Even though I’m a self-proclaimed RPG fanatic, I will readily admit that there are many well-known RPG franchises that I have yet to experience. Most of these happen to be JRPGs that did not see a US release, since I am not on to spend an insane amount of money on importing a particular title.
This makes things somewhat difficult when a publisher chooses to localize a sequel to an established franchise. Who are these people? What are they fighting for? One has to admit that even a mediocre game can pack a pretty solid punch with the emotion and power of an established franchise behind them, and unfortunately for newcomers going into a sequel as their first taste, it could give rise to more questions than answers.
This was my situation going into Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk. I know of the Atelier series but I have never played any of the games. In fact, I can’t even admit to knowing whether or not previous installments of the series have seen a US release or not; I just know that I never played any of the game despite me always trying to find new JRPGs to try out.
Luckily, as I soon found out, Atelier Ayesha features an all new set of characters and is more or less a “reboot.” Now I don’t have to worry about an existing set of characters or situations as this entry is a complete standalone.
The story of Atelier Ayesha focuses on young alchemist Ayesha as she sets out to find out what happened to her younger sister Nio, who went missing after leaving home to gather some medicinal ingredients. It’s not anything spectacular, but it does give Ayesha a deeply personal reason to embark on this epic journey of hers. As with any good RPG, along the way you’ll meet up with new characters and form a party…and the rest should be about as familiar as any other game in the genre.
Setting aside the alchemy portion of the gameplay for now, the bulk of AA involves you mostly scrolling through text while listening to Ayesha chirping about her missing sister, giggling over her cow-thing, Pana, or exploring villages looking for additional ingredients. The game is surprisingly restrictive in terms of exploration; no, it doesn’t need to be open world, but each area you are allowed to explore is closed off, and to progress to the next you’re asked click “X” and wait for the new area to load. Basically this makes even outdoor areas seem like nothing more than a series of “rooms.” You’d be hard pressed to ever leave anything behind, as this makes it extremely easy to find everything you need in any given area.
AA plays out like clockwork, almost as if they game is running off of a script. You pretty go from town to town, meet some people, talk, root around the different areas for ingredients, progress the story a bit, set a waypoint to the next area, then fight some enemies along the way. This “rinse and repeat” style is seen in a lot of games, but here it just seems like each area is the same as the last.
The game is also broken up far too often by tutorials, all of which need to be read. It’s not that AA is the only game to do this (I remember Mugen Souls having a similar tutorial system), but it breaks up the flow too often. I would have preferred a pop-up tutorial overlay as opposed to something where the entire game must be stopped and you sit there reading tutorial cards.
The battle system was something I enjoyed, but it’s overly simplistic. Other than making sure you have everything ready to go beforehand, the combat doesn’t involve much more than the turn based attacking and defending that we’re all so familiar with. A slight bit of variety can be found in moves where characters can work together (like protecting one another). Using these moves builds a gauge where a “super” attack can be unleashed. It’s nice to have the mix-up in the combat mechanic, but this is not exactly something that’s new (we’ve seen it before in the Disgaea games to a degree).
The one aspect I DO like about the battle system is the concept of distance from your enemy. Your movements are not restricted during battle. With this in mind, your distance from the enemy will affect your attacks and damage taken, and you can also maneuver behind the enemy to unleash back attacks and gain critical hits. This makes combat much more interesting that if you were just thrown in there will with a fixed position, scrolling through commands.
The remainder of the gameplay is focused on talking to characters to progress the story and also in alchemy and note keeping. The two play hand in hand to enhance the alchemy experience. Throughout the game, Ayesha will keep a log of her activities in her diary. Keeping up with the diary, Ayesha will be able to gain more recipes, bonus stats, and items. Since there is no time restrictions on any of the missions, it would behoove you to scour every inch of each level as thoroughly as possible to find every item, talk to every character, and build your diary. It makes things somewhat tedious, but I suppose that’s all subjective. After all, if you’re a fan of JRPGs to begin with and are interested in this game, you should be used to doing stuff like that regularly.
The alchemy mechanic is the focus of the game, but to be honest, it’s not as in-depth as I was expecting. For a game to say that their main focus is alchemy, I would have expected a more meaty experience, but the mechanic will pretty much tell you what you can and can’t do. Don’t get me wrong; synthesizing items is a lot of fun and it gives players a reason to find items in every level, but it never really progresses past the point of “here’s a list of your ingredients, what you can make, and which ingredients go into which potions.” It’s all very streamlined and pretty much works the like the alchemy play in Skyrim. You basically have a bunch of ingredients, and the game will let you know if you can make something or not. There’s a bit of freedom in tweaking the makeup of your items, but it really doesn’t go beyond fine tuning things that have already been made.
The things that Atelier Ayesha does very well are the visuals and audio. I love the way this game looks; it’s beautiful to look at, almost like a living watercolor painting. While the animations often leave a lot to be desired (it’s quite stilted), there’s a very relaxing feeling when playing through the game because everything is just so…”pretty.” The voice acting isn’t the best that I’ve heard, and on more than one occasion I wanted to slap the characters on screen, but to fair, I have heard worse. Again, with so many poor translations plaguing JRPGs, this shouldn’t affect fans of the genre. The music on the other hand, is fantastic. I daresay this is my favorite part of the game. Each track fits the surroundings perfectly, and I actually found myself enjoying the soundtrack immensely.
Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk is not a bad game by any means, it just isn’t a particularly interesting one. There are elements that can provide a bit of fun; I was never bored during my playthrough, but I just couldn’t shake the thought of “I done this all before.” Underneath all that, you do have a beautiful looking and sounding game that is exactly what it is; an attempt to restart a series. Perhaps we should look at Atelier Ayesha as a “first attempt” and see what the next entry in the series will bring us.