In recent years (thanks largely to the success of the Ryza trilogy), Gust and Koei Tecmo’s Atelier series has grown from being a very niche and micro-budget JRPG property to become something that, while not exactly mainstream, holds itself well in the market and can find an audience beyond genre veterans. However, that has come with some changes to the “formula” that older fans of the series may well miss. Atelier Marie Remake: The Alchemist of Salburg is for those people.
The original Atelier Marie was a PlayStation 2 release, and it was one I hadn’t played. In fact, I wasn’t even aware of the series before Atelier Rorona on the PlayStation 3. If these things were released locally here in Australia it was in such tiny quantities I never even saw them on store shelves.
As such, I don’t have a frame of reference for just how much this remake differs from the original. However, I am inclined to believe that it’s little more than a visual facelift. As far as Atelier Marie plays, it comes across as very vintage. The vinyl of Atelier experiences, if you will.
Most noteworthy is that the “dreaded” time management is back. One of the key mechanics of the earlier Atelier series was also one of its more polarising features, and due to that Gust has steadily eased away from it in recent titles. However, it is central to everything in Atelier Marie. At the very start of her adventure, Marie – a bumbling, incompetent alchemist at the very bottom of her class – is given just five years to produce an alchemical item of excellence to graduate from her academy. Otherwise, she’ll be banned from alchemy for life.
Within that long-term goal, there are also several key milestones with deadlines of several months, and then micro-tasks that need to be completed within a matter of days. Basically, every objective in Atelier Marie has a time limit, and just about every activity – from moving from one place to the next, to participating in battle, creating items via alchemy, and gathering ingredients in the field – consumes time. People with a project management bent are going to love dealing with the sprints, KPIs and executing the five-year plan that Marie presents to them. Yes, it really does come across as the gamification of modern business management practices. Where other Atelier games with a similar deadline-driven structure hide that a little behind the narrative (and, frankly, swimsuit DLC), Marie doesn’t really have that, so it’s so much more obvious that this is what the game is.
Marie really is small in scope. The central town that forms your activity hub is little more than a central square and a handful of shops and facilities attached to it. The world map is relatively small and the locations you’ll travel to are all just a few screens in size. It’s possible to explore each of them fully in just a minute or two. Meanwhile, cut scenes are efficient and to the point, and characterisation is more a series of quirky anecdotes than any effort to build meaningful, interesting personalities. Even Marie herself is fairly one-note. She’s a sweetheart and does go through the same coming-of-age growth arc of the other Atelier protagonists, but there just aren’t enough words used to develop her much further than “well-meaning and earnest girl on a growth journey.”
The thing is, though, all of this is really quite charming. It might seem like a criticism, but it’s really not. There is something really comforting about “no-frills” Atelier that later games have lost sight of a little. I love the Ryza games just fine, and the Sophie sequel too, but by the third Ryza and that Sophie, when the women were already highly successful and powerful alchemists, the games themselves were less Atelier than they were JRPGs with in-depth alchemy systems. The more complex characterisation and very different kinds of adventure these titles presented lacked the bildungsroman charm that has been core to the series. Marie Remake, meanwhile, is that original Atelier theme distilled down to its most basic, but also pure form.
The simplicity in world-building and characterisation applies to the combat, too. Marie is a turn-based affair. You’ll recruit party members when in town, and then venture out to “nodes” scattered across the world, with a node representing a place to explore, collect ingredients for alchemy recipes, and fight a variety of enemies. Each character has their own special abilities, and strengthens as they spend time with Marie and become closer to her. Marie herself can also use the various items she alchemises (bombs and the like) to launch special attacks. This, too, is the classic Atelier approach, and it’s a refreshing alternative to Ryza’s heavier focus on action. Tactically, it’s much more limited than the more recent turn-based Atelier titles, but if you’re the kind of person that enjoys “retro JRPGs”, you’re going to get a nostalgic kick out of this.
One area that has been overhauled is the visuals, and Atelier Marie Remake is both gorgeous and cute as a button. The art team at Gust seem to have been inspired by a blend of Bravely Default 2 and the Legend of Zelda Link’s Awakening remake, because the character models share that same “bobblehead on a squat body” chunkiness, and the isometric environments look like carefully constructed toy dioramas. It’s a warm and welcoming aesthetic, let down only slightly on Switch with some texture pop-in on the periphery of the screen. Most charming of all are the little victory poses and special attack animations for each character. In the absence of extensive character development through narrative these do a lot of the heavy lifting to give each character a personality, and in each and every case they’re a resounding success. Every character is a delight in their own right.
I have no idea how the newer Atelier fans will respond to Atelier Marie Remake. The time management stuff can be a bit overwhelming. You’re not going to have even close to enough time to get everything that you will want to do done, and it will feel like you’re racing against time at points. Even within the first few hours of play, I found myself completing tasks with just an in-game day left until the deadline. I also needed to triage my work tasks just like I do my real-world task list, neglecting poor Marie’s health as I did so. I rarely had a window that I could afford to give the poor girl a proper rest to let her stay in control of her fatigue. Perhaps that’s why I felt such a strong connection to Marie here… She might be a girl of few words, but she and I surely know how much it sucks to have to juggle priorities and settle in for an 80-hour work week.
Thankfully the colour and humour of Atelier Marie prevent it from becoming dry, despite the clear parallel to real-world work structures. While the jury’s out on how appealing this will be to the Ryza fanbase (in particular), Marie Remake has been an opportunity for me, a hardcore Atelier fan that came to the party in the middle and who loves the “classical” approach to the series, to catch up with the game that started it all. I can see the progression from Marie to Rorona and beyond, and Gust has definitely gotten better at executing the core idea over the years, but even right back then, at the genesis of the series, Atelier has really been the most wholesome comfort food.
Oh, and it’s nice to hear the girls say, “Taru!” when they see a barrel again, Gust. I’m not sure why you decided to pull back on that with Ryza, but seriously, bring it back for all future Atelier. It’s the little inside jokes and little details like that that remind us just how special this series really is.