Most series often don’t make it past the odd-numbered sequel and possible prequel. Even rarer are the ones that break into the double digit numbers. It took Mega Man 23 years to have a “tenth” game but he was popular enough to inspire countless spin-off entries. Who even knows how many games Mario has appeared in. Just recently the Final Fantasy series got a proper fourteenth entry (whether an MMO counts or not is a different story). Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk also has the distinction of being the fourteenth game in a long-running RPG series that has also seen its fair share of remakes and side games. With Atelier Ayesha, developer Gust is crafting a game independent of previous titles while still maintaining some of the core concepts that has garnered the series its devoted following. In the quest for distinction does this new alchemy title achieve synthesized cohesion or does it just boil down to a mess?
Living in the world of an RPG truly must be one of the hardest existences of all time. If there isn’t some flamboyant, multi-tiered bad guy tyrant trying to rule the kingdom then there’s an ancient evil bent on destroying the existence of every living thing in the universe. Bummer. Atelier Ayesha abandons these epic conventions for a more casual fare. Our story revolves around Ayesha Altugle, an apothecary who lives in a world covered in ancient ruins and where alchemy is a forgotten art. Ayesha used to have a sister–Nio–but she disappeared while gathering herbs near one of the ruins. One day Ayesha is visiting the ruin where her sister disappeared to put flowers on her grave. There, Ayesha sees a spectral version of Nio which soon disappears. A strange old man who witnesses the event tells Ayesha that her sister could still be alive and there is a way to bring her back. The catch is that Ayesha must learn alchemy and only has three years to bring back Nio or she will be lost forever. Ayesha’s journey of self discovery then begins and along the way she meets a large cast of characters who will assist her.
For those who played Atelier Totori, this missing persons case isn’t exactly new ground. The overall plot thread doesn’t tread too much momentous ground and doesn’t shoot for grandiose things like some series. Atelier Ayesha, like its predecessors, is very lighthearted in story and presentation. In Ayesha’s world, very little feels like a life or death situation and many people’s problems can be solved with an item. This might be a major flaw for a lot of RPG enthusiasts but the truth is that it’s refreshing to have a game that is silly and breezy. Another strong point for the game is that the main cast is full of female characters. The Atelier series has always favored girls but in Ayesha they find themselves in less “controversial” and suggestive scenes. Ayesha and her friends fight for their goals and look out for one another. It might not be the best character development in a game but it is enjoyable and fun to play through. One might even argue that all the flowers, bright colors, cute enemies, and female characters kicking butt and getting stuff done makes Atelier Ayesha a perfect RPG for younger girls. Though they might not be the target demographic, the streamlined gameplay feels like a good companion to that general “girly” feel of the experience. Atelier Ayesha has a less harsh (and mature) entry point for a JRPG than something like Final Fantasy 13.
These niche titles have always been a bit of a double-edged sword in the visuals department. On one hand, a quirky art style coupled with a bizarre story is always expected. On the other hand, the smaller budget doesn’t necessarily allow for the hardware to be pushed to its limits. Atelier Ayesha is quite colorful; the cell-shaded look of characters and enemies compliments the cheery tone. The same can’t really be said for the environments. As full of color and lush foliage as they are, it doesn’t distract from the fact that most towns and battlefields look more last-gen than anything. It’s surprising because these areas aren’t necessarily large or dense with enemy activity. It would have been more appealing to render environments in the same art style as the characters. The one saving grace is that some of the bigger set pieces take great use of the fixed camera. Not being able to freely look around the world might be an annoyance but at least it is being seen at the best available angle.
