about buying some of her father’s crops. Everything just excels at feeling down-to-earth homey.
An Intimate Take on Storytelling
Kurken Island and the surrounding mainland feel expansive as a whole but intimate in their design. This is partially due to the readily-accessible fast travel system that Atelier Ryza employs; instead of a seamless open world, most players will find themselves jumping from location to location to carry out quests and harvest ingredients for alchemy. However, there’s still strong incentive to explore the nearby town thanks to tons of random side quests and little cutscenes that trigger as players progress through the main story.
It’s an interesting way to tackle world-building. Instead of relying on intricate dialogue like The Outer Worlds or massive cinematic cutscenes like Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Atelier Ryza lets players get a feel for its world rather naturally through everyday conversations. These scenes run the gamut from Ryza’s parents yelling at her to help more around the farm to running into and catching up with old friends who’d moved overseas. They’re unobtrusive and brief, but the sheer number of them gradually establishes a cast that feels alive and familiar.
Of course, post-holidays winter is also the season for more somber tales. The relationship between Lent and his alcoholic father is striking in its realistic depiction of how strained some father-son relationships can become.
The narrative escalates subtly: An early cutscene shows Mr. Marslink stumbling onto Ryza’s front lawn thinking it’s his. Then an event triggers where the neighborhood jerks tease Lent about being the son of the town drunk. Lent’s house is a small shack pulled back from the rest of the town, and visiting it triggers one of the few scenes where Ryza can actually talk to Mr. Marslink himself. The situation eventually reveals itself to be so bad that it completely explains why Lent is gung-ho about being out of the house whenever he can.
Though Lent’s general character motivation is wanting to get stronger and protect the town, it’s the heartfelt insights like these that make him much more relatable as a party member. Atelier Ryza features no grand theatrics or endless bits of exposition, but instead favors highlighting interpersonal conversations as Ryza continues to learn more about the people and world around her.
Cozy games rarely get enough credit. Just like the Animal Crossing series or Pokemon: Let’s Go provides players with a warmth that can stave off the harshest of winters, Atelier Ryza succeeds in being the lighthearted, touching JRPG fans wanted. It’s both aesthetically pleasing and heartwarming in the way it builds out its world and cast of characters, and seeing Ryza gradually grow more confident and capable is a joy unto itself. If you’re in need of a blanket until Animal Crossing: New Horizons comes out in March, you can’t go wrong here.
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