Atelier Ayesha is a JRPG developed by Gust, distributed by Tecmo Koei and localised for the west by NIS America. Atelier is a long running and fairly niche franchise, yet has a strong and loyal fanbase. Ayesha will be the 14th game in the main series, which has spanned all Playstation consoles since “Atelier Marie ~The Alchemist of Salsburg” which released in 1997. As I’m new to the Atelier series, I will be looking to answer the questions that have arisen each time I considered picking up one of these Alchemy RPGs. How accesible is the series to a complete newcomer? Has the game been unfairly overlooked by mainstream gamers? Will it actually crush the last vestiges of masculinity that I possess and replace them with a love of flower arranging and ball gowns?
After viewing the psychedelic pre-game intro, I added a fourth question. Who the hell spiked my coffee?
Atelier Ayesha is set in a sparsely populated land where the people have begun to carve out a structured existence for themselves amongst the wilderness and mysterious ruins of a forgotten civilization. There is the feeling that something terrible, even apocalyptic occurred a long, long time ago. The signs are everywhere but nature, with the passing of time, has been able reclaim the ruins and destruction to paint its colourful artwork onto the land once again. Ayesha is a young apothecary with the knowledge of creating only basic medicinal potions, she is not yet an alchemist. She alone runs the family medicine shop after her Grandfather passed away and her little sister mysteriously vanished whilst collecting herbs at a local ruin, at Ayesha’s request.
A stranger from out of town, by the name of Keithgrif Hazeldine arrives to study the local ruin and provides hope to Ayesha as he seems to know the fate of her sister and how she may be saved. He is unwilling to share this information though, simply because he isn’t obliged to, and maybe because I didn’t have a shotgun, just a flowery stick and a basket of herbs. However, he said something vague about alchemy being the key to saving the girl, and that she would be beyond help in 3 years. Then he left. Idiot.
Ayesha is a fairly stereotypical shy and bashful type, although her quest is refreshingly personal to her. There is no Overlord to destroy and no looming apocalyptic event to thwart, her sister’s safety is the only apparent goal. Ayesha seems to be motivated by blind hope and raw guilt. Other characters will join Ayesha’s party as the game progresses, allowing for specialized ingredient harvesting or new combat proficiencies. The narrative is typically quirky for a JRPG, sometimes touching and often quite funny, though there are times when the story loses itself due to the mysterious nature of the quest. A little more explanation as to why we should be wandering around, collecting things to put in the pot would have been welcome in the first half of the game. It can feel aimless at times.
The game is divided into 3 main gameplay themes. Firstly, the main theme of the title, the alchemy. Nearly all of the items needed to progress through this game need to be crafted at a cauldron. These include weapons, armors, healing and restorative potions, stat boosting accessories and food among other things. Ingredients can be harvested, bought or looted from fallen enemies. At first, the alchemy is very straightforward, mixing two or three things together to create a usable item, but as time goes by, more powerful items will be required so you need to keep an eye out for precious recipe books. Later on, you will need to go through many stages of creation, often with rare elements, just to create the simple ingredients for new items. There are 5 stats to watch out for when choosing components. All raw materials have bars representing item quality, fire power, wind power, earth power and water power. These stats will carry through the alchemy process and on into the final item so some strategy is required when deciding which particular plants, liquids, oils etc to use for the desired effects. Ingredients may have other traits attached to them also, these are things like hp bonuses or curative effects. Ayesha can unlock personal traits too, which are skills that allow the creation of more powerful, personal and refined items, yet this adds complexity to system. Suffice to say, the alchemy is the trickiest part of this game to a newcomer, but with some patience it all makes sense. The interface is user friendly and the system of alchemy is nicely structured.
Next is the exploration and travel. This takes place on a world map which has a nice and simple hand drawn style, with newly discovered areas being drawn onto the map as they are found. To travel to a given area on the world map, a cursor is used to select it, then Ayesha will walk a set path to get there, occasionally pausing along the way if anything or anyone is discovered. Once a destination is reached, you can freely explore the town, field or dungeon at your leisure, collecting ingredients and fighting the wildlife, which brings me nicely onto the games strongest gameplay element, the combat. Using a classic turn based approach, with a little positioning strategy and a simple cover mechanic, Gust have created a wonderfully fluid and exciting system, especially when facing a tough enemy or boss. Support characters will use an array of impressive skills that are acquired by combat leveling whilst Ayesha will control the battles in both support and offensive roles with her basket of usable items, forged at the cauldron.
At some point during the first playthrough, many players will become starkly aware of the timer, which displays how many years, months and days have been used up. At some point, it will demand to be taken seriously, and it should. I realised, about 18 months in, that I was seemingly nowhere near that stage in the story which instilled a sense of panic. My laid back, casual approach had returned to bite me on the ass. Alchemy, item gathering and travel all take considerable amounts of time and although 3 years sounds like a long time at first, it will soon become apparent that the overarching strategy of the game is to manage this time wisely, always.
Most actions should be well planned, pointless journeys should be avoided. Collecting more ingredients than you need or reckless alchemy are equally wasteful. Thankfully there are systems in place to aid in time saving. For example, items or ingredients that have been created at a cauldron just once can be registered with vendors around the world. They will become available for sale with that vendor which save valuable time later on. These unique gameplay elements add strategic thinking to the mix, which can only be a good thing. There are many different performance related endings which may also add an incentive to play through again, with a closer eye on the clock.
Atelier Ayesha has a unique, cute, flower fairy kind of art style. I imagine this alone may have stopped many people from considering an Atelier title. My young daughter entered the room while I played with the immortal words, “Daddy, why are you playing a girl’s game?” If any adults entered the room, I felt compelled to switch the PS3 off with haste, often losing progress since my last save. I imagine “Atelier Fleshface: Alchemist of the Undead” would have more mainstream appeal, but that may say more about western tastes, or just my own,than it does about this game.
Characters are anime styled in great detail and animated with care, especially during the slick and battle scenes. The environments however, are mixed.There are many places to visit on the map, but most are tiny spaces with a fixed camera, maybe with a few floors or streets separated by a loading screen. Cell shading works to great effect in the nicest looking environments and some resemble wonderful, color soaked paintings. All to0 often though, there is little imagination and even less detail. Stark differences in the quality and attention to graphical detail hamper the presentation and create a disjointed feeling to the overall experience at times.
Atelier Ayesha has no Japanese voice option, which is a real shame. The voice acting is well done to be honest, but for me Japanese audio with subtitles is a winner every time. Atmosphere is lost with the translation and the over exuberance of anime characters can feel awkward in the English language. Great credit is given to the musical score though, which is immensely varied and relates perfectly to the emotions and various elements within the game.
Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk is a solid and interesting RPG. The gameplay elements all work nicely and come together to create a challenging and rewarding experience. I have been critical of the game for a few things, but underneath the cuteness and patchwork presentation there is a lengthy game filled with strategy, mystery and classic mechanics. It can be as challenging as you want it to be due to the multiple outcomes and is accessible to new players due to the impressive alchemy interface. To Atelier Ayesha, I can apply the term “Easy to play, difficult to master” which is a great thing. You alone can judge if the overall style is too cute for your personal taste, but I can happily report that I did not feel the urge to start arranging flowers after this game. I have not been out wearing a fantastically pretty fairy dress either, but the weekend isn’t here yet.
*This review is based on a final copy of the game provided by Tecmo Koei