Alchemy In A Dying Land
The Atelier games are a series of Japanese role-playing games aimed at young women. They feature teenaged female protagonists who have a talent for alchemy—the ability to mix together items and magically transform them into something completely different. After an excellent trilogy of games set in the kingdom of Arland, the series has moved on to a completely new world in Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk. Atelier Ayesha continues to show why this series deserves more attention than it gets, both in terms of its audience size and the lack of marketing it receives.
Atelier Ayesha takes us from the prosperous kingdom of Arland to an unnamed world that is in a state of decline, with wells drying up and most people barely making a living from the land. This change in tone fits well with our heroine’s state. Ayesha is an apothecary living alone after the complete disappearance of her younger sister Nio three years ago. When a certain event shows Ayesha that her sister is alive and in need of rescue, Ayesha bravely decides to journey in search of Nio despite having no idea where to begin.
Along the way, Ayesha learns that she has a talent for alchemy, which she must develop in order to solve the mystery of what happened to Nio. A naturally kind young woman, she befriends a number of colorful characters who help her on her journey, as she is determined to assist them in return. Ayesha’s clear goals contribute to the best storytelling seen in the series’ English-language run. While previous games have tended to lose focus in the middle, Ayesha continually pulls the player back to the main goal of finding and rescuing Nio. The interactions she has with the friends she makes along the way are nicely done (with the exception of her mentor Keith, who comes off as more of a jerk than intended), helping the player feel genuine affection towards the game’s characters.
The game’s story happens alongside the traditional pillars of Atelier gameplay: alchemy and adventuring. For reasons that become clearer as the game progresses, Ayesha must master alchemy in order to rescue Nio. This involves harvesting ingredients in the wild, then taking them to a workshop and mixing them together to create everything from bombs to bread. As Ayesha grows in power, she must venture further afield in order to find rarer and more powerful ingredients for her recipes.
The alchemy system in Ayesha has been simplified from the ever-increasingly complex systems in the Arland trilogy. Most recipes require mainly general categories of ingredients rather than specific items, and the number of multi-step recipes has been minimized. This makes the alchemy system flow naturally with Ayesha’s explorations, as she rarely needs to return to early maps simply to collect a basic ingredient she’s run out of.
Instead, Ayesha will spend most of her adventuring time helping out her friends and exploring new areas on the map. This naturally involves battling all sorts of meddlesome and hostile beasts, which is done via a fairly traditional turn-based battle system. Ayesha and two other party members will face off against various foes. As usual, Ayesha can only attack and use alchemical items, while her companions have various special attacks they can execute.
This game expands on the teamwork system found in Atelier Meruru, in which party members can follow up each other’s attacks or protect each other from harm. There’s a positioning aspect to battle now, in which a character can do more damage with a back attack or contribute extra effects to the battle by attacking from up close or far away. Characters can use a turn to move to a new position, but frankly, that’s hardly necessary. It’s easier to simply wait for a follow-up command that allows a character to naturally become positioned behind the enemy.
Combat is fairly interesting, but there’s a bit too much of it in the game. The player will need to clear all monsters off of many maps in order to discover new areas. This can be a nice challenge sometimes, but once the enemies in a particular area are fairly trivial to defeat, it becomes tedious. The maps could have used fewer enemies overall. Boss battles, however, are interesting and can be quite challenging once the player actually encounters them midway through the game.
One notable addition to gameplay is Ayesha’s diary, in which she records her memories of major game events. She accrues dream points by performing activities throughout the game, and uses them to unlock diary entries, which come with nice combat and alchemy bonuses. This system would have worked just as well without the need to build up points, since past the first few in-game months, the player always has enough to unlock any diary entries that have been earned. It’s a cute addition to the game, but not really necessary.
All of Ayesha’s major activities, from traveling to gathering to synthesizing ingredients with alchemy, take time. Ayesha is on a schedule, as she only has three years to rescue Nio, but this time limit is quite generous. After Nio’s story is resolved, Ayesha has several more years during which she can help pay back her friends for all their assistance and face the deeper crisis threatening her world. The only real problem with the game’s time limit is that it’s not always clear how to advance the main story. The clues that the game gives can be vague, and sometimes the best way to move forward is not to concentrate on the main goal, but to wander the world or develop Ayesha’s relationships instead. Most players shouldn’t have too much trouble with the time limit in the end, but a clearer path towards clearing the main story path would have been nice.
Graphically, the game is more subdued than the Arland series, as is appropriate for a land in decline. It still features plenty of diverse landscapes, some of which are quite unearthly and magical. The stars of the show, though, are the character and monster models. They’re creative and interesting, and their in-game execution is excellent. Gust’s graphical designers have become true experts at cel shading, creating some of the most lushly detailed models out there. The game could use a few more monster models, as there’s a bit too much palette-swapping going on, but what it has looks amazing.
While it can still be somewhat annoyingly repetitive, the music in Atelier Ayesha is similarly a bit more subdued than that of the other recent Atelier games. Some of the pieces are quite lovely, especially those with a bit of a Western flair that is reminiscent of the music in the Wild Arms series. Other pieces are a bit wacky for some tastes, but in general the music has improved.
One of the more controversial topics surrounding Ayesha’s release is that unlike its immediate predecessors, this game does not include the option to replace the English voice track with the original Japanese one. The lack of Japanese voices would be less of a problem if Ayesha’s English voice performance were more bearable. The rest of the game’s English voices range from acceptable to good, but Ayesha’s sounds like somebody attempting to make her voice unnaturally high-pitched and childish (particularly odd because Ayesha is supposed to be seventeen at the beginning of the game). Whether this is a problem with the vocal direction or the voice actor’s performance is unknown. All that can be said is that it’s an obnoxiously grating voice that will cause many players to skip through Ayesha’s dialogue as quickly as possible.
Although some of the game’s gendered character portrayals don’t quite mesh with our expectations here in the West (Ayesha’s knock-kneed gait is borderline offensive, and the way she’s treated by her male mentor is problematic), the Atelier series is one of the few game series anywhere that focuses so strongly on female characters. Ayesha is both traditionally feminine and a genuine hero. She’s surrounded by a diverse cast of other women with strongly stated dreams and goals of their own. It’s really too bad that these games aren’t marketed or known more widely in North America, because a lot of young women would probably enjoy them quite a bit.
Atelier Ayesha is a solid, addictive game that shows nice strides forward in storytelling by the Atelier series. It has some minor issues in terms of quest direction and combat frequency, but makes up for that with a strong story, sympathetic characters, and solid gameplay systems. It’s a great game for anybody who enjoys JRPGs and enjoys the item creation and time management features that are a hallmark of the series. However, I’d particularly like to see more young women try out the Atelier series with this entry, especially with the stronger storytelling it displays. They just might find themselves hooked on alchemy.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.5 Graphics
Gust continues to improve its mastery of cel shading, with too many palette-swapped enemies the only complaint here. 3.5 Control
There’s a bit too much combat, but the systems are solid and alchemy has been simplified in a good way. 3.4 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The music and most of the voice acting is fine, but Ayesha’s voice is a major disappointment. 4.3 Play Value
Improved storytelling makes this Atelier game compelling to play through, and there’s plenty of gameplay to be had. 4.0 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend|
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid||2.5 – 2.9 = Average||3.5 – 3.9 = Good||4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy|
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor||3.0 – 3.4 = Fair||4.0 – 4.4 = Great||5.0 = The Best|