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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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