In a surprising decision, Tecmo Koei and Gust decided not to include a Japanese audio track with the game. Previous Atelier games have had dual audio tracks so not including one here feels like a misstep. Still, the English voice cast does an admirable job delivering lines. Characters never sound like bad dubs even when they are speaking exaggerated and ridiculous lines. There are a lot of awkward moments where voice acting is completely absent from a scene and it brings the player out of the moment. Characters also just flap their mouths when speaking and will continue to do so even when they are done talking; it looks silly and makes conversation feel even more disjointed. Honestly, it would have been better if dialogue heavy scenes were delivered with text boxes and character art like in previous titles. The biggest highlight of Atelier Ayesha’s sound is the music. Whimsical, beautiful and appropriate, this soundtrack has it all. Engrossing the player in the world with its rich soundtrack provides one of the biggest highlights of the game. A nice surprise is that some tracks from the previous games can be played as well, giving that nice touch of nostalgia for fans.
Alchemy has always been a focus behind the series and this entry is no different. Players have the ability to synthesize items found throughout the world to make new things. A bomb can be crafted from a plant. Healing items can be produced from food. Even armor and weapons can be improved with the right ingredients. Items have certain traits that can bring out various bonuses during the crafting process. The alchemy system still remains one of the most complex mechanics across any RPG. In Atelier Ayesha, the alchemy system grants players a lot of control and transparency on how powerful items turn out. The problem, however, is that there isn’t a fantastic tutorial system in place to explain the finer details of how everything works. For an early part of the game, alchemy is a trial-by-fire system where the player might craft every item they can without any knowledge of benefits and detriments. Things like item quality and level aren’t given their due importance nor are points like elemental properties. Still, with enough time, the alchemy system opens up and players will do everything to hunt for the highest quality ingredients.
Remember how Ayesha only has three years to figure out how to bring back her sister? Well, that isn’t just a throwaway story bullet point, it’s an actual gameplay element. Almost everything Ayesha does takes up time. Picking items, performing alchemy and traveling across the map all count towards that three year end goal. Though the time limit element is nothing new for the series, it does make Atelier Ayesha feel like one big time management game. It can be fun having that goal to shoot for and trying to achieve different endings (of which there are many) but the game could have eased some of the player’s burden. Not enough feedback is given on where the next story quest can be found. Often players will move into a different part of town or walk over a certain path on the area map and an event will trigger seemingly out of nowhere. The Mario-styled overworld map sometimes works as a detriment to the actual questing. Better methods of keeping track of time would have been appreciated. If there were certain milestones or goals to achieve in specific time periods, it would help players on the path for success.
Outside of the main story, the bulk of Atelier Ayesha consists of fetch quests. Different NPCs require certain items that can either be bought or created through alchemy. Fulfilling a request or delivery rewards the player with items and money. Because winning battles rarely yields more than a few coins, deliveries are crucial. Some deliveries have a time limit and, if they aren’t completed before the limit, will yield a reduced reward. Running around a town helping out strangers isn’t always the most rewarding activity but getting enough money to buy a rare ingredient or better alchemy book is priceless. What the game really needed was a better way to keep tabs on your deliveries. At any time, dozens of people might be requesting something and a pen and paper seems to be the easiest way to know what needs to be done. Players also have the ability to spend memory points so that Ayesha can “remember” certain story points and write them down in her journal. These memories give rewards like new recipes or give higher max HP and MP. It’s a nice touch to the leveling component. The actual battle system is extremely self-explanatory. It is a basic turn based affair where getting the jump on enemies is very important. When one character attacks an assist move can be triggered where another character does a follow up attack or even moves in from the back for a strategic advantage. Though battles are never extremely challenging, some can be downright hard at lower levels. Thankfully, enemy encounters don’t take away from the precious time limit like other things.
Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk hides the fact that it is a transitory game fairly well. It possesses many of the familiar elements of the alchemy series while trying to evoke a sense of “newness”. It could certainly look better and execute a stronger, more personal story; much of the gameplay could be fine-tuned as well. Yes, it’s rough around the edges but it has a lot of charm that makes it irresistible to those in the niche RPG market. Ayesha and her friends are a breath of fresh air in the mainstream and these growing pains will certainly be smoothed out when that inevitable sequel comes around.
Note: A copy of the game was provided to Gaming Illustrated by the publisher for the purpose of this review.