Atelier Ryza 3: Alchemist of the End & the Secret Key feels like Gust firing on all cylinders

Sitting down to get a first look at Atelier Ryza 3: Alchemist of the End & the Secret Key, I can't help but think back to the thoughts I had upon finishing Ryza's second outing; Gust had taken their development cycle of 1 year, and had managed to craft such an impressive follow-up to the already monumental paradigm shift of Atelier Ryza; what could they do with an even larger budget, and 2 years of development time? 

That was, of course, a little over 2 years ago - and getting the chance to answer those questions I'd asked myself had indeed come to fruition. While I'm only able to discuss the opening moments of the game, it's clear to see that Gust hasn't merely sat on their laurels, and the extra development time has been put to good use.

From even the very early moments of Ryza 3, Gust has taken advantage of the idea that most players will already be well and truly familiar with both Ryza's world, as well as its gameplay. In a few short hours the game wastes no time unlocking many of the combat and synthesis features that would instead unlock later on in both of the previous Ryza games; features like the Skill Tree, returning from Ryza 2, forgo too much of an explanation, with the knowledge that players already understand the core gameplay loop. Instead, after a tutorial that feels more tooled to refresh players rather than teach them, you're quickly thrust into the story, the mysterious Hollow Key, and the new expanded zone design that can be found in regions such as the new Kark Islands.

Even before reaching the new areas of Ryza's world, players are forced to retread some of the regions from Ryza 1 - which hides an astonishingly new development in plain sight. While Ryza 1 and 2 had segmented areas, Ryza 1's world is now a mostly seamless experience; where you would have reached a dead-end that required you to confirm to warp to the next area of the map, players now simply continue walking directly into the same area, as part of a larger and now noticeably fleshed-out world.

It's one of those changes that if you hadn't played Ryza 1 in a while, like me, you might not have realized what was happening until you went back to check how these regions actually were presented in the previous games. Combined with the gradual upgrades to the presentation that the Gust have continued to implement over the years, you're left with a striking upgrade in terms of the scale of how Ryza's regions are presented. While it's not quite an open world, it goes a significant way to giving the game's locations a real sense of place.

Upon reaching the Kark Islands is when Ryza 3 feels like it really begins to lift the curtains of what sort of scale players can expect from the rest of the adventure. Not only do the Islands themselves represent a sprawling section of the map for you to explore, to the point where players find themselves slowly unlocking a series of ziplines to more easily travel between the land masses, but players also gain access to the Secret Key system - which has the potential to turn Ryza's entire gameplay loop upside down.

Secret Keys can be created from the essence of enemies you target in battle once they've reached a certain HP threshold; once created, players can activate them a certain number of times during battle for a boost to their stats or to add special modifiers to their actions in battle, all for the cost of your Tactics level dropping a point. Think of it like applying a buff to burst your damage at the height of battle; or to help scramble to heal and buff your teammates once they've fallen dangerously low. These buffs are active for only a limited time, so it's up to the player to make the most of them before they expire. Add in the fact that different keys are created from different enemies, which means different modifiers, and that's where things get especially interesting.

You see; keys don't only have benefits during battle. They can also be used during Synthesis, and even occasionally out in the field. While it's hard to tell just how much of an impact this system will have on the core gameplay loop further into the story, it's a promising enough shake-up early on that absolutely makes me excited to see where it can go from here. If nothing else, it's a bold and fresh attempt at adding another layer to the already incredibly polished Ryza formula; so it's worth applauding thinking outside the box when considering how to evolve the gameplay for what should be Ryza's final outing.

I won't be the one writing our full review for Atelier Ryza 3: Alchemist of the End & the Secret Key, but nonetheless I couldn't be more excited to see where the rest of Ryza's newest adventure will take her. Everything about Ryza 3's opening hours - including what has been a shockingly great PC port - leaves me feeling hopeful that this game might just be what I'd hoped it could be.