Tuesday, March 5, 2013

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

Of all the JRPGs that I have played in this generation, the Atelier games by the tiny development outfit, GUST, have been the ones that I have enjoyed the most.

I realise that they’re not awe-inspiring works of art, deep-and-meaningful philosophical treatises into the meaning of life and other questions related to the number 42. I realise that on a technical level a game like Final Fantasy XIII or Tales of Graces f is far better produced, but in the personal little madness that I call my brain I simply do not enjoy them as much as the Atelier games, with Atelier Meruru being the absolute highlight of this franchise, and (aside from a love affair with Nier) the entire generation.


See, the Atelier games have always been about the simple charm. Happy characters, bright colours, cute enemies to bop over the head with a magic staff or blow to smithereens with an alchemically-produced cannon, and twee music themes. These games are bright, they’re innocent, and most critically, they’re fun. Even the odd moment of strange fan-service isn’t enough to dampen that appeal, and indeed as games produced almost exclusively for the otaku gaming community go, the Atelier games are surprisingly accessible for almost everyone.

The Arland trilogy (Rorona, Totori, Meruru) is now over, and the Dusk series is to start with Ayesha. Almost immediately after starting this game I realised two things: Firstly, this is not a simple sequel to the previous trilogy. Second, as I start up my second play through the game, I am not entirely sure I like the changes that Ayesha has brought us.

Where the Arland games were all focused entirely around the leading lady, and anything else that happened in the world was largely incidental, Dusk contains elements of a broader narrative beyond Ayesha. The world is in decay. People are struggling to etch out a living. Death is a reality. It’s a world darker and grander than anything Meruru, Totori or Rorona ever had to deal with. As a consequence, where the Arland girls we able to run around the game world without fear, Ayesha’s character needs to care about what is going on around her. Where the Arland girls had entirely selfish end-goals in their adventures (saving their alchemy store, being allowed to be an alchemist by her father), Ayesha’s adventure has lives at stake. It’s a subtle shift in tone at times, but it’s one that doesn’t necessarily gel with the bright, cel-shaded character design, which has followed over from the previous trilogy.

Indeed, the developers themselves seem to struggle with merging the bright cheerfulness fans of the previous games loved in the Arland games with this new theme. Character design looks like it’s plucked straight from Arland, but some of Dusk’s environments have a ethereal majesty that those other games lacked. And while half the music continues the twee “boppiness” of the Arland games, the other half is heavy on the pan-flutes and almost haunting.

Over the course of the adventure the grander scale of Dusk starts to make sense, and I don’t mean to imply that this game is heavy material like, say, Nier. It’s still delightful. It’s just that it feels like with Ayesha that the Atelier games have matured, and perhaps lost some of that charming innocence that made the other games in the series so compelling.

The gameplay itself isn’t overly inventive for the franchise, but is still wonderfully unique amongst JRPGs. Players have three years to achieve a set goal (in this game’s case, saving Ayesha’s sister from an otherworld). Actually achieving that goal in the time frame is reasonably simple. Getting the best-possible ending is not. Most activities players do, such as gathering materials for alchemy (more on that in a moment), fighting with enemies, and travelling from one location to the next, consumes time. It’s turn-based in the sense that time doesn’t move forward unless a player wills it to do so by selecting an action, and so players have plenty of time to carefully plan out the best use of their time.

While some cringe at the idea of games with time limits, Ayesha is gentle enough with them that to hit achievement points is largely a non-event. The game quickly settles into some basic rhythms, and the time starts to fly productively by. If anything Ayesha’s problem is that the in-game time limit puts a restriction on how much of the world you can experience in one relatively short adventure by JRPG standards (though it must be said Ayesha is also significantly longer than the Arland games). That’s why there are multiple endings and incentives to play through more than once, naturally.

The alchemy system is the real hero of the Atelier series, and Ayesha does is as well as any. The basic idea is that players acquire recipes during their adventures, and throwing ingredients gathered from specific points in locations into a giant cauldron will allow players to create potions, attack items and other critical elements to succeed at the game’s combat. As players level up Ayesha’s alchemy skill, she can create more complex and more powerful items, which naturally require rarer materials. Given to the relatively simple turn-based combat, mastering the alchemy system is where players will derive the greatest satisfaction in Ayesha, and that’s one of the things I’ve always loved about this series - it’s a JRPG series that is not all about beating stuff up over and over again for experience.

New to the franchise, and one of the few elements of Ayesha that we haven’t seen before is a “memories” system. By triggering certain interactions with important NPCs and visiting certain locations players can spend “memory points” (acquired for innumerable reasons throughout the adventure) to unlock special journal entries. These contain scenes and information that is not necessarily found in the main game, and offer additional - often vital - rewards. It’s a nice touch and helps flesh the backstory out, but considering players are already busy collecting EXP from combat to level up and ingredients to alchemise items, adding a third “resource” to collect is starting to push the desire to explore and uncover treasures a little far.

While some of the above might sound like criticisms, they’re not really. I still find Atelier Ayesha an incredibly lovable game, and Ayesha herself is a very likable hero. I am somewhat disorientated with the direction the game has taken, but I think I would have been upset more if there were no substantial changes made from the previous three games. Ayesha is progress from GUST, even if I am still not entirely certain about it being for the better.

What I am certain about is that Tecmo Koei in publishing its first GUST game since acquiring the developer has made one unforgivable mistake: there is no Japanese voice track. Whilst I understand that licensing the Japanese voices for the global market is expensive, being able to play these games with subtitles and the Japanese voice actors is absolutely mandatory. While the English dub is reasonable (as far as English dubs go) the American accents do not suit the very Japanese personality of the actual game.

Given that the Atelier games are sold in the west almost exclusively to people that want to play their games with the original Japanese voice tracks, the business decision behind this is going to bite Tecmo Koei on the backside from the loyal GUST community, I suspect. The good news is that if Dynasty Warriors 7 can be patched to have a Japanese voice track, so can this.

After a couple of hours play I learned to deal with the English voice actors, but it has ever-so-slightly dampened my enthusiasm for the game.

Criticism aside, I still have an endless love for the series, and I do think Ayesha is one of the finest JRPGs on the PlayStation 3, but has it topped Meruru? No. I am looking forward to where GUST takes its new game world next, though. This could be something special if GUST builds it out properly over a new trilogy.



- Matt S
Find me on Twitter: @DigitallyDownld

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