I was determined not to be burned out when I went into Atelier Lulua. Just to make extra sure of it, I decided not to play Atelier Nelke until after I finished Lulua, to keep myself extra fresh. Silly maybe, but I really didn't want to be feeling overfed on the series when I went into this entry.
Lulua lives in a small town learning alchemy from Piana. Remember her? She was the promising young alchemist from Atelier Totori, and she's Lulua's teacher this time around. While Rorona is off traveling, Lulua is studying under Piana, but two things happen that force her to get moving out of her hometown and head for Arland. First, she comes into possession of a mysterious book (Hey, is the title of this game 'Lulua, Alchemist of the Mysterious Book?' Wait, no, that was a different one, sorry). The book is called the 'Alchemy Riddle', and it's written in special characters that only Lulua can see. It automatically fills itself in with new recipe ideas and information for Lulua at times when she needs it most, seeming to be willfully helping her both advance more quickly as an alchemist and overcome obstacles in her way. The second story trigger is that Lulua intercepts some mail addressed to Rorona and finds out that mom's atelier has failed to update its license for many years in a row, and if someone doesn't go to Arland to get that license renewed, it'll be revoked. With reliable teacher Piana, childhood friend Eva, wandering swordsman Aurel, the mysterious Alchemy Riddle, an undying love for curry, and a mission to save Rorona's atelier, Lulua sets off on her journey towards Arland.
Overall, I liked the system. There was still plenty of challenge in terms of thinking of making optimal gear (i.e. 'how can I get this item to have full fire and earth bonuses, while also carrying over these 3 specific traits, and also including enough PP boosting items to actually afford all of them?'), but obscure tricks aren't really needed, you can usually reason out a pathway to success. You can register items to be mass-produced as well, so once you figure out one particular synthesis, you generally don't have to do it a second time (although there are a limited number of slots for items you can request for mass production, so you can't rely entirely on it).
When it comes to music, Gust did a good job as usual, although I wish they would have included more vocal tracks in the main game. What Atelier fan doesn't have fond memories of boss fight themes like MARIA or Sky of Twilight? I really loved the vocal tracks they scattered throughout the Dusk series. In the Lulua postgame some of the music changes to alternate vocal versions, but most people are just about done with the game by then!
The story was very mixed for me. It did a lot of things that left me scratching my head or had me disappointed that some things I was hoping would happen didn't end up being part of the game. A character shows up halfway through the game who basically hijacks the entire plot and Lulua's attention, and it feels very weird even if you eventually do learn why. On the other hand, a lot of things that happen in the game had me alternating between 'What?! You can't do that, that's stupid!' but also 'What?! You can't do tha-...wow, they did, that's stupid but also kind of awesome?!' Again, it's hard to talk about without spoilers, but you probably have some expectations for what the characters have been up to since Atelier Meruru, and you'll probably be disappointed with the lack of attention or development in some of them, but maybe also pleasantly surprised at others. It depends on what you were hoping for out of the old Arland characters, some of them got fan favorite development delivered and some got barely any attention at all. Unfortunately I can't tell you which without spoilers!
Ask any Atelier fan to rank their favorite games and you'll probably end up with different answers, but thinking back personally, my interest peaked at around Atelier Meruru and Atelier Ayesha. While Atelier Lulua doesn't rank up there with those two to me, I still thoroughly enjoyed it and would place it as a solid mid-tier Atelier game. In fact, when I checked my total playtime near the postgame, I couldn't believe that the game clock said I'd been playing for 60 hours - it seemed to go by faster than that, a good sign that I was enjoying myself enough that I didn't even realize how long I'd been playing.
I don't know what the future of Atelier holds, but they certainly left the door open for more Arland games. Personally I hope they make a 4th Dusk game some time if they're set on going back to older series, both because I love Hidari's art and because I found Atelier Shallie a disappointing capstone in terms of tying up loose plot ends I wanted to know about from Atelier Ayesha. I also kind of want a more complete rehaul of the series' alchemy item traits to shake things up a bit. It'll be interesting to see what Gust decides to do with the series from here on. I was ready to consider that maybe Atelier just wasn't my thing anymore if Lulua ended up being a big disappointment, but it satisfied me enough that I'm ready to stick with the series wherever it ends up going next. Maybe I can go and finish up Lydie & Suelle too before hopping into Nelke, to get fully back on board.