Review – Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk (PS3)

Ah, another JRPG for me to enjoy, just what I like to see. This time we have Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk. This new chapter in the Atelier series breaks free from the Arland nation that has been the focus of the previous 3 titles and moves us to a new land, where Ayesha Altugle lives alone and serves as an apothecary, selling the medicines she makes to a travelling merchant.

Will Atelier be the first truly good JRPG of the year or will it continue with the JRPG curse this year seems to have?

The Road Outside Your Door

A Story About A Girl

Atelier Ayesha’s story is, at its heart, a coming of age story.  A year before the beginning of our story, Ayesha’s younger sister disappeared without a trace in a nearby set of ruins that they gather herbs from for her medicines. One day, in the ruins, Ayesha sees what appears to be an image of her sister, and a passing stranger sees and tells Ayesha her sister is alive, but in danger. This prompts Ayesha to leave home in search of a way to verify the stranger’s words and rescue her sister. And thus our stage is set…

I’m not going to pretend this story is incredibly mature or that it’s going to win any awards. It isn’t, it’s clearly aimed at a teenage female crowd. The story is quite girly, most of the characters are female, there’s a lot of ‘flowery’ content(and I don’t just mean the crafting) and you will be forced to endure a lot of ‘cutesy’ fluff. But the story itself is quite interesting and watching the various characters mature over the course of the game is fantastic.. It is a good coming of age story and one that, if played correctly, has a simple yet heartwarming ending.

Or Should I Say Stories…

This game features multiple endings, depending upon whether you complete the main story and which side character’s quests you complete. Most of the endings, from what I’ve seen and heard, are good endings… but if you fail to complete the main story, you can get a bad one.

How can you fail to complete the main story, you ask? Well, quite simply, the Atelier games give you time limits. This game’s limit is 3 years – which is hinted at but a final date is never explicitly stated. Every action you take, from harvesting items and crafting to fighting and traveling takes time. The unfortunate part is that this never really succeeds at building tension. The time limits are all broad enough that you never really get that sense of urgency that can help to make a game impactful. While the endings are very suitable, the incredibly abrupt shift from normal gameplay to ending scene can be a bit jarring and disconcerting.

Playing Tourist

The game has dozens of areas – each with its own aesthetic, yet all unified by the overarching ‘feminine fantasy’ that they are striving for. Everything is sort of cutesy and dreamlike, with even the monsters often being adorable, something even the characters comment on in a few places. Within the areas are places you can harvest ingredients, monsters to fight, and sometimes sidequests and story elements. In order to help provide you with some guidance as to what to do next, you have a list of objectives. Some of these are directly story related, some are sidestory elements, and others are just pointing you in the direction of new places to progress. This always gives you good motivation to explore, and helps to reinforce the open nature of the game.

This game’s soundtrack is one of the best I’ve ever heard though. The tracks suit the environments, and are gorgeous to listen to. The opening cinematic theme is absolutely gorgeous, but it is far from the only track to really hit a high note with me.

But how could I not love that song? It’s just fantastic.

Creating Victory

Elegance

The only word I can use to describe the Atelier crafting system is ‘elegant’. It is incredibly deep, but it also has a refreshing simplicity to it. You’ll start the game and within a short time find yourself making bombs and potions and other cool stuff with ease… but then as you get into it you’ll gradually discover more and more depth to be found allowing you to create crazier and more epic works of alchemy. Leveling up happens fast and often enough that it truly feels rewarding, and you’ll find yourself constantly getting access to new recipes over the course of the game.

The Atelier series has had a long time to work on the crafting system, and it just keeps getting smoother and smoother. This is how crafting should be. I could spend hours just crafting in a system like this – just striving for perfection. And it seems that this is exactly what they keep doing with these games: striving for perfection. They’re getting closer and closer, and while I think this might be the best crafting system I’ve ever seen in a game, it still isn’t quite perfect. Certain materials seem a bit awkwardly handled, some things count in strange categories that don’t make all that much sense, and some of the properties aren’t quite as clear as they should be. But overall, they’re improving every game, and they have such a fantastic foundation to build on that it doesn’t even feel like they need to.

Alchemical Warfare

When you hear ‘JRPG’ usually combat isn’t something you expect to see as a high point. I mean, Tales of Graces and Final Fantasy XIII both had good combat, but for the most part the combat is something you deal with in order to be a part of the other fantastic elements in a Japanese RPG. Strangely, Atelier Ayesha breaks that. The combat is turn based, slow, and methodical… but the sheer number of secondary, tertiary, and delayed effects attached to abilities, items, and positioning makes for a really dynamic and exciting combat system. That is… when the fights last long enough to take advantage of it. Outside of boss fights, very few fights do.

This is really unfortunate, because I have to say that the boss fights in Atelier Ayesha are some of the most satisfying and engaging combat sequences I’ve seen. Managing Ayesha’s items and her allies’ abilities, with all of their stacking, delayed, and secondary effects is fun enough on its own… but you also have a number of other special mechanics. Each character has secondary ‘resource’ bar that allows them to perform support actions such as defending a weak character or a followup attack. In addition, the two characters other than Ayesha on the party have a percentile ‘limit break’ style bar that allows them to perform ultra-powerful attacks with really fantastic animations. Overall, the system is just complex enough to make a turn based combat system truly interesting and dynamic in long fights.

The sad part is that the majority of fights just aren’t plain long enough for you to ever get to experience these mechanics, and without these mechanics… Atelier Ayesha’s combat is a really bland system. It was a real surprised when I got to one specific boss fight and found that I was having a blast with it because I hadn’t felt like the combat was anything special until that point.

Final Thoughts

Now an astute reader might have noticed two things I failed to mention in the previous sections… well, that’s quite simply because there just isn’t much to say. The characters aren’t anything really special, but they aren’t bad. They’re voiced fairly well, and each character does have some interesting story behind them…. but overall the just really fail to leave an impact. The graphics are sort of the same. Certain elements look really good, but for the most part the graphics are just pretty ordinary. It’s just hard to really say much about it.

Overall

This game’s story is going to turn off a lot of potential players – not because it is bad, but because it is very much out of the ordinary among gaming stories. This game really focuses on the people and kind of removes the ‘action’ from the game. That being said, I found this game incredibly refreshing and relaxing to play without being boring. The incredible depth of the crafting system kept me coming back to my cauldron time and time again, and I found myself looking forward to any major fight just due to how much strategic depth there is.

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